Van Halen III

Van Halen

Warner Brothers Records, 1998

REVIEW BY: Ben McVicker

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/23/2020

A hot mess that gets better with age. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But in the case of Van Halen’s much maligned album, Van Halen III, the phrase rings true.

The interregnum between the band’s final album with Sammy Hagar (1995’s Balance) and this black sheep of the discography was an unholy storm of mismanagement and bad life choices that doomed Van Halen III to poor reception before it was even released. Following the death of Van Halen’s manager Ed Leffler in 1993 – the glue of the Van Hagar lineup since its inception – the brothers turned to Ray Danniels as his successor. The longtime manager of Rush, Danniels was drummer Alex Van Halen’s brother-in-law and a quick solution to newborn problems. Hagar blasted the decision in his memoir, clashing with the man during and after the band’s 1995 tour. After Hagar’s departure, the band appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards with vocalist David Lee Roth in tow after recording two bonus tracks for Van Halen’s Best Of Vol. 1 (1996). Unbeknownst to euphoric fans enthused for a reunion, Eddie and Alex Van Halen had a new vocalist in line. Enter Gary Cherone, whose group Extreme had fallen from grace after the fans gained by “More Than Words” listened to the rest of their songs and were dismayed to hear rock ‘n’ roll. The manager of Extreme at this time? Also Ray Danniels. Fast-forward a year and Van Halen III arrived on the shelves.

Reception of Van Halen III ranged from mixed opinions that felt it would be better labeled an Eddie Van Halen solo album, to an absolute lambasting. There are definitely shortcomings to it. If Ray Danniels was a questionable choice as the band’s manager, how about Mike Post – a guy known for composing theme music for Law & Order, not rock ‘n’ roll albums – as producer of the record? Why does Michael Anthony only play bass on three songs? Why do Alex Van Halen’s drums pack the punch of a wet cardboard box?

The list of grievances goes further. But is my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Van Halen III really that bad? With Eddie Van Halen having passed away this year, it is worth revisiting his last album of original material (as opposed to 2012’s A Different Kind Of Truth’s re-recording of old demos).

My own introduction to Van Halen came with Best Of Vol. 1. I enjoyed both the Roth and Hagar songs and approached Van Halen III with curiosity. Like many fans, my first thought upon hearing the single “Without You” was “Is this Sammy Hagar singing?” Nowadays, I don’t hear the similarity as much. Sure, Eddie may have written this number and others with Hagar’s voice in mind, but keeping ideas on the shelves is common for bands. And it’s a great song! The warped guitar intro seizes one’s attention, there’s a heavy riff with a poppy chorus, and most of all, Eddie Van Halen plays with a renewed energy compared to the previous few albums. It’s a shame that Van Halen III sounds as muffled and muddy as a poor demo. Michael Anthony’s trademark backing vocals sound like they’re recorded underwater and the bass playing is buried in the mix. Nonetheless, the other two songs on which Michael Anthony plays – "One I Want" and "Fire In The Hole" – are among the strongest on the record. The former has an energetic catchy chorus, while the latter is a hard rocker that captures a bit of a Roth-style song in its last fleeting 30 seconds. 

Many fans grumbled about a surplus of lengthy ballads on Van Halen III: “Year To The Day” is an awkward teeter-totter of a song, swaying from soft and mellow, to Cherone wailing harshly at the top of his lungs. But what a guitar solo…! “Once“ features drum samples and mostly acoustic guitar. But again, the soloing is beautiful! The best of them is “Josephina,” in which Eddie has a nice acoustic chime and plays a joyful solo that fits well with the lyrics. As a teenager, I hated the six-minute closer of “How Many Say I” and referred to it as Eddie trying to emulate the boy bands. Twenty years later, I hear a mellow Roger Waters-esque vocal from a newly sober Eddie Van Halen at the piano. These songs could be cut to half their length, but I’d certainly take them over sappy Hagar hits such as "Why Can't This Be Love?," "Love Walks In," When It's Love," and "Can't Stop Lovin' You."

When I first listened to this album, “Dirty Water Dog” was one of my favorite tracks for its neat groove and a riff that seemed so unlike VH – in a cool way. And the hard rocker “Ballot Or The Bullet” still works great as a closing number, with EVH playing as freely as he’d sounded in years. Some fans complained about Cherone’s political lyrics, but why not see it as a maturation of the band? A verse like “When a house is divided, it just will not stand / Once it's decided, a line drawn in the sand” certainly rings true in 2020.

Van Halen III is one of those albums maligned upon its release over rock ‘n’ roll politics and the band’s decision to experiment with new musical styles. And as with the Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore (1998) or Iron Maiden’s two albums with Blaze Bailey, it is worth revisiting with an open mind. Despite an abysmal mixing job, songs that could be cut in length, and the lack of Michael Anthony…there is still much to enjoy, particularly Eddie Van Halen’s reinspired guitar playing.

Rating: B-

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