Album review: Van Halen’s ‘A Different Kind of Truth’
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On “A Different Kind of Truth,” the first studio album from Van Halen to feature original lead singer David Lee Roth since “1984,” the charismatic front man sings about trying to land that “stone cold sister soccer mom” he’s chasing in “Honeybabysweetiedoll.” But hooking up is the least of the challenges facing Diamond Dave and his bandmates in this year of their comeback.
Some of the higher hurdles: Can they pull off this reunion moment without killing each other? Can they convince their fans that bassist/son-of-the-guitarist Wolfgang Van Halen really has earned his place in the band and can lock in with drummer/uncle Alex Van Halen? And, most important to the band’s success, is guitar maestro/dad Eddie Van Halen still able to effortlessly dance his fingers up and down the neck of his instrument in ways that not only support his claim as one of the great rock guitarists but advances his craft in a meaningful way.
And then there’s the challenge of the marketplace: In the 28 years since Roth recorded a full album with Van Halen, the landscape has completely changed. When the band’s original lineup last released a record, home taping was “killing” music and the question was whether to buy “1984” on LP or cassette, or borrow a friend’s copy and tape over Foreigner “4.”
Now the dilemma isn’t just, should you spend money on the CD ($14.99 list price) or a digital copy (also — frustratingly — $14.99). It’s also, how much are you willing to commit to buying in? Will a few dropped bucks on a handful of the best individual tracks suffice? Or will “A Different Kind of Truth” be the perfect Spotify streaming album, not good enough to pay hard money for but worth a mouse-click when you’ve got a spare few minutes? Or should you just ask your computery friend to Sendspace you a pirated copy?
Looking at this record in purely financial terms: It’s got three works, “As Is,” “Outta Space” and “Big River” that would warrant spending real money on. These could have been hits in the alternate universe in which Van Halen followed up “1984,” not with the Sammy Hagar-helmed “5150” but with the original lineup intact. Three others are halfway decent songs that might click at some point (“You and Your Blues,” “Bullethead,” “Blood and Fire”), that you’d be advised to put in your queue for further reflection; a few harmless filler tracks; and three clunkers that the band should be reimbursing us for (“Tattoo,” “Beats Workin’,” “Stay Frosty”).
It’s actually a perfect rock record for the pick-and-choose era: a handful of good songs that you can buy without having to deal with the fat.
“A Different Kind of Truth” is actually not bad; in fact, it’s pretty good, all things considered. Faint praise, sure, but given the quality of the band’s first single from it, “Tattoo,” and the history of aging bands reuniting for another stab at the charts and a cash-in on former glory, one can be forgiven for being skeptical.
A pop metal song that bangs around in the head clumsily, “Tattoo” certainly wasn’t a positive portent, but that half of the record rises to the level of the band’s glory days is a testament to the ingredients that made up Van Halen circa ’84, and “Truth” is a confirmation that this band wasn’t a fluke.
Thirteen high-volume songs created after successful negotiations between the Three Twins LLC (a.k.a. Alex, Eddie and Wolfgang), and you-know-who’s Diamond Dave Enterprises Inc., “A Different Kind of Truth” lives up to its name: This is alternate-reality rock in which a band attempts to time travel into 2012 from 1984, rehearse for a few months and complete enough decent songs to convince fans that a tour ticket will be worth it and that Van Halen is a real deal band making a real deal record despite the inter-band machinations and tour revenue prognostications.
Killer riffs abound. Were Eddie Van Halen stripped of his legend and offered to the masses as a hot new find, he’d still be received as one of the meanest, most thrilling metal guitarists in the genre’s history. Throughout “A Different Kind of Truth,” Eddie maneuvers between massive speed metal sprints and his trademark wailing solo style; the latter flashy guitar runs tend to sound samey over the course of the album, but taken individually, Eddie has seldom sounded better. One listen to his contributions to “Big River” should shut up any doubters.
The other way to look at it is that despite the bangers that successfully revive the Van Halen brand, half of this record features songs that will seldom if ever make it onto a concert set list. It’s these songs that drag the whole thing down and make “A Different Kind of Truth” feel tired, like an awesome old-school Trans Am that can do a wicked burnout from time to time but stalls from misuse.
‘A Different Kind of Truth’
Two-and-a-half stars (out of four)
-- Randall Roberts