Review by Paul Monkhouse for MPM
Right from the start, Van Halen were going to be a different band without the flamboyant presence of former frontman David Lee Roth, the adrenaline-fuelled raw edges gone to be replaced by the vocal and guitar firepower of Sammy Hagar.
The former Montrose frontman certainly brought his own style into the band, their choice of the singer both ballsy and savvy, opening up the greatest commercial success the band had seen. Whilst the fans have seemingly always been split into two camps regarding the two line-ups, it can’t be denied that their status as a legendary, stadium-filling act has never been in doubt.
With this new 2023 remasters box set, the chance to revisit the four studio albums the band made with Hagar is a welcome one, a fifth disc with added material completing the package in sparkling form.
Named after Eddie Van Valen’s studio, the anticipation for 1986’s ‘5150’ was dizzyingly high as legions of rock fans across the globe waited to see what this new partnership would produce.
With the opening lustful drawl of “hello baby” and EVH’s bright riff heralding ‘Good Enough’, it was clear that this was going to be something special and the gloriously hook-filled single ‘Why Can’t This Be Love’ sealed the deal. Whilst the album may have had a greater number of ballads and love songs than before, there were still rockers to set the pulses racing, the frantic ‘Get Up’ and a strutting ‘Inside’ showing that the band hadn’t lost its mojo.
Whilst not as gritty as previous releases, this smoother side of the band was more cohesive and with its eye on domination through radio play, it hit the Number 1 place in the charts with some ease. Van Halen had averted a disaster and spread their wings to take flight once more.
The trend continued with ‘OU812’, released two years later as Hagar’s distinctive voice, EVH’s riffing and the immaculate rhythm section of Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen proved that this new blend was really cooking.
From the big rock ballad ‘When It’s Love’ to the wild ‘A.F.U. (Naturally Wired)’ all the bases were covered and they’d settled into a natural chemistry that was creating its own legend. Eddie’s playing on tracks like ‘Source of Infection’ showed where the spotlight continued to be focussed on but Hagar was certainly making his presence felt, the sensibilities he’d brought from his successful solo career altering Van Halen’s DNA.
The whole was a tightrope walk and at times things feel a little ‘safe’ but there’s still much to enjoy here and the Stonesy vibe of ‘Finish What Ya Started’, the drama of ‘Black and Blue’ and their cover of Lowell George’s ‘A Apolitical Blues’ show them pushing the envelope.
The band got seriously heavy on ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’, the 1991 release showing that they’d not forgotten their roots and it stands as one of the finest in their canon. With the hard hitting one/two of ‘Poundcake’ and ‘Judgement Day’ kicking things off into high gear, the only option was to hold on tight and what followed sounded tougher than they had in a long time.
This was an album made for blasting out on Summer nights as you drove your open top car through the streets of L.A. or the highways of Illinois, songs like ‘Runaround’ and ‘In ‘N’ Out’ perfect for air guitar playing. Acoustic instrumental ‘316’ brought a moments calm to the storm but with the bombast of ‘Pleasuredome’ closing, this was an album welcomed with open arms by the many who thought the band had leaned too much in the commercial direction.
Great while it lasted, tensions were starting to show with the band by the time they went to record 1995’s ‘Balance’, the Van Halen brothers and Hagar at loggerheads. No matter what was going on behind the scenes, the quartet were able to put down an album full of musical and emotional peaks and troughs, their sense of dynamics still burning as bright as ever.
‘The Seventh Seal’ is a thundering start and the quicksilver fretwork of EVH and powerful, raw vocal of Hagar on ‘Don’t Tell Me’ are worth the price of admission alone. With a rare appearance in the UK, as Special Guests for Bon Jovi on the latter’s stadium tour as part of promotional globe spanning jaunt for ‘Balance’, the band showed no outside indication of the issues bubbling under the surface and these new tracks slotted nicely into the set.
With this in mind and the strength of joyful blasters like ‘Amsterdam’ and ‘Big Fat Money’, the fact that this was to be the last time this iteration of Van Halen would record an album together reinforces the missed chance of more great things to come.
With eight newly remastered tracks, including the only track the band did solely as a B side, the fifth disc brings additional attraction for completists seeking different takes and that added thrill. They may not reach the unobtainable seismic heights of their debut, but Van Halen are always worth diving into and this set shows that their rebirth provided a treasure trove of jaw dropping guitar, pneumatic rhythms and great vocals.
There will always be people on either side of the Roth vs Hagar divide but, whilst the jury is out, ‘The Collection II’ gives a lot of weight to the Red Devil’s supporters. Van Halen remain one of the best bands in hard rock history and there’s room on their own personal Mount Rushmore for more than four faces.
THE COLLECTION II will be available on October 6 on 5 LPs and 5 CDs.
Pre-order both versions HERE. All the music in the set was mastered directly from the original master tapes, a process overseen by the band’s longtime engineer, Donn Landee.