Squirm factor: 3
Van Halen could have been a great band, if only they had had someone to either a) play some decent guitar solos, or b) at least stop Eddie from playing them.
The group has an excellent sound. Bassist Michael Anthony is a one-trick pony playing the tonic really fast but it's a powerful effect that really drives the tunes, and drummer Alex Van Halen makes up for his complete inability to swing by being fast and noisy (apparently the salesman at the drum store didn't tell him the hi-hat can be played either open or closed). The real secret to the band's near-greatness is in the guitar parts, though. Eddie Van Halen knows his way around the guitar, that's for sure. There are dozens of innovative concepts throughout this record, from the muted suspended chords at the end of "Jump" to the New Age-style combination of finger-picking and tapping that opens "Top Jimmy" to the not-quite-power chords in the chorus of "Panama." The man is a genius at mapping out innovative guitar parts
But the solos are a hash. The songs are grooving along nicely, and then all of a sudden it's like they spliced in a different record played at the wrong speed. Impressive technically they may be, with a million notes a minute, but they don't reflect on the tune or the riff well at all. In fact, many of them are just plain discordant. The guitar solos take a lot of the pleasure out of this album for me. There is one excellent guitar solo, in "I'll Wait", which builds gently into a Romantic motif that works well against the chords pattern in the keyboards.
The poor choices in the solo playing reflect another unfortunate tendency of the album the mixture of brilliant and lame ideas, even in the same song. "Top Jimmy" has that wonderful guitar intro (which is repeated as a bridge) but then turns into a standard boogie tune. "Jump" is quite simply one of the best songs of the 1980's; it takes spooky synth tones, combines them with a keyboard line that stands in its simplicity as the catchiest thing Van Halen ever did, lays on a pounding rhythm section and incoherent but rabble-rousing lyrics to create a unique recording. Yet when they try to repeat the formula with "I'll Wait" it's a weak Simple Minds knockoff covering lyrical territory already driven into the ground by J. Geils' "Centerfold." "Hot for Teacher" starts off impressively with Alex's double-tracked super-speedy drumming, but it seems underwritten somehow, as they ride that old blues vamp under the verses to no particular point. A bridge, or even a third verse would make it seem less like a demo and more like a real song.
That's the trap you're always running into with metal bands, though. They love that heavy sound, and sometimes think it's enough to generate any music that's fast and loud, so they're not particularly selective. With Van Halen, we're lucky the good ideas outnumber the bad, but that's mostly due to the sheer talent present, not to any planning on the band's part. Still, if you love interesting guitar lines, you owe it to yourself to spin this disk a few times.
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