New Van Halen relies on the old Music: Singer Gary Cherome adds nothing to the largely disappointing album "III."

March 17, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

For the last 10 years, there have been basically two kinds of Van Halen fans. There were the Hagarites, who believed that the band changed for the better when singer Sammy Hagar joined the fold; and there were the Rothophiles, who insisted that much of Van Halen's soul walked away with original singer David Lee Roth.

Now, the band has a yet another singer, former Extreme front man Gary Cherone. And after listening to the band's new album, "III" (Warner Bros. 46662, arriving in stores today), it seems safe to say that there will still be only two kinds of Van Halen fans.

Van Halen mark III may not be an outright failure -- there's too much musical genius in Eddie Van Halen's writing and playing for that -- but neither is it the total reinvention fans had been promised. Instead, it's an odd amalgam of the band's back catalog, evoking some of the sound of the first two Van Halens but none of the personality.

"Fire in the Hole" is a case in point. With its snarling power chords and swaggering central riff, it comes on with the same cocky assurance that marked such early classics as "Running with the Devil." Meanwhile, the throat-shredding intensity of the vocals is so close to the band's "5150" sound that some listeners will wonder if Hagar really left the band.

Trouble is, the tune doesn't have much to offer beyond that haunting familiarity. Sure, the fleet-fingered, ear-dazzling solo offers exactly the sort of guitar heroics Van Halen fans expect, and there's a nicely funky breakdown just before the final fade. But there's no real substance to the song. Catchy though it may be, it's just generic-brand Van Halen.

How did Van Halen end up in the Valley of the Bland? Although it's tempting to place the blame with Cherone -- whose complete lack of edge leaves him seeming like a cipher in most of these songs -- the truth is a little more complicated. Because even though the album was dubbed "III" to remind us that this is Van Halen's third incarnation, it really should have been called "One," because it's largely the work of a single musician: Eddie Van Halen.

It isn't just that "III" both opens and closes with solo performances; truth is, there isn't much band personality in the other tracks, either. In interviews, Eddie has hinted that he plays more than his usual guitar and keyboards on this album, and close listening suggests that he may have pulled a Paul McCartney and cut whole songs without bringing in either bassist Michael Anthony or drummer Alex Van Halen.

"Josephina," for instance, treats the bass line as a direct extension of the guitar parts, offering a lithe virtuosity that's not at all like the visceral simplicity Anthony typically provides. Likewise, the drumming closely follows the melody lines, offering lock-step support instead of Alex's usual rhythmic counterpoint. None of which works against the song, mind, but it doesn't do much to make it sound like classic Van Halen.

If anything, "Josephina" sounds like something by the Kenny Jones-era Who, with the guitars and keyboards evoking Pete Townshend at his most poetic as Cherone does a solid Roger Daltry impression. Nor is that the album's only classic rock flashback. "Ballot or the Bullet" owes more than a little to the Led Zeppelin version of "Nobody's Fault But Mine," while "Once" seems a cross between mid-'70s Genesis (particularly the semi-symphonic synths) and "Biko"-period Peter Gabriel (especially on the chorus).

Disappointing as it is, "III" is far from a complete failure. As always, Eddie's guitar work is awesome and inventive, full of quicksilver asides and how'd-he-do-that? flourishes. He's more playful than ever in his approach to the instrument, using electronic effects to generate an array of otherworldly sounds on "Primary" and letting the whammy bar stretch notes like putty in the solo on "Dirty Water Dog." Even his most subtle moves, like the bell-like harmonics he coaxes from his acoustic in "Neworld," add sparkle to the music.

Even so, "III" will leave even the most devoted fans wishing for more. Sure, "Without You" has its moments, but at this stage of the game, we expect more than moments from a band of Van Halen's stature. And while it's nice to see Eddie pushing himself creatively, that chance-taking doesn't quite justify "How Many Say I," a self-important bit of solo balladry that marks his less-than-convincing debut as a vocalist.

So now we know why Eddie kept insisting he had no need to do a solo album. Here's hoping the album after "III" features a full, four-member Van Halen.

Van Halen

What: "III" (Warner Bros. 46662)

Sun Score: **

Sundial: To hear excerpts from Van Halen's new release, "III," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6107. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 3/17/98

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