And so, the epic wait is finally over. Having been moderately encouraged by lead single ‘Tattoo’, I had high hopes for this opus, which sees Diamond Dave reunited with the brothers Van Halen (though not the full classic line-up reunion many fans have been hoping for) on their first full-length player together since the classic 1984. And, on the first listen, the vital signs seemed to be in tip-top order. The energy levels and intensity of the playing are furious and unrelenting, with Van Halen sounding as dynamic and aggressive as they have since pre-Diver Down days. The familiar Rothian wit and swagger is present and correct, as brash and exuberant as ever, and the musicianship is as scorching as you would expect from this family ensemble: the album is chock-full of startling virtuoso lead breaks from Eddie; Wolfgang and Alex Van Halen gel supremely as a formidably powerful rhythm section, and some of the interplay between father and son on lead and bass guitar is dazzling – it must have been a genuine blast for both of them. All that remained, therefore, was for the songs to grow on me over the next few spins, and then I would be able to happily revel in the fact that one of the all-time great rock bands was back, having pulled off a remarkable comeback against considerable odds.
Sadly, it was at this stage that I ran into a bit of a problem. I’ve played the album a lot over the past couple of weeks, and I have had to conclude – reluctantly – that there just aren’t enough truly great songs here to put the album up there with Fair Warning, II or Women and Children First. There are certainly some terrific moments to enjoy; ‘She’s the Woman’ taps effortlessly into the early Van Halen vibe, ‘You and Your Blues’ is purposeful and mean, and the quirky ‘Stay Frosty’ finds DLR in his full-on Vaudevillean element. Best of all, for me, is the autobiographical ‘Blood and Fire’, which pulls off that difficult trick of kicking serious ass while betraying a surprising poignancy. ‘Tattoo’, it turns out, is far from the best song on the album, the best moments of which render it clearly essential for long-standing fans of the band. Elsewhere, though, the band’s schtick tends to wear a bit thin, with the songwriting standards of the album falling ultimately short of its incredible musicianship, and occasionally struggling to retain the listener’s full and undivided attention. Back in the day, of course, Roth-fronted Van Halen albums only ran to about half an hour of playing time; if they’d adopted that policy once more, maybe they would have blown my mind again. Today’s music fans wouldn’t wear it though, and I am afraid to say that the hour-plus of music on offer here only sporadically hits the heights of the lean masterpieces earlier mentioned.
For any fans who fervently disagree, and are convinced that Dave and the VH boys actually have stormed back with a career-defining album, I say a hearty mazal tov to you, and enjoy. In all honesty, much as I would have loved to, I can’t say the same.