It’s been fifteen years since Van Halen issued a studio album, and almost twice as long since cutting their last with the charismatic, karate-kicking howler monkey-in-leather-chaps named David Lee Roth. The Diamond One allegedly ditched the California quartet for movie stardom after touring the multiplatinum masterpiece 1984. But when his Hollywood plans fell short, Dave returned to basics, releasing the terrific, if atypical, covers EP (Crazy from the Heat) and two worthwhile full-lengths with acrobatic super-shredders Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan (Eat ‘em and Smile, Skyscraper). Meanwhile, brothers Eddie (guitar) and Alex (drums) Van Halen soldiered on with Sammy Hagar at the wheel of their hit-making motor machine. The slick 80’s “Van Hagar” sound irked some old school fans, but won over just as many new listeners; the history books attest VH achieved even more commercial success than before with the “Red Rocker.”
Grunge overtook melodic metal in the Nirvana nineties, and neither Roth nor Van Halen could flourish in a market overcrowded with loud, temperamental rock newcomers and bad-boy rappers. Roth’s solo efforts became so progressively weak that the “Panama” singer eventually threw in the towel and took a day job as an EMT. He also stinted as morning disc jockey for 92.3 Radio Free in New York, where the daredevil son of a Jewish doctor spent his leisure flying helicopters and writing an autobiography.
Hagar left Van Halen following 1995’s lackluster Balance, and replacement Gary Cherone (Extreme) didn’t survive 5150 boot camp long enough to make amends for the largely forgettable Van Halen III. Both Roth and Hagar checked in to track a couple new songs for compilations released in 1996 (The Best Of: Volume One) and 2004 (Best of Both Worlds), but the brothers VH devoted most of the 90s and 00s slamming their ex-singers in the press. The front men were only too happy to return to favor, going so far as to join forces in 2002 for a “Sans Halen” package tour. Then health problems overtook Eddie, who endured hip replacement, cancer treatment, and (more) alcohol rehabilitation. When Van Halen was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the only two guys who showed up for the party—Hagar and Michael Anthony—weren’t even in the band anymore. A major tour with Roth was announced in 2007, but few imagined Eddie and Dave would be able to avoid pissing each other off for any appreciable amount of time. We held our breath and waited for the wheels to come flying off.
But this time there was no train wreck. The band packed arenas and put on consistently solid, hits-centric shows for almost two years, using the jaunt to initiate Eddie’s cherub-faced 17-year old son Wolfgang as the group’s bassist. The newly remarried guitarist then informed us his son would finish high school before he’d consider (gasp) a new album.
“Say ya missed me!” Roth jives on A Different Kind of Truth, echoing a lyric from “Hot for Teacher.” “Say it like ya mean it!”
Yes, Waldo, it’s time for another Van Halen disc—their twelfth, and first for Interscope Records. And along with his pen-sull Dave’s brought in a decade of sublimated carnival barker enthusiasm and a gumball machine’s worth of bite-sized Zen epithets to let fly. This reviewer wasn’t the only one concerned when the band teased new single, “Tattoo,” in mid-January, following a hush-hush intimate performance at a NYC pub once owned by Dave’ uncle. The middling rocker wasn’t anything to write home about after so much time away. But more on that later.
Fortunately, in what was probably the endgame of some clever marketing, the first taste of Truth consisted of its weakest track; subsequent snippets posted on the band’s website could only be better. And they were.
Aficionados already know the “new” VH album was constructed from leftover guitar riffs and vestigial pieces-parts written by Eddie three decades ago. “Outta Space,” “Big River,” “Blood and Fire,” and yes, “Tattoo,” are thus reconstitutions begotten by a composer’s cannibalization of his own work. Indeed, much of Truth existed in rough form on the well-circulated Zero Demos, whose 1976 sessions were financed by Gene Simmons (KISS) to get the fledgling group signed to Warner Brothers. Many bands recycle old material for new records; each of the Roth-era LPs features one or two cuts written prior to their eponymous debut (e.g. “House of Pain” was originally recorded six or seven years before it landed on 1984). But Truth marks the first time in recent memory that a band has returned from so long a hiatus with a batch of tunes that will resonate immediately with diehard fans, who’ve been trading and torrenting the stuff for years.
Re-recordings like “She’s the Woman” don’t sound remarkably different from their rough draft counterparts, minus (former bassist) Mike Anthony’s sublime backing and harmony vocals. Truth showcases a multi-tracked Dave, which does the trick even if some of the old vibe is lacking without Mikey’s distinctive tenor. And if Wolfgang really did play bass here (Eddie handled Anthony’s parts on disc from 1995 on), he did a marvelous job; the low end is solid and steady, his lines decorated by clever melodic fills—some of which even double his dad’s own not-so-easy to master hooks.
Formerly known as “Down in Flames,” opening salvo “Tattoo” was not well-received when previewed online last month and worried those who’d been awaiting the Second Coming of Eddie. Roth’s ode to ink culture, “Tattoo” lacks a memorable musical motif and refrain; the one-word chorus is instead hiccupped through electronic enhancers and backed by keyboards, and Dave’s wordplay (“mousewife to mom-shell in the time it takes to get that new tattoo”) isn’t enough to salvage the supposed comeback track. At least not without an assist from Eddie, whose guitar solo here isn’t quite the eight bars of take-your-head off shred we’d been longing for.
A throwback from the club days, “She’s the Woman” makes a more fitting start to the soundtrack of the Van Halen resurrection. Boasting tight rhythms from Alex and nephew Wolf, the tune careens over Eddie’s chunky, overdriven chords and benefits from Uncle Dave’s irreverent machismo and fortune cookie Zen. Another revisited classic, “Bullet Head,” likewise quickens the pulse, provides tonal menace, and—clocking in under three minutes—doesn’t overstay its welcome (its chorus also provides the album title). “China Town” is Truth’s barnburner, a fresh-penned fist-pumper that nonetheless harkens “Mean Street” (Fair Warning) with its seedy, red light district narrative, stuttering groove, and inventive grab-bag soloing from Eddie. “Blood and Fire” courses from the same melancholy veins that oozed “Little Guitars” and (Roth’s own) “Damn Good” into existence so many years ago; it’s a look-how-far-we’ve-come dose of nostalgia that bounces along Eddie’s bright, finger-plucked broken chords.
In what probably marks the first time since OU812 that we’ve heard an Alex Van Halen count-in on record, “As Is” finds Roth exploring the rags-to-riches allure of Tinseltown while Ed shifts gears from grunge to string-dancing speed metal. “Honeybabysweetiedoll” is Eddie Van Halen-does-Joe Satriani, with the maestro employing feedback, static, and pick-slides as ambient segue to wah-drenched space rock. There’s a crescendo and a sudden stop—at which point a solitary dog bark cues further psychedelic string abuse. Titled “Let’s Get Rockin’” on the Zero demo, “Outta Space” is another meaty, hyperkinetic cut wherein Roth ponders our planet’s critical mass. Overcrowding never sounded so good.
Commencing with bluesy, front-porch swing acoustic guitar and coalescing into a full-tilt twelve-bar romp, “Stay Frosty” is “Ice Cream Man”’s delinquent baby brother. But instead of milking frozen confections for double-entendre, Roth juxtaposes institutionalized religious dogma with armchair philosophy, like a vaudevillian Robert Fulghum, or ADHD Descartes. Reworked from oldie “Big Trouble,” the similarly-named “Big River” taps Van Halen’s swampy side in a thumping, “Running with the Devil” styled travelogue for rock ‘n roll croc hunters. The time-shifting midsection devolves into a comfortably repeated chorus that channels the earthen essence of Doobie Brothers while laying a blanket for some fleet-fingered outro guitar noodling.
Truth does have its weaknesses, apart from the aforementioned “Tattoo.” Borne of castoff Eddie parts from the 1984 Eric Stoltz film The Wild Life, “You And Your Blues” is little more than Roth referencing Allman Brothers, Rolling Stones, and other Jurassic jam-bands to more eloquently dismiss a depressing paramour. “The Trouble with Never” starts promisingly enough, but then barrels over the cliff of an anticlimactic chorus. “Beats Working” (retooled from “Put Out the Lights”) recalls the AC/DC slink of “Sucker in a Three-Piece” but sputters out, notwithstanding a bass quote from The Beatles’ “Day Tripper.”
But most of the performances here are exciting and about as non-rote as can be for a trio of Creem Magazine silverbacks (and one young buck). Someone must’ve unearthed a couple extra cans of mojo in Pasadena; the Dutch Boys are playing like they actually give a shit again, and it’s refreshing to hear VH doing what they’re famous for with sincerity and earnest, rather than as self-parody. Produced by Grammy-winner John Shanks (studio guru behind Miley Cyrus, Hilary Duff, and Kelly Clarkson), Truth is a polished, dense affair. Eddie ditched his variac voltage-boosted speaker cabs ages ago, and his signature “brown sound” Marshall has been supplanted by his own line of EVH amplifiers. Mr. Eruption also favors his own custom axes over the Franken-strats he cobbled together in his twenties—but he’s still got that magic touch: You hear stuff like the frenetic hammer-on, pull-of intro to “China Town” or the snot-nosed slurs, bends, and dive-bombs in “Bullet Head” and instinctively know the guitarist can’t be anyone but Eddie Van Halen.
Once known for his distinct, lock-up-your-daughters banshee wail, Roth can’t hit the harrowing highs like he used to. The voice that charged “Sinners Swing!” began waning with 1994’s Filthy Little Mouth, at which point Dave compensated either by singing lower more often, or by scatting like some coked-up used car salesman or auctioneer from a Flannery O’Connor novel. It’s clear the 56-year old pushed himself on Truth—but it also sounds like he relished the challenge, proving to himself (if not to Eddie and his minions) he’s still got enough gas left in the tank to do VH justice. And we do get a couple signature rasp-yells out of the former man-heathen, who dispenses enough pearls of deliciously witty wisdom on Truth to fashion a candy necklace.
Unless you consider “Blood and Fire” Dave’s interpretation of “The Way We Were” Truth is a ballad-free, balls-laden blowout. I could have used one (even two) of Eddie’s old show-pieces, a la “Eruption,” “Cathedral,” and “Spanish Fly,” just to get my fret board fix on. But it sure is nice having the guys back. Be sure to get the deluxe edition of the album; the Downtown Sessions DVD has Alex, Eddie, Wolfie and Dave goin’ unplugged on numbers new and old.
So, what do you think the teacher’s gonna look like this year?
"Abominable Snowcone" is a music / film afficionado living in Cleveland, Ohio. He toils for local government by day and fights crime by night, when not writing for a couple local media outlets. He prefers coffee to alcohol and rock over Bach. He enjoys reading, noodling on guitar, and making trouble for amateurs. He's ascared of sharks.
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