Heavy is the head that wears the crown. In this case it's Wolfgang Van Halen, whose late father Edward singlehandedly reshaped guitar playing with Van Halen in much the way Jimi Hendrix did years prior.
But rather than get caught up in the expectations of others, the younger Van Halen has been charting his own course, even while maintaining an extremely close relationship with his father up until his death on Oct. 6, 2020, from cancer at the age of 65.
Building on the success of his solo band Mammoth WVH, the 30-something songwriter made his debut with his self-titled 2021 album that yielded "Distance," a cut that earned the younger Van Halen a 2022 Grammy nomination for Best Rock Song and was written as he watched his father struggle with cancer. Amid dealing with his grief and working on his craft, hitting the road as a support act for Guns N' Roses and Alter Bridge, and being personally invited by Dave Grohl to participate in the Taylor Hawkins Tribute Concerts in London and Los Angeles, Van Halen returned to the studio at the end of 2022 with a renewed sense of purpose.
The result is Mammoth II, a 10-song outing that the earnest and cheerful Van Halen saw as part of his continuing creative evolution, even as he played all the instruments as he did on the first album.
"I think with the second album, I came into it with a lot more confidence after proving to myself that I was able to do it," he explains to Orlando Weekly.
"There were so many unknowns on the first album. It was done over the course of three years where we recorded over many different sessions. And I wasn't even sure if I could sing lead. I was just kind of nervous all around and it was a test to see if it was even possible. We ended up seeing that it was, which is why I was so excited to go back into it with all of that. It's almost like the first record was a rehearsal for the second one," he adds.
Whereas his father gleaned inspiration from the likes of Eric Clapton, Allan Holdsworth and Jimmy Page, the younger Van Halen's influences lean more toward Blink-182, Tool and Swedish extreme metal band Meshuggah. On the new album, those sonic nuances are flexed, be it in the infectious combination of layered vocals and pounding riffs that infuse the nearly seven-minute closer "Better Than You," the thumping pop-punk of "Erase Me" or the breathtaking sweep of "Like a Pastime," with its jackhammer rhythms that go from staccato sonic exclamation points to more of a serpentine time change. It all reflects a musician very much on his own creative quest.
"The challenges going into this project were just trying to expand upon the sound and trying to do something new versus treading old ground," he says. "I think that's why I maybe pushed a bit harder in terms of my songwriting and the length of certain songs. I started to not get super-careful or nervous about worrying that a song should be around 3:30 for a single. I think that's where 'Better Than You' and 'Take a Bow' sort of came about."
Now Van Halen and his Mammoth WVH members (guitarists Frank Sidoris and Jon Jourdan, bassist Ron Ficarro and drummer Garrett Whitlock) are eager to hit the road.
"We're embarking on our first sort of full-length tour and we've got Nita Strauss opening for us, who is a badass," Van Halen says. "It's going to be really fun. We've already had a couple of shows that have sold out already, which is crazy. We're playing an hour-and-a-half set and [it] is our longest set yet. As a headliner, everything is new for us. And then moving into next year, we have a whole other year of opening for Metallica. We've done that this year, which is crazy. We have a fun tour [set] with Slash and Myles & the Conspirators. One of the Conspirators, Frank Sidoris, is in my band — I stole him. So he'll be doing double duty on that tour, which will be fun. And then also, a dream come true for me is that we'll be opening for the Foo Fighters next year."
Given the technical prowess on guitar of his late father, it's easy to think that Wolfgang Van Halen's main takeaways from being around his pop's musical genius would primarily have to do with complex woodshedding. Instead, it's a far more simplistic and spiritual lesson he learned.
"I think more than anything what I took away from dad is that it's important to love what you do and to chase that feeling," he says. "You always saw him smiling when he was playing. That's what he was meant to do. And I luckily have that same feeling. Playing music is what brings me peace and happiness. It's something I follow to this day."
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