Ever since the dawn of Jack White, artists who hunger to reassert the power of rock in a rockless age have tended to sound like reactionary young coots. But Greta Van Fleet — three brothers and a drummer from Frankenmouth, Michigan — set themselves apart by playing Seventies classic rock that seemed wholly unburdened by distance, irony, cultural point-making or even self-awareness. They just really, really liked making songs that sounded like Led Zeppelin (with some Rush thrown in there, too), and on their 2018 debut, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, they approached the ancient music that blew their minds with the mimetic zeal of kids at recess re-creating their favorite Steph Curry and LeBron James highlights from last night’s SportsCenter.
Greta Van Fleet are just as guilelessly impassioned on their second record. You would think that maybe at this point they would have moved on to ripping off less obvious Zeppelin songs. Nope. Their stairway still goes directly to heaven: “Broken Bells” bustles in your hedgerow with such gusto that it’s not hard to imagine GVF finding themselves on the business end of a whole lotta legal action.
But The Battle at Garden’s Gate isn’t just paint-by-numbers pantomime. They’re quite good at this bullshit, and not always in ways you’d expect: “Heat Above” reimagines Cat Stevens as a strutting Planthead. The guitars on “Built by Nations” ape “Black Dog,” with extra Rust Belt grime, as frontman Joshua Kiszka’s voice shreds beyond his go-to Robert Plant/Geddy Lee impression toward something like an elvish Bon Scott. The peak is “Stardust Chords,” opening with cavernous yowls and orc-march drums before vaulting into dazzlingly inane prog-blues overkill.
Yet, while Greta Van Fleet excel at erecting houses of the retro-rock holy, they struggle a bit at the basics — like memorable songwriting, and especially lyrics; “My Way Soon” is a glorious sunburst of serpentine guitar attack and stringy-haired boogie recalling the bands Free or Humble Pie, but it’s blandly undercut with wan wisdom like “I’ve seen many people / There are so many people / Some are much younger people, some are so old.” Speak, brother. And when the band goes a-courting, things can get icky: “Your mind is a stream of colors/Extending beyond our sky,” Kiszka offers, pitching philosophic woo over the dragon-tailed sensitivity of “Light My Love.” What lucky theoretical groupie in 1975 wouldn’t want to be wooed thusly? With these guys, a little self-awareness would go a long way toward making them easier to take seriously.