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REVIEW: Van Halen brings back big rock with 'A Different Kind of Truth'

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Van Halen has a new album.Van Halen- "A Differnt Kind of Truth" photo: antiquiet.com
 
Wait. Van Halen has a new album?

Yeah I know. Still kind of crazy saying that again, isn’t it?

Despite the band touring twice over the last eight years (once with Sammy Hagar while supporting their second greatest hits album, and the other with prodigal son David Lee Roth), the only new songs were three greatest hits tracks the band performed with Hagar). As a result, the band’s lack of new material over the last decade and change had many skeptics and fans alike wondering if Van Halen had anything left in the creative tank.

As we all know, camp Van Halen is quite secretive. The fact that the band was working on a new album wasn’t even confirmed by the band until several months back. In fact, it seems everyone was talking about Van Halen’s upcoming new album during 2011 except.....Van Halen themselves.

There are questions all around here. How is Eddie Van Halen’s health? Can he work again with Roth? Although Roth has technically been back in the band for about half a decade now, the question whether he and Eddie can coexist is always a topic for discussion. And what about the absence of Michael Anthony? Sure, Anthony has been out of the band for as long as Roth has been back in, but could 20-year old Wolfgang Van Halen successfully take the reins on bass for one of the most anticipated rock albums of this century? It’s one thing to tour, but it’s another to play on an album that will remain in the general public for eternity. Furthermore, as solid of a bass player as Anthony is, he’s probably better known for his trademark background vocals, which always complemented Roth perfectly.

And perhaps the biggest one of all is whether Van Halen, through all of their trials and tribulations, can rise from the ashes and make a relevant album in today's ever-changing musical landscape dominated by acts like Beyonce and Justin Bieber?

Yep, the odds are stacked against them. Come hell or high water, Van Halen needed to deliver with “A Different Kind of Truth.

Or else.

Well, the results are in. And as an unbiased Van Halen disciple, I have to say the band's first full-length effort with Roth in almost 30 years rocks out just as hard as some of their finest work. Not bad for a bunch of rock legends (and a 20 year-old) who are closer in age with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (Drummer Alex Van Halen will be 60 next year) than today’s average music buying population.

As you may know by now, the foundation for about half the album’s tracks came from unreleased material the band wrote before they were even signed by Warner Brothers in 1977. While some have chided the group for going back into the vault (producer John Shanks reportedly dug up material with Eddie so long ago that the band recorded it in Roth’s basement as teenagers), the general response to this should be “Who cares?” The Rolling Stones’ ‘Tattoo You’ consisted of mostly throwaways and outtakes that were practically a decade old before seeing the light of day, but it’s arguably one of the band’s best albums. It’s a new Van Halen album, and it rocks!  Now don’t get me wrong, if it wasn’t any good, I’d tell you. And while it’s too early to put “Truth” in the company of Van Halen II  or Woman and Children First,’ it’s a stronger overall effort than ‘Diver Down,’ and it will unquestionably have you banging your head while blaring the album in the car with your windows down come summer time.  

For all you Van Halen fans out there worried that the band’s first single, ‘Tattoo’ was going to mirror the rest of the album, you needn’t worry at all. Not that I was disappointed with the album’s opening track, but when you listen to the remaining 12 tracks on ‘Truth,’ it seems more and more out of place and an odd choice for Interscope in getting Van Halen better reacquainted with the 2000’s.

The album really picks up steam on ‘She’s the Woman,’ a rocker left over from the band’s club days, and ‘You and Your Blues,' possibly a future single.

Eddie Van Halen, perhaps rejuvenated by the addition of his son in the band, plays like a man part inspired-part possessed throughout the album, and it’s not a stretch to say that ‘Truth’ arguably showcases some of his best work ever.  So much to where you really can’t point out any particular solo which stands out above the rest. It’s almost like he’s been locked up for years with no guitar and was suddenly handed a six-string and goes ballistic. Either that, or he’s playing as if his band’s future depended on it, which isn’t a complete stretch at this stage of the game.

Alex Van Halen, as usual, is his bombastically tasteful self. The always overshadowed, older Van Halen sibling is undisputedly rock and roll’s greatest drummer since Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. Period. Just listen to the catchy ‘Blood and Fire,’  ‘As Is,' where his blistering double bass along with Eddie's shredding almost make this a lost Metallica track. 'As Is' and ‘Chinatown’ are arguably two of the hardest rocking tracks in the band’s 34-year catalog. Also not to be overlooked is his work on album closer ‘Beats Workin,’ a homage to AC/DC and numerous other rock-metal bands from decades past, and he even throws in the cowbell for good measure.

As for Alex’s nephew and rhythm partner Wolfgang, he far exceeded any expectations on bass as well as the album’s backing vocal tracks, most noticeably on ‘She’s the Woman’ and the funky ‘The Trouble With Never,’ which features a breakdown that takes the band into unfamiliar territory. With ‘Truth’ being band’s first studio album of the new millennium, the youngest Van Halen injects a new enthusiasm (and most likely newer influences), which could be a reason why the band sounds so fresh. Don't believe me? Keep in mind the brothers Van Halen have made a total of just two albums with completely new material since I was a junior in high school. How long ago was that? Well, ‘Balance’ came out when I was 17, and I’ll be 34 next week. Yep, half my life ago, but I digress.  

As for Roth, his voice shows some wear at times and on some tracks he’s better than others. Although it’s undetermined how much overall input he exactly had in making ‘Truth,’ Roth puts his unique spin on the songs to put the final stamp on the Van Halen product while never really hindering the quality of the songs. This is prevalent on tracks like ‘Stay Frosty’ (an Ice Cream Man-esque rocker that seems tailor made for him), 'Bullethead,' ‘Big River,’ 'Honeybabysweetiedoll,' and ‘Blood and Fire,' in which he (in convincing fashion) drops perhaps the album’s most telling lyric: ‘Told ‘ya I was coming back,’ just as Eddie tears into one of his trademark solos. It’s not like we didn’t believe you, Dave. As in most things in life, it just took a little longer than expected, but it was well worth the wait.

Roth gets occasionally buried in the album's muddled mix and Anthony's vocals are missed on some spots, but Van Halen couldn’t have possibly made a better comeback album than ‘Truth,’ their hardest and edgiest effort since 1981’s Fair Warning.’  Unlike ‘Warning,’ however, the material on ‘Truth’ will please die-hard fans as well as casual listeners. 

The big question now is whether Van Halen has enough juice to keep this going and possibly make another album?

Well, before we go asking for too much, let’s see how the tour goes first.

Grade: 4 out of 5 stars

"A Different Kind of Truth" hits stores February 7th.

Get a song by song review of Van Halen's new album on Philly Buzz

Contact Joe Vallee at jvallee@philly2philly.com  

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Photo: antiquiet.com