When asked how his band would fare after the departure of David Lee Roth, guitarist Edward Van Halen put it bluntly: "This is the real Van Halen." At the time, it seemed just so much tough talk, an understandable attempt to quiet those who wondered how singer Sammy Hagar, a longtime denizen of heavy metal's second rung, could ever fill Roth's shoes. But with the release of "5150" (Warner Brothers 9 25394-1), Van Halen's first post-Roth effort, it's easy to hear what the guitarist meant, for there's more Van Halen on this record than ever before.
More Edward Van Halen, to be precise. His, after all, has always been the musical mind behind Van Halen, the source of each song's structure and basic melodic ideas. Trouble was, his vision had to be filtered through Roth's often diametrically opposed vocal concepts, often to its detriment.
With this album, though, Edward has managed to eliminate the middleman in the band's creative process. Whether this is because Sammy Hagar is a more sympathetic singer or simply that Edward has become more aggressive in directing the band, the end result seems clear enough. From the ballads to the hard rockers, Van Halen sounds stronger than ever, beefing up the band's musical muscle while increasing the material's pop content.
"Why Can't This Be Love," for instance, balances gritty, semi-metal guitar against a surprisingly insinuating melodic structure, thus providing a little something for everyone without pandering to the lowest common denominator. As a matter of musical ingenuity, the song is quite a piece of work; not only has Edward managed to work up a set of chord changes that keep the three-note guitar hook from seeming monotonous, but the shift from a light, scat-sung melody to heavy-metal funk and back is sheer genius.
Such sophistication is remarkably typical of "5150." The way the title tune weaves several separate melodic threads into a tapestry of song is a convincing argument against the mindless, monolithic structure of most hard rock material. On the other hand, "Best of Both Worlds," takes a guitar figure basic enough to pass for an AC/DC riff and, through a few subtle arranging tricks, expands the idea into a full-blown pop tune without compromising any of its essential bite.
Granted, there are a few missteps on the album. "Good Enough," a hard rocker riddled with insipid innuendo, finds Hagar sounding like a bush league David Lee Roth. Not a reassuring opening for the album. But the final track, "Inside," seems to set a balance. As much as the jokey conversation between band members may recall Roth's improvised monologues from the likes of "Beautiful Girls," the unaffected nature of the interplay suggests that such high jinks were not a Roth exclusive but simply part of being Van Halen.
Some fans may see that as a sign that the band is willing to go on as before, but the strongest indicators on "5150" are that Van Halen is still evolving. The album's two ballads are amazingly attractive: "Love Walks In" seems an ideal follow-up to "I'll Wait," while "Dreams" lands the band surprisingly close to Journey country, but without the overriding sense of formula. But don't read that as Van Halen going soft, either, for "Get Up," a tune driven by the furious drumming of Alex Van Halen, is easily the hardest rocking number the band has ever recorded.
Of course, that dichotomy between hard and soft has long been a stable of arena rockers with a strong mainstream following. True heavy metal bands, on the other hand, tend to stick close to a single sound, and that's why the pop content of "Turbo Lover" (Columbia OC 40158), the new Judas Priest album, may come as a slight shock to longtime fans.
Granted, the adjustment is small enough. Most of the material, from the title song to the likes of "Private Property" or "Hot for Love" are aggressively gothic, and though there's an undeniable pop undercurrent to such songs as "Out in the Cold" and "Wild Nights, Hot and Crazy Days," it's close enough to standard Priest fare that it seems only slightly soft around the edges.
Where the album really hits thin ice is "Parental Guidance," a composition rather pointedly directed at those who would label rock lyrics. There's nothing even remotely explicit in the lyrics of this album, but "Parental Guidance" is such an obviously safe shot, both in its lyrical stance and mock anthemic melody, that it seems little more than an attempt to profit from the notoriety of the band's having been featured in the "rock porn" hearings. Somehow, one expects better of rock 'n' roll outlaws.