Van Halen
Van Halen III
Warner Bros.

The loss of a charismatic frontman usually spells trouble for any band, but resilient pop-metal veterans Van Halen seem to have turned that maxim on its ear. Having weathered both the showy, cock-rock posturing of David Lee Roth and the earnest wailing of Sammy Hagar, the group now enters its third career phase. Van Halen's dual challenge: to maintain their elevated position in the market while reconfirming their own relevance amid younger acts that cite them as a primary influence. Talk about a tall order to fill.

It would seem, then, that levelheaded former Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone would be an extremely wise choice to take over the lead-singer post in this new VH incarnation, especially after the much-publicized Hagar split and the subsequent MTV debacle with Roth. The public ought to be familiar with Cherone's sugary sweet croon from the hit "More Than Words," and those who actually own an entire Extreme album know that he's also capable of attacking more powerful material. Indeed, Cherone injects some much needed new-guy vigor into the material on Van Halen III, most notably on the hard-charging lead single, "Without You." In turn, Cherone's presence appears to have recharged the creative generators of guitarist and notorious studio fiddler Eddie Van Halen (who even makes his singing debut on the oddly touching ballad "How Many Say I").

Throughout III, heavy-grooving numbers such as "Dirty Water Dog" and "Fire in the Hole" alternate with more ambitious efforts such as "Once" and "Ballot or the Bullet," with Cherone showing a vocal diversity that -- let's face it -- was never a strong point for either Roth or Hagar. And with most tracks falling into the five- to six-minute range, there's more time for bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Alex Van Halen to add color to the proceedings.

Even so, III is bogged down by a few clunkers, and when Eddie shreds his solo in the otherwise dull "Year to the Day," it makes one wish he'd approached more of the tracks with that much abandon. Maybe he's just being cautious, overly mindful, perhaps, of the intense attention the album will undoubtedly generate. Common thought is that III is the band's most crucial release, one that will either move VH into the next millennium or leave disappointed fans anticipating a reunion tour.

Taken on its own terms, though, III is a solid effort that should prime the faithful for the band's upcoming road swing and possibly even win a few new converts. Any VH diehard knows, after all, that no matter who's behind the mike, what really matters is the hammering hands of Eddie, a guitar hero who has yet to go completely soft. (*** 1/2)

-- Bob Ruggiero

The Chinese Album
Sire/Warner Bros.

As resourceful British expats slumming indefinitely in Manhattan, Spacehog go out of their way to stand out in a crowd. At times, this punchy, self-important quartet -- quite capably led by the brother/brother team of Antony and Royston Langdon -- is an outright embarrassment, grown-up kids acting out their most gargantuan rock-star fantasies. On other occasions, their seemingly limitless, over-the-top charm and energy result in music that verges on brilliant. Whichever the case, Spacehog rarely fails to cram a multitude of highly distracting, nostalgia-ridden bits into a single, few-minute span.

In truth, Spacehog is such a purposely eccentric beast that it's a wonder they get any love from America at all. But somehow in early 1996, "In the Meantime" -- the ostentatious first single from the band's Resident Alien debut -- made it through the screening process and onto radio play lists to become a surprise hit. Playfully bridging '70s glam and '90s alternative, "In the Meantime" achieved a subtle balance between punk's art-school crankiness and glitter-rock's feigned sophistication -- the same balance that self-styled producer/mentor David Bowie failed to negotiate with Iggy Pop, decades ago. The funny thing is, Spacehog's Royston Langdon, with his pliable delivery and range, can sing a lot like both of them -- that is, when he's not making a display of himself like some liquored-up drag queen. But perhaps the best thing about "In the Meantime" is that it is as immediately gratifying as it is inherently sophisticated, artistry posing as novelty. Even more important, amid all of Resident Alien's gaudy pomp and circumstance, Spacehog never lost sight of the punch line.

Those same qualities govern The Chinese Album: namely, an affinity for the pompous fringes of '70s rock and pop; the frequent inclination to experiment in areas most bands won't even consider; and a sharp awareness of the absurd. As always, there's the irrepressible bassist Royston, whose singing ranges from the outlandish ("Goodbye Violet Race") to the inspired ("2nd Avenue," "Carry On") to the outright bizarre ("Captain Freeman").

But the most unexpected performance on The Chinese Album comes not from Langdon but from R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, who contributes a twee guest vocal to the wispy ditty "Almond Kisses." That song also boasts the album's most ludicrous lyric: "Boy's breath is humid to the nipple / His conscience she topples to the floor." It's safe to assume that the members of Spacehog don't have a whole lot to say. But they sure find unusual ways of saying it.

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