VAN HALEN – Balance (1995 Warner)
By Derek Kortepeter
I was perusing Mike’s blog like I sometimes do (what can I say, I’m a fan). I stumbled upon his review for a Van Halen record that means a lot to me, and frankly, is the one I love the most among all of the Hagar years AND Roth years. I was really surprised with just how harsh Mike was on what I’ve always regarded as the pinnacle of Van Halen’s creativity and musicality.
After discussing it with Mike, I decided to write somewhat of a rebuttal to his 3.75/5 review. I plan to try to explain why this record means so much to me as a Van Halen fan and professional composer/musician. I will quote from the original review to make this sort of sound like a discussion rather than me just being a dick and touting my opinion as better. If anything, I just want detractors of this record to give it another view and possibly a second chance.
Ready? Let’s go!
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.
Right off the bat I will disagree with you Mike. I argue that this is Van Halen’s most EXPERIMENTAL outing since Fair Warning. The melodic phrasing and song structures on some of these songs are incredibly progressive, and additionally, I believe that there are enough instrumental pieces that push what people’s perception of the band could be.
As for the polish, that isn’t a negative, the band has never sounded better. The way Alex tuned his drums is brilliant and crisp, Eddie’s tone never sounded more varied (at least until Van Halen III), and the band sounded incredibly tight and focused (Mike’s bass in particular is fucking blistering). The record being heavy is 100 percent a positive as well, as this applies not only to the slamming instrumental but also the lyrical content.
This is hard rock, metal, and avant-garde with pop overtones. Not pop.
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.
No argument from me here. The Buddhist monks chanting in their low vocal register leading into Sammy’s fever dream about the End Times as described in the book of Revelation is a beckoning call to fans that Van Halen is in its most mature incarnation. Balance is established right off the bat as a theme involving spirituality, but that isn’t the only type of Balance pursued in the record. I see many of these songs as mirrors of one another, focusing in on a true sense of balance. I will extrapolate on this as I go on.
“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.
Hoo boy. As I have already stated, I think the production on Balance is brilliant so we won’t retread that issue here. I always found this song to be sad, to me it is about the kind of longsuffering love that only couples who have been together for decades will understand. It shows an evolution in Van Halen’s views on love, which before were often juvenile in the sense that it was more about the start of the relationship before things get hard. The theme of commitment never really factored into the equation until this track, just the hormones in your body exploding when love is raw and new to you. David Lee Roth could never have come up with something like this, ever.
“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.
We agree here, this song is fucking genius in its execution and is the closest to metal Van Halen get until they write “Humans Being” a little later. Also here is where we begin to see the theme of Balance, which I argue permeates the record, take shape. The prior track is about a fulfilling love, this track is about the absence of love and how the dejected react in situations of pure despair. Pay attention, pretty much every song on the record has a directly opposing relationship to the song that it follows.
There is nothing wrong with this mid-tempo rocker (“Amsterdam”) with spare Eddie riff, except the lyrics.
Look the lyrics are in a party song, which as I recall, are not required to be Shakespeare. Do you really think that any DLR era gems known for partying like “Take Your Whiskey Home” are any more profound? Lyrics aside, this song is setting up another element of Balance by exploring sins of the flesh and addictive behaviors that can be found in so many cities. It is about losing control and giving into your desires, especially in this case with regards to alcohol and drugs. This is one part of the Balance equation, as the next track deals with sins of a different kind. Greed.
I’ll give VH a C for trying, but “Big Fat Money” is a C+ at best.
“Big Fat Money” is a raucous psychobilly freakout of a song. Every member of the band loses their fucking mind by giving all their energy into this burner of a track. Sammy shreds his vocal chords as he rapid-fires phrases, Eddie brings up-tempo blues and ragtime sounds to the forefront, Alex plays double-time almost punk rock beats, and Michael Anthony just slays you with his furious basslines. Furthermore, the element of Balance in relation to the prior track is the other most focused-upon sin in society (Greed). The song shows the destructive nature in a way, however, as you feel like the lyrics hint at somebody losing their mind to their desires that began in Amsterdam and continued to spiral downwards into pure insanity. The balance is the lure of desire and then the destructive after-effects of such desire.
“Strung Out” is a jokey opener to the ballad “Not Enough”.
I look at this track as an example of “chance music.” Much like the music of John Cage and other contemporaries of his, the aleatoric nature of “Strung Out” is based on numerous factors. It is essentially Eddie fucking around with piano strings, but it isn’t a joke in my opinion. If anything, it shows Van Halen willing to ask their listeners what music is, and more importantly, what they should define Van Halen as. It is in every way an experimental, not pop, foray into a new direction.
That fades into “Not Enough”, another ballad… Tunes like this made Van Halen seem completely out of touch with what was happening in the 1990s. 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.
OK, a lot to unpack here. “Not Enough” isn’t a conventional ballad at all. It is about love and, more importantly, the loss of love. It doesn’t show a band out of touch at all, if anything, it shows that they are more in tune than ever. “Not Enough” is about the heart wrenching aspect of loss of someone you love. Period. The music video is somber and yet it also gives you hope. Eddie’s chorus-washed solo is a work of genius and as a whole the song remains the most mature expression of love and loss that I can possibly find in their catalogue.
As for the mentions of Layne Staley and Richey Edwards, I feel that I must interject that Alice In Chains and Manic Street Preachers are two incredibly important bands in my life. Layne spoke to my pain as a longtime sufferer of mental disorders and Richey looked at the world in the same cynical way that I do (plus as a Welsh-American, the Manics are a part of my culture and thus very important on another level to me). This is frankly a low-blow to the album that is unwarranted and patently false.
“Aftershock” is another hard rocker, nothing embarrassing here, good riff, good melody, good song.
As a drummer this is one of my all-time favorite songs to jam to. The entire song just blows the roof off of everything in its vicinity and remains a testament to just how hard Van Halen can rock. It also, however, brings in that same element of Balance that I speak of. “Not Enough” is about the raw and compassionate feelings of loss, namely in a relationship, but Aftershock is about the rage and bitterness that is likely to follow in the grieving process of a relationship. Both essential. Both a part of Balance.
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”.
These two songs are another part of me arguing about the experimental nature of this record. To devote so much time to instrumentals, especially the way they are structured here, is to push the band out of the Billboard 100 arena and into the “thinking” arena. The band is showing they are incredibly versatile and willing to take risks. Furthermore, guitar and drums are naturally instruments needed in order to balance out the equation of a rock band. Taken a step further, the instruments are played by brothers who are in many ways needed in their personal and professional lives to achieve balance.
Nothing on this record is haphazardly added.
“Take Me Back (Deja Vu)” is a pop song that I don’t mind at all, accented with acoustic guitar.
It’s a brilliant song with brilliant instrumentation and vocals from Sammy. Also, it fits into the balance equation as it is about longing for better times. The reminiscing for the good times is here because the next track is all about the ugly of the present times.
“Feelin’” is a morose song but with an epic, powerful chorus. It is very different from anything the band had done prior.
The song is a masterpiece. Sammy is singing of a world on fire in every aspect of society as we know it. The song twists and turns with dazzling instrumentals and lyrics that are screamed at the heavens. It is the band completing its evolution into the mature incarnation of the band once known for wanting to “Dance the Night Away”. This would be the last song on the record unless you got it in Japan (more on that in a second), and it brings everything to a close. It is the end of the record, and unfortunately, the beginning of the End for the Hagar years.
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.
I am often called an experimental composer, so I suppose it is no surprise that I love this song and was so disappointed that it took me years after purchasing Balance to find it. I believe that this track completes the cycle started in “The Seventh Seal”. Notice how I talked about every song on the record being related in a balanced symmetry? I believe that “Crossing Over” is the mirror to “The Seventh Seal”. The album opens with nightmares of spiritual chaos, and this track is the completion of such chaos.
So, what do I have to say in closing? This record shows Van Halen at its highest possible output of creativity, and most importantly, its ability to show a deep philosophical approach to its writing never seen before or since. Balance is the culmination of everything that Van Halen was destined to be, and for that reason, it is the best record they ever wrote. Even if you disagree 100 percent with me, or just really hate Sammy Hagar, give this one another chance.
You might be surprised what you find.