Heavy Lifting: Handling Van Halen’s New Truth

David Lee Roth has often quipped that Van Halen, and liking Van Halen, was never “cool.” Then again, Dave would probably be the first one to tell you that most of what he spouts is bullshit anyway.

I am firmly in the camp that finds The Mighty Van Halen to be very fucking cool. Not sure what that makes me, other than an impressionable young rock music fan seeing them live in 1982, when I was 12 and they were peaking and about to jump to the top of the pop stratosphere a couple years later. I was obviously doomed and blessed to be locked in as Van Halen fan for life.

There’s probably a whole nation of VH fans who’ve been chased into the wilderness once the Van Hagar experience ran it’s course after two decent albums (and two weak ones) and Gary “the guy from Extreme” Cherone fronted a limping shell of the band to make the tree-fell-in-the-woods album III. For about a decade, most of us forgot about the reclusive Eddie Van Halen, former guitar virtuoso battling cancer, alcoholism, and his bands’ failed half-assed greatest hits re-packages and reunion tours with Sammy (in 2004) and Dave (2007-08, a more successful outing).

Amazingly, Eddie beat both cancer and alcoholism. And while Diamond Dave was back in the fold, former bassist Michael Anthony had been replaced by Van Halen’s son Wolfgang. Of course some die-hard fans still cling to this notion that it’s “not the real original Van Halen without Michael Anthony and his signature high harmonies,” and that is true, no disrespect to Michael Anthony, but most of these people are just saying that so you know that they are big Van Halen fans who know the name of the fourth guy and don’t call him Mark Anthony. Fact is, Wolfie Van Halen rocks the bass just fine (and being the bassist for Van Halen is not exactly the Rocket Science assignment among legendary rock bands).

So given that backdrop, my excitement at the news of a new studio album was tempered with understandably low expectations. I was glad they were coming back, but really figured the album would likely suck. I wish I could just tell noted Van Halen fan and author/columnist Chuck Klosterman to stop worrying and love the new album, but I do get what he means when he writes “Going into A Different Kind of Truth, I unconsciously suspected my takeaway would be, This is a bad album, but I love it nonetheless. My actual sentiment is closer to, This is a good album, but I just don’t like it, no matter how much I try.”

My version of the backhanded compliment goes more like this: “I am so shocked that this album isn’t horrible.” But that initial reaction was quickly replaced, as the album legitimately rocks. Hard. One of those rare instances where I love it on first listen and it grows on me and gets better.  Oddly enough the only dud is track one, the lead single “Tattoo,” a bland and forgettable mid-tempo song that feels out of place among the heavy jams that fill the rest of the album.

There are double-time metal workouts like “China Town,” “Outta Space,” and “Bullethead.” Other songs like “Blood and Fire” and “Beats Workin” have that signature “bounce” of their catchiest material from Diver Down, but most of it is as heavy as Fair Warning. “You and Your Blues” is the only one that almost sounds like it could fit in on one of those first two (good) albums they made with Sammy Hagar. But it all sounds like classic Van Halen. Much has been written that this album “isn’t new” or that it’s all just old demos. Yes, about 5-6 songs came from old riffs from their 70’s demos. But Eddie and the guys have been mining that stuff for years. Other tracks from those sessions popped up on Fair Warning and even as late as 1984.

While “Stay Frosty” might have flopped for being such an obvious sequel of sorts to “Ice Cream Man” from the first album, it’s saved by what always saves Van Halen: once it again it fucking rocks! (There’s no Magic Music Blogger words to reach for here, so I’m just letting my early teenage Van-Halen-loving self write this one.)

The album lacks a crazy signature Alex moment on drums, but he is solid and thunderous throughout, with plenty of groove. “As Is” and “Honeybabysweetiedoll” are badass funky songs that anchor the middle at tracks 7 and 8. At one point you hear a dog bark in the background, and that’s always cool.

Not that different.

I’m not really loving the awkward title A Different Kind of Truth, or that Commodores-biting train picture on the cover. (Really guys? One of the greatest logos in rock history to work with and you came up with that?) They should have gone with Blood and Fire, with the classice VH logo both in flames and dripping in blood. (Told you a 14-year-old was writing this).

As for the fire, Eddie sounds as hot, fresh and fluid as ever. The infamous “tone,” the crunchy riffs (whether culled from old demos or new), the furious solos… as you’ve likely read elsewhere, Eddie Van Halen really is back. As for the blood, apparently much of the credit for Eddie’s inspiration and motivation goes to his desire to play with Wolfgang. His mom, actress Valerie Bertinelli, recently told a radio station that there probably wouldn’t be a tour or new album if not for Eddie being able to do this with his son. Pretty cool.

Again, for a guy who’s famously had a third of his tongue remove because of mouth cancer, who’s had a hip replacement, has won a longtime battle to get sober…. and now he’s gonna work with his historic nemesis David Lee Roth on a new album?

Blood and Fire: Wolfgang Van Halen rocking out with dad and Uncle Alex.

Before you say it’s just a money grab, consider this: apparently the band said “No” to David Letterman, Howard Stern, the cover of Rolling Stone, and probably a host of other media offers. Why? In 2012, you’d think an aging reunited band would kill for that type of coverage and exposure. They also took what fans and critics have universally panned as the worst song, “Tattoo,” and made that the advanced single. I don’t understand any of this approach, especially considering how good the album is…

The only drawback to mention, is Mr. Diamond Dave himself. Lyrics never mattered too much in this band, and most of his lines are worthy of boardwalk-shirt or bumper-sticker philosophy. While he generally sounds great (he doesn’t push anything too far or high on the record), there’s this…. creepiness about him that has always been there under his circus act, but now he’s pushing 60. And it seems like 10 out of the 13 songs have some cool musical breakdown with weird Uncle Dave making low-voiced whispered advances on your sister. I know he’s the master of the breakdown, it’s just a little too much on this album.

But the power trio that shares the Van Halen name are consistently tight and flat-out jamming hard enough that it’s easy to ignore Dave’s short comings while still relishing in the fact that Van Halen finally came back and made a great Van Halen album. Did anyone think that would happen? For some reason I kinda doubt that they’ll ever make another studio album.

And that’s cool.