With Van Halen now gearing up for another world tour this summer, I think the dust has finally settled enough to go back and take a look back at their 2012 ‘comeback’ record A Different Kind Of Truth. It was the first Van Halen album in thirteen years and the first album with original front man David Lee Roth since 1984. At the time, reviews were generally favorable but now that the new has worn off, how well does it hold up?
I could write a complete novel on the drama that has plagued Van Halen since 1984, but for a quick run down it’s starts with in-band tension, Roth quitting, Sammy Hagar hired, Sammy quitting ten years later to be replaced by Roth for 2 songs, Roth fired, Gary Cherone hired, Gary Cherone parting ways, six years of dead silence, Sammy coming back for a tour, Sammy leaving, founding Michael Anthony being replaced by Eddie’s teenage son Wolfgang, Roth coming back for a tour, few more years of silence, and suddenly out of nowhere a new album and tour announcement. A soap opera rollercoaster to say the least but despite the ever evolving rock n roll scene, Van Halen has always been around. Whether it be ‘will they or wont they’ rumors, Guitar Hero videogames, or simply hearing a classic Roth era tune in a random Hollywood film, they have never really gone away or out of style. It’s no question that Eddie Van Halen reinvented the way electric guitar is played starting way back in 1978 on their scorching hot debut, and David Lee Roth redefined what it is to be a lead singer with his Vaudeville meets 1980s Miami stripclub on stage antics. Van Halen was and still remains America’s ultimate party band. Things got a little more pop flavored during the Hagar years, but for all intents and purposes, Van Halen’s Dave era albums are timeless.
It was definitely a head scratcher when Interscope Records released the lead single and album opener, Tattoo. While being a decent pop song, it lacked any of the appeal that classic Van Halen was known for. Purists will recognize the structure of the song as ‘Glitter’ from the humble night club days (one of many pre-1978 reworked into new material on the album) but now featuring lyrics about soccer moms getting tattoos. Come to think of it, maybe lyrically it was in fact classic Roth but it had been so long since we heard him with the Van Halen brothers, we had to be eased into his make-shift charms? The real album opener is She’s The Woman and probably the most classic sounding track on the entire record. Never in my life have I heard something so new yet sound so classic. Every single second of the song sounds like 1984, no 1978, was yesterday! Running quick in a shade under three minutes, the song reminds us all why we fell in love with Van Halen in the first place.
Next up, the album takes a turn with one of the few new songs that wasn’t from a seventies demo, You and Your Blues. With all the backlash the band had gotten for reworking so many old songs, it makes me wonder if they even bothered to listen to this one. Not only does it feature thought provoking lyrics that pays homage to many guitar heroes of the past, but it sounds as if the band actually progressed in song writing. There is plenty of older songs but this one proves that they can still write worthy music from scratch. Another thing to be said is Wolfgang Van Halen coming into his own on this track. Michael Anthony’s trademark harmonies may be gone but Wolfgang actually has a fantastic albeit, different voice that fits extremely well behind Roth’s aging, whiskey stained vocals. Not to mention being only 22 years old during the making of this album, Wolfgang already surpasses Anthony’s peak moments as a bassist for the band. It’s inevitable that the kid would be a stellar musician, but I don’t even think most Van Halen purists had any idea how the band would sound with actual bass guitar in the mix. Not only is it a welcomed addition, but it begs the question: What was Anthony doing all those years?
My personal favorite song on the record is the closing track Beats Workin’. It features all of the classic dynamics of early Van Halen with all of the technological advances of a modern version of Van Halen. Classic harmonies are there throughout the entire song as well as Alex Van Halen’s best drum performance since Hot For Teacher so many years ago. The best part though is towards the end when the beat breaks down for a gritty distorted bass groove (first one on Van Halen history) followed by a melodic solo reminiscent of Free’s All Right Now.
A Different Kind Of Truth is not without it’s flaws though, musically it’s all there: thunderous drums, out of this world guitar, a new found bass groove, and even Roth’s vocals are on point, despite being really rough during liver performances, but sonically there are a few hiccups in the production. Being we are in the 21st century, digital recording is the industry standard and there are a few times when the slick, multi-million dollar production hinders the performance. Namely Trouble With Never and As Is. Both are killer songs but for some apparent reason there is just a bit too much digital compression across the board. Eddie is world famous for delicious guitar tone, but on these two tracks it sounds like he is plugged into a processor instead of his standard issue 5150 rig. Not a real issue seeing as Eddie Van Halen could make a Walmart brand practice guitar plugged into a broken AM/FM stereo sound like a dream to even the most snobbish of guitar experts.
But to answer the question of ‘How does it hold up?’ the answer? Very well! Maybe even a tad better being that it has a few years behind it. The jarring shock of actually hearing new Van Halen music, with David Lee Roth no less, has revealed that A Different Kind Of Truth is less of a comeback album and more on a continuation of what was forgotten since Roth’s departure. Some people were disappointed that so many demos were reworked into this record but in all fairness, reworking demos has been a long tradition in this band. Most of the timeless hits in their career feature snippets and samples that were previously found on unofficially released songs. The most loved record from the Sammy Hagar era, 5150 features six songs that were originally Roth era demos! All in all, this album isn’t a disposable gimmick, riding on the euphoria of nostalgia, but it’s a legitimate record in the band’s catalog. It’s sad for diehards that Michael Anthony isn’t a part of it, but Wolfgang is more than an adequate replacement that may even be responsible for the band’s new found energy. Rock n Roll will never die and as long as these guys can keep their egos in check, Van Halen will be there to celebrate it. Stay Frosty my friends.