jason stives reviews the reunion of Lee Roth and the brothers Van Halen …
Forget any detractors of the ancient nature of the hard rock party-band motif and the opinions of snooty modern-day music lovers. Van Halen has always been an awesome band. The classic lineup of David Lee Roth, brothers Edward and Alex Van Halen, and bassist Michael Anthony came at a pivotal point in the progression of rock music. From the late ’70s through the ’80s, Van Halen outweighed every trend in music and stayed relevant and likable. The famous Roth versus Hagar dispute is the most important taste test in history since Coke versus Pepsi. (Though I think both singers have merits, regardless of synth-laden outcries from the latter.)
In the long run, the world didn’t need a new album from Van Halen, let alone with their original frontman, and for two reasons: 1. Van Halen, much like they did in 2007 when they first reunited with Roth, could have easily just gone out on the road and kicked ass in sold-out arenas across the country. 2. A new Van Halen album is not going to sound the return of rock ‘n’roll and in a way is far from feeling important in the current state of music.
For many, Van Halen was the greatest exercise in adolescent expulsion and was the easiest way to enjoy both kicking tunes and partying hard. Having seen the band twice in two different lineups, the notion of a new album was the furthest from my mind. Instead, I focused on just taking in a bit of rock glory that most modern bands miss: performance over the technicality, although the band encompasses bits of that as well. So when the group announced their 12th studio album, A Different Kind Of Truth, I was skeptical. Surprisingly, the result is far better than one would expect, even if it won’t set the world ablaze.
A lot of this skepticism came from the album’s opening track, “Tattoo,” the first single and a song that still leaves a bitter taste. Outside of some signature guitar work and backing vocals, the song has some very uncomfortable lyrics, and Roth treats it like an Uncle who tells all the bad jokes at dinner parties. Example: “Smokin’ day glo-red/explodo pink/Purple mountain’s majesty/Show me you, I’ll show you me.”
Then the album starts hitting a stride. Tracks like “She’s The Woman” and “Outta Space” feel like the Van Halen of old, blistering with sonic reduction, scathing drum beats, and galloping bass lines. Roth hits some great high points here, and while he reserves the hormonal crooner persona for some very selective occasions, Roth shows he still has capability in his voice. David was never a great singer, but what he could do with his voice created the ringleader personality that brandished samurai swords and high kicks on stage during the ’80s, and he brings it back for some fun and games on these tracks.
On the technical side, everyone performs well, even bassist Wolfgang Van Halen — Eddie’s son, who gets props for taking the shrieking backing vocals left behind by former bassist Mike Anthony. (Don’t worry Mike — we still miss you.) The real prize is hearing Eddie riff, showing that clean and sober Van Halen still has what it takes, launching missile after missile of wavy guitar licks. This plateaus with tracks like the “Hot for Teacher”-esque “As Is” and Eddie’s eruption-like solo on “Big River,” which show the uniformity the band once coveted and seem to have resurrected here.
The reason A Different Kind Of Truth will ultimately be left off many best-of-2012 lists lies in some of the clunky elements and ones that set the band’s nostalgic joyride back into the reality seat of age and practice. “You And Your Blues” feels out of place, showing a sluggish progression down compared to the first two tracks, which act as party favorites over a real craft. Many of the tracks have the feel of relics from the band’s heyday (indeed, several of the tracks are rehashes of previous material), and keeping that feeling intact is what keeps the album going. Songs like “Bullet Head” and “China Town” are throwaway, much like some of the tracks a fan would skip over on Diver’s Down, even with the breakneck-speed appeal. And “Stay Frosty” is another old-timey track that showcases Roth’s pension for showboating. I mean, he gets one in on every album. However, when the record is consistent, it stays consistent, and three-fourths of it keeps that magic in place.
Van Halen has returned — For how long? Who the hell knows? — but all the brown M&M’s in the band’s dressing room could have never anticipated something this cohesive. It’s no Van Halen II and it’s not even Fair Warning, A Different Kind Of Truth is literally the album that screams, “Heard ya missed us, we’re back!”
Rating: 7 out of 10 (Very Good)