Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth (2012)

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Van Halen was one of the smartest, funniest, toughest bands around at the turn of the 1980s. Three decades later, the greatest fear surrounding a reunion was whether they could recreate any piece of that. And they did, all of it.

That they did so by returning to previously unissued scraps of songs from those glory days has been the subject of furious debate in the run up to the Feb. 7 release of A Different Kind of Truth, Van Halen’s first full-length project with David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen and Alex Van Halen since 1984. (Eddie’s son Wolfgang Van Halen has taken over for the departed original bassist, Michael Anthony.)

Listening, I kept thinking: What’s all the fuss about? Is there a more fertile period for this band than the late 1970s? And wasn’t that the sound fans wanted rekindled for this project? Further, and this seems the most germane thing of all, it’s nothing new for Van Halen: 1979’s Van Halen II included tracks that had been developed from demos recorded in 1976 by Kiss’ Gene Simmons and in 1977 by Ted Templeman, including “Beautiful Girls.” Similarly, “Hang ‘Em High” from 1982’s Diver Down was an update of “Last Night,” also found on those ’77 demos. “House of Pain,” from Van Halen’s most recent album with Roth 1984, traces its history back to initial sessions with Simmons, as well.

So, enough with the frowny face-emoticoned indignation. Stealing from themselves is old hat for Van Halen.

[SOMETHING ELSE! SNEAK PEEK: Stream two new songs from Van Halen’s upcoming reunion project with David Lee Roth, “Blood and Fire” and “The Trouble With Never.”]

Whatever the impetus here, tracks like “China Town” and “The Trouble With Never” end up representing their own high points for the group, even at this late date. There, and elsewhere, you find new licks and new sounds, and a darker complexity, but also a break-neck attitude — familiar on records like 1981’s Fair Warning — that you worried was beyond Van Halen at this point.

It’s interesting that A Different Kind of Truth doesn’t always go for the easy hook (again recalling Fair Warning), something that may surprise late-arriving fans of keyboard-driven pop successes like “Jump” (and certainly the subsequent period with Roth’s successor, Sammy Hagar). For instance, “Honeybabysweetiedoll,” with a title right out of a darkened saloon’s last-call come on, crunches and heaves like a old muscle car running a couple of quarts low on oil. Meanwhile, any questions about Wolfgang’s ability to keep up with dear old dad are answered during “China Town,” as the two dash through a swirling, pacemaker-smashing interlude.

Some of the material requires more than one listen to completely absorb, and Anthony’s cloud-bursting tenor is missed at times. But A Different Kind of Truth has a way of burrowing in.

That’s largely thanks to the presence of Roth, of course. He’s always good for spandex-splitting laugh or two. And, so you have “Tattoo,” which boasts all of the deviant allure that a great single from this band simply must possess. “Never” may be the best track here, with its Hendrix-inspired flame-kissed guitar signature, a classic crotch-grab Roth vocal (“when you turn on your stereo, does it return the favor?”) and this stunningly deep groove led by Alex Van Halen. Later, “Blood and Fire” finds Roth howling with a robust vigor, as Eddie returns to the pop-metal vibe that propelled “Dance the Night Away.” Roth then positively skips through the scalding “Beats Workin,'” sounding like a man who simply couldn’t be happier to be back amongst friends. They even downshift for “Stay Frosty,” which fills the old acoustic-ditty-turned-peacock-rock slot that’s earlier been occupied by the likes of “Ice Cream Man” and “Little Guitars.”

Better than expected, Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth is a return to form in the most complete sense of the word. They sound — and, given the history of these tracks, that’s no surprise — like their old selves again. To complain about any of it seems to misunderstand not just the history of Van Halen, but also how much ass-shaking, riff-taking fun this record ultimately turns out to be.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • Justin Marsh

    I agree with you.

    After hearing the band’s first single, “Tattoo,” I was expecting the album to be of comparable quality to recent releases by classic bands,e.g. The Rolling Stones’ “A Bigger Bang;” or McCartney’s “Memory Almost Full;” or, at best, AC/DC’s “Black Ice.”

    Frankly, I’ve never heard a classic rock comeback album sound this inspired. 5 / 5 stars.

  • Hypoxic

    That’s all a pretty fair assessment. This album surprised me with its wit, complexity, and sheer sound. It’s the first no nonsense rock album in a very long time.

  • Frank Martin

    Give people what they want and they still complain or they did in other reviews. Some wanted new songs that weren’t songs recreated from demos, some didn’t like DLR vocals. All of these songs are new to me because I never had a copy of VH demos from the 1970s and I’ve heard most of those of demo songs recently and most of them were of low quality. I’d like to hear a few more albums with demos reworked. People wanted Dave and they got Dave, people wanted new songs and they got new songs, people wanted a new album and they got a new album and they’re still not happy. People complain about Tattoo which I do like but VHII and Diver Down both started with lame covers and 1984 starts with a short intro / Jump and Jump went straight into Panama so really there is no difference here. VH delivered. If you look at the copies sold of ADKOT in the USA then why should EVH be that psyched about releasing new material? It didn’t even go platinum. It hasn’t sold that much better than VHIII which tells me that maybe having DLR in the band wasn’t that big a deal after all.

    • Perplexio

      “If you look at the copies sold of ADKOT in the USA then why should EVH be that psyched about releasing new material? It didn’t even go platinum. It hasn’t sold that much better than VHIII which tells me that maybe having DLR in the band wasn’t that big a deal after all.”

      I’m not a Van Halen fan, I am a casual listener at best. But even I think this is a rather unfair assessment. It’s not really fair to compare the sales of VHIII to the sales of A Different Kind of Truth. The whole business model of the music industry is completely different today from what it was in 1998 when III was released. I don’t think ANY Classic Rock band releasing an album in 2012 or 2013 would see the same level of sales as they would have in the late 90s regardless of the quality of material.

  • JC Mosquito

    “Black Ice” and “Bigger Bang” are just two of the many releases that seems to be coming from old rock bands from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s (or should I say 60, 70 and 80 year olds?). Like “A Different Kind if Truth,” or the new Bowie release, it seems like some old fans can’t wrap their heads around the fact that many of these albums currently released by old timers are actually pretty decent. Like – is decent just not good enough anymore? Will Metallica never make another Master of Puppets? Will Deep Purple ever make another Machine Head? Well, they made those years ago – all of those old bands helped push “hard rock” or “metal” or whatever you wanna call it closer towards the mainstream.

  • Fred Phillips

    I can’t speak to the Stones as I’m only a casual fan, but the problem with AC/DC is that pretty much all of their albums from the Brian Johnson era sound alike. Black Ice wasn’t really that interesting, but then, most of their stuff since Back in Black hasn’t been to me. It’s not bad, I just kind of drift off when I’m listening to it because there’s nothing exciting. They hit on a song here and there, and the rest of the album is kind of white noise to my ears.

    Master of Puppets, I think, is a bit overrated. It’s a fantastic album, but I don’t think it’s the be-all, end-all of 1980s thrash, or even Metallica for that matter. I listen to Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning a good bit more.

    But I agree. It’s kind of a Catch-22 for those bands. If they release something that’s different, fans will say, “man I wish they’d make another album like XXXX.” If they try to make another album like that (which they can’t because it’s a different time and they’re different people now), they’ll catch hell for being a retread.

    And I listened to Van Halen, Metallica and AC/DC those many years ago, and I’m not even close to 60 yet. 😉

  • JC Mosquito

    Yeah, ACDC’s Highway to Hell and Back in Black – their twin peaks of greatness – everything else almost sounds like just a collection of songs as opposed to an album. And I’d pick Kill ‘Em All over Puppets 2 falls out of 3, but I’m told by the powers that be is the Holy Grail of their catalog.

    Some of the later Deep Purple stuff is quite decent – Steve Morse is no Blackmore – but Blackmore is no Steve Morse either. I think they have a new album coming out pretty quick (if it isn’t out already).

    Besides Bowie and Val Halen, there are lots of other artists that have released albums of new material within the last couple of years, but most people have no idea that material is even out there.

    What I do like to see is when reunion bands actually sound as good if not better than they did 20 years ago. One example is early 80s power popsters the dBs, who recently got back together and released a new album that’s very good. And Patti Smith – I’d like to know what’s up with that, but I think she’s even a better singer in her 60s than she was when she started singing nearly 40 years ago – her last album, Banga, is great.

    Since we were originally talking hard rock bands – what’s with that Anthrax EP of covers that came our a few months back? I’m not a big fan, but I thought they were more speed / thrash than that. I wouldn’t have thought Boston’s debut album would have been in their backgrounds anywhere. Well, it’s no different than Metallica covering Bob Seger I guess.

  • Fred Phillips

    I reviewed that Anthrax a couple days back. It’s actually better than I expected, though the song choices are very strange. The Rush cover is an absolute mess, but oddly the songs from some of the lighter bands are the better ones. It’s basically hard rock karaoke, though. They play the songs pretty straight.

    Metallica’s Bob Seger cover … *shudder* And I love the original.

  • Frank Martin

    So you think that the year has anything to do with sales?

    The Beatles haven’t been a band for decades, the music company releases “1” in 2000, 30 years after the band split and it sells 31 million worldwide.

    Metallica sells 5 million copies of their latest cd in 2008.

    Remember the 1980s when there was a changing of the musical guards and in 1991 grunge and alternative music appeared and suddenly a million hairbands got pushed aside in favor of this new style? You didn’t have free internet file sharing but you had lps, cassettes and cds you could buy and all the latest hair band records were released along with the alternative / gringe records. The music industry didn’t tell us what to buy but hair band sales began to decline and why did this happen? Could it be the fans weren’t buying the records?

    It’s all about the fan base and VH’s fans are going to concerts but aren’t buying the albums. Every VH album before VHIII sold 2 million copies or better. DLR is back in the band and it doesn’t even go platinum. The fans got older, they go to the concerts and they want to hear the classics but they aren’t buying the records. It’s the people that buy the records not the year it’s released. The current crop of teens didn’t grow up on VH and they don’t care about them so you don’t have them buying the records. VH has to rely on the VH fan base for sales and that didn’t happen with the last two records.

    Whether you have DLR in the band or not it hasn’t helped with sales. EVH looks at the dismal sales and doesn’t see there being a reason to rush out and record new tunes if there aren’t enough sales.

    A big problem isn’t the year but that there are so many ways to hear music without buying it so everybody tunes in to Youtube and checks out the latest disc from VH and copies directly it from the internet. Before the net people had to go out and buy the disc. Maybe the VH fans are out there but the other 1.5 million+ fans ripped off the band by getting a free copy.

    I am betting that if you could check the other so called VH fans that didn’t buy a cd that there is a ripped cd of the latest VH cd at their house or in the car.