A Different Kind of Truth
Metallica continue to wield an impressive, bludgeoning power and Led Zeppelin excelled via an epic swagger, but few bands have conveyed the sheer joy of hard rock music quite so well as classic-period Van Halen. From their stunning, self-titled 1978 debut through to the 1984 single Jump, theirs was an exuberant and poppy kind of metal delivered with a knowing wink.
As with many great hard-rock acts, much of the group's élan emanated from the sparky pairing of a dynamic frontman and a virtuoso guitarist. In David Lee Roth, they had a preening, spandex-clad vaudevillian with an easy wit, and in Eddie Van Halen they had a true wunderkind; the Jimi Hendrix of his generation. When the young, Pasadena-formed band toured with Black Sabbath in 1978, they blew Ozzy Osbourne and company offstage. A changing of the guard was never more obvious.
Fast-forward some three and a half decades, and A Different Kind of Truth marks David Lee Roth's first studio album with Van Halen in 28 years. The singer actually rejoined the band back in 2007 for a series of well-received reunion tours, but tellingly, a new LP featuring Roth has proved trickier to land.
On January 5, a "secret" show at New York City's Cafe Wha? trailered the new work and an attendant US tour, but some close watchers of the band feel "the business as usual" stance is a veneer. Roth and the Van Halens (Eddie and his drummer brother Alex) have had many a feud over the years, and in 2006, the brothers unceremoniously dumped their long-term bassist Michael Anthony in favour of Eddie's 20-year-old son, Wolfie. A Different Kind of Truth is clearly a family affair, then, but is it also the product of a sibling dictatorship?
What's clear is that the album is disappointing. Forgoing the synthesizers that began to expand the band's sound on their sixth album 1984, the new record reverts to a leaner, tougher, wholly guitar-based approach. That might have worked well had Eddie's idea cupboard been brimming with choice new riffs, but as Roth recently confirmed, ADKOT draws heavily on material that he and Eddie first hatched between 1975 and 1977; material that didn't make the cut first time around.
For the most part, you can hear why. Though Tattoo, built on a neat two-note vocal hook, and the succinct, sweetly grooving She's the Woman (reworked from a 1976 demo financed by the Kiss bassist Gene Simmons) get the blood pumping, Honey Baby Sweetie Doll and China Town are forgettable fillers, their frantic arrangements devoid of the winning pop nous that Van Halen has often depended upon. It's a shame, too, that some of Eddie's lead-work sounds overly familiar. Devotees of his pyrotechnics will recognise some of the fireworks.
Young Wolfgang Van Halen (named after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) equips himself well on bass, even trading deft hammer-on licks with his father here and there. The first ever Van Halen album without the original bassist Michael Anthony misses his top-line vocal harmonies, however. "Told ya I was coming back!" quips Roth elsewhere on Blood and Fire, another of the record's more decent tracks. He approaches things with typical vim and vigour, but you can hear the testing spadework that saw these old songs resurrected and dusted down.
Talking to the French radio station Radio Metal recently, Sammy Hagar, the singer who made four albums with Van Halen after Roth's departure, opined that the material he'd heard from ADKOT "makes a strange statement … It kind of says: 'We don't have anything, we're not creative.'" As Roth's arch-rival and another victim of the Van Halen brothers' sackings, you wouldn't expect Hagar to give a glowing review, but to these ears, he has a point.
All that said, I've no doubt that Van Halen's forthcoming live shows will be sensational. It's just a shame that their reunion album falls so far short of their own greatness.
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