Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth simply should not exist in the 21st century. Their insane stage shows, causally misogynistic lyrics and breakneck fretwork belong to a bygone era of smoke machines and carnal abandon. After all, how can a band as unhinged as Van Halen possible thrive in a world of orchestrated outrage where an artist is vilified for daring to flip the bird for less than half-a-second during the Superbowl half time show?
Truth be told, Van Halen never fitted in. Eddie and David Lee Roth were ardent modernists from the word go. Their eponymous 1978 debut was vitally important because it had no inhibitions. Van Halen were determined to be themselves: to be sleazy, to be shameless, to be overtly sexual, and to create a true expression of self. Van Halen did what came naturally, it wasn’t pretty, and it certainly wasn’t nice.
Eddie tore the guitar to shreds with two handed tapping, tremolo picking and implausible harmonics while David Lee Roth was his bizarre irrepressible self. Together they sent jaws crashing to the floor across the United States inspiring 12 years of chart topping imitators in the process.
After 2004’s relatively disastrous return with latter-day frontman Sammy Hagar, David Lee Roth is back alongside Eddie and Alex Van Halen (and Eddie’s son Wolfgang who has taken Mark Antony’s place on bass) for new album A Different Kind Of Truth; and I’m happy to report, Van Halen are still doing what they do best: just being themselves.
A Different Kind Of Truth may not be as wild as the Van Halen of old but it feels free from the burden of expectation. They haven’t tried to reinvent the wheel, but they haven’t attempted recreate 1984 or Van Halen either. Instead they’ve created a collection of 13 frantic tracks that feel utterly effortless and entirely natural.
There’s almost a wonderful sense of anti-climax when album opener “Tattoo” comes flying out of the traps. It doesn’t try to say anything, no statement is made, they simply shrug their shoulders and launch into a chugging riff and a snappy chorus. The message reads loud and clear: first album since 1984 with David Lee Roth? No big deal.
When A Different Kind Of Truth is firing on all cylinders Van Halen prove irresistible. A wonderful sense of downhill momentum emerges when Eddie, Alex and Wolfgang lock in on the suitably volatile rumbling rhythm of “China Town”. Destined to become a live favourite, Lee Roth mixes a smooth understated melody of the chorus with the frenzied rush of the verse. Eddie for his part remains contained across both “China Town” and A Different Kind Of Truth. He unleashes some gorgeously intricate harmonics and sliding solos while showing remarkable restraint. A series of stunning crescendos are created without sacrificing structure or bogging down the album’s break neck pace.
Sadly while Roth is careful not to expose his now fragile vocal he struggles to supply the gargantuan hooks to match Eddie and Alex’s virtuoso playing. Eddie is ultimately forced to salvage middling efforts like “Outta Space” and “Big River” with timely solos. Sadly, for every hook driven “China Town” or “You And Your Blues” there are frustratingly indistinct efforts like the Maiden aping “Bullethead” or the not-half-as-fun-as-it-should-be “Beat’s Workin’”.
Instead, A Different Kind Of Truth thrives on the aura of Van Halen; the unmistakable rush of sitting back and watching a gifted band, with charisma to burn, in full flow. There’s a certain joy to Van Halen’s playing that elevates even the most unimaginative creation, making an exhilarating but insubstantial cut like “As If” impossible to deny. The band may struggle to stretch their charm across an unnecessarily long 50 minutes, but A Different Kind Of Truth still goes to show, whether it’s 2011 or 1978, sometimes the best results are achieved by switching off your brain, being yourself, and just letting rip.
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