Hagar Years Get Re-evaluated in New Van Halen Box Set (review)

Van Halen – The Studio Albums & Rarities (1986-1996) (Warner Brothers)

Much-maligned VH mach II compiled and reevaluated

It’s perhaps one of the most heated debates amongst music fans – David Lee Roth vs. Sammy Hagar – which era is better?  And, while there’s no disputing the influence of the former, delving deep into the Van Hagar years reveals some surprises.  The Studio Albums & Rarities (1986-1996) includes all four of the band’s albums, in remastered form, with an additional CD of Studio Rarities.

5150 – The band’s second era begins with Sammy Hagar mimicking the Big Bopper’s “helloooo baby!!” before launching into the blistering “Good Enough.”  The guys sound like their having a blast without David Lee Roth – Eddie is tearing off leads, while brother Alex is pounding gleefully on the skins.  And, Hagar has found a partner-in-crime in bassist Michael Anthony – their two voices blend seamlessly.   Hagar’s presence is definitely felt in the melodic first single, “Why Can’t This Be Love” – the Roth-era would’ve never been able to pull this off.  Oh, but we get even deeper.  An actual ballad?  “Dreams” is powered by Eddie’s piano and synths, but the chorus is pure Hagar.  

“Summer Nights” is an excellent, good time rock anthem, while “Best of Both Worlds” shows that Hagar could posture just like Roth, but out duel him in the process.  “Love Walks In” was another synth-led piece.  In fact, this one doesn’t have any guitar on the main parts.  This is territory that the previous iteration of the band would’ve never attempted.  The album closes with the goofy “Inside.”

OU812 – opens with the pulsing “Mine All Mine” – although the production seems a little watery.  Some of the punch is muted here.  “When It’s Love” is another Eddie synth ballad that chugs along nicely.  They really developed a knack for great choruses.  “A.F.U. (Naturally Wired)” is more VH posturing, while “Cabo Wabo” would introduce two words that would become synonymous with Hagar – he’d take it to the bank when he introduced a brand of tequila with that namesake.  The song is just kinda meh, but let’s hear it for inspiration!  While “Source of Infection” gives longtime Eddie fans a chance to marvel at his two-hand tapping.  

“Feels So Good” is an interesting mid tempo piece, melodically pulsing along.  It is perhaps the most pop thing VH had ever done to this point.  The sequencing of this record is strange.  Some of the best stuff is tucked away on side two.  “Finish What You Started” is deceptively seductive in its slinky guitar and rhythm.  It also features a fantastic guitar solo.  While “Black and Blue” is a hard and slow grinder.  

While there are good singles, the album cuts seem to fall flat, especially to what came before.

For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge – opening with the sound of an electrified power drill, “Poundcake” was one of their best rockers.  “Judgement Day” is sort or a paint-by-numbers rocker, but then check out those cool harmonies on the chorus.

Another odd sequence here.  Many of the best songs are further into the record.  “Spanked” just kinda lays there.  But, then that’s followed by the very good rocker “Runaround.”  Killer Eddie riff powers this.  I might argue that this is the best Hagar-era track.  The way Eddie interacts with Sammy’s vocals – the band just seems fully engaged.  I love the way it breaks down and then builds again.  

“In ‘N’ Out” just seems like an idea that shouldn’t have been an actual song.  “Man on a Mission” is another VH posturing number.  But, “The Dream is Over” is much better – I love Eddie’s guitar on here.  Surprised that this wasn’t a single.  Great chorus.

All of that is eclipsed by the stellar, “Right Now.” A cascading piano piece opens, then Alex’s hi hat, followed by the band, crashing in.  The song itself has a good message too.  The acoustic instrumental “316” is a nice touch.  “Top of the World” is a fantastic rocker.  Why they chose to leave it until the end of the record, huh?  

Odd how they “recreated” the vinyl inner sleeve for an album that wasn’t issued on vinyl.

Balance – opens with the sound of monk’s chanting, then the band lays down some serious riffing on “The Seventh Seal.”  It’s a decent rocker, but it really doesn’t go anywhere. In fact, that is a recurring theme here.  “Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)” was the Van Halen’s answer to the burgeoning Grunge movement.  But years later, it doesn’t really resonate – it’s just loud and tuneless.  While the posing of “Amsterdam” recalls the Fair Warning-era, but in a forgettable way.  “Big Fat Money” sounds like them trying to recreate “Hot For Teacher” without any of the passion, it’s just obnoxious.  

There’s also pointless tracks like “Doin’ Time,” an unimpressive drum solo by Alex Van Halen, and  “Strung Out,” which features strange string noises.  “Not Enough” has a sing-a-long feel, but it feels half-baked, and still just kinda ok.  While “Take Me Back (Deja Vu)” is tucked away near the end and is pretty good, except for the stupid effects on the chorus.  

Two tracks save the album from being a complete dumpster fire.  The first, “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You,” is Van Halen’s most obvious stab at a ballad, but it worked.  And, it still sounds good.  Today, it’s the second-most streamed song of the Hagar era (behind “Why Can’t This Be Love”).  It’s also the ninth-most streamed VH song overall (I would’ve lost that bet!).    

The second great track, “Aftershock,” features some flange Eddie riffing and then just builds and builds.  Hagar sounds like he’s singing like his life depends on it, while the entire band is on fire.  Eddie even throws in some much-neglected two-hand tapping on the excellent guitar solo.  This was criminally-overlooked as a potential single, and is one of the Hagar-era’s best.

Studio Rarities, 1989-2004 – collects some oddities, including a decent, down-and-dirty cover of Little Feat’s “A Apolitical Blues,” which ended up originally as a b-side.  The standout track is “Human’s Being,” recorded specifically for the Twister soundtrack, it features a fantastic “shine on” chorus.  Unbelievable that one of their finest moments as a band would be marooned on a soundtrack.  The rest of the fare here is just ok.

If I were to rank the four albums, I would say 5150 is their best overall – it’s got very little filler, while F.U.C.K. has a lot of fine moments.  Third would be OU812 because of the filler and the watery production, and falling a distant fourth would be Balance, which is largely a mess.  

While nowhere near as influential as the Roth-era of the band, the Sammy Hagar-led years featured more depth, as the band wrote a heaping amount of melodic tracks that still sound good today.  No reason to choose just one era of the band, the Hagar years are certainly worth re-discovering.  —Tony Peters