It needs to be said right up front that when a group of individuals gets excited over new music from an artist or band that has not been active for a long time, there is much more in the mix and at stake than the music alone. The fans do not want something that is a carbon copy of former glories because then they feel like they’re being patronized, played out, that their enthusiasm could be satisfied by a duplicate product.
Likewise, the fans do not want something that is so foreign and relatively experimental that none of this artist or group’s DNA finds a way to peer through. To make a return to the spotlight even marginally successful, one has to straddle these two. Copy your hits and you’re cynical and lazy. Go way the hell over yonder and you lose sight of whatever it was they loved you for in the first place. This was the fear that hung over Van Halen Mach IV’s A Different Kind Of Truth, an album that returns David Lee Roth to the mic and finds Eddie Van Halen’s son Wolfgang manning the bass.
The group never was the sentimental type anyway, as evidenced in early tunes like “Bottoms Up” and “Everybody Wants Some.” The thought of these elder statesmen of rock (and stare at that phrase awhile…let it burrow into your psyche like a parasite) preening and prancing about and lusting after girls who could be their daughters was not a pleasant prospect. But then again, neither was the concept of a slow, loping drag of a collection that snuggled into those flannel jammies, sipped tea at noon with a side of Nilla wafers, and casually bragged about “what we was.” What was the way forward? Was there a way forward at all or was this merely, as many in this crowd assumed, so much cashing in that famous namecheck, trotting out the oldies on tour, and purporting that it wasn’t really that way because, hey, we’ve got a new album, right?
Right. Very right, in fact.
Van Halen has a new album out and the hopeful pessimists like myself are breathing a sigh of relief. It is not a chaste volume of old timey recollections and boasts, nor the most inappropriate series of jailbait come-ons ever devised half-drunk at three in the morning. It walks the whisper-thin wire of being both and neither, and most importantly, it presents the hardest, wildest boot up the bum these people have produced in decades. As a matter of fact, if one said in the past that VH was a hard rock-pop group (and they were for the most part), they would need to recalculate for A Different Kind Of Truth. This is about as metal as the band has ever been and I, for one, am not complaining.
There are nods to the past, but they remain only nods. The first couple listens to the track “You And Your Blues” recalled “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” but refused to linger there, and Roth’s voice showing the age and abuse of many hard-partying years fits the mood of the piece extremely well. His gruff be-bop on “Stay Frosty” is meant to trigger thoughts of “Ice Cream Man,” and they do. When the band punches in, however, the tune becomes a barnstormer and fully allays any fears that this was going to be the softer AOR bow on an otherwise quite aggressive set. On the track “China Town,” Wolfgang Van Halen earns his rank by tearing through a bassline more complex than anything this band has ever done on the low-end. “Big River” has a thunderous, feel-good stomp and a simple sing-along hook of a chorus, and closing “Beats Workin’” applies dumb smiles to faces as it winds its way to conclusion.
Is this the perfect comeback? Well, I can’t say that entirely. Sometimes Roth attempts some lines he just hasn’t the stamina for anymore, and brother does it show. Several years back when Wolfgang joined and Roth came back for the reunion tour, comedian Jim Norton did a parody song called, “We’re Back (And We’re Better Than Ever!)” which slathered on every awful reunion trope conceivable. A Different Kind Of Truth features the rather weak “Blood and Fire” that unfortunately brings Norton’s prediction to fruition. It’s not awful, but it remains the limpest of the bunch, and of the thirteen tracks I heard on the disc, it’s the one that easily nominates itself for exclusion.
With that in mind, the impressive detail is that the rest of the songs do not falter as easily. The band itself goes for the proverbial “it” at every turn, and Eddie Van Halen hasn’t sounded this alive since OU812. The perennially underrated Alex Van Halen shoots up fireworks all through the album. When it needs groove, he grooves. When it needs to boogie, he boogies; and when it is just plain time to be mean to the kit and destroy, he aims to maim. For a frustrated one-time drum student like myself, it is a joy to listen to him flip the rhythm as he does on the opening of “As Is.”
In the past few years I have had the greasy-faced teen in me built up and torn down, over and over, by old favorites who returned to the stage, each time promising things only partially delivered if at all. Chalk it up to the onset of a midlife crisis, where I want to feel like I did without retreating into the dark recesses of regression. Can’t the bands of my youth just get back out there and make good records again? Is that so hard to do and too much to ask? Apparently not because, while it’s not a perfect record or even a perfect Van Halen record, A Different Kind Of Truth is wonderfully cathartic, full of the pyrotechnics of a younger band, but not in denial of where they stand in the present.
Download A Different Kind Of Truth from Amazon.com.