on February 13, 2012
I'll open this review by saying I realize I'm in the vast minority with my rating. (As of this writing, less than 20% of the reviewers have given the album three or fewer stars.) My hope is that people will understand I'm sharing my open-minded opinion of the music and won't thumbs-down the review just because it doesn't align with their own opinions.
First, the good...
I'm absolutely impressed with how well each individual band member has held up over the years. In terms of technique and chops, I don't think Eddie has flagged one bit; his riffs and solos are just as clean and blazing as ever. Diamond Dave's attitude remains fresh and slightly obnoxious in the way VH fans like myself enjoy, and although he's not screaming and squealing orgasmically as much as he did in the late '70s, he doesn't come across as a watered-down version of himself like so many singers do when they're well past their prime but trying so hard to believe they've still got it. What can I say about Alex? While he's not showing much flash--nor does he need to--he still lays down the bedrock well enough. What really surprised and pleased me is how well Wolfgang slid into Michael Anthony's slot. He's got a smooth vocal upper range and his playing is like a clock, the perfect foil to Eddie's fretboard pyrotechnics. Wolfie even shows off a bit of technical complexity here and there without stepping on anyone's toes. The kid definitely has musician's blood in his veins.
Now the not-so-good...
Like everyone else reading and writing these reviews, I was completely pumped in anticipation of this release. Michael wouldn't be part of the project, which was a bit of a bummer, but we all saw that coming. Just to hear Eddie and Dave collaborating again full-bore more than piqued my interest and got me hopefully wondering. Would they challenge and inspire each other as they did thirty years ago? Would they create new sounds to be later imitated but never duplicated by others? Did they have more Camaro-blasting burger joint classics in them? Most importantly, would they rock hard?
ADKOT answered those questions for me, unfortunately not in the direction I'd hoped. Clearly from the reviews here, on various music sites, and in magazines and newspapers across the country, it's rocking a lot of people...I'm just not one of them. That's too bad, because so many folks out there are making comparisons between this latest opus and classics like Women and Children First and Fair Warning. I don't hear it. Hey, maybe it's my fault for not being sixteen anymore. When those earlier albums first came out, they had a certain something at once sexy, dark, and playful that insinuated itself into my teenage id. They inspired me to--for better or for worse--play guitar loudly, drive fast, and spray-paint my tiny universe in crisscrossed red, white and black stripes. Then again, maybe I just haven't given this album enough spins. The way it works for me with albums, at least most of the time, is a handful of tracks grab me right out of the gate while others are slower to reveal their charms.
So far, this new album hasn't revealed a single jaw-dropper. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to find even a thirty-second block of music that might just blossom into something great after multiple listenings (although the fade-out to "As Is" is a strong contender at the moment). The most ADKOT has done to this point is made me go back to the classic DLR-era cuts to see if I could define their mystique for myself. Maybe through that exercise I could put a finger on what I feel is lacking today. While most of what's missing amounts to an intangible spark at least partially attributable to what was my own coming of age at the time, there are a few aspects I can point to as what I consider definite weaknesses on ADKOT.
BACKUP VOCALS: Most great DLR-era tracks feature Eddie and Mike on backup vocals. These vocal harmonies are an instantly-recognizable VH fingerprint. What's more, they tie VH to a rock 'n' roll, R&B and Motown tradition, one in which the song was built on vocal melody. Perhaps the most important aspect of these backup vocals is that they elevate great tracks to anthem status as they become eminently singable to the masses. In the case of ADKOT, many of the vocal harmonies (to my ears) are built around multi-tracks of Dave's own voice. Instead of that great call-and-response vocal dynamic found in songs like "Runnin' With the Devil," "Unchained," and "Jamie's Cryin'," you get The Diamond Dave Show, which isn't my brand of whiskey. Yes, there are background oohs and aahs, but nothing like the construction of the aforementioned VH classics.
EXPERIMENTATION: There's always been at least one track, be it a proper song or an intro to another song, that featured some level of instrumental experimentation, like the sound engineer let the Van Halen kids run amok in the control room for an afternoon and left the tape recorder running. It's that kind of musical curiosity that resulted in "Sunday Afternoon in the Park," "Intruder," and parts of "And the Cradle Will Rock...," to name just a few moments of sonic chaos gone right. I feel like the Van Halen kids have grown up and are playing nicely with their toys now. Makes me want to say, "C'mon, guys. Grab a pair of scissors and RUN!!!"
SONGWRITING: This is by far the most subjective and undefinable element for me to criticize, but I feel the songs lack the musical depth and level of interest I've come to expect from early VH. This ties into the experimentation point at least partially, but taking the songs as a whole, I'm not getting any of that same air-guitar or singalong joy from these tunes that I'd hoped for. Never do I get to the end of any one song and say to myself, "Dayum, I just *gotta* hear that again," reaching for the iPod's back button. Nothing here is great all the way through for me. On the other hand, I could listen to "Somebody Get Me a Doctor" on repeat for an hour or more and be perfectly happy. Again, one of the more personal and subjective critiques.
PRODUCTION QUALITY: I dunno, maybe it's just how things are done these days, but I agree with an earlier reviewer who said the tracks sound spatially squashed. Ninety percent of the sound is pushing through the center channel. Feels like someone took all the furniture out of a Beverly Hills mansion and crammed it into a studio apartment on the Lower East Side. But it's not just about the separation; the EQ sounds muddier. Part of that that is due to Eddie's brown sound becoming more saturated, which has taken away a lot of the clarity. Every musician has a golden tone in his or her head, and maybe this is a step closer to that tone for Eddie, or maybe it's the evolution of his own ideal. Either way, it's a step further from what I want to hear. Too muddled and overblown.
Overall, I'm giving this album three stars, because while it's not making me want to dive in more and more with every listen, it's not actively pushing me away either. I'll still come back to it on occasion, and maybe I'll discover new gems every now and again.
In the meantime, be cool. Stay frosty.