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5 Years Ago: Van Halen Return to the Past (Again) on ‘A Different Kind of Truth’

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Van Halen were one of the smartest, funniest and toughest bands around at the turn of the ’80s. Three decades later, the greatest fear surrounding a reunion of most of the original members was whether they could recreate any piece of that. And with A Different Kind of Truth, they largely succeeded.

That they did so by returning to previously unreleased scraps of songs from those glory days was the subject of furious debate in the run-up to the Feb. 7, 2012, release of Van Halen’s first full-length record with David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen and Alex Van Halen since 1984. (Eddie’s son, Wolfgang Van Halen, had taken over for original bassist Michael Anthony a few years before.)

But, really, it made perfect sense. Is there a more fertile period for this band than the late ’70s? And wasn’t that the sound fans wanted rekindled for this project?

Further, and this seems the most germane thing of all, it’s nothing new for Van Halen: 1979’s Van Halen II included tracks that had been developed from demos recorded in 1976 by Gene Simmons and in 1977 by Ted Templeman – including the single “Beautiful Girls.” Similarly, “Hang ‘Em High” from 1982’s Diver Down was an update of “Last Night,” also found on those 1977 demos. “House of Pain,” from 1984, traces its history back to initial sessions with Simmons too.

Talk about a different kind of truth: Stealing from themselves is actually old hat for Van Halen. Then there’s the fact that nearly half the album was brand new. Whatever their genesis, however, standout tracks like “China Town” and “The Trouble With Never” offer fresh, sharp licks and a much darker complexity, but also a breakneck attitude — familiar on records like 1981’s Fair Warning — that some might have worried was beyond Van Halen at this point.

It was also interesting that A Different Kind of Truth didn’t always go for the easy hook (again recalling Fair Warning), something that may surprise late-arriving fans of keyboard-driven radio favorites like “Jump” – and certainly Van Halen’s subsequent period with Roth’s successor, Sammy Hagar.

Listen to Van Halen Perform ‘China Town’

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For instance, “Honeybabysweetiedoll,” with a title that could pass for a dimming saloon’s last-call come on, crunched and heaved like a old muscle car running a couple of quarts low on oil. Meanwhile, any questions about Wolfgang’s ability to keep up with dear old dad were answered during “China Town,” as the two dashed through a swirling, pacemaker-smashing interlude.

Some of the material required more than one listen to completely absorb, and Anthony’s cloud-bursting tenor was missed at times. But A Different Kind of Truth had a way of burrowing in.

That’s largely thanks to the presence of Roth. He’s always good for spandex-splitting laugh or two. So you had “Tattoo,” which featured all of the deviant allure that a great single by this band simply must possess – even if, in retrospect, it made for a wildly unrepresentative introductory song. “The Trouble With Never” may be the best track here, with its fiery Jimi Hendrix-inspired guitar signature, a classic crotch-grab Roth vocal (“When you turn on your stereo, does it return the favor?”) and a stunningly deep Alex-led groove.

Later, “Blood and Fire” found Roth howling with a robust vigor, as Eddie returned to the pop-metal vibe that propelled “Dance the Night Away.” Roth then positively skipped through the scalding “Beats Workin,'” sounding like a man who simply couldn’t be happier to be back among friends. They even downshifted for “Stay Frosty,” which occupies the familiar acoustic-ditty-turned-peacock-rock slot that’s earlier featured the likes of “Ice Cream Man” and “Little Guitars.”

As such, A Different Kind of Truth gave Van Halen the opportunity to inhabit their old sound again, to be their old selves – or as close as anyone can be to such a thing at this late date. Given the history of many of these tracks, maybe that’s no surprise. But it sure was a welcome development.

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