THE ALBUM -- Van Halen, "Women and Children First," (Warner Bros. HS 3415).

Begin to suspect Van Halen's "Women and Children First" album is up to no good when the fold-out poster reveals lead vocalist David Lee Roth in black leather pants, kneeling, chained by his wrists to an aluminum fence.

Now if you're not putoff by the complimentary bondage shot, proceed to play the LP. Of course, it needs the 130-decibel treatment to be fully appreciated. A typical cut, "Everybody Wants Somell," is distinguished by explicit sexual references spoken between screeching verses. Radio airplay of the song doesn't do justice to the animal screams, airplane guitar buzzes and jungle drums. There's enough heavy metal here to be recycled into a fleet of motorcycles.

Which isn't to say they don't have fans. Van Halen's ear-splitting barrage will draw mobs of anesthetized youths to a sold-out Capital Centre concert this Thursday, presumably not to listen so much as to soak up the electrified muddle of sound. To grownups, this is the sort of rock that gives rock a bad name.

If at first you don't understand Van Halen's music, crank up the volume.

The four-man group which sprouted in California a few years ago may be best known for their remake of a Kinks clasic, "You Really Got Me," and their own "Jamie's Cryin'." Alex and Edward Van Halen, Michael Anthony and David Lee Roth have repeated this power-rock formula through three albums. All the songs on their most recent LP are originals, though they're sadly lacking in originality.

Oddly, the album title is taken from the least characteristic tune recorded by the L.A. band. "Could This Magic?" is a folky ballad -- perhaps their idea of a musical joke but still the most listenable song on the album. It takes time out from chains long enough to indulge a backporch pickin' session with harmony vocals and slide-guitar licks. A vocal that sounds like John Sebastian, of all people, twangs; Could this be magic Or could this be love? Could this turn tragic -- You know that magic often does.

Down-home for a moment, it's metal-as-usual on the rest of the recording.

"Take Your Whiskey Home" actually begins with a hint of melody on guitar, but it's soon soused with drums, bass and monotonous vocals. A further electrical effect is achieved at the abrupt end, as though someone had pulled the plug on the group. And not a moment too soon.

Producer Ted Templeman has blended some artful guitar zaps and bass echoes, especially on "Romeo & Juliet" when a synthesized "heartbeat" weaves in and out of the oppressive shrillness. But such isolated touches are obscured by the general roar.

If you lost interest in grating metal back when Kiss added fire-bomb flourishes to their live show, Van Halen's latest effort is not for you. Their concert will be geared to young, shock-proof eardrums. For anyone else at the show, one line frm Van Halen's "Romeo & Juliet" says it all: "We're in for a very long night."