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.
// Notes from the Road
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