Same old VH, but hard stuff just doesn't play anymore

January 24, 1995|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

As near as scientists are able to tell, what pushed the dinosaurs into extinction was their inability to adapt. In other words, times changed, but they didn't -- and before you could say "Pleistocene Era," the dinos were a dying breed.

A lot of heavy rockers seem to be in the same position these days. As little as a decade ago, these rumbling behemoths ruled the charts; now they're lucky to maintain a toehold. From the Scorpions and Foreigner to David Lee Roth and Kip Winger, yesterday's hard-rock heroes have become total has-beens, as hip and desirable as a used Gremlin.

Consequently, the question raised by Van Halen's new album, "Balance" (Warner Bros. 45760, arriving in stores today), isn't "Is it good?" but "Should we care?" And in most cases, the answer will probably be, "Nope."

That's a shame, too, because "Balance" is actually a pretty decent album. In addition to having an insidiously catchy single in "Don't Tell Me (What Love Can Do)," the album offers further evidence that Edward Van Halen is one of the most accomplished and inventive guitarists in rock, while successfully reining in the worst of Sammy Hagar's vocal mannerisms. As heavy rock goes, this is about as good as it gets in 1995.

But that's the trouble. Heavy rock sounds pretty silly in 1995, and no amount of song-craft or musicianship is going to change that. For one thing, the genre's limitations have become painfully apparent in recent years, as what once seemed daring now comes across as cliched. "Big Fat Money," for example, is going to sound like a rewrite of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" no matter how well Sammy sings or Ed plays guitar, and at this point, most of us would as soon stick with the original.

Yet even when the band doesn't waste time wandering through too-familiar territory, much of its sound seems dated and stodgy. That's less the fault of the guitar than the drumming, since Alex Van Halen's tub-thumping, cymbal-smacking attack generates as much noise as it does rhythmic momentum.

Instead of driving the band, Alex's playing often as not merely adds another layer of noise to an already cluttered sound, and that can make even exceptional material seem like just more of the same. Thanks to him, "Aftershock" -- one of the most interestingly structured, instrumentally daring numbers on the album -- all but disappears in a swirl of percussion that virtually overwhelms both Sammy's vocal and Ed's astonishing guitar breaks.

Maybe that's why the album works best when the band is kept in abeyance. As nasty as the guitar may be at the beginning of "Don't Tell Me (What Love Can Do)," there's never any doubt about its tuneful intentions, and they -- along with the chorus' bracing shift from minor to major -- are what keeps the listener focused on the melodic drama of the vocal line.

Then there's the piano-driven "Not Enough," which plays down the instrumental overdrive enough to let Sammy capture the buoyant lyricism of John Lennon while delivering all the gut-level oomph of Michael Bolton (and I mean that as a compliment).

Apart from those tracks, though, "Balance" is interesting only on the instrumentals: "Doin' Time," a snazzy, electro-acoustic percussion workout that gives Alex an excuse to hit everything in his kit; "Strung Out," an abstract, almost avant-garde exercise in prepared piano; and "Baluchitherium," a soaring, guitar-centered rocker with enough melodic focus to remind us that Ed's real genius lies not with his astonishing technique, but his compositional abilities.

Whether they are enough to save Van Halen from extinction, however, remains to be seen.

BITS OF 'BALANCE'

To hear excerpts from Van Halen's "Balance," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6140 after you hear the greeting.

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