Review Summary: Cynics will have to hold their “Van Kroeger” jokes for the time being.
‘Lead Single Syndrome’... It’s a theory that yours truly has concerning the first single from many albums being overly derided due to individuals not believing the track to be the best representation of its record. Labels are not foolish, however, and in most cases, a lead single will in fact be either the best or most accessible song from its release. As with every theory, there are exceptions, and one such case comes from ‘A Different Kind Of Truth’, the twelfth and comeback studio LP from Californian hard-rock icons Van Halen. Upon first listen to the naggingly catchy, but utterly silly, lead single (and album opener) ‘Tattoo’, reactions vary from groaning disappointment to hysterical embarrassment. Apart from an impressive guitar solo, it is the kind of dated, non-cohesive train-wreck which long-time fans were afraid would ruin the band’s legacy. But – in what may be the most unexpected pleasant surprise of 2012 – cynics will have to hold their “Van Kroeger” jokes for the time being, since ‘A Different Kind Of Truth’ is ultimately an accomplished, hard-rocking record that somehow manages to not sound too dated.
Considering this is Van Halen’s first LP for fourteen years – and first with David Lee Roth for twenty-eight – it comes as no shock that the quartet struggle most here when briefly exploring their poppy glam-rock side. Thankfully, these forays are few and far between, with the ageless rockers wisely constructing many of these tunes by reworking unreleased demos and bits & pieces from their storied past. Many such tidbits date back to the mid-1970s, meaning ‘A Different Kind Of Truth’ probably has more in common with an album like ‘Van Halen II’, than any other. Possibly the biggest surprise here is how ferociously up-tempo the LP is, since it would be a stretch calling any one of its thirteen tracks a power-ballad, while there’s hardly a keyboard to be heard. The rapid-fire ‘Bullethead’ speeds out of the gate and simply does not relent, while hard-rocking highlight ‘China Town’ is three minutes worth that would not be out of place amongst the best of the band’s discography!
Arguably most pleasing for long-suffering fans is the return to top form of lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen, who appears to have put all of his various ailments (including arthritic concerns) behind him. He opens the aforementioned ‘China Town’ by setting his fret-board alight, before following up with a tremendous crowd-pleasing solo - of which there are many during the album. He displays variety too... From the infectious buzzing riff of ‘As Is’ and the bluesy tones evident throughout, all the way through to the mild experimentation of ‘Honeybabysweetiedoll’ and ‘Outta Space’, which remind of another comeback shredder in Living Colour’s Vernon Reid. Far from being a one-man musical show, Eddie can also play the team game by successfully synching in with his drummer brother Alex and bassist son Wolfgang, the latter of whom holds his own capably following the controversial departure of Michael Anthony.
Finally, there is the much talked about return of the charismatic showman that is David Lee Roth. “Told you I was comin’ back”, he states with a snicker that jumps out of the speakers on ‘Blood and Fire’... And while time has unquestionably meant that Diamond Dave has lost some of his vocal strength, nothing could take away that trademark pizzazz. He gives life to otherwise dubious terms such as “garage-a-trois” and awkward lines like “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich was better, totally better”. Although, mentioning his "facebook page" doesn't quite ring true, while he too often falls back on spoken word segments, which is especially showcased on ‘Stay Frosty’; a shout-out to loyal fans that is practically ‘Ice Cream Man’ Part 2. Importantly, however, Roth’s experience also means that he knows when to show a measure of restraint, as evidenced on ‘Blood and Fire’ and ‘Big River’; two well-composed radio hard-rockers that nicely work into a groove and put many contemporaries to shame. In fact, it is on these two occasions where the band best come together as a cohesive whole.
In amongst the combination of surprise and excitement which the album draws out of listeners, it would be over the top to suggest that ‘A Different Kind Of Truth’ is not a flawed release. In addition to the black sheep which is ‘Tattoo’, a lack of a standout pop-leaning hit does suggest a dearth of memorable choruses and the absence of Anthony’s much-vaunted backing vocals. Without anything truly ground-breaking, the album is also a couple of tracks too long. However, for a release where most felt the band was on a hiding to nothing, Van Halen have shown exactly why they were recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If reports from the past are true, there may well be three men aged in their late 50s at each other’s throats behind the scenes... Yet, that could just be the fuel that flames the fire, since this amazingly consistent record is an especially inspired comeback. The extremely long wait has been rewarded. "As is" indeed.
Recommended Tracks: China Town, As Is, Blood and Fire & Big River.