2012 / Music

Review: Van Halen’s Comeback Album Returns With Roth, Stock Sounds

Classic-Rock Stars Return With New Album, Old Singer

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Photo: Interscope Records

Like the old gunfighter resisting the urge to pack it in, guitarist Eddie Van Halen views rock ‘n’ roll retirement as an end worth forestalling for another day. The master axe-slinger has shown during the past three decades that he’s willing to suffer through any indignity to keep away from that rocking chair — even it seems an unholy reunion with onetime foe, singer David Lee Roth.

And so, after pushing through years plagued by lineup changes, cancer, substance abuse, divorce, assorted surgeries and dogged reunion jibes, Van Halen and his namesake band finally have a brand-new album, “A Different Kind Of Truth,” meant to bring a jolt of vitality (and a mark of respect) for what has become something like a reality-show-meets-oldies act. Record in hand, however, the hardships would all seem a little more worth it if only this was 1984, not 2012.

“The future ain’t what it used to be,” Roth sings at one point on the disc, and besides proving oddly prophetic, offers the audience an unvarnished assessment of the product that he’s slickly selling.

Surely, Van Halen (and his drum-playing brother Alex) know the score. With the first rudimentary strums that opened Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991, Van Halen saw its place in the pop-music hierarchy tumble from heavy metal gods of the arena to nostalgia-filled, dysfunctional sideshow. For all of his fast-fingered guitar attack, there was little Eddie could do to reclaim popular taste.

As a result, Van Halen sputtered along. They traded out singers at least three times, toured sporadically and most alarming of all, released only two albums of original material in the last 21 years. Van Halen as a band was lost in the wilderness. While Eddie battled his demons, it became a rock-music guessing game whether it would be the tequila-hawking Sammy Hagar or the clownish Roth who he’d eventually turn to front his band. In 2007, the band decided to cast its lot in with Roth and the reunion has stuck ever since.

“A Different Kind Of Truth,” therefore, is mostly conceived as an artifact for the Roth reunion tour. This is a batch of songs designed to leap from a 50-foot stage and pummel eardrums and arena concrete alike. Most are high-volume guitar grooves featuring blimp-sized vocal hooks and plenty of cymbal abuse. But for all its aggressiveness and muscular sound, the songs are paper tigers. None of this material burns with the original fire of the old days, nor does it amaze us with the kind of technical dazzle that long ago spawned a legion of fingertapping guitar players. This record recycles and reincorporates plenty of stock Van Halen sounds, but these aren’t the kind of songs that can vault the band back into the rarified air of the rock A-list.

On the surface, a “new” Van Halen record often sounds like an anachronism in 2012. Even loyal fans would be left to wonder how a band that personified ’70s and ’80s wild abandon and excess — arguably giving birth to the Los Angeles-based hair-metal-era — could rouse its aged audience much less woo its kids who have been brutalized for years by the Great Recession. Van Halen is counting on Roth’s escapist fantasies of trite love songs about bimbos and potent quotables as the right mix.

But in reality-show fashion, it’s really the prospect of witnessing interpersonal fireworks that make “A Different Kind Of Truth” a temptation to listen. The chance of hearing 13 songs in which fans can take in the full-fledged return of Roth as the band’s face and salesman for the Van Halen brand is tantalizing for the drama-filled buildup to a rapprochement between the Van Halen brothers and Roth. (The record is also the first studio release to feature Eddie’s son Wolfgang on bass, inserted to replace the exiled Michael Anthony.) The smarmy, wisecracking Roth famously ditched the band at the height of its fame in the mid-’80s for an ill-conceived solo career. Bad blood ensued and two aborted reunion attempts in the late ’90s and the early ’00s only fed anticipation among its loyal audience. Any hint of discord is buried under swells of thunderous riffs and heavy-hitting rhythms.

Instead of the picking up from where the keyboard-dominated “1984” left off, the new disc takes its cue from the more nondescript moments of the band’s late ’70s and early ’80s discs like “Women And Children First” and “Fair Warning.” The single “Tattoo” starts the record and leaps out of the plane with all the necessary Van Halen elements of guitar raunch, explosive rhythms, some keyboard accents and Roth’s yowl. Unfortunately, it isn’t much more than a refreshing warmup to the band’s sound. History hangs over each song and the problems are only exacerbated by the musical and vocal citations from old band touchstones. “Big River” gives a facelift to the famous “Running With The Devil” riff and then its solo plays homage to Eddie’s famous fretwork showpiece, “Eruption.” The midtempo “You And Your Blues,” clumsily namechecks famous lines from songs by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones as a way to mask a rather bland pop song.

30430631_180X180That’s not to say the band doesn’t rock as a unit. Near the album’s core, there’s a pair of songs when the band comes out of the corner swinging. “Bullethead” chugs along with surprising power. Take Roth’s howling out of the mix and there might be something to work with here. Next song, “As Is,” is more cohesive vocal and musical performance, recalling the locomotive power of Motorhead at times. Van Halen’s trademark tapping solo seems a prerequisite but fits in well. Even Roth’s off-mic, half-comic mutterings provide linkages to the band’s heyday.

This record will validate the band’s continuing pull as a live act, but again, it’s the persist strangeness of the whole endeavor that makes this more of a musical curiosity than necessity. “Stay Frosty” is one of the weirder songs to come along in some time. The song’s title appears to be Roth quoting the advice Michael Biehl gave his doomed comrades in the movie “Aliens” (hey, it’s from the ’80s, too), but sets it to a faux Delta blues that blows up into a keg-party anthem. Roth jive talks this nonsense through most of the song, even moaning a little like Robert Planet when he’s run out of wisdom, before switching to his big-stage yelp when the band ditches the acoustic instruments for Marshall amps. When conceiving of the video that would accompany this song, you’d have to think Roth and company would insist on plenty of circus oddities and other wackiness to complete their vision.

As a musical audition for a new VH-1 reality show, “A Different Kind Of Truth” hints at promise. The band’s ill-fated history and the band members’ shaky relations suggest an implosion of some kind is only a matter of time. But as a musical experience, this record is a underwhelming coda on Van Halen’s legendary career.

Eddie, you might still know how to rock, but there’s no reason you can’t leave it alone and do your’s from a rocking chair.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2012 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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