heavy metal

REVIEW: Four By Fate – Relentless (2017)

FOUR BY FATE – Relentless (2017 The End)

“Supergroups” are everywhere these days.  Four By Fate is best known for its former members of Frehley’s Comet:  Tod Howarth and John Regan.  When they first formed, they also contained drummer Stet Howland (W.A.S.P.) and guitar master Sean Kelly.  Pat Gasperini replaced Kelly, and A.J. Pero played drums on half the album before his untimely death.  The band was completed by ex-Skid Row skinsman Rob Affuso.

Relentless is a beefy album, with 13 tracks including a handful of covers.  The opener is John Waite’s “These Times Are Hard For Lovers” (co-written by maestro Desmond Child), and it’s decent.  Frehley’s Comet fans will recognise Howarth’s lead vocals, though this band is harder than the Comet.  Blasting through “Moonshine” and “Hangin’ On”, they got a nice heavy drum sound.  It’s  good to hear Affuso on an album again.  Track four, “Levee Breach” is the first of six with A.J. Pero.  It’s a little like a Stone Temple Pilots clone.

The next cover is a remake of “It’s Over Now” from the Comet’s 1988 album Second Sighting.  Nothing is ever as good as the original, but if you wanted a heavier version of that power ballad, here ya go.  (You can really hear those low piano keys.)  Onto “Follow Me”, another one that sounds grungy.  They went with such a “modern” sound on this album.  Some might have expected more influences from the pop-smart 80s, the era most of these guys were rockin’.

“On My Own” has a cool Howarth riff and some befitting hooks.  Grunge emerges again on “I Give”, and a partly acoustic song called “Don’t Know” is similarly dark and out of the 90s.  Relentless almost sounds like an album written in 1994 or 1995, and not recorded until 2017.  Then suddenly, “Back in the 80’s” has a Dio-like chug, and of course A.J. Pero on drums.  Then it’s “Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo”, a really fun Derringer cover.  They close the album on a strange patriotic ballad (two versions) called “Amber Waves”

The strength in Relentless is the musicianship.  Howarth and Gasperini make a formidable guitar team, and we all know the reputations of guys like A.J. Pero and Rob Affuso.  Musically, Four By Fate can face off against the big boys.

3/5 stars

#752: Chip Away the Stone

GETTING MORE TALE #752: Chip Away the Stone

I didn’t have any childhood friends who were into Aerosmith.  I had to get into them on my own.

Well, that might not be entirely true.  Next door neighbour George may have been into them, but the rest of us ignored Aerosmith because they were “the band with the singer with the weird lips”.  They weren’t “metal” enough to be in my wheelhouse at that young age.  There wasn’t much Aerosmith being played on MuchMusic in the early 80s.  Maybe “Lightning Strikes”, but that was about it.  The music video with the greasers didn’t appeal to us metal kids.  The Joe Perry Project didn’t do it for us either.  The video with the pink saxophone?  (“Black Velvet Pants”.)  Not metal enough!  We were strict metal heads as kids, and pink saxophones were not metal.

What was it that finally caught my Aero-attention?  Joe Perry’s plexiglas guitar.

This all seems silly from an adult perspective, but we were just kids.  We loved metal, not just for the music but also that all-important image.  Videos were so important to us.  A band not only had to sound cool, but they had to look it.  Aerosmith didn’t look cool to us, with the tights and the lips.  That changed in early ’86.

Ironically enough the video was called “Let the Music Do the Talking”.  It was and is a killer song.  I didn’t know, or care about its history as a song by the Joe Perry Project.  What caught my eye was that guitar.  A transparent guitar?  I’d never seen anything like that before.  My best friend Bob and I were obsessed with unusual guitars.

“I have to tape this and show it to Bob,” I said.

The video itself was pretty cool.  A group of bootleggers snuck a camera into a concert to make their own video.  It was a glimpse at an adult activity we’d yet to experience: the live concert.  “Let the Music Do the Talking” made concerts look just as cool as we imagined they would be.  There was even a twist ending.  And like that, Aerosmith began to chip away the walls around me.  Once they got me to pay attention, I was loving the song!  Sure it wasn’t “metal”, but it was fast and rocked hard.  The singer may have looked kind of weird, but the guitar player was cool as hell!  I’d never seen anyone use a slide before.  Watching Joe Perry hammering away at that clear guitar gave me a million new air guitar moves.

What came next was “Walk This Way” with Run DMC, Permanent Vacation and mainstream recognition.  Before long everybody was into Aerosmith (again).  “Angel” came out when I was really into ballads, and it was a fantastic ballad.  On a kid’s allowance, I wasn’t able to get the album for many years, but Aerosmith were still on my radar.

Only a year after Permanent Vacation came the song that I grew to love the most.  What came out a year after Permanent Vacation, you may be asking?

Many people didn’t catch the 1988 release of Gems.  It was on their former record label Columbia and didn’t get a lot of notice.  What Gems had wasn’t a new song, just an obscure one dusted off:  “Chip Away the Stone”.

Written by Richie Supa, “Chip Away the Stone” is one of a few hit songs the guitarist gave to Aerosmith.  Others like “Amazing” might be more well-know, but “Chip Away” is special.  When the music video hit in late ’88, Supa was featured in it via archival footage (look for the guy with the moustache).  If anyone knew “Chip Away” in ’88 prior to Gems, it would have been through their album Live! Bootleg.  The studio version was only available on a rare single!  If you were a kid living in Kitchener in the late 80s, good luck finding it, or even knowing it existed.  For us, and the majority of fans, “Chip Away the Stone” was a brand new song.

I was getting into piano in rock songs around this time too.  “Chip Away the Stone” had just a hint of boogie-woogie and it hit the right chords for me.  Even though I was expanding my musical horizons slowly but surely, the music video still had a huge impact.  Considering it was made up of old live footage, it was surprisingly well edited, fresh and cutting-edge.  The shots of the piano were spliced to look like somebody was playing on one super-long piano keyboard.  I assumed it was Richie Supa playing piano:  the credits are unclear.  Either way, that video got me deeper into Aerosmith.  Way deeper.

Today my two favourite songs are “Chip Away the Stone” and “Let the Music Do the Talking”.  I have plenty of others — “Seasons of Whither”, “F.I.N.E.”, “Draw the Line” — but those first two just stick with me.  Part of that is nostalgia, but the other is that they are just great fucking songs.

REVIEW: Quiet Riot – Cum On Feel the Noize (1989 CBS cassette)

QUIET RIOT – Cum On Feel the Noize (1989 CBS cassette)

From the same line as the previously reviewed Trouble Shooters by Judas Priest, here’s a tape-only Quiet Riot compilation.  Like the Priest tape, Cum On Feel the Noize has nothing older than five years.  For Quiet Riot, that unfortunately means you’re only hearing songs from two albums!  (Nothing from the first two which were only released in Japan.)

The title track (and Slade cover) “Cum On Feel the Noize” goes first, muddy tape hiss and all:  this cassette has seen better days!  It’s an edited version (roughly 3:10), so perhaps something you don’t have in your collection.  The speedy album track “Run For Cover” then delivers the scalding hot metal.  Two more big hit singles follow:  “Mama Weer All Crazee Now (another Slade cover) and “Metal Health” (sometimes subtitled “Bang Your Head” in case you didn’t know the name).  These two hits will keep the party flowing, and that’s it for side one.

Proving they had more than just a passing interest in mental health, “Let’s Go Crazy” kicks off side two with a bang.  Frankie Banali is the man — his drums really sell this one.  “(We Were) Born to Rock” is another solid number, all rock no schlock.  “Slick Black Cadillac” is a shrewd inclusion.  Gotta have a car song for the road.  Then “Party All Night” finishes it off with a pretty clear message.

As a party tape, Cum On Feel the Noize would have done the trick.  You should probably just own Metal Health and Conditional Critical instead, but this is a fun tape and would have been enough Quiet Riot for most folks.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Psycho Circus – Psycho Circus (1992 cassette)

PSYCHO CIRCUS – Psycho Circus (1992 indi cassette EP)

Psycho Circus put out their one and only album in 1993.  They were a talented band who avoided grunge cliches and instead dove into funk-metal and a darker Faith No More sound circa The Real Thing.  The album was split down the middle between the two sides.  Decades later I found an earlier indi cassette, released after they signed with SRO Management, the team behind Rush.

It’s quite clear this band had musical chops.  Opening track “Picky Purple People” is killer.  Faux-horns, massive bass and busy drums are relentless.  This is a goofier side of the band, but well executed.  If the Chili Peppers and Faith No More had a baby, it would sound like “Picky Purple People”.  Next is “Funk in Our Souls”, a track that was re-recorded for the album later.  The cassette version sounds more bass heavy.  It’s more enjoyable for that reason, not to mention the smoking guitar solo.  “Can You Feel It?” was also re-recorded for the album, but this is one of those darker songs that eschew the funk.  Singer Vince Franchi hits unreal notes.  His voice is versatile.  It’s Faith No More without the twisted mind.

The final track didn’t make it onto the CD.  “Psycho Circus” opens with traditional circus music, a full six years before Kiss did the same thing with their own song called “Psycho Circus”.  Maybe they should try suing Kiss?  It would be fun to see!  That’s the only similarity.  This is another funky track, and though the circus music is a bit silly, the chorus rocks.

The tape comes with a nice J-card and full lyrics.  In a way it’s a better listen than the album.  It doesn’t have as many great songs, but it also has less filler.

3/5 stars

#750: KISS II

GETTING MORE TALE #750:  KISS II

Kiss frontman Paul Stanley seems emboldened by the monumental success of their End of the Road tour.  Why “emboldened”?  Because they’re pulling it off with only half the original band.  Ace Frehley has not shown up to sing “Shock Me” and Peter Criss seems happily retired.  Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer remain in the greasepaint and the spotlight.  It’s proof that the majority of the masses don’t know or don’t care who is in a band anymore.  The “fans” who refer to Thayer and Singer as “scabs” have had no impact on ticket sales with their boycotts.

Many bands have toured successfully in recent years without key members.  AC/DC made headlines by replacing Brian Johnson with Axl Rose.  Deep Purple are going strong with only one original member.  Queen sell out with Adam Lambert taking Freddie Mercury’s place on stage, and bring home terrific reviews to prove it.  Kiss too are doing just fine.

Would they be able to do it with even fewer original members?  Like, say, none?  Paul Stanley thinks so.  He’s said so before and recently he raised the idea again:

“I think that Kiss has served a huge purpose and brings incredible joy to people on the End Of The Road tour. The shows are packed, and not only with the early followers of the band, but people who have heard the legend of what this band does live. And it’s something that’s more than music. It really is a preaching of self-empowerment and the idea that anything that you’re willing to work hard for, you can probably attain. And the idea of celebrating life. Things that may seem simplistic or overtly simplistic, but actually have a timeless depth to them. So when bands continue, ultimately the people in ’em need to change or have to, because of circumstances.

“So that’s a long explanation for me feeling that I would have an enormous amount of pride in knowing that we can continue the band once I’m not there anymore.  That would be the ultimate test of its credibility and the role, I think, that it serves.

“I didn’t invent the wheel. I am the product of all the people who I looked up to, all the musicians who I respected, and it was kind of like a stew, and then I added my own ingredients to it. But there are other people who are out there who wouldn’t necessarily imitate me any more than I imitated my heroes. But there are people out there, I’m sure, who are well equipped to pick up the flag and run with it.”

Paul is correct to say that bands must sometimes change out of necessity.  He is actually the best proof of this.  Paul cannot sing anymore and has been miming a huge percentage of his lead vocals on this tour.  We won’t go down that rabbit hole this time.  Suffice to say, if this wasn’t the End of the Road, Paul couldn’t really continue singing lead in Kiss.

But replacing him?  That’s a whole other bowl of Cheerios.

The idea of Kiss going on without Paul and Gene – let’s call the hypothetical band “Kiss II” – would certainly cross a line with me.  Bands with one or two original members is one thing.  Many bands have replacement members far more important than the originals.  Phil Collen is a key member of Def Leppard, vastly more so than his predecessor Pete Willis.  Same with Roger Glover and Ian Gillan in Deep Purple.  Adrian Smith in Iron Maiden.  The list goes on and on.

Could a Kiss II be a viable prospect with Eric Singer the longest serving member?  With Tommy Thayer as band leader?

No.  Paul and Gene control Kiss.  The other guys have just been hired guns ever since the originals left.  Kiss may have started as four guys, but for the last few decades it’s the vision of just two.  (In the 80s, just one, as Gene went Hollywood.)  You could imagine Paul and Gene controlling a Kiss II band from behind the scenes, but that is a hollow prospect.  Imagine Stanley and Simmons discussing new costumes and approving setlists for a Kiss II tour without them.  Would you pay to see that?

I wouldn’t.

Kiss have already gone down in history, many times, for their accomplishments.  Making the band immortal with all parts replaceable might also be historic, but not in a good way.  There are guys out there who can sing better than Paul, and play better than Gene.  Tribute bands have all the moves down pat.  But you can go see a tribute band for $10.  Kiss II would be, in essence, an “official” tribute band and with Paul and Gene behind the scenes they’d be charging a hell of a lot more than $10 per ticket.

I think Paul has lost perspective.  Kiss has been successful, against the odds, in replacing Peter Criss and Ace Frehley.  But there was precedent for that.  Kiss made fantastic albums without either.  That doesn’t mean you can remove Paul or Gene from the picture and still call it Kiss.  Paul and Gene have always been the ones with the drive and the vision.  They are not so easy to replace.  Can you picture some replacement guy imitating Paul’s stage raps?  There might have been a brief window in the late 80s when Kiss could have gone on without Gene, only Paul, since he had become the captain of the ship for a while.  However that ship sailed long ago and it’s all but impossible to imagine the band without them both.

No, Kiss II is a lousy idea.  It’s just a way to milk naïve fans in this era of hologram and nostalgia tours.  Would they sell tickets?  Sure, they’d sell some.  These hologram tours are proof that people will pay to see anything.  Would it be good?  Hell, no!

 

REVIEW: The Darkness – One Way Ticket to Hell …and Back (2005)

THE DARKNESS – One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back (2005 Atlantic)

It was pins and needles, waiting for the new Darkness album in 2005.  First Mutt Lange was said to be the producer.  Then it was Roy Thomas Baker, who got a test drive on the 2004 remake of “Get Your Hands Off My Woman…Again”.  With guys like that at the control panel, you knew the Darkness were going to do something epic.  Unfortunately, some people just wanted more of the same Permission To Land style of fun but hard rock.  Those folks didn’t want flutes, strings or gui-boards.

“The new Darkness…sucks,” said one of my bosses when I walked in to work at the Record Store one afternoon in late December.  We had just received our shipment.  “In one song, all he does is sing, ‘I love what you’ve done with your hair,’ over and over again,” complained the boss, who loved raining on my parade.  My opinion of the album was the polar opposite.

There’s little question that the band took it too far.  Justin Hawkins was knee-deep in drugs and an infatuation with the 80s.  One Way Ticket to Hell …And Back is like a busy, manic snapshot of that period in time.  The band fired off in all directions, with pompous and bombastic kitchen-sink production backing them up.  Bassist Frankie Poullain was also out (the usual “creative differences”) and replaced by the uber-talented Richie Edwards.

The over-production is certainly an issue, especially when so many were attracted to the raw sound of the Darkness.  The shrill title track opens with flutes and Gregorian monks, and then Justin takes a snort.  “The first line hit me like a kick in the face. Thought I better have another just in case.”  A nice thick riff is joined to a soaring multi-layered chorus for that classic Darkness formula.  Then the acoustics and a sitar kicks in, because what else do you need on a song about excess?  The coke and money must have been flowing right through that recording studio.  (At least they saved a little money on the sitar.  They didn’t have to hire a player, since Justin could do it.  They did hire a flautist.)

“And I love what you’ve done with your hair!” screams Justin on the song that is (obviously) called “Knockers”.  It’s pure pop rock with piano, keyboards and slide guitar for that necessary excess.  “Is It Just Me?” (a single) strips things down to the basics, because you have to have a few songs like that too.  Then we get hysterical on “Dinner Lady Arms”, a Def Leppard song at heart.  Justin’s soaring high chorus was far beyond the Leps, but Phil Collen could have written that riff.

Permission to Land ended its first side with a ballad (“Love is Only a Feeling”) and so the formula was repeated here.  “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” is similar but just as good, embellished with strings and piano.  The most epic song, however, is “Hazel Eyes”.  The side two opener boasts full-on bagpipes and an indescribable high-pitched Celtic chorus!  Everything gels.  The pompous overindulgence, and the pure Darkness sound, are mixed to chemical perfection.  It also features that signature Eddie Graham drum fill.  Boom-boom-boom-boom, BAP!

There’s a brief stumble here.  “Bald” is an amusing song, rocking slow and hard, but lacking that je ne sais quoi that could have made it unforgettable.  Then Justin swerves a little too far into pop with the disco-like “Girlfriend“, complete with gui-board solo and the highest notes known to humankind.  A brilliant single it is, but perhaps an example of the Darkness going too far off course on an album that is already overflowing with excess.  Then again, perhaps it’s actually the right song for an album like this.  Where else would you put it?

As we close in on the end, “English Country Garden” fires on with a speedy piano rock jam.  It’s like taking a Queen LP and turning the speed up to 45.  Finally “Blind Man” is the closing ballad to takes things to their logical ends.  You will hear no discernible rock instruments, just the strings and woodwinds of an orchestra, for almost the whole thing.  That was really the end way to end an album this bombastic.  Appropriately, Justin’s vocals are similarly taken to the extreme.

You have to admire The Darkness for just going for it.  They could have done Permission to Land Part II, just by leaving out the excess.  They didn’t.  We knew they were going to go balls to the wall when they were briefly working with Mutt Lange.  You don’t work with Mutt Lange unless you want every note under the microscope.  There are a lot of notes on One Way Ticket, and each one sounds like it was painstakingly created in sterile perfection.  And that’s fine.  That’s one method of getting there.  One Way Ticket was the “experimental” second album, and like any other, it’s both baffling and charismatic in extreme measures.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Feel – “I Become You” video (1994)

FEEL – “I Become You” (1994 independent VHS tape)

Not all great bands make it, and Feel was a great band.  Formerly Russian Blue, Feel were active on the Toronto rock scene in the early 90s.  When things went grunge, they adapted their melodic rock to the times.  The result was dark, not-quite-mainstream hard rock that could appeal to both sides of the aisle.  Their album This (get it? Feel This?) had a number of memorable tracks.  They also released a home video for lead song “I Become You”.

The video arrived personally autographed by all four band members; a nice touch.   In addition to being a top quality song, “I Become You” is also a slick looking, well-edited music video.  It utilises tricks like slow and fast motion, still photos, and plenty of camera movement.  The result is a briskly paced video with a band always in motion.  The guitar solo segment is particularly good.  Feel were television ready, if only the chips had fallen differently.  Frontman Joe Donner had the chops and certainly appeared ready to be the next rock sensation.

4/5 stars

Make sure you watch the video to the end, as I added some bonus content!  In 1993 Feel released a sampler cassette called A Taste Of….  I included the “Introduction” track at the end of the video, as it has a sampling of the album and even an unreleased riff that didn’t make it.  Check it out and let me know what you think of Feel!

 

REVIEW: Queensrÿche – The Verdict (2019 “Masterpiece Edition”)

QUEENSRŸCHE – The Verdict (2019 Century Media 2 CD “Masterpiece Edition”)

The Todd La Torre era of Queensryche is now three albums deep. There’s no more mucking around. When drummer Scott Rockenfield went on personal leave, they didn’t let that stop them from writing and recording The Verdict. La Torre, a capable drummer in his own right, took on the challenge quite seamlessly.

So what’s the verdict on The Verdict?

The first Todd album (2013’s Queensrÿche) was safe and too brief.  The second (2015’s Condition Hüman) was a lot to digest.  The Verdict may have struck a better balance.  They’re still exploring their own brand of metal, bringing in a few new sounds without departing from their core direction.  They sound more comfortable in their own shoes.  Don’t expect a progression into new musical territory.  That’s not what The Verdict is.  It’s a full-force metal album with nuance, complexity, and plenty of guitar harmonies.  That’s what Queensryche do now.  The writing is sharpened, and the songs sound assembled with care.

The album requires a few listens to sink in.  The immediate standout here is a track called “Light-Years”, a song written by bassist Eddie Jackson who seems to come up with amazing songs out of the blue.  Regal, riff-laden metal with bravery and hooks.  This song should surely go down as a future Ryche classic.  (Jackson also wrote “Propaganda Fashion” and co-wrote a bunch of others.)  Another impressive song is the ballady “Dark Reverie” contributed by Parker Lundgren.  Todd really kicks it in the ass with his outstanding vocals.  The longest track “Bent” is dark and epic.  The only real weakness on this album is a lack of diversity, which they seem to be trying to avoid lest they end up with another Dedicated to Chaos.

The balance is clear.  The complexity of Condition Hüman is tempered by sharper hooks and melodies on The Verdict.  They’ve cranked out a lot of music over the last six years and they’re sounding more confident today.  Speaking of “a lot of music”, the consumer has choose between the standard single 10 track CD or the double “Masterpiece Edition” with rarities and new recordings.

For many fans, this will be their first chance to own the songs “46° North”, “Mercury Rising”, and “Espiritu Muerto”.  To get those, you had to buy the (previously reviewed) vinyl box set version of Condition Hüman.  Fans will also be thrilled by the four live songs from 2013’s Queensrÿche.  One of them, “Eyes of a Stranger”, could only be found on the (previously reviewed) Japanese version.  These, of course, all feature Scott Rockenfield on drums, his only appearances in this set.

The percussion on the two new recordings is handled by touring drummer Casey Grillo.  If he ends up a permanent member one day, nobody can say, but these are his very first recordings with Queensryche.  They are acoustic versions of “I Dream in Infrared” (from Rage for Order) and “Open Road” from (Queensrÿche).  Both are quite excellent.  It would be cool to get more of these acoustic renderings.  (Geoff Tate did four on his Queensryche’s Frequency Unknown album.)

The “Masterpiece Edition” (9000 copies) comes packed in a nice big box similar to the one from 2013’s Queensrÿche.  Additional goodies inside include an iron-on patch, a Verdict fridge magnet, and bottle opener.  Now your kitchen can finally be complete.  Just extra fluff, really — buy it for the songs.

4/5 stars

Just Listening to…Aerosmith – Permanent Vacation

This revisit is due to your Heavy Metal Overlord, who told me that Permanent Vacation is his favourite go-to album for reunited Aerosmith.  Due to the tremendous respect (and fear) I have for HMO, I decided that I needed to give it another listen.

My conclusion after hearing it again is that I had it dead wrong in my album review.  Yes, there are a couple filler songs.  “St. John” and “Girl Keeps Coming Apart” still don’t resonate with me.  But, man, there are some bangers on Permanent Vacation.  I didn’t remember how awesome “Heart’s Done Time” really is.  I forgot about the cool Beatles cover “I’m Down”.   I didn’t give due credit to the terrific title track. But most important of all is “Magic Touch”.  Is Joe Perry playing a whammy bar in the beginning?  What a song.  Could it be the best song on the album?  It certainly has a chorus that goes on for miles.

Permanent Vacation, as an album, might be overshadowed by its own singles “Dude”, “Angel” and “Rag Doll”.  But I’ll be damned if “Angel” doesn’t still make the hair on my arms stand up to this day.

I’ve been unfair to Permanent Vacation. It’s far better than I thought it was.

 

GUEST REVIEW: Van Halen – Balance (Derek Kortepeter vs. LeBrain)

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.

5/5 stars