Van Halen’s 11th album brings a few surprises. While Eddie’s new look, a goatee and chopped pompadour, may seem a nod to the plaid-clad ranks, there’s nothing alternative about Balance. Nor, despite the Buddhist chanting that kicks off the disc, is there anything otherwise chic.
Balance is pro forma pomp rock — but with VH in top form, power aplenty remains in their slick machine. Their ensemble expertise confirmed with the massive Live: Right Here, Right Now (1993), Van Halen continue as passionate mechanics, constructing pop metal that, for all its lack of hip, provides dependable delights.
Actually, some of the best young guns — Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil — owe loads to Edward. Reinventing banshee guitar, he multiplied its effects, emphasizing precision and harmonics as much as distortion and speed. The new school paid attention. On Balance, as always, Eddie dominates: Phat riffing sends straightforward rockers like “The Seventh Seal” and “Aftershock” into a majesty their basic melodies struggle to support, and the instrumental “Baluchitherium” is Lord Pyrotechnical unleashed. And yet, as was first shown by the ’84 breakthrough, “Jump,” there’s more to this musician than fantastic finger work. With brother Alex’s thunder-bucket snare as a secret weapon — he’s easily the most distinctive hard-rock drummer since the late John Bonham — Van Halen engineer radiohot singles as easily as Eddie scorches the frets. “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” is just such a sing-along — and it’s terrific. And with bassist Michael Anthony in tow, Alex also shines on the almost funk of “Amsterdam.”
Finally, Sammy Hagar tears up the hyperspeed shuffle “Big Fat Money” and fearlessly emotes on the power ballad “Not Enough.” It may be time, after all these years, to cut that maligned belter some slack. He’s a sort of Everyman as rock star, a true vox populi. Gleefully, he surfs Eddie’s guitar waves, apparently getting as much kick as any fan does when they crash and tumble the studio walls — and that’s a kick indeed.