Black Smoke Rising by Greta Van Fleet on Republic Records

Reviewed by Jonathan DeWoskin

Oh man, I didn’t think I’d be back this quickly. Harry shot me an email. My mission, “if I choose to accept it”, is to review a new band out of Frankenmuth, Michigan that just dropped their new EP.  He said, “I think you will like this. Yes it sounds a lot like Led Zeppelin, but I actually like that.” I gave the tracks a listen and went to bed with Highway Tune lingering in my head.  A good sign.

First, a little background: I grew up in the 70s. I had a lot of hand-me-down records from my brothers and one of my favorites was The Monkees. For those of you who don’t know, The Monkees were a late 60’s boy band. As described by lead singer and drummer Mickey Dolenz, “The Monkees” was a TV show about an imaginary band that wanted to be the BeatlesThey co-opted the sound and style of the Beatles and made no bones about who they were copying. Like so many boy bands we all grew up with, this was a production for mass consumption and enjoyment. I would watch them early in the morning while I had breakfast, having just learned how to pour milk into cereal. The Monkees were a collaborative effort much larger than the four members playing the music. They had some hits, but everyone knows they’re not the Beatles. I was four and I didn’t care. Plenty of adults didn’t care. The Monkees did quite well. They were the first television musical act that spring boarded into the real world of rock and roll music and culture. They got radio airplay and performed in concert for several years.  While other acts like The Partridge Family are remembered as television kitsch, the Monkees have had a bit of revival in recent years thanks to nostalgia TV.

What Harry said to me is absolutely right. I very much enjoyed listening to Greta Van Fleet. Anytime I find myself immediately replaying bars of guitar chords in my head, I know I like what I’m hearing. The problem is I’m not hearing Greta Van Fleet when I mentally play it back.

There’s a very thin line between borrowing and imitating and any review of this album is going to mention Led Zeppelin. It’s impossible not to because I’m not four years old anymore.  I’ve spent thousands of hours listening to music over the course of my life and, like anyone else, will draw comparisons between what I’m hearing and what I’ve heard to determine if it’s something I like or not. That’s just human nature.

The lead singer’s voice is one of the most important aspects in a band as it makes the first impression on the listener. Josh Kiszka is a dead ringer for a young Robert Plant and it’s the root of what I believe will be a serious problem for this group. It’s one thing to borrow or be influenced by a musical group. It’s entirely another thing to replicate the singing style, instrument selection, instrument effect, percussive and rhythmic composition of said group.

Kiszka has a gift. One that he should use without singing the words “baby” and “mamma” just like Plant.  Kiszka’s voice cracks when he wails on the same exact same notes as Plant’s did nearly 50 years ago.  I enjoyed it, but it is uncanny.

At what point have you borrowed so much that it’s simply imitation? As a tribute band, they’d be amazing.  And I hate writing all this because these guys have superior talent.  If you can sing like Plant, then it’s probably best to find a unique style – or at least something different – so you’re not confused with him.  If you’re going to play like Jimmy Page, select instruments and effects that don’t immediately evoke a comparison to some of Led Zeppelin’s most famous compositions.  Every rock band wants to hit it big and make their mark. None have succeeded long term by standing on the shoulders of their biggest influence. 

I hope that this review does not come off as mean spirited.  I truly enjoyed listening to all four songs on this EP.  You can listen to them here.  If you don’t hear the similarity, you’re oblivious to music history.  If someone doesn’t say this right to their face, these guys will end up in the same ash heap as Kingdom Clone.  *cough* Excuse me. Kingdom Come.  Jimmy Page once said of that group, “Obviously it can get to the point where it gets past being a compliment and it can be rather annoying, when you’ve got things like Kingdom Come, actually ripping riffs right off, that’s a different thing altogether.”

I should mention here that Led Zeppelin has also been accused of borrowing and co-opting music from other artists and there is some validity to those accusations. Again, I pose the question: At what point have you “borrowed” so much that you’re just imitating? There is no well-defined set of rules in this regard because music is art.  Art is subjective, and as such you’ll have to decide as Justice Potter Stewart did on another topic: You’ll know artistic theft when you hear it.

Buy Black Smoke Rising

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