Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth (review)

Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth (Interscope) review

The guys in Van Halen certainly have lots to prove.  Their last full-length, Van Halen 3, was a complete disaster (read the review here), and former lead singer Sammy Hagar had some extremely unflattering things to say about the VH brothers (especially Eddie) in Red, his autobiography (read the book review here).  Add to that, the fact that original singer David Lee Roth hasn’t exactly been lighting up the charts with his solo material, and you can see that the stakes are pretty high.  Not surprisingly, the entire album permeates with a sense of urgency.  This is no veteran band simply going through the motions; this is four guys out to prove everyone wrong.

A Different Kind of Truth, Van Halen’s twelfth album, and their first with original singer David Lee Roth since 1984, is a return to what these guys do best – ferocious rock n’ roll played with meaty drums, a lunatic lead singer, and the best guitarist on the planet.   The four albums the band cut with Hagar relied more on melody, with lots of keyboards de-emphasizing Eddie’s flashy soloing.  None of the songs on this new record contain synthesizer solos, and Eddie is back with a vengeance – lots of his signature two-hand tapping throughout.  It’s as if every single solo might be his last.

The album opens with the goofy, but catchy “Tattoo,” including some clever lyrics like “Why is the crazy stuff we never say / poetry in ink?”  To help rekindle the magic, the band dug deep into the archives, grabbing unfinished songs and demos, some that date back to even before they were signed (1976).  “She’s the Woman” is one such track – featuring a killer, vintage Van Halen repetitive guitar line, ascending bass, and a dark chord progression.  This would’ve been a far better choice for first single.  Another standout is the moody “You and Your Blues” – Dave certainly sounds better when he’s singing (or talking) in the lower register.  Nice background vocals, but you miss founding bassist Michael Anthony (who’s been replaced by Eddie’s young son, Wolfgang).

Of course, everyone wants to know how Roth sounds, and the answer is a mixed bag at best.  There are times when he sounds like classic Diamond Dave, as in the Panama-esque “Blood and Fire.”  But, other times, he’s trying to reach a higher register, and there’s not a whole lot left up there (made most apparent in “Outta Space,” another re-tooled 1976 demo).  A great deal of the album is played at a breakneck pace, with varying results: “Chinatown” sounds meaty, while “Bullethead” makes them sound old.

Not surprising, a lot of the album echoes songs of the past – “As Is” is alarmingly close to “Hot For Teacher,” while “Big River” thumps like “Runnin’ With the Devil,” and “Stay Frosty” is an obvious “Ice Cream Man” clone, complete with acoustic guitar picking, but these all work because they’re played with a wink and a nod that let you know that you’re in on the joke.

Is it a stone-cold classic?  Not really.  But, neither is Diver Down (listen to that one all the way through and tell me it’s all brilliant).  What A Different Kind of Truth is, is a spotlight for Eddie Van Halen to show off his still jaw-dropping guitar abilities.  Anyone who’s ever two-hand tapped on the fretboard will find lots to love.  If you’re a Roth-era VH fan, there’s certainly enough good stuff here to warrant grabbing the entire album.  Pleasantly surprised.   –Tony Peters