Forgotten Hard Rock Albums: "Van Halen III"
Van Halen III
Label: Warner Bros. Records
Release Year: 1998
Running time: 65:23
Hello and welcome to a new installment of Forgotten Hard Rock Albums. Normally, my intention with these columns is to shine a light on albums or artists that may have slipped under the radar when they were first released, but are still worthy of investigation by today's music fans.
Van Halen III will be an exception to this rule. I have not come here today to praise this album, or to convince you that it's some sort of underrated lost classic that deserves re-assessment. I come here today to bury it!
First, some background: in a recent article for this fine website, I discussed how I'd only "discovered" the Sammy Hagar era of Van Halen over the past few years. I had been a staunch David Lee Roth-era loyalist when Dave split with the Brothers VH in the mid '80s, and as a result I heard very little of the material they'd released without him over the years. However, once I finally got around to completing my collection of the Hagar era, curiosity (and my record-collecting OCD) demanded that I extend the same courtesy to Van Halen III—the 1998 misfire with former Extreme front man Gary Cherone making his lone appearance as Van Halen's singer. The disc was greeted with a collective "yawn" back in '98 and is still widely considered to be Van Halen's worst album... but after my Hagar revelation, I felt that it was time to finally complete my journey through VH's discography and find out what all the fuss was (or wasn't) about with this album.
"Fire in the Hole"
Enter Gary Cherone
I actually met Gary Cherone at an Extreme gig in Brooklyn, New York in the early 1990s and he seemed like a very nice guy, so when I first heard the news that he'd snagged the VH gig, I was genuinely happy for him. The combination made sense, because much of Extreme's music was very Van Halen influenced, and Gary's vocal style was somewhat similar to that of his predecessor, Sammy Hagar. Therefore, on paper, at least, Van Halen III should have worked. However, Gary didn't know that he was joining a band that was in complete disarray. After years of alcohol and drug abuse and general mismanagement, guitarist Eddie Van Halen and his drummer brother Alex were trying desperately to wrest full control of the band away from the other members, which had led to Hagar's exit and bassist Michael Anthony's position being reduced to little more than a hired hand. Legend has it that when an interviewer asked Sammy Hagar if he had any advice to give Gary Cherone, his reply was, "Don't unpack your suitcase."
I'll admit, when I picked up a cheap used copy of Van Halen III recently at my local music merchant, I was expecting much worse after 20-plus years of bad word-of-mouth. There's really nothing terribly wrong with the musicians' performances on VH3, or with Gary Cherone's vocals. The album's greatest sin is that for the most part, it's dreadfully dull.
VH3 kicks off with a short piano-and-guitar intro called "Neworld," and the first proper track, "Without You," which sounds a lot like a stripped-down version of an Extreme song. Gary is clearly jazzed to be singing with his heroes, but the song drones on for six and a half minutes, even though it runs out of steam after about three. This is a pattern that will repeat itself several more times throughout the album.
"One I Want" is slightly peppier and gives the listener hope that Van Cherone may finally be getting its sea legs after a rough start. "From Afar" is a decent enough AOR track that could've come from one of the Hagar albums. The rollicking "Dirty Water Dog," which follows it, is one of the disc's few highlights.
From this point, Van Halen III becomes a mixed bag of mostly-misses. The dreary ballad "Once" drags out for almost eight intolerable minutes, but fortunately it leads into "Fire in the Hole," a hard rockin' track that sounds more like classic VH than anything else on the record. More balladry follows with the dull-as-dishwater "Josephine" and the eight-and-a-half minute horse pill "Year To The Day," which only comes alive during Eddie's guitar solo around the three-quarter mark. "Primary" is yet another useless 90-second instrumental space filler that leads into "Ballot or the Bullet," another late-inning hard rockin' highlight.
The album's final track, the piano ballad "How Many Say I," has become infamous for its sheer awfulness. For some reason, Eddie Van Halen made the incredibly bad decision to take up lead vocals on this six minute dirge (with Cherone adding some occasional harmonies). The effect is like listening to a drunken lounge singer at last call, banging away on his piano to an empty room. You should've stuck to the guitar, Eddie.
"Ballot or the Bullet"
Van Halen III barely squeaked past Gold record status in the United States (500,000 copies sold), which was a far cry from the multi-platinum heights they'd reached during the Hagar era. "Fire in the Hole" appeared on the film soundtrack to Lethal Weapon 4 (which, like the band, had become a tired franchise in dire need of resuscitation), but radio and MTV largely ignored it and the album's other single, "Without You." Therefore it was not exactly a surprise when the band announced that they'd amicably parted ways with Gary Cherone in 1999.
Van Halen briefly reunited with Sammy Hagar following the Cherone split, but they didn't release a new studio album for more than a dozen years after VH3. When A Different Kind of Truth hit stores in 2012, prodigal son David Lee Roth had been welcomed back into the fold. All has been quiet in the Van Halen camp since then.
© 2019 Keith Abt