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POP MUSIC

Album Review

*** VAN HALEN, "Van Halen III," Warner Bros.

March 15, 1998|Sandy Masuo

Van Halen's first effort in its third incarnation may not be its most focused album, but it might be its most adventurous. Former Extreme frontman Gary Cherone, replacing Sammy Hagar, works his way through vigorous rockers ("Without You") and pensive ballads ("Year to the Day") that churn and soar with the group's signature blend of musical muscle and pop elan. But more than a few surprises lurk among the familiar sounds.

"Once" shimmers with samples and programmed percussion, while "Ballot or the Bullet" combines a near-hard-core grind with rustic, twangy guitar. The instrumental interludes "Neworld" and "Primary" aren't just platforms for Eddie Van Halen's guitar work but concise songs in which his playing is as evocative as any vocal. The album's biggest twist is the closing track, in which the guitarist sings for the first time in VH's 20-year history: "How Many Say I" is a moody piano number that unwinds with a gruff elegance reminiscent of Tom Waits (despite Cherone's extraneous, sometimes strained harmonies).

As concrete as the musicianship is, the open-endedness of the music is a reminder of this album's transitional nature; hopefully it's also a harbinger of interesting things to come.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

Hear the Music

* Excerpts from "Van Halen III" and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to:

http://www.latimes.com/soundclips

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