Arguably no other band causes so much controversy and debate among its faithful, so context for a Van Halen album review is absolutely necessary. Let’s get a few things out of the way right off the bat, shall we? This review comes from a music lover that enjoys both Dave and Sammy eras of the band, so there’s no bias for either camp. As evidenced from previously reviewed material on this site, the review doesn’t come from a person stuck on the past-glories of rock that doesn’t acknowledge the last 20-years since this type of music reigned supreme. It also isn’t from a holier-than-thou hipster journalist reviewing the album ironically. When grunge died with Cobain, instead of sticking it out with post-Grunge nonsense (looking at you Bush) or Ska, this avid music fan regressed temporarily, living off a diet of Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and the mighty Van Halen. The guitar pyrotechnics of Eddie Van Halen were mesmerizing upon first listen. Every Van Halen album, single and live bootleg was a must-have, so there’s a lot at stake with this new, much yearned-for reunion with original lead singer and showman extraordinaire David Lee Roth. With the crushing weight of expectations heaped on it before a single note was ever heard, how could it possibly hold up? Surprisingly well, actually.
Van Halen’s Bullethead
That is, if you’re willing to look past the arguably laughable (yet infectiously catchy) first single “Tattoo.” Despite the wincingly bad lyrics that will probably be used in some reality TV tattoo-doc, the silver lining was hearing Eddie’s guitar sing for the first time in way too long. For that alone it is forgivable. The good news is that it’s the weakest track on the album, so if you just skip it and pretend the album begins with “She’s The Woman” then your first listen will be much more promising, guaranteed. One immediately notices just how in-your-face aggressive the majority of the album is. This batch of songs has far more in common with the darker turns of Fair Warning than their pop breakthrough 1984. Eddie plays with the fury of a man unleashed for the first time in years, fitting in blistering solo after catchy melody in every track. Let’s be clear about one thing though: while solos are a no-no to most and generally “uncool” these days, solos in context of what Eddie does is not some superfluous showing of technical ability. It’s like another singer in the band, expressing the sentiment of the song.
Taken from a pre-contract demo, “She’s The Woman” has fantastic groove. It’s also got great backing vocals, which is surprising considering the absence of founding bassist and backing vocal master Michael Anthony. Current bass player and son of Eddie, Wolfgang uses his young voice to surprisingly great result, filling in the chorus in ways Anthony once did. “You and Your Blues” has even better backing vocals and some of Roth’s best lyrics on the record and as a result it’s one of best and most single worthy tracks of the bunch. The tempo picks up twice the speed as “China Town” dazzles with guitar wizardry that manages to sound like chip-tune music at times. Another thing that should be pointed out: there are no ballads on this album per-se, which should please most Hagar-Haters. So when it is said that the proceedings slow down a bit for radio-contender “Blood and Fire” it should be stressed that it’s still a fun rock song even if it’s poppier than its peers on this album. It also sports what will easily be the most-quoted lyric for summing up this album as Roth, with an almost audible wry grin says, “Told ya I was coming back. Say ya missed me. Say it like you mean it!”
At this point the album kicks into high gear with a middle section of blistering intensity. “Bullethead” is less than 3 minutes of uber-satisfying attitude and “As Is” sports drop-tuned guitar-heaviness, pounding “Hot For Teacher”-esque drums and one of Roth’s only signature yelps on the album. Despite its goofy name, “Honeybabysweetiedoll” bears the same unrelenting heaviness of the previous tracks and if you can look past his lyrics that attempt to ensnare hot soccer moms, it’s a standout instrumentally. Song after song, it’s hard to believe just how vital and downright mean the guitar sound is—not to be confused with chugging nu-metal angst but instead just straight-for-the-jugular guitar aggressiveness of the best classic metal. “The Trouble With Never” tries to inject a bit of levity with sing-along choruses and cheesy one-liners before returning to a galloping groove on the underwhelming but still pleasing “Outta Space.” That’s the thing with this album: even when a track isn’t the greatest, the sheer fun and excitement of the music overwhelms any perceived mediocrity, which is saying a lot.
Harkening back to the quirky fan-favorite “Ice Cream Man” from their first album, “Stay Frosty” evokes the same nostalgic feeling with absolutely no eye-rolling induced. Instead it’s a fun back porch blues ditty that launches into all-out blues stomp halfway through. The experience rounds out with two reworked demos from their unsigned days, “Big River” and “Beats Workin’.” The former is a fun number with plenty of head-nodding rhythm and catchy chorus while the latter is a tour-de-force with all members playing their hearts out which in effect sums up their return nicely. Some say that reusing their early demos means the well is dry, but it should be looked at as a recommitment to the foundations of the band, trying to give fans the “brown sound” that so many have swore is gone. It’s a smart move because despite being a new album it certainly has that classic Van Halen feel.
This album is better than anybody had expectations for it to be. After having all of their dirty laundry aired in public for years, feuds, Eddie having hip replacement, battling cancer or being made to look really pathetic in Hagar’s tell-all book, expectations were incredibly low for this album. Perhaps that was unnecessary. This band deserves one last triumph and against all odds, A Different Kind of Truth is that triumph. Would it improve from a truncated track list and slightly less cheesy lyrics from Roth? Sure. But as far as comeback albums go for classic rock reunions, none can touch this album. Take note Black Sabbath, the bar has been set high.
by Jarad Matula