Review Summary: Numerous mistakes prevented VH3 from achieving its full potential.
It was a difficult time for Van Halen. The iconic rock band had just had a falling out with their vocalist Sammy Hagar, and had attempted to reunite with their original singer, David Lee Roth, but to no lasting avail. Thus, the brothers were in need of a vocalist yet again. Choosing a vocalist was a big decision; Van Halen had already split the fanbase in half by replacing David Lee Roth with Sammy Hagar a decade ago. The new vocalist would be the key to determining whether Van Halen would relive their glory days or crash and burn even harder than before. After much speculation, they decided on Gary Cherone, formerly of Extreme. Instead of going back to their roots, or releasing another Hagar-esque arena rock album, Cherone pushed the band toward a more experimental, progressive sound. Unfortunately, the risk did not pay off; the album was a massive flop, and is spat upon by nearly everyone, be they Van Halen fans or not.
The reasons for the albums failure are many. Perhaps the biggest reason people don’t like it is for the simple fact that it is different than anything else they’ve done. The title Van Halen III is misleading; this is surely not a sequel to Van Halen II. You’ll know as soon as you here the piano and acoustic guitar notes at the beginning of “Neworld”. Instead of the straight-forward, sexy rock songs of years past, Cherone’s songs are generally longer, more complex, and more – let’s see, how do I put this? – weird. This is not the problem with the album though. Rather than bash them, I applaud them for trying something so interesting and left-of-center. It doesn’t have the classic Van Halen touch, but their third self-titled is musically a unique, well-written album, full of surprises and interesting moments throughout. So then, you may ask, what’s the problem with it? Well, there are three problems with Van Halen III, which together, all but destroy the listening experience, and contribute to the low rating. I will explain each flaw in depth through the next three paragraphs.
Flaw #1: The lyrics. Gary Cherone is responsible for the lyrics on the album. I don’t judge songs by their lyrics, but Cherone’s work on the album didn’t really intrigue me at all. A lot of songs have lyrics that make little sense and sound cheesy and stupid. (Fire in the Hole, for example.) The lyrics of other songs, combined with the way Gary sings them, makes him sound more like a rapist than a lover; (see From Afar and Josephina). The worst however, is when he tries to sound smart by spewing out political clichés in Ballot or the Bullet. The rest of the songs aren’t bad, but Gary lacks the special charm that Van Halen’s previous vocalists had.
Flaw #2: The production. Van Halen III’s production was done in a way that was not pleasing to my ears at all. The guitars squeal and sound fuzzy and the drums are flat and weak. The mix is atrocious; everything is in the wrong place; The vocals are too high, the guitars are too low, and the bass is non-existent. The album could have sounded so much better if the production had more effort put into it.
Flaw #3: The vocals. Ouch… Gary Cherone’s voice is the factor that, well, kills the album, and the worst part of it is that it could have been easily fixed. Believe it or not, Cherone is a good singer, as testified by his performance in Extreme. In fact, he has more vocal talent than either Roth or Hagar. So why did he opt for screeching the way that he did here? Was he trying to sound like Sammy Hagar? Regardless of intention, his performance is nothing short of painful; his vocals have the potential to damage, or even kill a song. This is the case in the album’s closer, the piano ballad “How Many Say I”. Throughout all of Van Halen’s twelve-album discography, there has never been a song as hated and maligned as this one. The composition of the song is beautiful. Not typical, but beautiful. The piano playing from Eddie is very well done, and is complimented further by the strings that join midway through the song. Unfortunately, any hope for the song is killed by Gary Cherone and Eddie Van Halen, who also sings prominently on the track. Neither of them can sing, and when they harmonize, it sounds like two old men with no teeth on their death-bed, singing a lullaby to each other before they pass into the next life. The vocals, along with the poor lyrics and production, make “How Many Say I” the perfect picture of wasted potential; and the rest of the album to a lesser extent.
Fortunately, the album is partially redeemed by the songs themselves. Eddie’s guitar-playing skills are top-notch, as usual, and you can hear some pretty unique playing styles from him on this album. And although certain factors in the songs are bad, the songs themselves are for the most part, very good. Van Halen doesn’t limit themselves to 3 minute verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus songs. Most songs are over five minutes, and few stick to the laid-out formula. There are lots of different styles on here, from the reggae-tinged “One I Want”, to the sprawling, epic ballad “Year to the Day”, to the wildly experimental “Josephina”, to the straight-forward rocker “Fire in the Hole”. “Without You” is the best “rock song” on the album; it shows the best mix between “old” and “new” Van Halen. “From Afar” is another standout, with its “monster” riff (as described by other reviewers) and theatrical atmosphere. But the true opus of the record is the song “Once”. It’s one of the longer songs (7:42), but it flows so smoothly and never gets old. The piano and the unique percussion contribute to a lush Pink Floyd-ish landscape that makes the song really stand out as something special.
There are no truly bad songs on the record. This probably could have been considered a classic, at least in my eyes, if the various smudges, such as Gary’s vocals, were cleaned up. They were easily fixable, and really make the listening experience more tiring that it needs to be. Still, it’s definitely worth several listens; it will grow on you. But until a re-mastered, instrumental version is released, Van Halen III is not getting anything higher than a 2.5 from me.