Wednesday, February 1st 2012
Reviews: Van Halen
Van Halen‘s first new album with David Lee Roth on the mic in nearly 30 years arrives February 7 on Interscope, and the results are disarmingly good. A Different Kind Of Truth is a true return of the ’80s cock-rock overlords, a screaming triumph for the feathered-hair dreamers who held on through a cinematically epic series of lineup changes, band implosions and shifting tides of musical fashion. That old familiar feeling has returned, the unique flare of excitement that comes from a muscle car rhythm section led by a six-string wizard and a singing sexual megalodon with an ego that made Kanye look like a kid flaunting his new Spider-Man underoos – and the pipes to back up the strut.
Yes, Van Halen is back, and we’re not faced with a group of veterans simply trying to make sounds that their old selves would respect; A Different Kind of Truth is almost entirely culled from unpolished, unfinished and unreleased work the band had written in their heyday. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen has said several times over the years that he has over half a dozen albums’ worth of unreleased material in his archives from the band’s career, and former singer Sammy Hagar told Rolling Stone not long ago, “I heard this record is old outtakes from the old days. I mean, stuff from before I even joined the band. Because from what I heard, they aren’t working with new material. Ed and Dave didn’t actually write new songs.”
It’s an arguable copout, but a genius insulation nonetheless – pulling from a song sketchbook more than three decades old provides guidepoints to safeguard against the worn pathways of aging acts molesting their own legacy. Thankfully, these songs do not sound like old men putting on the smelly old spandex and combing over the strays. Fresh is the operative word here, a supremely confident swing for the fences in an understandable progression from the obsessively romanticized pre-Hagar era.
The choice of Tattoo as the lead single may have more to do with its peacocking pop factor than anything else, because despite being the opener it’s the low point for an otherwise fantastic album. Immediately, She’s The Woman taps into the ebullient ’80s spirit, a strong connection to a nostalgia-free strut and sexy, slick riffage – complete with a classic VH solo. A gem from the archives, the track appeared on a 1976 demo the band cut with Gene Simmons on production.
“I wanna be your knight in shining pickup truck,” Roth juts over a mean little chugging guitar line, and it’s all there – the grunts, the little wailing asides, the random background “Whooo!” and “Yeayaa!” accents peppered around Eddie’s volleying squeals. The rev-up to the chorus is short and, like pulling into neutral before slamming into the next gear. It doesn’t really matter that Dave’s not singing “swamp meat salad” in Tattoo – the song just doesn’t connect with the energy found here, the knockout drive that pulled us in so long ago. Woman‘s hot groove catches fire and spins out as Wolfgang (who holds his own plenty fine throughout) rises in the mix, punching along to the beat before Dad rips loose with a solo that races the frantic rhythm back into the final verse.
But You And Your Blues creeps up dangerously amid chopping guitar, Roth’s hushed finger-wagging giving way to an echo chorus, casting out the demons with a had-enough-of-you backhand. There’s a sick little changeup at the two-minute mark, a serpentine acceleration before another screaming solo. Truly, the six-string snobs will have their hands full here, as Eddie brings an airtight assault of fretwork that runs flush with the original glory days.
Van Halen’s legendary tapping channels Beethoven for just a flash to kick off a furiously sprinting China Town, and the neckbreaker’s not alone in its frantic pace or celebratory energy; the fast-funk Bullethead blasts through with enough intensity to make the two-and-a-half minutes pass like a heartbeat, while Eddie’s skittering riff carries us through the labyrinthian As Is with a tenacious confidence – we’re fully in the red, the speedometer’s buried, machine gun heartbeat adding internal percussion while fishtailing down the freeway at impossible speeds. But a Thorogood blues-lick breakdown elbows its way in through a vicious dime-stopping halt, Roth dropping into a smooth-talking Satan-bass tone for just a moment… then we’re off again at a spastic gallop, punctuated by bursts of choral screams.
Known for their dramatic opening flare, the band open several tracks with decorative introductions, often led by experimental stringwork. The back-alley acoustic groove of Stay Frosty explodes into a bar-brawl swagger jam (with Diamond Dave seemingly possessed by the spirit of Dr. Seuss), and the medieval harkening of the onset of Big River sparks a curiosity on what would come of further exploration down that path. A somber plucked intro to Blood and Fire turns into a rollerskating-down-the-boardwalk jam right out of 1984, flashing million dollar crocodile grins at the Aqua-Net queens popping gum and swooning.
“Told ya I was coming back,” Roth deadpans in the breakdown, and you can almost see his told-you-so smirk as the beast breaks through the clouds and into a brief clearing. Then it’s back down into the fray, Van Halen losing his shit in what’s arguably the album’s most exhilarating solo.
Anything less would’ve been eviscerated by all but the blind devoted, but A Different Kind of Truth will be remembered as evidence that a band can endure every cliche in the book and return, with the right focus, obsessed dedication and mojo, to a sweet spot of rejuvenation – one that holds the hand of nostalgia but doesn’t go for the full embrace, leaning instead, wisely, toward evolution.
Welcome back, boys.
Preorder A Different Kind of Truth on iTunes.