Review Summary: Van Halen shows in their final release with Hagar, that their music can be deeper than anyone thought possible.
If you listened to this and then listened to Van Halen's self-titled, you would not believe it was the same band. Back in the David Lee Roth days, the band didn't have a care in the world except hanging out with girls, having fun, and living the rock-and-roll lifestyle to its full potential. Following the band's sixth release, 1984, David Lee Roth left, leaving replacement vocalist Sammy Hagar to fill his shoes. At first, Sammy followed the party-boy persona as well, cranking out fun songs like Summer Nights and Top of the World, as well as heart-moving, if quite cheesy, love songs, such as When it's Love and Why Can't This Be Love? But on their newest release, Balance, the band trades away the classic rock-and-roll image, and releases their darkest and most thought-provoking record to date. The lyrics are deep, thought out, and for the most part, very good.
Tensions were high in the band at this point in time. Sammy Hagar and guitarist Eddie Van Halen were frequently at odds over matters including the band's musical direction and the latter's drinking problem. All this frustration was channeled into their music, creating a musical representation of their turmoil. The title of the record should be the first clue of the mood of this album. 5150, the first album with Hagar, is a codename for mental institution or something. Following that is OU812, which is supposed to translate to (Oh, you ate one too?) After that came For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, better know by its abbreviation. And then we have Balance
. No numbers, no jokes in the album title. Just Balance
. Between this and the somewhat graphic album cover, you should know that if you are looking for an album to bring to a party or something, this album is not for you.
Unfortunately, Balance is not a very balanced
record, and this proves to be its biggest flaw. Tracks like Amsterdam and Big Fat Money are OK songs that would fit on, say, OU812. Amsterdam has a great riff, and Big Fat Money has Sammy almost rapping the verses, and has an interesting bluegrass tinge to it. Good songs, but they don't work in the context of the album. These two songs, featuring lyrics such "Oh, wham bam, oh Amsterdam, Stone you like nothin' else can, Woo! Hot damn, roll an Amsterdam, She can't then nothin' else can" stick out like sore thumbs and push the record out of the atmosphere it attempts to create. One of the most important pieces to a record is atmosphere. Unity. Balance.
Another problem with the record is the track Strung Out. This is an instrumental (and I use that term lightly) featuring Eddie banging on a piano with various objects. The story is that Eddie rented an old house, found a piano, and bashed it to bits while playing it. He got a hefty fine, and the producer suggested putting the recorded noise on the record so the money wouldn't go to waste. Some may see this track as creative and innovative, but it is really nothing more than noise, and it's inclusion does more harm than good.
On the other hand, there are plenty of good things about this record. Eddie can still play as well as ever, throwing great riffs and solos all over the place. Alex Van Halen is excellent on the drums as well, and he even has his own solo in the instrumental track Doin' Time. The bass, courtesy of Michael Anthony, is not remarkable, but competent. Finally, Sammy Hagar is at the top of his career. His voice has lowered so he no longer screeches, and he sings his soul out into these songs.
Without a doubt, my two favorite songs on the record are Don't Tell Me and Not Enough. They share a common theme regarding the limitations of love, but they express it in different ways. Don't Tell Me is one of the slower and simpler tracks on the record, but it is arguably the heaviest, and has the catchiest chorus on the album. Sammy sings with emotion and power about how the power of universal love may sometimes not be enough to stop people from killing themselves, referencing the suicide of Kurt Cobain. On Not Enough, the topic is not about the limits of world-wide love, but instead about the limits of love between two people, and how sometimes, it's never enough. This track is a ballad unlike anything the band has ever tried before, including piano and strings playing throughout. These two songs perfectly represent what this record is about and should be considered Van Halen classics.
There are other great tracks though too. Opener, Seventh Seal, is a dark, heavy rocker featuring some type of Gregorian Chant. Can't Stop Loving You is more light-hearted, but unlike the tracks I mentioned above, this track fits very well with the record, and is just downright good all around. Aftershock is a fast and heavy rock song that includes one of my favorite Eddie solos. Baluchitherium is a fun-to-listen to instrumental, and Take Me Back is a ballad, which while not quite on the level of Not Enough, is a great, emotion-filled track. Finally, the six-and-a-half-minute, orchestrated closer, Feelin', is another standout, and really closes the album fittingly.
Overall, this is an great album, unfortunately let down by a few out-of-place tracks. Get this, but only if you are sure that you can look at Van Halen as more than just party animals.
Can't Stop Lovin' You
Don't Tell Me