I was looking forward to this album last year, even though the quality of its music, which is always the most important thing, was doomed to be ranked below other considerations that shouldn't be important. There's a legacy in play here, because the WVH in the name of band and album stands for Wolfgang Van Halen and that's a heck of a legacy, beyond what his father Eddie could make his guitar do. The first Van Halen album changed rock history and is remembered as one of the great debuts of all time. What Eddie did on it blew minds the world over. And, of course, his band, which featured Wolfgang on bass for a surprising fourteen years, was massively successful for over four decades.
I can't imagine how hard it must have been to make this album, with all of that hanging in the air, but it's a good album, if perhaps not what we might all have expected. For a start, Wolfgang does not just play the bass here; he plays everything: guitar, drums and keyboards too. He even sings it himself. In this, he outdid his father, who only played guitar and sang backing vocals on that debut Van Halen record. Maybe it was important for him to outdo Eddie in at least one way, because the world was always going to be focused on what he does here on guitar and, as excellent as he is, it has to be said that, shock horror, his solos aren't going to set the world alight the way Eddie's did in 1978.
What Wolfgang wisely does here is to not play in the Van Halen style, whether you're talking old school party Halen with Diamond Dave or new school smooth Van Hagar. This is a hard rock album at points, with some fancy guitarwork on songs like Mammoth and You're to Blame, but mostly it plays as an alternative rock album, combining elements from various subgenres into a consistent Mammoth WVH sound. It's a lot smoother than I expected, perhaps mostly because of Wolfgang's soft voice, which is the most prominent instrument. Even on heavier songs, like Don't Back Down or The Big Picture, his vocals temper that heaviness and make this very accessible.
And that's where people are going to find themselves making decisions about the album. Clearly, Wolfgang Van Halen is a very talented musician and a pretty decent songwriter too, but that isn't enough to guarantee that we're going to like what he does. I have every respect for Taylor Swift, a very talented singer/songwriter, but that doesn't mean I'm listening to her albums. She's just not my thing and I'm not sure Mammoth WVH is either. It seems to me that Wolfgang is fonder of the softer, smoother, modern American alternative rock that some of his frequent collaborators, like Mark Tremonti of Alter Bridge, play, rather than the hard rock/heavy metal style that he himself played when he was in Van Halen.
My biggest criticism here isn't the variety of songs that many critics called out, because I hear an original and consistent sound across them and see that variety as a strong positive, but how safe they tend to feel. Much of it stems from his voice but it's there in the music too, because all these songs felt like he was holding back, perhaps deliberately, and I wanted to hear what he could do. I certainly preferred the songs where he seemed to push a little more, like Resolve, Mammoth and Feel, that push being on multiple instruments, but I left the album wishing he'd have done it more often.
I hear that the inspiration for Wolfgang playing all the instruments himself was Dave Grohl in the early years of Foo Fighters and that kept coming back to me, because I'm hardly a big Foo Fighters fan. I am a big Dave Grohl fan though, from pretty much everything else he does, whether it's the old stuff in Nirvana, the retro stuff in Probot or the new stuff like the Dee Gees. He's interesting whenever he does something different, but vanilla to me when he's at his most successful. And I'd extend that to Wolfgang Van Halen. I have a feeling that I'm going to love a lot of what he does in the future, but I'm going to like him least when he's at his most successful. And this was definitely successful. It's accessible and it fits what the mainstream wants right now.
I can't say I don't like this, because it's very easy to like, but I didn't love it and I doubt I'll return to it. I appreciated it more than I liked it, because Wolfgang is clearly talented, because he's walking his own road and because he's walking it really well. Sure, I dug more adventurous songs like Feel and Resolve, and I was fascinated by what he did here and there, like the way that his guitar felt a lot like an echo of the title in Circles. But, like Taylor Swift, this isn't really my thing. Maybe it will be yours. It's certainly very good.