If skeptical fans can uncross their arms long enough to give this Truth a fair listen, they’ll embrace the conjoined twins of rapid-fire riffage...
“Told you I was coming back. ‘Say you missed me,’” whispers David Lee Roth on Blood & Fire, one of more than a half-dozen blasts of hard rock glory on Van Halen’s reunion release, A Different Kind of Truth. The setup is classic VH swagger, so much so that when Roth pleads, “Say it like you mean it,” it doesn’t come off forced; it seems natural.
While story of how the band got to this point has been thoroughly played out in the press, what we have here, in terms of the music, is nothing short of a revelation. If skeptical fans can uncross their arms long enough to give this Truth a fair listen, they’ll embrace the conjoined twins of rapid-fire riffage and snarky, ad-libbed innuendo on tracks like She’s The Woman, As Is and You and Your Blues – the latter featuring a catchy, pre-chorus that only the best unsigned bands seem to deliver anymore (check out: Lorenzo, Little Breakdown on YouTube).
Like with all things Van Halen, guitarist Eddie Van Halen leads the way, both figuratively and literally, with swirling, inspired and aggressive melodies, licks and tricks that spank and crank with youthful exuberance. Damn, he’s good. Real damn good, particularly when he’s trading ad-libs with Dave. With these two, it’s really more like the continuation of a musical conversation or fistfight if you prefer.
Bullethead and Outer Space prove that Eddie hasn’t lost a step on his fellow shredders (are they’re any left by the way?).
Picking up where Ice Cream Man left off from the band’s debut, Stay Frosty, a deep cut on side two (whoops, had a vinyl flashback there; this is a CD review), mixes tongue-in-cheek humor with incendiary slabs of metal angst.
And, just like he did turning the prop-plane version of The Kink’s You Really Got Me into a jet fighter all those years ago, Eddie’s punchy stroll on Big River sounds like CCR might today … if they were strung out on a case of high-energy drinks.
Naturally, Van Halen is more than just guitar; more than the sum of its parts in fact. Much has been made of Eddie’s son Wolfgang replacing founding member Michael Anthony on bass guitar, but from a sound standpoint alone, he’s not missed. The playing is perfectly in the pocket and the background vocals are never out of place. My sense is Wolfie got some help, but nevertheless, the chemistry never falters.
Then there are those drums. Drums that signaled the start of puberty for many with the backbeat of Everybody Wants Some from Women and Children First, and the grade A stomp of Hot for Teacher from 1984. Here, Alex Van Halen informs this Truth with some of his best playing and, more importantly, best sounding turns behind the kit in ages.
Perpetually second to Eddie in Van Halen’s sonic spectrum, Alex chases “teetering-on-the-brink-of-chaos” chord progressions from one end of the recording to the other – corralling them in just in time to create the driving rhythms and accents that make good songs great. Blood & Fire jolts to life with a tribal vengeance. Similarly, Alex locks horns with Wolfie in HoneyBabySweetieDoll – a manic, keyboard-driven Deep Purplesque rocker – and dresses it up with an ear-shattering backbeat.
The honest and perhaps “not-very-hidden-truth” of Van Halen’s new album is that, according to sources, much of the record has been cobbled together from demos and other recordings – some of which predate the band’s signing. There is certainly evidence in that regard, but it comes nowhere close to discounting what the band has pulled off with this Truth. In fairness, there are moments where you can sense certain parts have been ‘frankensteined’ through production, but the seams aren’t really distracting – credit the strength of the material for that. If this old, new, something borrowed, something blue approach can work for Van Halen, maybe it can work for other legends. Are you listening ZZ Top?
Despite it all, behind the turmoil, alcohol-fueled accesses, distrust, label problems, broken marriages, illnesses, petty jealousies, extended inactivity, indecision, and beyond, Van Halen has thrown the deepest Hail Mary in music and found the end zone. Turns out the group has finally accepted what its fans have known all along: Roth isn’t just the life of the party, he’s the lifeblood of the band.
“When was the last time you did something for the first time?” Roth queries in That’s The Trouble With Never. Let’s hope it’s an epitaph more befitting Van Halen’s future than it’s past. Beats workin’ after all.