ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, APRIL 16, 1998
By Steve Newton
Ever since Sammy Hagar replaced David Lee Roth as Van Halen’s frontman on 1986’s 5150, the band’s legions of followers have been split into the Sam and Dave camps. Roth proponents feel his macho bravado and hog-in-heat performing style suited the group’s early music; Sammy fans like the way he steered the band in a more poppy and melodic direction.
But no matter where you stand on the Roth-versus-Hagar controversy, you gotta admit that each had a vocal style that was immediately recognizable and well-suited to the band’s party-hearty mandate. They stood out, whereas the new VH vocalist, former Extreme crooner Gary Cherone, doesn’t. Half the time, he’s pulling off a Sammy Hagar impression just to make up for his own lack of charisma.
But even with its nondescript singer, the third edition of Van Halen comes across as a major improvement over the second, if not the first. The band has made great leaps in the songwriting department, although the bean counters at Warner Bros. must be worried about the prospect of limited radio play that accompanies Van Halen’s switch from boogie rave-ups and poppy ballads to a more thoughtful and engrossing hard-rock noise.
“Dirty Water Dog” is a jaunty rocker in the mould of OU812’s “Finish What Ya Started”, but that’s where the similarities between the old and the new band end. The new ballad, “Josephina”, exudes none of the bubblegum aura of Hagar-era power ballads, and the exquisite “Once” finally shows the onetime raunch masters capable of creating some beautiful and affecting music.
As usual, guitar god Eddie Van Halen steals the show, and his always-inventive playing is more stunning than ever. He redefines the power chord in the muscular “From Afar”, and his volcanic originality turns a typical mid-tempo strut like “Fire in the Hole” into a master class in live-wire rock guitar.
When Eddie’s wailing away, it’s easy to forget that his singer is no great shakes.