Written Feb. 9, 2012…
Return of the Atomic Punks
“Heard ya missed us – we’re baaaack!”
It’s been 28 long years since the day I went out and bought the 1984 album – a day I still remember vividly. I recall, as a 14-year old Van Halen fanatic, the excitement I felt the second I held the album in my hands on that cold January morning, staring intently at every inch of the cover and inner sleeve, as if looking for some untold Secret of the Universe. Little did I, or any Van Halen fan, know that it would take all the way until 2012 for David Lee Roth and Van Halen to make a “follow-up” to it. But the day that no fan ever thought would happen has finally arrived. Hell must have, indeed, frozen over. If so, then let’s hope the thaw never arrives because Van Halen has just pulled off a miracle for the ages – against all the odds.
As we all know, a lot of blood and words have been spilled over the past couple of decades, coming from all parties involved. Theirs is a sordid history – Dave leaving, Sammy Hagar taking over, Hagar leaving, Dave almost coming back, Gary Cherone, hip replacements, substance abuse problems, failed comebacks, Michael Anthony being unceremoniously dumped, and then, finally, just silence – a long, deafening silence. Was this band, which had started to look like a running joke with all the constant turmoil and bickering and personnel changes, finally finished for good? Eddie, who was always mentioning how he had tons of material in his vaults, just seemed to be fading away into a permanent, burned-out retirement, while Dave’s star had long faded. The only members who seemed to be thriving were Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony, who, along with Joe Satriani, formed the supergroup Chickenfoot and were beating Van Halen at their own game – not to mention tending to their successful tequila and hot sauce business ventures.
As far as Dave and Eddie were concerned, though, most of us were skeptical whether they could actually bury the hatchet and work together again in any kind of meaningful way. They went out on a successful tour and seemed to enjoy playing together, but could they cut it in the studio or had they grown too far apart, musically and personally, over the years, to ever find common ground again? We all feared that they would just sound like over-the-hill has-beens trying to compete in a musical world that had long passed them by. After all these years, could they really capture lightning in a bottle a second time around? Well, I’m as happy as any fan to report that the verdict is in and the results are amazing and well worth the wait. For the first time in many years, they have a future instead of just a past. What could have turned out to be an embarrassing failure is, instead, a total triumph from start to finish. A Different Kind of Truth is the sound of a band resurrected from the grave and ready to take over the world once more. They may never again be the young, longhaired rock gods that ruled the earth once upon a time, and, yes, they are now in their late-50s, but you certainly wouldn’t know it from their latest comeback. And they are, indeed, back!
This album is primal, with a “take no prisoners” attitude. It’s the aural equivalent of a gang fight. It could be, in fact, the heaviest they have ever put out – at least since their classic first album – and it begs you to blast it at top volume while speeding down the highway. The band has mostly eschewed pop catchiness in favor of speed and unbridled energy. Eddie tears up his guitar like a mofo, playing with a flash, command and speed that he hasn’t shown in decades, proving once again why he was, and still is, considered the guitarist of his generation. The man is just beyond. It’s like he’s been locked away for the past several years and someone just let him loose. He shows off every trick that he has in his musical arsenal and sprinkles his brilliance all over Truth.
Alex also sounds unleashed, playing at much faster tempos and with more brutal intensity than he has since the early days, regularly working the double-kick drum and sounding at times like he is auditioning for a speed metal band. He’s the god of thunder driving these songs into the stratosphere. Eddie and Alex play like men half their age. I’m not sure if it’s Dave’s being back in the band or if it’s the influence of young Wolfgang on bass, but the energy and intensity never lets up. And Dave sounds hungry and ferocious – perhaps not as flamboyant as in the past, but with all his charisma intact – and with little of the Vegas-style shtick that he has sometimes shown over the years. He sounds like a man who has been waiting many years to make his grand return to the mountaintop, and he damn well makes the most of this second chance.
This album also shows Wolfgang coming into his own and silencing all the detractors that said he was only there because he’s Eddie’s son, as well as the fans who were angry because of Michael Anthony not being invited to participate in the reunion. From the recorded results of this album, though, you get the impression that Eddie must have told his son, “I want you to contribute ideas to this band as much as any of us and prove to me that you truly belong here.” And the kid does – in spades. He totally nails the opening bass riff to “She’s the Woman” (originally performed, of course, by Mike), and for that alone, he belongs in this band. He doesn’t stop there though. At every turn he impresses and proves just who’s son he truly is. As much as Mike will always be loved and missed by the fans, Wolfgang has earned his stripes.
This is a band with something to prove. You can hear them wanting to silence every critic, every skeptical fan, past band members and maybe even themselves, as well as each other – as if they are taking all the aggression and insults they traded over the years and channeling it into the music – with absolutely mind-blowing results.
Most of these songs don’t catch you instantly the way “Jump,” “Dance the Night Away” or “Panama” did back in their day, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t eventually work their way into your brain. Case in point: first single “Tattoo,” which despite the constant criticism fans and critics have been surprisingly heaping on it, is actually a very strong single. It is one of those songs that grows with each new listen, and has great lyrics and memorable singing and playing from Dave and Eddie. Perhaps everyone was just approaching it with unreasonable demands considering how long we have all waited for this reunion to take place. I admit that I wasn’t knocked out the first time I heard it, but I now think it’s a great single and the perfect way to begin the album.
“She’s the Woman,” “Big River” (originally entitled “Big Trouble”) and “Outta Space” (originally “Let’s Get Rockin’”) are from the 1976 Zero demos that Gene Simmons produced in order to get VH their recording contract with Warner Bros. The demo also contained future classics like “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “House of Pain” and “Atomic Punk.” How these three songs never made it onto an album until now is amazing. These are songs that would have fit in well on the first three albums. Detractors might say that VH is resurrecting these old songs (as well as “Tattoo,” which is based on another early song called “Down in Flames”) simply because they can’t come up with enough new material. I believe, though, that they are using them as simply a way to reconnect with their early roots and bring this whole reunion full circle. It’s almost like they had to retrace their steps in order to move ahead into the future. Most of all, though, they are just damn good songs. They are probably the catchiest ones on the album and certainly fit in seamlessly with the newer material. Van Halen certainly do the songs justice, capturing the spirit and sound of the original demos – even going beyond all expectations, with the only notable difference being Dave’s deeper voice. Anyhow, VH has many times resurrected old material or recycled parts of songs (for example, the bridge in the original demo of “She’s the Woman” was later used for “Mean Streets”), so who cares if they are still raiding their early material? With songs this strong, they’d be crazy not to use them. “She’s the Woman” is probably the best song on the album and might have made an even stronger first single than “Tattoo.” It’s definitely everything that you ever loved about this band. It’s Van Halen hot-wired and bad-ass, and sounding as tight as ever. The same can also be said for “Big River.” This is simply classic old school hard rock. In fact, the most exciting moment on the album might just be the beginning of “She’s the Woman.” Eddie and Wolfgang open with a monstrous bass and guitar riff before Alex’s drums detonate and the band is off and running. By the time Dave starts singing the verses you know you’re in the middle of VH-style nirvana.
Another highlight of the album is “You and Your Blues,” which actually sounds like a bridge between the Roth and Hagar versions of VH. There are moments of the song that you could picture Sammy singing, but then other sections that only Dave could sing.
It also shows just how much Van Halen was the “same yet different” with Sammy at the helm. They both make great lead singers of this band, but Dave just has that little bit of extra charisma that makes him the ultimate frontman for Van Halen. This album reaffirms that, and makes you realize what had been missing all these years. That’s no knock on Sammy either (I thought the “Van Hagar” years had their own uniquely great moments), but this is simply the band we first fell in love with – old school Van Halen. Another thing I noticed is how the tempos have mostly speeded up again. They rarely played with this much intensity and at such rapid-fire tempos when Sammy was in the band.
The melodic and memorable “Blood and Fire” is a self-referential number that has Dave stating matter-of-factly, “I told ya I was coming back.” It is based on an instrumental idea of Eddie’s called “Ripley.” “Bullethead,” another old number, is a surprise, which shows a Black Flag influence on the chorus, amazingly enough, and “As Is” also shows off a bit of a punkish attack with Dave barking out the chorus like an army sergeant. The song moves through some complex chord changes and then breaks down into an acoustic section, before returning to the main riff. Eddie outdoes himself here.
“China Town” begins with Eddie showing off some of his amazing tapping technique before the song takes flight. It also features great, passionate singing by Dave and a blistering solo from Ed, and is another highlight of the album. “Honeybabysweetiedoll” begins with a more modern, experimental vibe before Eddie takes off once again, burning up the fretboard, as he also does on “The Trouble with Never.” Then Dave shows off his playful side on the beginning of “Stay Frosty” (is that him on acoustic guitar?) before the whole band kicks in for another high energy number.
The album finishes on a high note with “Big River” and “Beats Workin’” (yet another early demo, originally called “Put Out the Lights”) and the last thing we hear, appropriately enough, is the sound of Eddie’s guitar trailing off into a cloud of feedback.
And there you have it. An album as amazing as any VH fan could have prayed for, with great performances and production – this definitely holds its own with the original six classic albums. Yes, it would have been nice if Michael Anthony could have been part of this reunion (his backing vocals are missed in places, though Wolfgang fills in admirably). It’s too bad that both he and Wolfgang couldn’t be involved somehow, but he seems happier playing with Sammy in Chickenfoot, so this story seems to have found an unlikely happy ending all the way around.
Nobody thought this reunion could possibly last due to all the failed attempts in the past and the years of acrimony between Dave and Eddie, plus the fact that Dave is now outnumbered 3-1 by Van Halen family members. They seem to be thriving though, and on A Different Kind of Truth they exceed all fans’ expectations – and then some. It just proves that sometimes you really can go back home.
Let’s hope that there will be more albums in the future from Dave, Eddie, Alex and Wolfie, but even if this was the last thing they ever recorded together, it would be the perfect bang to go out with.
In the meantime, though, welcome back guys – you’ve been missed.