Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Van Halen Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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5150 (1986, Warner Bros.)

A

The idea of a Van Halen without David Lee Roth seemed unfathomable to most, so imagine the shock of Van Halen fans worldwide when Roth not only left the group at the height of its popularity but was replaced by – essentially – his polar opposite, former Montrose member Sammy Hagar, formerly best known for his solo hits “I Can’t Drive 55,” “Your Love Is Driving Me Crazy,” and “Two Sides of Love.” But the idea made more sense than it might have seemed on the surface. Though “The Red Rocker” didn’t have nearly as outlandish or charismatic a stage presence as Roth, Hagar was, technically speaking, a more gifted vocalist per se than Roth and could better handle the more melodic fare that Van Halen was moving towards in the mid-‘80s (the chorus to “Love Walks In,” for instance, could never have worked with Roth at the helm); Hagar simply was more musically in sync with Eddie than Roth was in his final years with the group; and Hagar was also a first-rate and expert guitar player in his own right, which freed Eddie up onstage to play the occasional synth part. The album – co-produced by Foreigner’s Mick Jones – is a bit more pop per se than most of the Roth-era albums, but that actually works in the band’s favor here, since Hagar shines in a pop setting, and the best songs here have rock-solid hooks, particularly “Best of Both Worlds,” “Summer Nights,” the synth-heavy ballad “Love Walks In,” the soaring “Dreams,” and, best of all, the pulsating rock fury of “Why Can’t This Be Love.” Some Roth purists may have scoffed, but clearly the new lineup clicked with the public: this not only would surprisingly become the band’s first album to hit Number One and go platinum six times over, it’d be the first of four consecutive chart-topping studio albums for the band.

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OU812 (1988, Warner Bros.)

A –

The band’s second outing with Sammy Hagar at the helm is noticeably slightly harder-rocking than its predecessor, which may have been of some assurance to longtime fans who worried that the band was moving too far towards pop. But while the band’s instrumental interplay here is more dazzling here than it was on OU812 and Eddie is gradually beginning to downplay the synths, the band loses a bit of its melodic strength in the process, and the hooks here simply aren’t quite as immediate as usual (which is rather ironic, considering that this disc yielded more Top 40 hits – four in all – than any other studio album from the band). The country-tinged “Finish What Ya Started” (boasting some atypically John Fogerty-like bluesy guitar licks from Eddie), the down-and-dirty “Black and Blue,” the synth-heavy “Feels So Good,” and the arena-rock of “When It’s Love,” easily the catchiest song here, are all quite entertaining, but it’s not always as easy to remember how they go after they’re done playing as, say, “Why Can’t This Be Love” or “Jump” are. But the album – and, of course, the band – certainly sounds great, even when the hooks taper off, and the band does keep things interesting by tossing in the occasional curveball like the Creedence Clearwater Revival grooves of “Finish What Ya Started”, the ambitious “Mine All Mine” (arguably the best non-single of the band’s years with Hagar), or the unlikely cover of Little Feat’s “A Apolitical Blues” that graces the CD version of the album.    

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For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991, Warner Bros.)

B

The ‘90s were not a kind era to most of the hard-rock bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and most acts either tried to ignore the incoming tsunami that was grunge-rock and made no effort to evolve or they struggled to figure out how to weather the storm and began experimenting, usually to mixed results. Van Halen was in the latter class. Clearly, some sonic overhaul was needed to keep from sounding dated and passé, and, consequently, Eddie has largely dispensed with the synths this time around – the keyboard licks, where they crop up, are now typically instead played on pianos – and the feel is generally that of a return to more basic rock-and-roll (particularly on such heavy cuts as the lumbering opener “Poundcake”), although the arrangements are still a bit too busy for the disc to really succeed in that regard. But the songs themselves are generally fairly good – about on par with the better material from OU812, even if that disc as a whole is easily more consistent overall than this spotty affair – and cuts like “Top of the World” (which recalls such past classics as “Panama” and “Dance the Night Away” in its brand of driving rock), “The Dream Is Over,” and, best of all, the sheer anthem-like power of the “Right Now,” which incorporates the band’s new use of piano to fabulous, chilling effect, are actually quite admirable in their craft.  

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Balance (1995, Warner Bros.)

C

Arguably the weakest of the Hagar-era albums, there are a lot of dubious ideas at work here and more than just the creepy album cover! First of all, the band has jettisoned longtime co-producer Ted Templeman here in favor of working with Bruce Fairbairn, who doesn’t have nearly the same chemistry with the band and makes them sound strangely muted. There’s also – in addition to Eddie’s usual instrumental guitar showcase – a track-long drum solo for Alex (“Doin’ Time”) – perfectly well-played, of course, but bound to be skipped over by most listeners. “Not Enough” – which sports a guest appearance on guitar and background vocals from Toto’s Steve Lukather, something certain to infuriate Van Halen’s more hard-rock-minded fans – moves just a little too far outside Van Halen’s comfort zone into territory more reminiscent of the power-balladry of, say, Journey, while the awkward and preachy lyrics of “Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)” (which was actually chosen as the album’s first single, foolishly enough) end up sinking the song before it even gets going. There are some bright spots here – the chant-laden “The Seventh Seal” is certainly interesting; “Amsterdam” and “Aftershock” are great, gritty rockers; and the oft-derided single “Can’t Stop Loving You” is actually very, very good (it might not be especially hard-rocking, but it’s both quite catchy and surprisingly pretty) – but there are too many failed experiments here to prevent the album from feeling spottier than it perhaps really is; just trim away some of the weaker moments here, and this disc would nearly be on par with For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, if still far from a classic. 

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Van Halen 3 (1998, Warner Bros.)

C

There were a lot of reasons – a lot of them – for Van Halen fans to think dubiously of Van Halen 3 before even giving it a listen. For starters, there’s the fact that Eddie himself both sings lead – a first for the band – on the closing cut, “How Many Say I” and replaces original member Michael Anthony as the bassist on all but three tracks. Just as disconcertingly, the disc is co-produced by, strangely enough, Mike Post – yes, the same Mike Post who wrote the themes for such television series as Magnum P.I., The Rockford Files, Hill Street Blues, The Greatest American Hero, and Law & Order. (It’s not quite as off-the-wall an idea as it sounds – Post did, in fact, have some experience as a producer, having helmed records for Dolly Parton and the Kenny Rogers-led ‘60s band The First Edition.) But what really threw most fans for a loop was the fact that Hagar has been replaced here with Gary Cherone from the funk-metal band Extreme (best known for its more acoustic-tinged hits “More Than Words” and “Hole Hearted”). The choice of Cherone was mocked relentlessly among both Van Halen fans and music critics, but truth be told, Cherone doesn’t actually sound all that different here from Hagar and the disc would have been no better or no worse if Sammy was still behind the mike – the ultimate problem with the disc is that it feels like more of an Eddie Van Halen solo record than a Van Halen album, and there are too many missing pieces – Michael Anthony’s harmonies; Ted Templeman’s raw production style; the pop sensibilities that the band absorbed from having someone like Hagar around – to prevent the listener from feeling as if the band is suffering from a serious identity crisis. Despite weak cuts like “One I Want” and “From Afar,” there are actually some surprisingly strong tunes to be found here – namely, the funky rocker “Without You,” the Led Zeppelin-recalling “Fire in the Hole,” and the driving “Dirty Water Dog,” while the instrumental piano-and-acoustic-guitar duet “Neworld” opens the disc in unusually and extraordinarily pretty fashion – and the disc isn’t nearly as bad as some people might have you think and is actually half-decent. It just never should have come out under the “Van Halen” name. Just think of and approach the disc as an Eddie solo album (not that one exists, of course, but consider it the Eddie equivalent of Jimmy Page’s Outrider), and you might find yourself actually enjoying much of it.  

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A Different Kind of Truth (2012, Interscope)

B

A reunion disc that – surprising though it still was, especially coming a full fourteen years after their last album – pretty much had to happen at some point, if just to atone for the critically-maligned Van Halen 3 and end the band’s discography on a better-received note, this isn’t quite the proper reunion or return to form you might hope it would be. For one thing, the bassist role is filled here by Eddie’s son Wolfgang, who acquits himself surprisingly well here – and is to be commended for even having the bravery to step into the role, especially for having no prior professional experience – but is no replacement for Michael Anthony, whose high harmonies were such a major part of the vocal sound of the early Van Halen records. For another, over half of the songs here are quite literally re-worked leftovers from the earliest days of the band, so you’re not exactly getting the band’s A-grade material here, and too often here, the band sounds as if it cares far more about winning back its credibility with the hard-rock and metal crowd (particularly on the near-speed-metal-like “China Town,” “Bullethead,” “Honeybabysweetiedoll,” and “As Is,” the last of which sports some almost absurdly frantic drum work from Alex Van Halen) than it does delivering winning melodies, which are a tad scarce here. (It may take several listens for the better songs to truly start to sink in, but then again, these are leftovers, after all.) But, on the plus side, Roth is back in the fold and the band – despite Anthony’s unfortunate absence – sounds pretty great, and even if they occasionally get a little too metallic here for their own good, they at least sound like a little more conscious here of what their strengths are than they have on any album since For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. The fantastic “Blood and Fire” is perhaps the most vintage-sounding – if not the best – cut here, and the pounding “Big River” and the playful “Tattoo” are just as good. Arguably better than Fair Warning but falling a bit shy of the greatness of the other Roth-era albums, this is a respectable comeback affair, albeit a mildly disappointing one.

Compilations:

Avoid the 1996 package Best Of – Volume 1 (no second volume was ever issued), a badly-botched single-disc retrospective that includes two new cuts from the band, both with David Lee Roth back in the lead-singer role (“Me Wise Magic,” “Can’t Get This Stuff No More”), but ridiculously excludes a full nine of the band’s sixteen pop hits (“You Really Got Me,” “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” “I’ll Wait,” “Love Walks In,” and “Finish What Ya Started” being the most egregious omissions.) Far better is the double-disc package The Best of Both Worlds, which – in addition to including three new cuts, all recorded with Hagar back at the mike – includes every last one of the band’s Top 40 hits and adds a rock-solid sampling of album cuts and band classics such as “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Hot for Teacher,” “Jamie’s Crying,” “Beautiful Girls” and “Unchained.”

Live Albums:

The band’s only live disc with original members Eddie and Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony all still in the fold is 1993’s Live: Right Here, Right Now, recorded with Hagar on the promotional tour for For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. They’ve since gone on to make a second official live album in 2015’s Tokyo Dome Live in Concert, with the Roth/Eddie/Wolfgang/Alex lineup, but it doesn’t really represent the group at either its artistic or commercial peak.