Wednesday, February 8, 2012

When rock bands were mighty...

Yesterday, Van Halen released their first album, "A Different Kind of Truth", in almost 14 years. It's the first album featuring David Lee Roth as the lead singer since the release of "1984" 28 years ago. I bought the new album over breakfast almost out of feelings of duty and loyalty. Van Halen was my favorite band in high school (yes, I am getting old) and Eddie Van Halen was the main reason I started playing guitar. Even though Van Halen's music slowly and inexorably declined after "1984" in the "Van Hagar" era, I spent years learning my favorite guitar riffs and songs from all the Van Halen albums from the David Lee Roth era. The band had a swing and energy that was never replicated after the lineup changed.

I'm pleasantly surprised by the new album. Like many old school Van Halen fans, I was worried that it would be an embarrassing last gasp by a once formidable band, but overall it's pretty good, if not quite great. The familiar mid-range crunch of Eddie's guitar is all there, along with the usual bag of tricks. At times it seems like he's trying too hard to squeeze in every possible fill, squeal and divebomb in an attempt to make up for the long hiatus, but it's apparent the man can still play. David Lee Roth can't hit the high notes any more and his juvenile lyrics seem incredibly dated, but he does bring that unmistakable attitude and swing that has been missing from Van Halen for 28 years. Alex Van Halen and Eddie's son Wolfgang make a pretty tight rhythm section, but Michael Anthony's soaring vocal harmonies are sorely lacking.

I'm not sure if I'll continue to listen to the new album long-term (although good, it's a little too familiar to those old albums without bringing anything new to the table), but listening the last two days brought me back to a time when rock bands were "mighty". It was a time when some bands were so good, so big and so influential that you couldn't imagine them ever stopping. Led Zeppelin (a little before my time, but I quickly learned to appreciate how impressive they were) is an example of one of these mighty bands. Van Halen in the David Lee Roth era was often referred to as the "Mighty Van Halen". Metallica evolved into a mighty foursome with the "Master of Puppets" album through the "Black" album. Based on their influence alone, you also need to include Nirvana in the same category.

It occurred to me that rock bands really started becoming "mighty" with the inception of the record album. Before albums really took off, there were certainly larger than life musicians and groups releasing singles and "45s", but the Beatles and Bob Dylan seemed to really perfect and popularize the concept of a cohesive collection of songs or an "album" (think "Sgt Pepper" and "Rubber Soul"). That led to a whole range of mighty rock bands, far too many to list, leading up to the time when I was a budding musician in high school.

Rock music took a hit after the end of Nirvana and with the rise of hip hop. Try as I might, I can't really think of a "mighty" band since. There are certainly some contenders; the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, Green Day, Foo Fighters, but I'm not sure they have the same scope and reach as the rock bands that were their predecessors. Now that we're in the iTunes era, I'm not sure we'll ever have that definitive "mighty" band again. The album has become less important and de-emphasized when you can purchase just the songs you like for $.99. It's almost like we've traveled back to the time of the "45" singles. I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing. Indie musicians and artists can create, publish and distribute their music much more easily without the support (and cost) of a record label, producer, and studio time. I just wonder what this means for the future of the prototypical "mighty" rock band.

I'd love to hear others' thoughts and what bands they consider to be "mighty"

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