Monday, April 9, 2012

Van Halen - A Different Kind of Truth

 A Different Kind of Truth

An open letter to Edward and Alex Van Halen.

Never.  Never.  Never have anyone sing in your band but David Lee Roth.

That's the only conclusion I can make after giving the much hyped/anticipated/debated new Van Halen album a serious couple of spins.

Yes, Diamond Dave is back in the microphone seat of what was once one of the greatest rock bands in the land.  And let me tell you, I approached this project with a ton of trepidation and about as much caution as I'd approach eating fish out of a swamp full of toxic waste.  At best, I had no interest in it whatsoever.  At worst, I was afraid it would be a major embarrassment and do even more to tarnish the memory/reputation of what used to be a cool band. 

See, I used to dig Van Halen.  Man, when that first album came out and I heard it for the first time.  Wow!  Blew me away.  Yes, Eddie's technique was out of this world, but it was more than that.  I've never been a guitar-God kinda guy.  It was the songs.  The attitude.  The thrusting drive of Anthony's bass, the propulsion of Alex's drumming, and yes, Dave's very different, sleazy, campy, and somehow dangerous singing.   No one sounded like VH in the glory days.  No one ever will.

I lost interest as the years went on and then came the Van Hagar years which to me were an abomination.  And I'm not sure why.  I dug Sammy in Montrose, and was ok with most of his early (read pre-Standing Hampton) albums.  But Hagar in Halen was a disaster for me.  It was like they took the worst of Hagar's tendencies and added those to the worst of Van Halen's.  Really, there's not one song I enjoyed there.

Then came the whole Mark III version of the band, which most people forget even existed, then the countless reformations with Dave and breakups and rumors, etc. etc.  Too much drama for any one band's reputation to handle.

So when this album was announced, I wasn't standing in line for it.  I never saw the early single/video that became the fodder of so much Facebook/forum discussion.  I read some reviews from people saying the album "rocked" and simply didn't believe them.  In fact, the only reason I ever listened to it is because a free copy literally dropped into my lap.  And even then I wasn't interested.  But it was Van Halen, and I had to know.  I hesitated, took a deep breath and put it in.

And immediately, my worst fears were realized.  Opening song "Tattoo" is abysmal.  Really, simply horrid, with the retro '80's production on the intro vocal, the boring riff, the lackadaisical singing, the non-interesting bass work of Wolfgang and the flat chorus.  There's really just not much life in the whole song for me.  And worst of all, it's totally generic.  I could play this song for anybody who didn't know what was going on and I'd bet no one would guess it's Van Halen.  In summary, it's a stinker.

That was it for me.  I was ready to eject the disc and swear that I paid too much for it (even though it was free) but fate intervened.  The traffic light changed.  I had to stop rather suddenly and couldn't get to the eject button.  While I was regrouping, the most amazing thing happened.  Van Halen came back into my life.

"She's the Woman," cooks.  Simply cooks.  Eddie's guitar intro is violent and heavy and immediately drops down into a simply cooking groove.  Alex is back there, pounding the skins and Wolfgang holds thing steady.  I was bopping, head in full swing. Then came the big moment.  Diamond Dave entered the fray and you know what?   It was Van Halen, through and through.

Let's face it, Dave has never been a great singer, but he's a great singer for this band.  He may have lost a bit of higher end range over the years, but he can still wail and screech and he injects his vocal phrasing with tons of personality and attitude.  Everything that had been missing from Van Halen over the years.  And during the chorus, when the band harmonizes together . . .that's Van Halen!  That's the sound we all know.  Add to all this a brief but cutting Eddie solo and we got the best VH song in ages.

So, was it a flash in the pan or the beginning of something real?   "You and Your Blues" answers that question right away.  Dave sings away over a stuttering, scratching guitar line as the song builds to a low roar right into a driving chorus.   "China Town" is even mightier, tearing into a classic VH riff-fest after Eddie's brief blinding guitar intro.  Then, lest you think the boys are slowing down, they up the ante, as the song literally explodes in a flurry of adrenaline, Eddie whipping through a verse section guitar riff that's so blindingly fast and mean it's breathtaking.  Toss in a few harmonics, some feedback -- all within the structure of the riff -- and I'm flying.  Dave sounds pissed and angry and sneers his way through the song.  It's perfect all the way down to the hammer-on guitar solo sounding like days of old.

"Bullethead" ups the anger quotient coming on so fast and mean-spirited it's almost punk.  "The Trouble with Never," "Outta Space," and "Big River" are all massive guitar-athons with killer riffs and Dave's driving vocals.   And if it's Eddie's guitar you want, you won't have to look far.  He simply has not sounded this inspired in . . . a helluva long time.  "Honeybabysweetiedoll" is a quasi-instrumental assault.  Yes, there are some vocals, so it's not "Eruption" but the song ain't about the vocals.  This is all Eddie and he's all over the place playing as fast and brutal as I've heard.

Yes, there's a few problems here.  "Stay Frosty" takes the place of any one of Diamond Dave's more "jokey" songs, Dave Anthony's propulsive bass is hardly replaced by Wolfgang's more rudimentary style, and inexplicably Alex's driving drums are mostly buried in the mix when what we need is a huge drum sound.  But overall this album has the right to be officially called a Van Halen album.   It doesn't sound like VH so much from back in the day, but it's exactly what VH would've sounded like if they'd kept on making music together.

And that's a helluva lot better than I originally expected.

Van Halen haven't embarrassed themselves this time.   In fact, I have to add their name to the ranks of UFO who've also released one of their best albums in years at this late date in their career.

So Eddie.  So Alex.  Keep Dave around.  Trust me, the magic is still there.  The special combustible something that made Van Halen so damn incendiary.  It's still there.


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