Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth (2012) – an album review

Just when you thought it was safe to let your daughters outside, here comes the triumphant return of Van Halen, with original vocalist David Lee Roth back in harness and assless chaps. Hell may truly have frozen over, but the classic combination of Eddie and Diamond Dave might just be enough to keep civilization from another ice age.

tl;dr Version: I don’t care what anyone else says; this album could have sucked, but it’s actually exactly what it says on the tin.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: Fans have been clambering for a reunion of the classic Roth-era Van Halen, and with this album, they almost get that. Mike Anthony is no longer in the band, and his distinctive bass playing and especially his high vocal harmonies are sorely missed, but Wolfgang plays pretty well, and the old war horses, Eddie, Alex and Dave are in top form. Even Dave’s lyrics feel like classic VH lyrics, which is something even he had lost the plot on in his solo albums of late.

Boring Version: I should tell you off the top that I’ve been a fan of Van Halen from the day their first album came into our house back around 1978-79. A metric fuckton of rock music got played around the house in those days, but those first two VH albums left an indelible mark on me that has barely faded over the years. And I’ve been a fan all along the way, right up to the Gary Cherone album, which though uneven, had some cool ideas on it. I was a fan of the Hagar-era, with no conflicts over the disparity in sound between Roth-era and Hagar-era VH. It just didn’t matter to me.

However, in recent years, Iill admit to having become increasingly apathetic to the whole Van Halen saga. The numerous reunions that failed to produce anything more than a live album or a couple of tracks that wound up on a greatest hits package; the dismissal of Mike Anthony; the long years of waiting for a follow-up to all that experimenting Eddie and Alex did on Balance… somehow, it just felt like the book had been finished and no one had had the good grace to simply put a ‘The End’ on it and call it a day.

So when I heard that David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen had patched things up and recommenced working together, I was a bit dubious. I figured people were wishing a little too hard for something that couldn’t happen. If stellar outtake tracks like Can’t Get That Stuff Anymore and especially Me Wise Magic couldn’t spur a proper reunion album, what in the world made folks think another decade would do the trick?

With the inception of Chickenfoot, it seemed like the spirit of Van Halen was going to be carried on by an outfit that paradoxically had no Van Halens in it. Not a bad legacy, as Chickenfoot are an excellent band I plan on reviewing shortly. However, despite also being a huge fan of Joe Satriani, nevertheless, something quintessential was still missing.

And now I know what that something is: This album right here. For anyone who cared enough to ask, here is your answer.

THE REVIEW
Tattoo is the lead-off track, and it sounds like classic solo David Lee Roth, merely featuring Eddie on guitar, but it’s a great little ditty. Some clever word play, which we wouldn’t accept less of from Dave. There is a little bit of Diver Down and 1984 in the DNA of this number, but as I said, it feels more like solo Dave to me. It’s probably mostly down the harmonies lacking Mike’s higher pitch, which would have cinched it. It’s got such a huge hook to it, you can’t ignore it, even though the guitar melody sounds like it was cloned from Unchained. Fun, but not what I came to hear.

She’s the Woman opens with a pretty cool riff that definitely takes up back to the harder-rocking side of Roth-era VH. There’s a bit of Take Your Whiskey Home in here, and it’s got a classic Roth neurotic lyric about the kind of girl you expect him to get all unsprung over, though I often wonder if any such woman ever existed. Having met a number who came in a close second, I’m still not sure. Wolfgang’s bass playing sounds pretty good here, and I’d even go so far as to say it’s the main feature of this number.

You And Your Blues has an opening that actually sounds a little like a Hagar-era number, complete with an intro that sounds like Dave singing a Hagar Era number, but the refrain and chorus are something else, something more like what we heard on that Greatest hits package. That means this is what I came to hear. The bridge is especially interesting, with a fantastic guitar solo that reminds us why Eddie won all of those awards. He still knows how to play that thing. There’s a chorus hook here that again sounds like it’s missing Mike Anthony, but it’s more effective here than it was in Tattoo. And that guitar lick Eddie plays is like something straight off of Balance, so again, this one works for me.

China Town is a hands down balls out heavy metal rocker, the likes of which we haven’t heard much of from Eddie in the last while. Hagar did one or two of these, but they were kind of the signature of the Roth Era (well, that and the covers), so here’s the heavy metal, and they nail it, with another cheeky Diamond Dave lyric taking me back to Fair Warning. More great bass playing, but this tune is a serious workout for Alex and Eddie, as well. I’m actually really glad they got one of these on here. It wouldn’t have felt like a proper Roth-era VH album without it. Big squealing Bad Horsie outro.

Blood And Fire sounds very, very much like Dave and Eddie writing a classic late Roth-era VH pop song, and it’s a great number, with a little Panama and a little Hot For Teacher, which isn’t the slightest bit unwelcome here. It’s got a bit of the hookiness of the Hagar Era, but it’s got a great bridge and a fun little bit where he says ‘Told Ya I was coming back. Did You miss me? Say it like you mean it.’ And then Eddie plays his damned guitar, and it sounds awesome. Back to the bridge and chorus, and then a quiet little outro, reminiscent of Little Guitars.

Bullethead opens HUGE, with squealing guitars and pumping drums and bass. This is another heavy metal Van Halen number, very much in the vein of Loss of Control, if slightly slower. We get our album title from this song, and then we get a build up to a shredding, squealing guitar solo. The songs comes to a sudden stop after the return of the chorus.

As Is opens with a funny count in and a paleolithic drum beat like something off of Women and Children First mixed with Balance, and then the song proper starts and it’s a great little guitar lick that has the bass playing harmonically at full speed, like something Billy Sheehan would play. Eddie shreds it in classical mode, and then tears it apart with the return of the paleolithic riff, and then we get a moment of Davism, followed by the return of the breakneck verse/chorus. It’s heavy and fabulous and like nothing we’ve heard since 1983. This track pretty much cements it for me. It hits all the right notes, but it doesn’t feel dated, despite all my 1984 references. It feels like the formula has been updated.

Honeybabysweetiedoll opens with some experimental lab noises, followed by some tortured string scratching, and it occurs to you that they are making guitar noises. Then the song starts, and it rocks mightily in a slightly Moroccan Roll flavour. I want to say more, break it down for you, but really, it’s just a magnificent beast of a tune, and I’m a sucker for anything Moroccan Roll, me. I’ll be playing this one plenty more times. It breaks down beautifully, too.

The Trouble With Never opens like something straight off of Eat ‘Em and Smile or Skyscraper, but with the patented Van Halen harmonies sound a little more precise and correct here. So, basically, a DLR solo tune with a great Van Halen chorus circa Fair Warning. Dave gets to do one of his great little low register recitals, which just sounds great here. Great bass playing here, too.

Outta Space opens with a big fat guitar riff right off of VH 1 or 2, patented Brown Sound in full effect. Dave gets to sing about something weird and sarcastic and chewy, while Alex gets to shift the goalposts around a bit in the time signature of the refrain. Even the guitar solo sounds like an outtake from one of those first few albums. Dave’s singing like it’s 1980, and he hasn’t lost it. This is going to be the one that wins back the classic fans who didn’t think it could be done.

Stay Frosty is a great little ditty in the vein of Ice Cream Man, complete with acoustic introduction on what sounds like a Dobro to me. Dave singing like this is what we’ve all been missing, and we hardly get used to it before the big fat guitar riff straight off of the back end of Ice Cream Man with added acoustic rhythm and pair of note perfect Eddie Van Halen Guitar Solos™, plus a big Van Halen closer straight out of Hot For Teacher.

Big River takes me back to Fair Warning again, blues rocking riff and a hook like something from a classic 70s anthem. The song has a fun little instrumental with another juicy solo, but for me, the nice bit is the interplay between Wolfgang and his uncle, as well as the fact that Eddie plays some absolutely classic classical-meets-hard-rock scaling. You would almost think that, after all the years of not playing much, Eddie just decided he missed playing like he did 30 years ago, and reset the clock. It’s great to hear again.

Beats Workin’ is a Wall of Huge Sound in the intro, and then hooks up to a fun little rocker that sounds for all the world like a slow grind D.O.A. Pt. II. Truly Awesome. Great idea for a closer, after having played a couple of those classic heavy metal shredder machines earlier in the album. The only thing missing is the huge chorus. Oh wait, there it is. What a great, fun finish to a great, fun album.

SUMMARY
As I was saying, this album is the answer to the question that has plagued casual and diehard fans alike for going on three decades. And you know what? Good answer. If you’re a fan of the Sammy Hagar Era, this album may not change your mind.

If you’ve been on the fence about Van Halen all this time, again, this album might not do it for you, given that it’s sort of a love letter to the late 70s and early 80s, with modern production values and great sound. Still it might be the one for you. It’s definitely a great primer to that period. If you DO like this album, you’re ready for Roth-ear Van Halen. Enjoy.

But you Roth fans are in for a treat (as if you didn’t all rush out to buy the album on release day). Over all, it’s a fun album with enough heft to it to keep it from feeling like a pleasant trip down memory lane. These guys still remember what Hard Rock circa 1979 felt like, and they’ve managed to capture it on disc. Again, Enjoy. I did.

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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