I picked up Van Halen’s latest album, their reunion with front man David Lee Roth, for the same reasons that I Facebook friended the hot girl from my high school. I hoped that she was still pretty, but on some level I welcomed a horrible train wreck. Twenty-seven years is plenty of time to get bloated, wrinkly, methed out and toothless.
She’s still hot, by the way, and so is Van Halen. This, the band’s twelfth studio album, is the best since their third record came out back in 1980. In fact, I’m willing to bet that you could slip this album into the number four slot in the Van Halen discography and the casual listener wouldn’t know the difference.
Van Halen and I, we have history. I was a true fan through Fair Warning, dutifully drawing the iconic “VH” logo on my notebooks and preaching the Gospel of Eddie. Diver Down and 1984 were let downs, but they still had their brilliant moments.
Even after Diamond Dave left and Sammy stepped in I still found something good to say. Lee G. and I were at the Sub Station in downtown Spartanburg eating a #15 with extra oil and vinegar the first time we heard “Why Can’t This Be Love.” “Listen to that solo,” I said. “It’s so understated. You know Eddie could blow up, but this solo fits this song.”
From there I kind of lost touch. The Sammy Hagar era was by no means bad, maybe just a bit too earnest. “Right Now” and “Dreams” are great songs, but they were great somebody else songs, not Van Halen. In retrospect I think the Van Hagar era is the sound of a band trying to grow and mature.
A Different Kind Of Truth skillfully demonstrates that Van Halen is that rare beast that emerged from the egg fully grown. They were perfect from the start, and you don’t need to improve on perfection.
The conventional wisdom states that what makes Van Halen’s sound so unique is the combination of Eddie’s virtuosity and Dave-asaurus Rex’s bigger than life persona. There’s a lot of truth to that, obviously. Dave left the band in 1985 and hired a series of guitar slingers who were brilliant technicians. Ed hooked up with Sammy for a good run, and then with Extreme’s Gary Cherone for a short and not so good run. None of the above were nearly as good as the original Van Halen. Divided they were good, together they are amazing.
But it isn’t all Ed and Dave. Truth puts an exclamation point on the secret ingredient of the Van Halen sound: big brother Alex pounding the shit out of his drum kit. The guy is an absolute monster, doubling Ed’s scorching riffs with manic yet precise drumming. It’s a welcome return to form from the Balance album, for example, whose tempos didn’t allow for Al to get off his leash.
“China Town” pretty much tells the whole story. Remove the vocals and the tappity tappity guitar and what remains is a rhythm section that thrashes every bit as hard as the Big Four (Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer, Metallica).
I’m embarrased that I’ve never noticed how thrashy Ed and Al can be, but as a kid I guess I was too caught up in the heavy image of the Big Four versus the “let’s get drunk and party” Van Halen facade.
Even when Van Halen gives a song a Slayer-worthy title like “Blood and Fire” the listener can’t help but smile at the tune itself:
They can’t help themselves — their songs are joyous and celebratory. “I told you I was coming back,” Dave says. “Say you missed me.” “Blood and Fire” in Van Halen’s world isn’t hell and damnation but a victory dance: “We get through blood and fire.”
David Lee Roth is up to all of his old tricks on this album: cheesy one-liners like “headless body in a topless bar” (“China Town”); talking to the booth (“As Is”); and pandering to the enormous audiences they’ll be entertaining throughout the summer. “Look at all of the people here tonight,” he sings in “Blood and Fire,” and then he falls silent for a measure. It’s a clever moment. I’m sure that in concert the house lights will come up at that moment so that the “mousewives to momshells” called out in lead single “Tattoo” can scream and shake their tramp stamps.
But without question the greatest Diamond Dave trick of them all is channeling ancient bluesmen via carnival sideshow barker. “Stay Frosty” is a perfect companion to classics like “Ice Cream Man,” “Could This Be Magic,” and “Big Bad Will (Is Sweet William Now).”
Now, about Edward. Any “greatest guitarists” list that doesn’t put Eddie Van Halen second only to Jimi Hendrix is immediately suspect. His influence on rock guitar is so great that one can almost divide rock music into the periods B.E. (before Edward) and A.E. Others have played faster, cleaner, harder, but not with Eddie’s feel.
And he sounds brilliant on this album, from the aforementioned shredding in “China Town” to the crunchy, palm-muted rhythm of “You and Your Blues:”
What makes Ed (and thus Van Halen) far superior to the legions of shredders he spawned is that the guy has some funk lurking beneath all of those fireworks. “The Trouble With Never” is the funky descendent of Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic,” for example:
All in all A Different Kind of Truth feels like a victory lap. I can’t help but wonder whether the title is a fuck you response to Sammy Hagar’s recently published autobiography. The album proves so much: The band really is better with Dave; canning Michael Anthony didn’t cut the heart out of the band; and Eddie hasn’t lost his chops despite whatever alcohol and drug problems he’s dealt with.
“When you turn on your stereo does it return the favor?” Diamond Dave asks on “The Trouble With Never.” When I’ve got A Different Kind Of Truth blasting it does, yes. Definitely.