Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.

He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.

Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.

Friday, February 10, 2012

New Flash, Van Halen 2012 WORKS!!!

We all had our doubts. We'd witnessed the turmoil, the feuds, the backstabbing, the one-upsmanship and sadly, the sorry decline of rock immortals whose brief statuses as separated titans later crashed before our eyes. The flexive, bad boy struts of "Panama" were reduced to bubbly bounceabouts thinking they carried the best of both worlds on their Cali-kissed carny ride. As if. There were no more mean streets which Van Halen trod upon once David Lee Roth hit his crackling diamond bricks and Sammy Hagar swept the band into a pop-esque cantina of laidback rock 'n roll your teachers enjoyed as much as you, yelling "Cabo Wabo!" all the way as a purported savior. Van Halen used to be hot for teacher and that was a riot but it was also filthy, it was rebellious, it was dangerous. I can think of a few teachers and professors I wanted to bang over the years, maybe hang out for coffee and chat about anything but classes. I would never want to rub elbows with them at a Van Halen show. Nuh uh. That would've been too weird.

I don't want to slag Sammy Hagar. His solo work has been reliably entertaining and though most people aren't aware of it, he was fandango when he fronted hard rock pioneers, Montrose. Like David Lee Roth, Hagar was the body electric for that group and for a brief time, Montrose could rival Van Halen. Yeah, I said it. For a brief time. Dig up that self-titled Montrose debut if you're a doubter. Still, when Hagar took center mike at the helm of one of the fiercest rock bands of all-time, it was culture shock.

Hagar is by far a better singer than Roth. There's no debate. Hagar has range, flair and finesse. He can sling guitar, he's professional, he knows how to rev up his audience and keep it clamped in his paw. Still, 5150, OU812 and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge remain Van Halen's hunky dory triumvirate of bubblegum metal. Minus "Poundcake" and the whumping "Get Up," Van Hagar (as we Gen X'ers came to universally refer to the band at this stage in their careers) had settled for the oxy wash that removed the blisters, the acne scars and the devil's trade that represented their butt ugly--but oh, so exuberant--sound with David Lee Roth in the fold. Roth is all sizzle, not Hagar, which is why true Van Halen fans have always balked at everything recorded since 1984, one of rock 'n roll's hallmark recordings--along with the 1978 self-titled debut.

With Sammy Hagar, Van Halen lounged back in a safe house of fratboy pop rock, swooning over summer nights, waiting for love to walk in instead of seizing it by the moment. Why can't this be love, they quipped like lovesick puppy dogs without a clue. A far cry away from the upstart bravado of "So This Is Love?" "Beautiful Girls" and "Everybody Wants Some!" Van Halen, like Metallica, had turned into music for jocks instead of for dirtbags. I should know; I was there to witness the changeover in 1988. Van Hagar put on a stellar performance headlining the Monsters of Rock festival, but the Scorpions were their superiors and Metallica was also on the bill--the latter would play one of their last full-on thrash sets before taking cue from Van Hagar on which demographic to ply to. We headbangers were outnumbered by the jocks, the preps and party animals at that outdoor festival. During Metallica's set, we got into minor scrums with the straights when we tried to mosh, but cooler heads prevailed by the time the Scorps and Van Hagar played. Still, there was a lurking ambivalence between both sects and I'll never forget saying, "That was a great show, but I wish I'd seen them with Roth. At least I would've felt like I belonged here."

But enough of that. It's 2012 and we now have before us Van Halen once again fronted by Diamond Dave and for more than a year, we've all been salivating at the prospect of a brand new Roth-sung album. Even though Michael Anthony defected after a second fallout with Sammy Hagar, Van Halen is more than refurbished with Wolfgang Van Halen walloping on the four string in Anthony's place. Yes, we were skeptical; sure, Wolfie's the progeny of rock genius, but replacing Anthony (a low-end master of minimalism) is as distasteful to longtime Van Halen fans as Hagar replacing Roth. We won't go there with poor Gary Cherone.

It appears the youngest Van Halen prefers to be called "Wolf," so let's give the boy his due, because he, like David Lee Roth, have restored honor to this troupe. Keeping it in the family ended up being a diligent move with three-fourths of the band carrying its namesake. Despite the egotism that splintered the original foundation and sent Roth to his own table to eat it and smile, the welcoming back of the rock ruffian is, well, music to our ears on Van Halen's newest conjuring, A Different Kind of Truth.

Image courtesy of www.rollingstone.com

I'm not going to lie. Like many fans out there, I was sitting well on the fence when Van Halen released their current single "Tattoo." It carries too much of the Van Hagar era's safeness and it's a near-desperate marketing ploy to pander to today's generation of tatted-up sycophants. Coming from a much younger band, you can understand it. From old men, it's damned near perverted. Roth sounds decent on the verses but well-shaky on his high end yelps and quasi-altos. It's all inherently sleazy and strutty, which is Van Halen to the core, but ehhhhhh...

The beauteous thing about A Different Kind of Truth is that "Tattoo" becomes a veritable throwaway track once the Fair Warning-eseque "She's the Woman" comes crashing in. There's those mean streets that lay parallel to the gucci 5150 Avenue. Screw the coy and shy tiptoe through the tulips; Van Halen tugs on their zippers and go tits-out (take note of the bulbous side-profile of the New York Central locomotive on the rear cover art) with "She's the Woman." Listen to Wolf recreate Michael Anthony's burping basses here, but wow, there's even more groove to it. Eddie and Alex are invigorated as much by Wolf's confident note rambles as they are by Roth, who gets it into gear and almost never loses stride the remainder of the album. The mojo is back, baby.

Michael, we miss you and your Jack Daniels bass, but we'll happily welcome Wolf to the big dance since he's automatically proven himself on this album. The young buck is a freaking monster in tandem with his daddy on "Chinatown," "The Trouble With Never," "As Is" and "Bullethead." Dare I say, Wolf does a fair homage to Roth's one-time solo band cohort, Billy Sheehan in a few spots. Sheehan is liege, of course, but Wolf is showing us his scorching chops in a hurry, as if A Different Kind of Truth is his one shot to make the world hear him. Hopefully it isn't. Criminey, doesn't Wolf resemble his sire on the enigmatic cover of Van Halen?

"You and Your Blues" carries a hint of 5150 Van Halen, but it's the good part of that regime. It gets married to Van Halen II and boy, what savvy maneuvering, catering to both Roth's and Hagar's fan bases. Strangely enough, Eddie and Alex compensate the loss of Michael Anthony's back-end vocal fills you don't notice the difference much. Even the intro and ahhhhs caressing the sure 'n steady "Blood and Fire" carries a nod to Van Halen II and portions of Diver Down. Best of all, it feels so danged good. This is what we want in a summer rock song, assuredly written with said intent.

Everyone who ever sat on their bedroom floors mimicking Roth on the blues shuck of "Ice Cream Man" are going to be scampering for an empty spot of the rug (where their kids haven't spotted them up with Kool Aid) and recreate old memories with "Stay Frosty." You know Van Halen whirled this retrospective ditty on purpose and it's one of the rare times such a strategy works. Same acoustic-blues stylizing before the sonic eruption, same huckleberry-esque vocal digging by Roth. You will be singing along as you will be snarling "B-b-b-b-bullethead!" along with Roth on the cagey rockout session of "Bullethead." Damn near every bit of Van Halen's first six albums get touched on with that song.

A Different Kind of Truth really is what it says it is. Gelled in part from old demos prior to the release of Van Halen (I'm blessed to have a copy of said demo tapes courtesy of a longtime buddy), this album is, suffice it to say, the band's most imperative work since 1984. Van Halen treated A Different Kind of Truth as an opportunity not a cash-in. We were all suspecting the latter and have been rewarded with the former. You can hear Van Halen purging the bitterness that once divided them from Roth, and it's hurled with a vengeance. "As Is" might be one of the hardest songs you'll hear this entire year, ditto for "Honeybabysweetiedoll" and "Chinatown." It's not all about triplicate beat patterns, insane shredding and titanic girth, all of which Van Halen improbably possesses on A Different Kind of Truth. This album at times can give even Cannibal Corpse a hard run to the finish line in the brutality department. Yeah, again I said it.

What's so wonderful about A Different Kind of Truth is how much it whisked me to my teenage bedroom. I can still see my old Van Halen mirror another buddy won at a carnival game in '84 and traded to me. I can still the smoking baby-angel on my wall next to the mirror. I'm spinning Van Halen, Van Halen II and Women and Children First on vinyl, Fair Warning on cassette. I pick up the stylus and hit my favorite cuts only on Diver Down and then I play it again all the way through, both sides, trying not to get pissed by all those cover tunes. I'm daydreaming about female classmates in high school I don't have the guts to ask out and I'm laughing to myself about the beer I snitched behind my grandfather's back. Creepy that my mom wants to listen to 1984 with me, but we get our chores done faster with it on and besides, she lets me play it on their boss Pioneer in the living room. She likes "Jump," while "House of Pain" is my favorite cut. I feel awkward when "Hot For Teacher" plays with Mom in my vicinity, because I know she knows I'm fiddling with myself to those smoking babes in the "Teacher" video and I just want to throw up. Ahh, the teen years. I miss 'em for the most part.

Funny when an album in the now delivers an instant bond, isn't it?

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