A kinder, gentler Van Halen?

by Craig Constantine Cover of

My appreciation for Van Halen runs deep. I'm occasionally drawn to driving around randomly with the windows down and Van Halen pouring out of the stereo. They've been cranking out their unique style since what seems like the dawn of time. I have always been impressed by their ability to mix rock, lyrics (the coherent kind that carry as much of the song's meaning as the instrumentation), soaring guitar riffs, raw energy, and range. With the arrival of their latest release, "Balance" [1.0Mb 22khz 46sec au-file], I have just enough time to memorize the lyrics and get some new speakers installed before summer.

I had a music teacher who tried to teach me that musical compositions can be broken down via the follow scheme (I guess she succeeded since I'm using the theory in a review). Identify the melody(ies) and label them. (e.g., "A", "B", ...), then identify the bridges that link these melodies. (e.g., "A [bridge] B [bridge] A"...) Finally, locate any solos and label them. (e.g., "A [bridge] B [solo] [fade]") Amazingly, this actually works for a vast majority of music. Some of the really lousy stuff being produced today can be labeled "A [fade]". My teacher went on to say that the lyrics usually follow the same structure as the music.

What puzzled me about music from day one is how two songs from the same genre, with the same structural components, can feel so different. One song makes me change stations, while the other draws me in and blows my mind. The answer lies in the artists' energy and range. I hear tons of music that sound like someone bumped into a guitar and said, "Woa, dude! That's a cool sound, let's write some lyrics around it." I hate that sort of acoustic drivel. I heard somewhere that the Talking Heads write the entire instrumental part of their songs and then put lyrics to them, but that's different. The drivel I hate are those stupid, three chords, four strums on the strings songs with a screaming idiot spitting on the mic.

Van Halen makes me turn the stereo up entirely too far and makes me consider driving through traffic signals. Trying to figure out what makes one group excel while others flop is a bit like trying to figure out why mom cooks better than I do. About half of the reason is technical expertise and experience, and can probably be contained in the labeling scheme I mentioned above. However, the other half is totally mysterious. Although I've given up on solving the cooking mystery, I think I've made some steps toward identifying the mysterious second half of excellence in music. Energy is of obvious importance. The music, at its peak spots, has to contain drive and power. The listener has to feel that the musicians are wholly behind the composition. Van Halen has never lacked energy (proof by inspection).

Image of the band taken from inside the CD sleeve

However, pure energy alone is actually a drawback. I dare say that, in music, there are no absolute values. The songs and the entire album must move over a range of energies and paces. The whole effect is that of a rising and a falling. The experience becomes more and more intense, until the music drops back to regroup before making another charge for the pinacle. (I'll stop now with the anologies, since we have a fairly wide range of readers.) The movement through ranges gives perspectives and references. If every bar of music was running flat out, it wouldn't be the same. After two minutes, my brain would be numb, and without any references back to slow and easy, I wouldn't be able to tell how great it really was. Van Halen manages not only to swing through huge ranges, but also to hint at how much energy they are going to pump into the music when the songs are strolling through their laid-back spots.

"A kinder, gentler Van Halen?" No, absolutely not. The album is a delicious balance between high and low energy. "Balance" is... well it's unadulterated Van Halen through and through. If you haven't bought it yet, what are you waiting for?

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