Van Halen: A Different Kind Of Truth full album review track-by-track
It's been nearly three decades since the Van Halen brothers and David Lee Roth made an actual album together. During that time, they've split up, played with other partners, traded barbs, come together and broke up again, traded more barbs, and what have you.
In 2007, however, the VH landscape changed dramatically: Roth rejoined - for a real tour, not just a quickie track for a "best-of" collection - and founding member Michael Anthony was jettisoned in favor of Eddie's son, Wolfgang. All looked set for what might be some new music...and then it didn't. After a successful (and trouble-free) run of arena dates, the Van Halen camp went silent.
Early last year, though, word came out that Van Halen were recording an album, which sent naysayers and even an ex-band member (Sammy Hagar) into brickbat-mode: They'll never finish it. They're just recording old songs, they can't write new stuff...and on and on.
Well, that sound you hear, the one rising up to meet Eddie's chainsaw guitar, is of Van Halen - three guys in their late 50s (Ed, David and Alex) and a 21-year-old upstart (Wolf) - having the last laugh. A big reason for their glee might steam from the fact that what they've done here is unprecedented, actually, using demos of old, unused songs for the basis of a good portion of the new material, reinventing and re-imagining themselves in the process.
It's a genius move, of course ("Hey, we can't write young, so let's take songs from when were young!"), and it makes you wonder why other acts haven't done it before. What's remarkable, though, is that rather than sounding like three AARP subscribers strolling down memory lane with "the kid," the Van Halen of 2012 come off as age-proof, confident monsters, chewing up the scenery with the top down and flipping the bird to anyone who's got a problem with that.
Oh, and get this: there's not one wimpy "power ballad" to be found. You can place this album right alongside Women And Children First and not feel as though you've just committed audio sacrilege.
A Different Kind Of Truth will be released on 7 February. On the following pages, we deliver the track-by-track verdict.
You've got to hand it to Van Halen: Most bands sneak their wobbly (or just plain lame) tracks towards the end of a record, hoping somehow that no one will notice, but Eddie and co. front-load A Different Kind Of Truth with Tattoo, the weakest four minutes and 43 seconds on the disc, one which many fans will skip right over or edit from playlists altogether.
Interesting, and somewhat shockingly, the tune sticks in your head, especially Eddie's sassy, greasy guitar hook line which rides atop a mid-tempo, chugging rhythm, a recognizable VH strut.
Roth hams it up in a variety of voices, groaning like a Don Cornelius impersonator one second and bellowing like his hand is caught in a car door the next. Eddie rips a spirited, "best-of-me"-type solo, one which would ordinarily qualify for greatness were it not for the fact that true awesomeness is just around the corner.
She's The Woman
The doozy that is this album officially starts here. Smartass guitar squeals, hyperactive bass, walloping drums and Dave chortling lines like "I wanna be your knight in a shining pickup truck" - it's classic attitude that burns a hole in everything the band has done since 1984.
Revisiting one's youth is easy when you have crib sheets, and in the case of She's The Woman, the track began as a demo in 1976 - a section was lifted and used for Mean Street from Fair Warning, and what's left shares that song's vicious thump. But what some have attacked as lazy songwriting is a canny stroke, once which allows the band to reference their past, do a fresh update, without the embarrassment of Old Timers day at the stadium.
The pre-solo breakdown sees the players volleyballing parts impressively, but when it's Eddie's turn to spike he devastates, sparking up the fretboard with genuine A-game gusto. It isn't hard to imagine him smirking with this massive win.
You And Your Blues
Eddie's tone is strident, and he's chopping down trees with a staccato riff that delivers real kicks to the chest. Dave matches him move for move, tossing out pissed-off parting shots to a once-cool woman whose 19th nervous breakdowns (yes, he throws in that title) have become a major drag.
Halfway in, the feverish musical groove changes up and Ed, Al and Wolfgang lock horns, wrestling a snakey pre-chorus run to the ground right as it bursts open, revealing the guitar god in full flourish. YouTube teachers: you've got some work to do with this baby.
Thirty-two years ago, Eddie Van Halen had guitarists scratching their heads with his nutso tapping that introduced Mean Streets, and he beguiles again here in a video game-like opener that bears repeated listens.
China Town is fast-paced stuff; indeed, the galloping bass-and-drum pattern is more classic Iron Maiden than VH, but it's one that Eddie lays bold claim to, accentuating Roth's shouts and wails with tantilizing wah treatments.
Alex keeps the breakneck pace cooking (this guy is 58? Unbelievable!), right on through a wiseacre chordal workout that brings the tune to a sudden, definitive end.
Blood And Fire
Here's the real single for you, a rousing, hey-let's-pat-ourselves-on-the-backs-for-getting-here victory lap that shucks corn and schmaltz and hits all the right marks.
After a Little Guitar-ish, clean-toned plucked start, Blood And Fire does a Back To The Future jaunt, rocketing us to Diver Down-era VH, with cymbals splashing, dirty chords popping and gang-sung backgrounds rising from the mix. It's all a bit wistful, and for a moment one imagines what Michael Anthony could have brought to the proceedings, especially when Roth drops the deadpan lines, "Told ya I was comin' back. Say you missed me."
For guitarists, the highlight of most Van Halen songs - their raison d'être, in point of fact - is the solo, and here Eddie stops the clocks, dispatching an age-defying star-turn that crackles with exuberance and purpose.
Bullethead is another look at Van Halen's back pages (1977, to be exact), and fittingly, it feels a bit like the band is providing a West Coast metal-funk answer to Queen's Sheer Heart Attack. Check out Dave doing the rock-stutter: "Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bullethead!" Great stuff.
The whole thing sprints past in two and a half minutes - Eddie uncorks a liquidy, phaser-enhanced solo, while uncle and nephew keep all hands on the throttle - and during that time, reflection feels like reinvention. A ripper.
At first, As Is might just be the guys applying fresh paint to Everybody Wants Some - the reverberating, tribal drums summon up a wall of sludgy, ornery guitar squalls - but at the snap of a finger, they attack a Byzantine progression that hits peaks and valleys at vicious speeds.
It's striking to note how uptempo everything is. Throughout the whole of the album, Van Halen sprint out of the blocks and keep right on going. The only change-up here is at the three-quarter mark, when Eddie throws in a rough and ragged, drop-dead blues riff. But it's a momentary water gulp that dashes off madly, culminating in a demented E-Bow exploration into the outer limits.
No, it's not an homage to Band Of Skulls, but it's just as au courant, smacking you upside the head with radio waves battling Eddie's pick scrapes and various and sundry scarifying sounds.
The album's a keeper - this is what you're saying to yourself right now as the guitarist plays off a massive, red-hot rhythm with stomping, grinding chords that epoxy their way into your senses.
Structurally, the song is free-form - Roth dives, dodges and claws his way through it all with hysterical, light-on-his-feet agility - but that hardly matters when the band works up such a lather, playing their own game and thumbing their noses at convention.
The Trouble With Never
Roth-era Van Halen always brought a little bit of funk - the singer's get-down-and-par-tay! sensibilities were neatly tucked inside Eddie's flanged, pelvis-aimed chords - and the band gets into a proper groove with this modern-day, wah-riff knockout.
Loose, spiraling guitar lines fly out like sparks, but Wolfie and Alex catch them all, rising and falling with each hairy twist in the narrative. Eddie's moment at the podium is another wood-burner, a goosebump-inducing, Red Bull-soaked thriller that works as a song-within-a-song but doesn't overwhelm Roth's hip trip.
Beginning as the song Let's Get Rockin' from 1977, Outta Space has been fattened up and hydrated. What's interesting, however, is that, fter all these years, it's something of a vocal vs guitar battle between Roth and Eddie - where the two butting heads even way back when?
There's a bit of On Fire flavor, but now it's made amorphous. Despite recognizable flashes, one can't easily detect standard songcraft - and that's not a knock, either; it's thrilling to revel in the ways Van Halen burn up the road behind them.
And hey, is that a Hot For Teacher nod? Absolutely. It's there in the ascending pattern Alex and Wolf dig into that underpins Ed's solo.
Can referencing one's own work get a little too close to the bone? That's the question when it comes to Stay Frosty, an off-kilter, bleary-eyed reboot of Ice Cream Man, but one with some baroque touches to match its barroom blues.
And like its predecessor, Stay Frosty spins around from acoustic swagger and bolts into a souped-up electric boogie, one that easily could have come from ZZ Top. No, the wheel hasn't been re-imagined, but the gettin' there's still fun. When Alex rat-a-tat-tats rim clicks, even the most cynical of listeners has to tap his toes.
By now, most bands would be lobbing softballs, but Van Halen still pack a punch and deliver reasons to keep listening with a riveting curiosity piece that begins gently enough and turns something vaguely demonic.
Rig River just might be the most original piece of music on A Different Kind Of Truth, and although there's a dash of Runnin' With The Devil here and there, and at times it sounds as though the group is tipping their hats to early Fogerty, it's a hard nut to crack. But the frenetic pace at which the gang paddles down this "River" wild is what makes it a journey worth taking.
The embers are still red-hot on this coulda-been-a-first-track album closer. Eddie's amp emits Eruption-ish gales to accompany a smoking wah riff, one which puts most guitarists to shame.
While taking in all that's special about Beats Workin' - and despite its cavalier title, it's pretty clear that these dudes put in the hours - one has to give a shout-out to background vocals, always a hallmark of VH recordings, and the tradition is upheld here. Like flipping through pages in a yearbook, there's a glimpse of Beautiful Girls one second, and then we're onto Feel Your Love Tonight, but as much as this is deja vu comfort food, it's being served up fresh...disarmingly so.
In the end, Eddie stretches out for a luxurious guitar solo, and it's a pisser, too - the guy's earned his moment in the sun, and he's going to reach down between his legs, ease the seat back...you know how the rest of it goes.
The extended feedback wail at the end recalls several seminal Van Halen moments, but hopefully it's one we'll be revising soon. Twenty-eight years might work for Classmates.com, but as for the rest of us... C'mon, guys, give us a break!