Well, well, well. A month ago, I was highly skeptical of Van Halen's new album based on the underwhelming "Tattoo" single. Now comes the rest of A Different Kind Of Truth, their first album with original vocalist David Lee Roth in 28 years, and it leaves me wondering if Van Halen haven't perpetrated the most dementedly genius, reverse psychology-thinking marketing strategy in music history by first purposely lowering fans' expectations drastically, only to knock them on their collective asses with an absolute monster of an album. Warning: this review may contain even more gushing than was used in my review of the latest Foo Fighters album.
Much has been made of the fact that Van Halen went back and "retooled" all of the songs on this album from material written in the 70s, a number of which appeared on the band's first professional demo recording produced by KISS' Gene Simmons (known in bootleg circles as the Zero album). This news initially made me raise an eyebrow and lose some respect for the band, as it seemed such a maneuver disappointingly indicated they were now creatively barren. After hearing the album, however, it now strikes me as a bold move from the group in an effort to recapture their classic sound, based on strong previously unreleased material. A Different Kind Of Truth feels like it was unearthed from a time capsule buried in the early 80s when Van Halen were in their prime, only the album sounds sonically superior than the technology allowed back then (it was produced by the band and John Shanks), delivering a colourful and decadent blast of fresh air to today's stodgy, bleak rock landscape. And although I was quite surprised to read it, I was impressed with Roth's honesty in admitting that the band long ago passed their creative peak, in terms of songwriting skills (read his interesting interviews with the L.A. Times here and with The Guardian here).
"Tattoo" is the album's lead track and although it's improved moderately after a few more listens, it's still easily A Different Kind Of Truth's weakest song, begging the question of what in the world Van Halen was thinking by designating it as the public's introduction to their big comeback album. The only other one of the album's 13 tracks that failed to really connect with me on the same level as the rest of the songs was "Stay Frosty", but even it's pretty decent. It acts as essentially a sequel to the band's classic "Ice Cream Man", emulating that song's bluesy acoustic guitar intro followed by a full band juke joint boogie (there's a lot of boogieing on this album, by the way).
To use a baseball metaphor, aside from those two tracks, the band steps up to the plate and belts one extra base hit after another, with most of them leaning toward the triple and home run side. "She's The Woman" harkens back to Fair Warning's "Mean Street" with its funky swing; in fact, the Zero version of "She's The Woman" includes the same mid-song breakdown the band later used on "Mean Street". Aside from a killer riff from guitarist Eddie Van Halen and some classic yelping Roth vocals, one of the aspects of the song that really grabbed me was drummer Alex Van Halen's high hat sound. Now, drum cymbal sounds might not be something that qualify as "sexy" to discuss in a review, but I was amazed at how bright and prominent in the mix they were, standing out even more because of the funky, crisp beat that Alex is laying down. "You And Your Blues" features one of the strongest song choruses on the album, combining some great background vocals with Roth lyrically referencing some Stones and Zeppelin song titles, and pushing his voice to the limit. "Blood And Fire" has a similar poppy mentality (it reminded me of Women And Children First's "Yours In A Simple Rhyme") and is rendered even more interesting because of some of the inspired creative choices by the band, such as the off-kilter rhythm pattern Alex briefly uses, as well as Roth's familiar "Now look at all of the people here tonight" line sung almost as a throwaway between the chorus and verse sections. At the other end of the spectrum are the album's heaviest songs: "China Town" begins with a short outer space guitar instrumental from Eddie that turns into a piledriving "Hot For Teacher"-style hard rock shuffle, the two-and-a-half minute "Bullet Head" shines in all areas except for a somewhat weak chorus, and the schizophrenic "As Is" feels like three songs in one. Its massive sounding tribal drum and heavy guitar intro took me back to the opening of "Everybody Wants Some!" from Women And Children First, before moving on to the toe tappin' main part of the song, with a stop for a brief bluesy mid-song breakdown along the way. Also adhering to the uptempo song style that dominates the album are "Honeybabysweetiedoll" (featuring one of Eddie's best solos on an album loaded with spectacular guitar pyrotechnics), the wah wah pedal-drenched "The Trouble With Never", and "Outta Space", known as "Let's Get Rockin'" on Zero and one of the best tracks here. The final two songs on the album are "Big River" (formerly "Big Trouble"), with a noticeable element of the fat, single note bass line from their debut album's "Runnin' With The Devil", and "Beats Workin'" (formerly "Put Out The Lights"), which features a simple main guitar riff that sounds like it could only have been conceived in the 70s. The riff is reminiscent of something Aerosmith or KISS might have also concocted circa 1975, but Eddie puts his stamp on it with his signature noodles and dive bomb effects.
It's a measure of how outstanding this album is that I still found myself seriously excited to go out and buy the CD (yes, I still buy those), even though I'd listened to the album about eight or nine times already since it leaked online last Thursday. A Different Kind Of Truth is the sound of a band determinedly returning to remind starved fans of why the early output in their career established them as one of the greatest American rock bands ever. The musicianship on all fronts is impeccably impressive; one of the best playing aspects relating specifically to the Van Halen brothers is how they both fill the space of a song with so many unique and tasteful choices. Eschewing the conventions of most musicians, it's those interesting changes and additional flourishes from verse to verse and chorus to chorus they make that really keep things interesting. "Muscular" is the best word I can think of to describe Eddie's playing - he hasn't sounded this engaged and downright hungry in decades now, making this album a guitar junkie's wet dream. Working in tandem with his uncle Alex's bombastic drumming is a surprisingly mature and first-class bass performance from Wolfgang Van Halen, who I assume is doing the playing and not his father (Eddie). Original bassist Michael Anthony is still missed, but Wolfie is more than up to the task. Then there's Roth, the project's wild card. I wondered if he, at age 56, would be able to recapture that legendary Diamond Dave swagger on record, and damned if he doesn't pick up where he left off on the 1984 album. There's plenty of lascivious slick talking in his guttural lowest voice, shrieks, yelps, tongue-tying wordplay, and other vocal shenanigans to be found here. Roth pulls it all off...including, you know, the actual singing parts.
You can rip the band for using refurbished decades-old material to prop them up, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is that Van Halen have produced a stellar album that emphatically continues the second "Roth era" while doing justice to the first. Other than Anthony's absence, frankly, I don't think a fan of the group could have expected a Van Halen-with-Roth reunion album to deliver anything much more satisfying than A Different Kind Of Truth.