This is a tale of three vocalists and the guitar player who hired them. Van Halen I (1978-85): David Lee Roth was a bozo who couldn't sing, but at least he was entertaining. Van Halen II (1985-96): Sammy Hagar was a bozo who could sing, but his by-the-numbers songwriting made Roth sound positively profound.
Which brings us to Van Halen III (1997-?), and new singer and lyricist Gary Cherone. Formerly of middling arena-rock band Extreme, Cherone sounds disconcertingly like Hagar, full of spleen-busting bluster and incapable of understatement. Though Van Halen III is conspicuously lacking in the frat-boy tomdroolery that so enamored Roth and Hagar to fans, it still contains its share of baying at the moon. "Press against your lips," Cherone heaves as he closes in on a one-night stand in "From Afar," "taste the sweetness of your breath."
Every Van Halen singer has had the extreme good fortune to be associated with one of the virtuoso pop-music talents of the last twenty years, guitarist Eddie Van Halen, who has learned how to put his six-string artillery in the service of an increasingly broad range of songs. But ever since the commercial breakthrough of 1984, his ambitions have outrun his band's ability to execute them. Cherone has one speed as a singer on III — pained exertion — and longtime bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Alex Van Halen sound as though they're lumbering at any tempo. When the band plays it heavy, it mires itself in a Seventies tar pit, with only the chorus of "Without You" achieving any sort of pop resonance. Instead, the most thrilling moments are when Eddie Van Halen waves goodbye to the songs with his gloriously warped solos or when he abandons the notion of hard rock altogether. "Once" is an ambient piano-and-synth track with a lonely guitar circling overhead, and "How Many Say I" finds the guitarist singing in a disarmingly appealing, nicotine-stained voice over a moody piano melody. One can only hope this last number is a prelude to Eddie Van Halen I: The Solo Album.