Monday 15 January 2024

Greta van Fleet - Starcatcher (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 21 Jul 2023
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Two thoughts struck me quickly the first time I heard this, the third album from the Frankenmuth, Michigan rockers. One is that it's good and consistently so. The other is that it isn't a patch on its predecessor, The Battle of Garden's Gate. Those two thoughts stayed with me through a second, a third and a fourth listen. Everything sounds good, from the opener, Fate of the Faithful, which is a strong way to start, to Farewell for Now, which is just another song rather than a memorable epic that closes everything out. However, not once did this awe me in the way that the previous album often did.

Fate of the Faithful plays up the Led Zeppelin comparison that has hung over the band's shoulders like an albatross, as if they're leaning into it now instead of trying to fight it. Last time out, I heard a lot of Geddy Lee in the vocals of Josh Kiszka and other influences as unusual as world music from Africa. Here, it's mostly Zep, Kiszka reminding of Robert Plant in more ways than just flow. Sacred the Thread opens up how John Bonham would. Meeting the Master opens up how Page would. It's all there in the details of the songs, not just their sweeps.

On The Battle of Garden's Gate, the most overt influence from Zeppelin was in the maturity of the songwriting, something that still leaps out whenever my local classic rock station plays them and I realise all over again how mature they were, trawling in wildly different sounds to use as they put together a serious body of work in a such a short time. Here, most of this has roots in that body of work, building new songs from its sounds.

What that means is that, while every one of these ten songs does sound like Zep, it doesn't follow that Starcatcher sounds like a Zep album. It doesn't, because it's not remotely as diverse. There's a little folk here in some of Josh or Jake's quiet moments and no discernible world music at all. It seems fair to say that every one of these ten songs works with the same sonic template instead of searching for a new one each time and finding it.

That lack of diversity this time may be why all these songs sound good but none of them stand out in the way that Broken Bells, Tears of Rain or The Weight of Dreams did on the previous album, to name just three. I'd call out Sacred the Thread as my favourite track, as the vocal melodies are so effortless and so effective that the entire band falls into a wonderful groove. Fate of the Faithful is up there too but that's probably my entire favourites list right there in two songs.

That doesn't mean that anything sucks. Drop the needle anywhere on this album, whether at the start of a track or just throw me in halfway and I'm going to be listening through the whole thing again a couple of times, enjoying every single track. In other words, this isn't a bad album; it's just not its predecessor and that's a bigger problem than it perhaps should be. It meant that, while I enjoyed another impressive ten tracks from Greta van Fleet, I couldn't quite lose an abiding sense of disappointment.

Is that fair? I don't have a problem with bands effectively borrowing another band's sound if they create good music out of it. I've reviewed a couple of bands here at Apocalypse Later who started out as tribute bands, but evolved to the point where they released new music that naturally took on the flavour of the covers they'd been playing. Of course, Blind Golem's A Dream of Fantasy has Uriah Heep at its heart. Of course, Fragile sound like Yes. I don't believe that Greta van Fleet were ever a Led Zeppelin tribute band, but it's easy to imagine that they were and they evolved to write their own music in that style. That seems fair to me.

But is it fair to be disappointed by an otherwise excellent album just because it doesn't reach the scarily high bar set by its predecessor? I'm in two minds about that. Had I not heard The Battle of Garden's Gate, I'd surely think more of this one. However, it doesn't do a lot of what made the last album so outstanding and that would hold true even if this was the first thing I'd ever heard from Greta van Fleet. So I'll leave it with that thought. It's good stuff. I enjoyed all ten songs and did so just as much on my fourth time through as my first. I'm giving it a highly recommended 8/10. That said, it's also a step backward for this band, a reminder that not everyone can hit the peaks every time out and that maybe they've lost track of why they're such a great band.

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