REVIEW: Van Halen – Balance (1995)


VAN HALEN – Balance (1995 Warner – Japanese version included)

I had no idea what to expect when Van Halen released Balance in 1995.  Grunge had come and gone, the landscape vastly altered since Van Halen’s last wax in 1991.  Eddie was the king of pyrotechnics, and that kind of playing was not in vogue.  How would the band adapt?  Well, they didn’t.  Balance takes Van Halen into a highly polished, commercial direction. This is “balanced” with heavier grooves and a couple more “serious” lyrics.   The result turned out to be one of Van Halen’s most pop outings.

BALANCE_0003Produced by the late Bruce Fairbairn, Balance borders on over-polished. The sounds are rich, thick and glossy, but miles away from the raw guitar pummeling of the early days, or even the previous For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Eddie Van Halen, in a Guitar World interview, said the album was characterized by “better song writing”, but I think what he really meant was “more commercial songwriting”.

The album starts with a different sound for Van Halen: Gregorian chants. Hey, it was the 1990’s and later the same year, Iron Maiden would introduce their X Factor album with similar chants, no shit. The chanting merges into a heavy guitar riff accented by a wall of droning fills. This is “The Seventh Seal”, and Sammy’s voice is in top form. Michael Anthony’s bass rolls and hits the notes at just the right moments. This is truly a great song, completely different from Van Halen of old, but surely a triumph.

The next tune (and second single) however, “Can’t Stop Loving You”, is an embarrassing foray into pop. While Van Halen wrote pop stuff before (“Love Walks In”), this song lacks cojones of any kind. The guitar is really thin, Alex Van Halen cha-cha’s his way through the drum fills, while Sammy sings a lyric that David Lee Roth would have used to wipe his ass.

“Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)” is anything but a love song. Sammy tackles drugs, faith, youth in crisis, and the 1990’s. Hagar has never sounded more foreboding, or mature for that matter. Eddie’s riff is simple, but dark and rhythmic. Michael locks onto the riff, creating this unstoppable wall of groove.

BALANCE_0005Sammy has an unfortunate habit of being too jokey when it’s inappropriate. Eddie didn’t like the lyrics to “Amsterdam” and you can see why. There is nothing wrong with this mid-tempo rocker with spare Eddie riff, except the lyrics. After the previous song’s warnings about drugs, suddenly Sammy is singing, “Whao, wham bam! Roll an Amsterdam!  Stone you like nothing else can.” Granted, two very different drugs (heroin vs. weed) but lyrically “Amsterdam” isn’t winning any awards.

“Big Fat Money” is very old-school boogie ‘Halen in intent; the music could have fit on virtually any of the first six albums. Producer Fairbairn had Eddie playing a fatbody jazz guitar during the solo section (mirroring a trick he pulled with the Scorpions two years previous) but it doesn’t save the song.  I’ll give VH a C for trying, but “Big Fat Money” is a C+ at best.

C+

“Strung Out” is a jokey opener to the ballad “Not Enough”. Basically, this is Eddie messing with (and wrecking) a piano from the inside! This was recorded years prior, at Marvin Hamlish’s house in Malibu during the writing sessions for 1984. Van Halen destroyed Hamlish’s white Yamaha piano and had to have it repaired.  It was covered with cigarette burns, and Van Halen had attempted to play the piano from the inside, by throwing balls at the strings.

That fades into “Not Enough”, another ballad.  Not quite as embarrassing to listen to as “Can’t Stop Loving You”, but not by much. Really, in the year 1995, Van Halen should have stuck to the serious themes, and guitar-based songs. Tunes like this made Van Halen seem completely out of touch with what was happening in the 1990’s. Within months of its release, Shannon Hoon would overdose, Layne Staley locked into a dance of death with smack,  and Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers went missing (presumed dead) after suffering long bouts of depression. These were dark times in rock and roll.  I just wasn’t feeling “Not Enough” and “Can’t Stop Loving You”, then or now.

Baluchitherium

Baluchitherium

“Aftershock” is another hard rocker, nothing embarrassing here, good riff, good melody, good song. Won’t make anybody’s desert island Van Halen list, however. A pair of instrumentals follow, an interesting touch seeing as Van Halen didn’t do too many instrumentals post-Dave. “Doin’ Time” is Alex messing around on the drums, which segues straight into “Baluchitherium”. “Baluchitherium” was so named because a baluchitherium was one of the biggest prehistoric land mammals known — and Eddie felt a stomper like this tune needed to be named after one of the biggest baddest animals to ever walk the Earth.  Unlike most VH instrumentals, this one just sounds like an unfinished song — an idea without a vocal.

“Take Me Back (Deja Vu)” is a pop song that I don’t mind at all, accented with acoustic guitar. Apparently Eddie had the guitar part in his head for decades, going back to the pre-Van Halen 1970’s, when he was a kid. It’s very laid back, but also very summery and the lyrics are decent.

BALANCE_0002“Feelin'” is a morose song but with an epic, powerful chorus. It is very different from anything the band had done prior, and hints at the directions to come in the Cherone years —  for better or for worse.  It’s a good album closer, as I like a dramatic ending from time to time.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Japan, there was one bonus track: this is the groove laden, oddball “Crossing Over”.  It’s a song about the afterlife and lyrically it’s probably the best tune of the bunch. The bass part alone on this song was so infectious that in my opinion, it is actually the main hook of the song. I’d consider this the best track on the album myself.  The arrangement is fairly unconventional, and the drums tumble and roll against the groove in a cool way. Again, apparently this song dates back to 1983! I think you will not regret tracking this one down.  Thankfully it was easier to find on the “Can’t Stop Loving You” single.  Notably, the Japanese version of the cover was also toned down.

On the whole, I think the majority of Sammy’s final Van Halen album is not to be ashamed of. I think the songwriting and lyrics were stronger than Unlawful, if only the production had been less geared towards pop and a couple ballads deleted, this might have been the very best thing Van Hagar ever did. However I’m not always the most objective guy.  There are Van Halen fans out there who don’t think much of Balance.  Some of those fans really, really don’t like Balance.  In order to end this review with some “balance”*, I found one and asked for his opinion.

Craig Fee: “I kept re-listening to Balance, doing my best to like it because it was 75% of my favourite band. It turned out to be more disappointing than my illustrious NHL career and my attempts to have a three-way with Rose McGowan and Liz Phair. “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” is a steaming pile. It still is.”

I don’t have any sort of rebuttal for that.

3.75/5 stars

* Two clear signs of a writer doing a half-assed review:  Using the same pun twice, and padding it out with quotes from other people.

VAN HALEN CONSPIRACY THEORY (™)

The band were foreshadowing the firing of Hagar with subtle hints left on the back cover of Balance.

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90 comments

  1. Baluchitherium is one of the best song titles I can think of right now. Totally passed me by but I don’t think I’d have got it anyway, better off just whacking 5150 on again.

    I like the VH conspiracy theory. You’ll be telling me Paul McCartney’s not really dead next.

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    1. Thanks man! I don’t want to get into the McCartney thing. That goes way further than you know. It’s best if we don’t discuss that openly.

      5150 is a great record — a bit thin but otherwise not bad at all. Is it on the 1537? How have you been enjoying your new analog-to-digital LP playing device?

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      1. No I never bought 5150, just relied on a 5th generation taped copy; the 7″ of ‘why can’t this be love’ was the first metal (as I thought of it then!) record I ever bought though. I remember taking it to a party when I was 14 and it being taken off the turntable for being too heavy – I was persecuted for my beliefs!

        Sadly, inconsiderate people keep insisting on celebrating my birthday with me so I haven’t had any quality alone time with it yet! Fiends!

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        1. I like to go in isolation immediately after birthday festivities so I can play with my new toys. I have a similar policy for Christmas.

          I have the 7″ of Why Can’t This Be Love as well! Picture sleeve. I just got it last year though.

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        2. That’s a good sensible policy.

          Rugby starts today too, so even less vinyl time – curse you, violent sport without protective clothing that Wales are dead good at!!

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        3. You have more than one hobby? You’re a sports enthusiast too? Where do you find the time? Add Lego to the mixture, and I think you must be a busy man. And you have kids too?

          I have a couple buddies at work who play rugby but I know nothing about the sport. I don’t even know if Canadian rugby would be the same as yours.

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        4. Only rugby really, because I used to play it a lot (it changed the shape of my nose) football (soccer) is the rage here and it bores the shite out of me.

          It’s why I do most of my posting after midnight!

          Canada aren’t bad, at the last World Cup you had a trio of dudes with some of the best beards ever seen in sport! They looked like Deep Purple roadies circa 1974.

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        5. Hey that’s awesome. I hope Canada become known for our beards. There’s this new band out of Hamilton that I really dig called Monster Truck, and they rock the beards real well, with leather vests open to reveal chest hair. And then there’s the Sheepdogs from Saskatoon who had some of the best beards to ever adorn the cover of the Rolling Stone.

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        6. Monster Truck are awesome, Classic Rock magazine did a bit about them and I checked them out. If you’ve got the chest for it you can’t beat a beards/vest/chest fuzz combo!

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        7. If you’re not hairy enough, you could freeze to death! How has your winter been? We hit -39 with wind chill a few weeks ago. I felt like Ernest Shackleton on some days.

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        8. I can’t even comprehend that, doesn’t the air freeze solid at -30 ?

          We have mild winters anyway, I live near the coast, so I’m in a mild part of a mild country with a mild climate. I’m guessing the lowest we’ve had this year is about -5, Canadian T-shirt weather! No snow this year.

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        9. Haha oh man, Nelson. That, gentlemen, is Comment Of The Week!!

          I can say, from my time in Saskatoon, that when it’s -56C, windchill making it ’63C, the insidesof your nostrils will freeze. It’s an odd sensation.

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        10. -20 isn’t too bad. If you’re wearing a nice big coat and warm books it’s actually pretty nice. Throw in windchill though and I’m hating every second of my life.

          There are two thing about wearing a beard in winter: It keeps your face warm, and your breath freezes in your whiskers.

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        11. It is pretty hard for the brain to reconcile, because it doesn’t seem possible. However it really is possible and living in it is all just a matter of being smart about it. Limit time outdoors to necessary things, like getting to work. Cover exposed skin. Wear many layers. A remote starter on the car was a nice touch. Absolutely have to have a block heater on your car and keep it plugged in, otherwise it will not start. The big trucks on long hauls don’t even shut their engines off at night, just leave them run.

          People always say ‘well it’s different because on the prairies it’s a dry cold.’ Maybe, but I will always contend that after a certain temperature, say -40C, it’s just COLD whether it’s dry or humid or what. I know we moved from the ‘dry’ prairies of Saskatchewan to the shores of Georgian Bay 8 years ago, and we get -25C or so at most (maybe -30C) and I’ve never once been cold here – though many people do complain, of course. Just a matter of perception, probably. And dressing properly for it. That’s key.

          Those few days we had that were -63C with wind chill, though… those were spectacular. I never thought I’d live in a place that would be quite like that and I considered myself really lucky to have experienced it. My lovely wife, on the other hand, thought I was completely nuts and told me to get back in the house and to stop standing out in it and grinning about it. ;)

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        1. Good Enough was in the movie Spaceballs :) I was so excited to hear a “metal” song in a mainstream movie that wasn’t horror.

          Bon Jovi had Raise Your Hands in the same movie…which we’ll be talking about later this week.

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  2. Last night I was having a few beers with a buddy and we started talking about VH which we always do but we agreed that over time and there Sam yrs with both think that 5150 was the best of that Sam timeline….
    And this am viola there’s Mike cranking out a review of Balance!!!
    When this came out back in 95 as well the lead off single Don’t Tell Me What Love Can Do was indeed a change and it had to grow on me cuz I mean like 4 yrs earlier it was Poundcake!!!…
    I dug the change in sound but when your hardcore fan you will find reason to accept the change within ones musical landscape..whoa I’m getting deep here!!!..hahaha…but yeah Seventh Seal yeah man and than into CSLU and it’s well like u said headed for the commercial writing for the hit …and than stuff wham bam ol Amsterdam .ummm ok but chorus is catchy but kinda goofy but for my money Feelin is the best song along with Aftershock(which I think coulda fit snugly on side 2 of 5150)….at the time loved this record ..now don’t really listen to it as much so as far as the Sam yrs go this would be my least favourite. Kinda like getting your big pile of candy at Halloween and for the next week your like this candy is the best and by week two your like ..ahhhhhhh not so much!
    Totally agree with your point rating of 3.75/5 ( that would be my score as well)

    FYI-caught the Balnace tour in TO back in the summer of 95 for 2 shows with OLP opening.
    Few notes about this…..
    They played 8 songs from Balnace in this show live and one night flipped out Amsterdam( I think)and played Aftershock in its place….
    Eddie was hobbling around….due to that hip he did a couple of flying Eddies but not like the old days…still was giving her though……
    Only 2 Dave songs were played I believe if memory serves me correct…Panama and Jump..
    Ed/Al /Mike at one point busted into Runnin With The Devil(crowd went apeshit) and when it came time for the vocal to come in they kicked into There’s Only One Way To Rock.
    Dug out Mine All Mine from OU812 as well and played that came across real cool live…..
    Good show overall cool to see back to back nights in a big market……but for my money I really liked the FUCK tour 4 yrs previous…..

    Sorry for the ramble….just my 10 cents…..

    Deke

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    1. That sounds like a great Van Hagar setlist Deke. One thing that was good about the Cherone years no matter how you look at it was that they did more DLR stuff. Unchained, Somebody Get Me A Doctor, there’s nobody that can argue that the Cherone years sucked entirely. They played those songs and that somewhat redeems that lineup.

      I like OU812 a lot. I think it’s probably a better record than 5150 even though it sounds a bit unfinished. I really enjoy that one.

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      1. When I caught em in Winnipeg on the FUCK tour they opened with Poundcake…Judgement Day…..Runaround ….AFU….now that’s a good pace as any to start a show…..

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      2. OU812 is a great album as well ….I remember they were on the radio show Rockline the night before the album was released and the first track they played was Black N Blue cuz they said the record comp was bugging em for a single for the album so that’s what they gave em!!!

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  3. >If you’re lucky enough to be in Japan

    I live in Japan, so of course I have the “domestic” (Japanese) version of this album.

    > the Japanese version of the cover was also toned down.

    I didn’t know the U.S. cover was different. Usually if there’s a toned down cover, it’s the U.S. version and not the Japanese one. Scorpions, Guns ‘N Roses, Bon Jovi, Poison all have “uncensored” cover art here in Japan.

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    1. Yeah the US cover was a little more…I dunno, a lot of people didn’t like looking at it and I prefer the Japanese cover to be honest. I wish I didn’t sell it. I don’t have it now.

      But you did get the bonus track on this one and as I’m sure you know, it’s awesome!

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      1. Well, sure. Maybe next weekend. You see, I have a confession to make: I own this CD. It’s right there on the shelf, chronologically correct with the rest of what I own by the band. But here’s the thing: I don’t know where it came from, I don’t know how long I’ve had it, I remember nothing about it.

        Personally, I find this troubling. How could I own a Van Halen album and not even have played it? It’s also disconcerting, I mean, how did it even get into my house? And when? Gah!

        Apparently I found the Snuffaluffagus of my CD collection.

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        1. OK, I’ve talked to my people and I do believe we can pencil in a Drunk Review of Balance for Friday night. Schedule is subject to change (and my meory of what it was I am supposed to be reviewing), but it’s looking good.

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    1. You may know that the Japanese versions of Scorpions “Virgin Killer” and “Lovedrive”, Bon Jovi “Slippery When Wet”, Poison “Open Up..And Say Ahh!” all have the original artwork on the album jackets. The U.S. versions of them are censored.

      (Also, KISS “Lick It Up” has photos of the band in make-up on the extra-large obi.)

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      1. Luckily I have Lovedrive, that cover. I think Canada got the same Open Up and Say Ahhh cover that you had.

        I would kill for a COMPLETE Japanese copy of Lick It Up but can’t afford one.

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  4. Wam bam – roll an Amsterdam….
    Now that’s poetry for ya.
    The Sammy years were awesome. A different Van Halen, sure, but just as good as the Dave era, in my opinion and not one bad album in sight. 5150 is fantastic. The production was very much 1986 and sounds a bit dated now, but not even close to some other records from that time. Balance, I think, is mind blowing. It’s a bit darker than we’re used to and a bit more serious which at first felt weird for a band like Van Halen, that has always been about humour and parties. But hey, this was the mid 90’s so…
    I’d give it an 9/10 without hesitation. I’d give 5010 a 10/10.

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        1. Ah, ok. I’ll be the odd man out then. ;-)
          Yeah, well, I really like it a lot. It’s a pop song and it really doesn’t sound like a Van halen pop track, like for instance When It’s Love does, but the thing is, I think Sammy Hagar is damn brilliant when he does his pop songs. Maybe not the best tune on the album, but I still enjoy it.

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    1. Fair enough Jon! I liked this a lot more when I was younger, less now. It sold well for me in the store, which was nice. It was really great to have something to listen to in-store that wasn’t top 40 or grunge. Around this time my boss had been playing Don Henley’s Greatest Hits and TLC CrazySexyCool on rotation for weeks and weeks and weeks.

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    2. >I think Canada got the same Open Up and Say Ahhh cover that you had.

      The full face? Not the one that was mostly blackened out (for some reason) in America?

      >I would kill for a COMPLETE Japanese copy of Lick It Up but can’t afford one.

      I have it on LP. Wasn’t unusually expensive (in Japan). Is it worth a lot in other countries?

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      1. Yes I have that full Open Up And Say Ahh cover, that is the “standard” cover in Canada. We’re not afraid of tongues like the US apparently is!

        A Japanese Lick It Up with obi intact? That’s worth a lot…I don’t know how much but if you take a look on eBay I bet you won’t find one for under $100 or $200.

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        1. >I bet you won’t find one (Japanese edition of KISS “Lick It Up”) for under $100 or $200.

          Really? I’ve never used e-bay.
          US$100-200? I only paid about ¥2000 (US$18) for it…which is the standard price of an album here.

          I also have KISS “Creatures of the Night” (both covers (with and without make-up) on LP with obi.
          Actually, I have every KISS album up to “Hot In The Shade” on LP with obi.
          (Of course, I have all of their albums on CD (with obi) too).

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        2. Here in North America, collectors pay top dollar for that stuff. I can’t afford to! Anything with obi intact, and anything else, people love it. And especially the album Originals 2 which was never available here. Actually another one, Chikara, is very expensive here. I saw one for $50 and I wish I had bought it. I made a big mistake, I’ve never seen it on CD since. Just that one time.

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  5. Can’t add much here. I only heard this one when it came out and I just couldn’t be arsed with it. Which was wierd cause I really liked FUCK but there you go… With VH there are a few albums I’ve just not spent much time but in a way that’s quite exciting. I might still have some awesome songs to discover later!

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    1. >Actually another one, Chikara, is very expensive here.

      I have that one too. It was actually pretty inexpensive here…about ¥1200 (US$10) or so.

      “Chikara”, as you may know, is my avatar. It means “power”.
      There’s a reason that it became used by KISS…not easy to explain–by basically it was originally meant as an abbreviation for “Casablanca” (KISS’s old record label).

      That album is titled “Chikara” (Japanese word written in alphabet letters) in English…and, ironically, 「パワー」 (English word “power”) in Japanese.

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      1. Hey yeah! You DO have the Chikara symbol as your avatar! I can’t believe it was so cheap there. It surely must be out of print now? I have bought discs from Japan before, from a retailer called CDJapan. I bought the two Blackjack albums, with Michael Bolton and Bruce Kulick, because they were never released on CD here. I find their prices pretty reasonable, but importing the discs here always costs a lot!

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        1. >You DO have the Chikara symbol as your avatar!

          You just noticed? It’s my twitter avatar too.( https://twitter.com/five_in_tokyo ).

          >I can’t believe it was so cheap there.

          Do you know that it has a “rock version” of I Was Made For Lovin’ You ?

          >It surely must be out of print now?

          For years now.

          >importing the discs here always costs a lot!

          Yeah, international shipping charges are steep!

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        2. I did know about that “rock version”. I have a couple different remixes of that song on singles, but I don’t know if they are the same version, or not. Either way it’s highly desireable here!

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  6. I think Balance sucks. I have no problem with some sugary sweet Van Halen parts… That aspect of their sound dates back to the first album and beyond. 5150 is a great album. OU812 is “mostly pretty good” … For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge has some good moments but is not great. Balance sucks. The end.

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  7. As for Craig Fee’s statement .. No need for Rose McGowan .. Liz Phair would be enough sugar for any guy to handle…. and yeah .. i dont have any reason to hear any Balance tracks again. WHy would I with all the other great Van Halen songs out there. Would be like forcing myself to eat a bowl of my own shit .. rather than eat the steak i could have had instead.

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    1. Alright that’s the kind of classic quote I like :)

      I like that this album seems to go love/hate with you guys. Although to be fair I think HMO has not heard it, he couldn’t be arsed I believe he said.

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      1. Alright then, it’s official: I call out HMO and HE’s gotta do a Drunk Review of Balance on Friday night too! We’ll both do one! Maybe he can be arsed if he’s in his cups… Whaddaya say, HMO? Ya game? ;)

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  8. I like the foreshadowing theory – interesting how the band members with the surname ‘Van Halen’ are the two that are not obscured in any way by light or bodies – perhaps they knew all along the band would one day be comprised of 75% Van Halens!

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      1. I agree with Van Halen & Balance being out of touch with a lot of the music scene in 95 – I think Eddie and the lads from Metallica at least went to the barber shop around the same time though :D

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        1. Mike – my thanks to you for reviewing Balance – I reviewed ‘Balance Sheets’ with my Grade 12 Accounting class today and played “Can’t stop loving you” as the song of the day.

          Noting of course the name of its parent album and hoping that they haven’t stopped loving balance sheets.

          So not VH’s finest moment but it made for a groaner joke to introduce today’s lesson!

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        2. Thank you gentlemen – I figured if “Can’t stop” wasn’t a high point in the VH catalogue, hopefully it would at least have new life as an introductory lesson hook!

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  9. For the fact this came during the grunge period, this album farking rocked! Was great to hear them return with some quality tunes not too far removed from the VH template.

    Seventh Seal (one of Sam’s finest vocals here) was a sensational opener and Aftershock probably this fans pick of the bunch (maybe not a top VH list but could make a top Van Hagar list!?)… Regardless it didn’t really fit the vibe of the album (the first half of at least), didn’t hate Can’t Stop Loving You and while a few song lyrics stank, well that was the Hagar era anyways, always to be taken with a grain of salt, song like Amsterdam worked well enough, where Sam may let us down Eddie always delivered so, ya know, gotta still dig it!

    Agree too had Crossing Over been included it woulda made for a huge closing song should never have been relegated as a bonus track (not to mention had they got to Humans Being sooner and included it here Balance woulda been far more, err, balanced, natch ;)

    Fantastic to see this record getting props and after all these years too! Probably the most informative and (IMO) accurate review for Balance yet \m/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I don’t know what to say except that I’m glad you found it was a “balanced” review! (I’m gonna milk that pun.)

      It would have been nice to see Van Hagar go longer, make another album or two, but those guys just can’t seem to get along anymore.

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  10. I’m with you on the hits n misses of this album…big fat money might be the most unlistenable VH song of all time IMO. I love EVHs tone on Seventh Seal, Amsterdam, Baluch…., Feelin

    Liked by 1 person

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