Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

cover art

Van Halen

A Different Kind of Truth

(Interscope; US: 7 Feb 2012; UK: 6 Feb 2012)

Just Like Old Times

If Van Halen had never made an album again, the last album to the band’s name would have been the universally derided Van Halen III, which was the band’s second attempt at a new frontman in Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone. The move was a strange one; while the “Van Hagar” period of the band didn’t bring out much great material, it wasn’t entirely terrible. The cause of Hagar’s departure from the band in the mid-‘90s is still somewhat unclear, but suffice to say that his departure derailed the career of one of classic rock’s most beloved bands. After the failure of Van Halen III in 1998, the band went on a five-year hiatus. In the past decade the band got together and toured, but they didn’t take the time to record any new studio material.

That is, until now.

The band has reunited, with original frontman David Lee Roth back in the lineup. Most, myself included, welcome this return. There was something about Roth’s exuberant flamboyance that made Van Halen’s already ostentatious music even better. Hearing classics like “Dance the Night Away” and “Hot for Teacher” with any other frontman just wouldn’t sound right. With A Different Kind of Truth, the band seems to be headed back toward the heyday of classic albums like Van Halen II (still the band’s finest, in my opinion) and 1984. The question now is obvious: is the old Van Halen back?

The answer is yes. But that doesn’t mean that the band’s music is as good as it was.

From beginning to end, A Different Kind of Truth is chock full of the material that made Van Halen such innovators over 30 years ago. Eddie Van Halen, arguably the archetype for classic rock guitar virtuoso, lays down some absolutely killer guitar tracks: the double-hand tapping intro to “China Town” proves that he hasn’t lost his lightning-quick talent as the years have gone on. The rhythm section is also noteworthy. Bass player Wolfgang Van Halen, at only 20, keeps up rather impressively with his older bandmates. And then there’s Roth… from the moment he shouts “Tat-too, Tat-too!” at the beginning of the record, it’s clear that he hasn’t lost any of the over-the-top theatricality that made Van Halen the dominant presence they were when Roth was around. All in all, the stage that is set by Roth’s return puts the band in the position to make a dramatic comeback. And while the music of A Different Kind of Truth is a throwback to the band’s early years, the band doesn’t do much work in terms of making this material sound fresh. For that reason, the record is a fun and nostalgic listen for fans of the band, but on the whole rather unmemorable.

Though the record’s lack of originality is a problem, it’s somewhat nice considering the routes the band could have chosen to take in making this record. They could have decided to merely rehash their old songs with slightly different lyrics and chord progressions. One song is plainly guilty of this: “Stay Frosty” tries to take the same formula that made “Ice Cream Man” so memorable, but instead it just sounds like a louder and faster version of that older song. At one point Roth also talks about “dancing the night away” in “As Is”, but fortunately that’s the extent of the band trying to reformulate old material. Still, while they aren’t trying to create carbon copies of their old hits (cough, Foreigner, cough), they don’t diverge in any unique way on their old sonic. Roth has mentioned that much of the material on this album comes from stuff the band wrote in the ‘70s; this desire to go back to the band’s roots may be good, but there’s also got to be some forward thinking involved, which there isn’t a lot of on this album.

Now make no mistake: live, this music will probably be thrilling. After being out of the band for almost thirty years, it’ll be exciting to see how Roth and the band have managed to stay in the game after all of these years. The music here is enjoyable to listen to, even if it’s a “check-your-brain-at-the-stereo” type of experience. But as an album, A Different Kind of Truth is a case of looking back without taking the time to glance forward. Van Halen are as fast, garish, and cocksure as they’ve ever been, but if the band doesn’t decide to take some different musical directions, they’ll just end up like any other classic rock band pretending that the ‘70s are as alive today as they were then.


Brice Ezell is Assistant Editor at PopMatters, where he also reviews music, film, and books, which he has done since 2011. He also is the creator of PopMatters' Notes on Celluloid column, which covers the world of film music. His writing also appears in Sea of Tranquility and Glide Magazine (formerly Hidden Track). His short story, "Belle de Jour", was published in 67 Press' inaugural publication The Salmagundi: An Anthology. You can follow his attempts at wit on Twitter and Tumblr if you're so inclined. He lives in Chicago.

Related Articles
2 Mar 2015
The attacks of 9/11 may have caused a noticeable shift in the lyrical content of musicians and even sonic changes in the short term, but, in the end, normalcy finds a way to settle in.
28 Aug 2014
(Dedicate one to the ladies...) This week's Counterbalance found the simple life ain't so simple, when it jumped out on the road. We're taking a look at Van Halen's 1978 debut album, which we're told is living at a pace that kills.
21 Aug 2014
Making the big dumb rock gesture isn't always the cool thing to do. But a good musician always knows when it's best to do it anyway.
8 Mar 2012
Everybody wants some, indeed. And even 40 years after they first got together in Pasadena, California, Van Halen can still give it to them.
Now on PopMatters
PM Picks

© 1999-2015 All rights reserved.™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.