Running With the Devil
The Surprisingly Awesome Van Halen Reunion

Today is the one-year anniversary of my Patch site.

I rarely talk about my real job here, and I probably won’t even make a big deal of it on my site today, but considering where I started – trying to gain a foothold in a town that had never been covered by its own dedicated news source, a town in which a full third of the village board doesn’t even own computers – I’m pretty proud of where I am now. Last month I topped 12,000 unique visitors, in a town of 18,000 people. That ain’t bad.

So happy anniversary to me. And thanks to everyone who reads both sites. (I know there are a few of you.)

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I am listening to the new Van Halen album. And there’s a sentence I never thought I’d type again.

I’ve been a Van Halen fan for as long as I can remember. I’m pretty sure the first song of theirs I heard was “Jump,” which came out when I was 10. In that sense, my story isn’t unique: “Jump” was most of America’s first Van Halen song, atypical as it was. I’m fairly certain I heard 1984 first as well – my cousin had a wide selection of cool music on tape, and I think that was how I heard my first Van Halen record. I definitely remember the chain-smoking cherub on the cover from my early days.

But it was Brian Miller who really got me into them. Brian was the guitar player in my junior high school band, and it was through him that I started listening to guitarists, like Steve Vai and Frank Zappa. And of course, Eddie Van Halen. Brian showed me how Eddie played “Cathedral,” still one of the most impressive feats of six-string wizardry I’ve ever heard. And I remember listening to “Eruption,” the explosive solo piece on the first Van Halen album, and seeing his eyes light up. “Eruption” sounds like every fleet-fingered guitar wanker now, but in 1978, no one had ever played anything like it.

I quickly devoured every VH album I could get my hands on. This was 1987, so that meant everything through 5150, Sammy Hagar’s debut as the new singer. I loved David Lee Roth’s swagger, especially on fun and funny records like Diver Down, but 5150 had a few of my favorite Van Halen tunes on it. “Dreams,” especially, worked for 13-year-old me, as did “Love Walks In” and “Best of Both Worlds.” I didn’t realize at the time what a seismic shift 5150 represented. I just knew the band was taking itself more seriously, and as a moody and self-obsessed teenager, I related to that.

I believe I heard OU812 at Christian summer camp, which is pretty funny, if you think about it. Van Hagar’s sleaziest record is also their best, I think – it would be all downhill from there, through the blasé cock-rock of For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and the uninspired slop of Balance. I remember the latter album hitting stores my junior year of college, and arguing with a couple of diehards about it. I thought it sucked from the outset. (My feelings on it have lightened somewhat, but not much.)

I have a much more complicated relationship with Van Halen III, also known as the Gary Cherone Experiment. When that album came out in 1998, I was a paid professional music reviewer. Also, I was (and still am) a big fan of Extreme, Cherone’s band. I thought Cherone was an inspired choice to take over vocal duties in VH – the man can sing pretty much anything well. Unfortunately, Eddie and Gary apparently decided to stick with a Sammy Hagar impression.

Cherone was a disappointment, but I still contend that Van Halen III is a terrific little record. It’s Eddie’s last-gasp bid for respectability, and Cherone’s politically-minded lyrics certainly helped. But it’s Eddie’s songwriting that really shone. “Year to the Day,” just by itself, is eight minutes and 47 seconds of awesome. Van Halen spent 13 years growing up, and on Van Halen III, they finally pulled it off.

So of course, it was a huge flop, and even the brothers Van Halen don’t like to talk about it much these days. They essentially took the next decade off, and with each passing year, Van Halen felt like the product of a different time. It’s interesting trying to put forth the argument that VH is an important band, despite the fact that they self-evidently are: before Eddie Van Halen hit the scene, no one played guitar like him. After, everyone played guitar like him. They practically invented a style of music that dominated the airwaves for the next 12 years.

But the band itself seems to defy any notions of importance. Their best records are effortless, fun, ridiculous things, the true talent of the band hiding behind the showiness of the whole thing. David Lee Roth had an outsized carnival huckster personality that turned everything into a circus, and it’s hard to make a good case for songs called “Everybody Wants Some” and “Bottoms Up,” to name a couple of killer tunes. It was a different time, and artistry wore different guises. (And every time Eddie Van Halen decided to aim for the respect he was due, his efforts fell flat.)

So what to make of A Different Kind of Truth, that new Van Halen record? It is defiantly a return to the original sound. The Van Halens have reunited with Roth, they’ve dug up a bunch of older songs that were never officially released, and they even brought the old winged VH logo back into service. This should be the punchline to a joke – Eddie Van Halen is 57, his brother is 58, and Roth is 56. To make matters worse, they’ve enlisted Eddie’s 20-year-old son Wolfgang to replace Michael Anthony on bass. This should be a pale shadow of the Van Halen of old, a wheezing, sputtering jester, falling flat on his face.

Except for one thing: it isn’t.

Believe me, I went into this thing ready to sharpen the knives. The first single and leadoff track, “Tattoo,” seemed to confirm the worst: it’s a lame song with a sleazy theme, and Roth’s aging voice is hung out there to twist in the wind. (Although I have to admire the particularly DLR line “mousewife to momshell.”) And in retrospect, I have no idea why this song is on A Different Kind of Truth, never mind leading it off. The rest of the record is so much better.

In fact, it’s kind of great. If you had told me that at age 57, Eddie Van Halen would be able to play like this, I wouldn’t have believed you. This is his loudest, heaviest, most technical and just plain badass work in 25 years. Check out second track “She’s the Woman” – it starts with a terrific bass-led figure, slams into a great riff, and midway through, evolves into this complicated power trio showcase. And Wolfgang! It’s not hard to be a better player than Michael Anthony, but man, this kid is great. He ups Alex’s game, and Alex was pretty awesome to begin with.

For my money, the opening track should have been “China Town.” It’s a fast and furious slice of metal – like real, heavy metal, not like “Don’t Tell Me What Love Can Do.” In this setting, Roth sounds wonderful. He’s always been more of a showman than a singer, and when the band is chugging forward on full throttle, that works as well as it always has. He strains on some notes here and there – “Blood and Fire” is problematic – but as usual, he gets by on style.

And with Roth, and with this material, the swagger is back. This record struts about like it knows how good it is, and even its lesser moments are carried along by sheer confidence. “Told you I was coming back,” Roth says at one point. “Tell me you missed me. Say it like you mean it.” Swagger. And then they hit you with “Bullethead,” 2:51 of tight, focused, killer metal, with a screaming solo.

The best thing about A Different Kind of Truth is that it never lets up. “As Is” will drop your jaw, it’s so tight and heavy and just blistering. “The Trouble With Never” rides a funky lick and a stomping riff to glory. (This one could have gone, just as it is, on Van Halen II.) Eddie breaks out the acoustic guitars for the first minute or so of the super-fun “Stay Frosty” at track 11, and it’s the first moment you’ll have to breathe. And of course, the band kicks in with full force seconds later, and they don’t stop until album’s end.

That end is “Beats Workin’,” a classic David Lee Roth-style number about the band’s longevity. Roth’s voice is at its weakest on this one, but after the previous 40 or so minutes, you won’t care. This tune is just the kind of comedown this powerhouse of an album needed. Here’s hoping when this incarnation of Van Halen starts writing new songs, they’re like these.

I truly did not expect to like A Different Kind of Truth as much as I do, and if the fifty-somethings in this band can keep up this level of energy on stage, they’re going to have a triumph on their hands. This is a band I have liked for pretty much my entire life, and they’ve overcome my doubts and hit me with a new classic. I can barely believe it. Thirteen-year-old me loves this record, and 37-year-old me likes it quite a bit too. Are they an important band? When they’re playing this well, it almost doesn’t matter.

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Next week, piano pop with the Fray, Ian Axel and Jonathan Jones.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.