Monday, February 13, 2012
The grease in the gears: (Alex) Van Halen, 2012
A strong candidate for my favorite album of the year so far is A Different Kind of Truth, the new Van Halen record (as you've surely read, their first with David Lee Roth in close to 30 years).
I feel similarly about Truth as I did re: Worship Music, last year's Anthrax comeback record. As with Anthrax, Van Halen meant very little to me growing up. MTV saturated my childhood, so VH were unavoidable and, to me, unwelcome. I found them silly, the soundtrack in a party I didn't want to attend.
Since then, my feelings re: this sector of rock & roll have done a 180. Suddenly, a few years back, I found myself no longer taking the art and craft of what I'd always thought of as "good-time" rock (Zeppelin would be the biggie there) for granted. Maybe it had something to do with playing in a rock band and experiencing firsthand how hard it was to execute a simple groove with real feeling, real relaxation, and coming to understand that the real masters of this practice weren't the staunchly arty indie bands I'd grown up with (no disrespect, of course), but the gods of the arenas, the titans of classic-rock radio.
I started to sense that one day, I'd need to reckon with Van Halen. I knew that friends whose tastes I respected worshipped them. But I still wasn't quite ready. I had this fixed image of them as too happy, too hammy, David Lee Roth in a top hat, etc.
But man, this new record. The song that blew off my blinders is the one above, "China Town." The drumming on this song humbles and thrills me. In conjunction with my ever-ardent John Bonham obsession, I've developed a serious interest in Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmine Appice (I spent much of my "winter break" playing through The Ultimate Realistic Rock Drum Method), as well as his brother Vinnie, a member of the Dio-fronted Black Sabbath (later called Heaven and Hell). Before I heard "China Town," and thus really started to appreciate the talent of Alex Van Halen, I always thought of these men as a sort of school of three: to borrow a prehistoric comparison from my friend and colleague Steve Smith, the Brontosaurus School, a set of percussionists obsessed with wideness and grease, musical slipperiness, the paradox of a cumbersome mass dancing with marvelous agility.
Set aside for a minute the prog-metal meltdown of the guitar intro and just behold the drum entrance here. All you can think of is that album cover, pure locomotive motion, a gigantic machine racing forward. You hear Roth let out that orgasmic "Oh!" and you feel right where he's at. How can something so heavy move so fast, generate such lift and buoyance? And the thrilling shift from hi-hat to ride on the chorus (:51), where the whole song aspirates, opens its gills for a minute. And then the herky-jerk accents (1:00), straight out of the Zeppelin playbook, followed by the double-time singalong section, punctuated by massive dumps on the toms; that's all I can think to call them, "dumps." It's like laying down a huge stack of newspapers at the audience's feet. And then we jump back on the train, feeling the wind and marveling at the design, that girth which does not square with the aerodynamism.
I love this whole record, pretty much unreservedly (except for the borderline-crappy lead single and opening track "Tattoo"; god knows why they chose to spotlight it b/c just about everything else on here is stronger…), and I've even come to appreciate David Lee Roth's neovaudevillian hamminess, which, maybe not so surprisingly, seems a lot more convincing to me now that he's actually an old dude, rather than a young dude with a retro shtick. But what keeps magnetizing me is this shaggy Brontosaurus School swing, the kind that conjures visions of a friendly giant behind the drum kit, rendered with such a gracious, natural, unsanitized sound—just pure wideness and warmth and sloshing bulk. (Obviously my perspective is drum-centric; I'm sure the guitar nerds would write a similar kind of praise-song structured around Eddie's contributions.)
In the end, the goal is get you moving, to compel the hips, but what a mysterious science that is, to dance with the drums that way, and to infect the whole band with this breath and easyness and feather-light unperturbedness, which at the same time drops a huge thudding anchor down through the very heart of the music. It's just one instrument, but it's the key instrument, the one that serves as the WD-40, the grease in the gears. Alex Van Halen's drumming here and elsewhere on Truth (try "She's the Woman"—dear God, those hi-hats…) epitomizes the paradox of an entire style and school of rock-music-making: You do the heavy-lifting so that the listener can feel light. Art is the concealment of art, yes, but the art is there if you're looking, and the machinery is so very ingenious, a construction that aims right for your caveman mind, that makes you feel lighter, maybe even high, in the narcotic sense, but that you can also enjoy with both feet firmly planted. That is the self-effacing labor of great populist rock & roll, which I've rarely loved more dearly than on this big, gracious bear-hug of a record.