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Now comes new prophet Gary Cherone. The ex-Extreme singer-guitarist's ascension to one of rock's most hallowed thrones was big news after the band's nasty 1995 split with Hagar and its public rejection of Roth in his bid for a full-time return engagement the following year. Upon joining the band in 1997, Cherone wisely decided to let the music do the talking instead of pumping up his profile in the press, but judging from Van Halen III, his lack of an arena-rock-size ego is one of the few differences between him and his immediate predecessor. Like Hagar's, Cherone's singing is bombastic one second and listless the next -- of little use when it comes to hammering home his lyrics.

VH III maintains the band's long-standing equation for good-rocking success: saucy guitar riffs; hard, repetitive cymbal and kick-drum action from Alex Van Halen; stunning solo breaks by Eddie; and catchy vocal choruses. "Without You," "One I Want," "Fire in the Hole," and "Ballot of the Bullet" are all examples of this formula.Whenever things start to get a little dull, Eddie calmly rips off another effortless corkscrew trill or breathtaking run across the fretboard.

Cherone is distinguished only by his lyrics, which run from thoughtful to stupid, often in the same song. On "Dirty Water Dog," he methodically argues for rejecting religion and politics, then boasts "I'm just a hound-toothed heterosexual" and "I'm a peek-a-boy, booing at girls." But where Roth offered up leering sexuality with a killer hook and a smile, Cherone's clumsy wolf whistling just sounds creepy and pathetic.

Yet there is hope. The band covers some new ground in the kinetic, existential prog-rock ballads "Once" and "Josephina." And on the album-closing "How Many Say I," Eddie delivers a wistful, froggy vocal to accompany Cherone's best lyrics, which ponder humankind's embrace of hardness and doubt.

Van Halen may still be pushing the megawatt mush that characterized much of the Van Hagar era, but at least the new album offers a glimmer of something better down the line, along with 65 minutes of Eddie and his beatific licks.

-- Robin Myrick

King Crimson
The Nightwatch
(Discipline Global Mobile)

Self-indulgence can be a good thing. Robert Fripp has spent recent years going through his vault of King Crimson concert recordings in an effort to give the public definitive live representations of the group's various manifestations. (Prog-rock forefathers King Crimson have survived several drastic line-up changes since the band's birth in 1969. Its only constant member has been guitarist Fripp.) The release of two retrospective, in-concert, four-CD box sets and two separate live compilations (one a double CD, the other a single) might seem a bit excessive -- to non-Crimheads.

Fripp's competition with the bootleg market is no secret, and the painstaking attention to sound quality and liner notes on the live compilations, released on his own Discipline Global Mobile imprint, easily outdoes anything a bootlegger could come up with. What bootlegger would go to the trouble to compile every review written about the first King Crimson box set, Frame by Frame, in a booklet to accompany a four-CD box set of the band's 1973-74 live recordings?

Now he has dug up the November 23, 1973, performance that became the embryo for King Crimson's sixth album, 1974's Starless and Bible Black, releasing it as the two-CD The Nightwatch. The recording is as comprehensive as Fripp can make it; the liner notes question the correct running order of songs, and note the possibility of a missing "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part 1."

It's all here: Fripp's deceptively plaintive guitar chirps that swell into raging tidal waves of sound in "Fracture," barely masking Bill Bruford's ecstatic hoots as he pounds away at his barrage of percussion; David Cross's mellotron heaving a buzzing sigh of death in the middle of the title track, leaving him scrambling to fill the void by improvising some meandering accompaniment on a Hohner piano.

More than half of what became Starless and Bible Black can be found here, and a good part of that was improvised. Improvisation fueled this King Crimson like no other version of the group. It made for some remarkably transcendent moments as well as some numbingly dull ones.

The Nightwatch isn't necessarily King Crimson at its most masterful. Fripp himself points out this show's shortcomings in the liner notes, citing the unpredictable nature of live recording and the personal tension within the band at the time, a quartet that also included the frisky bass work and dynamic vocals of John Wetton. "I can't remember anything about this music until we reached this kind of low point where all the energy was gone, where all the effort in the world couldn't achieve a breakthrough," Cross recalls in the liner notes. "It was a giving up."

As much as the artists may have suffered to create this music, the result is a testament to a genre that went against the grain of popular-music ideas of the time, a genre that made an indelible mark. (Discipline Global Mobile, P.O. Box 5282, Beverly Hills, CA 90209-5282)

-- Hans Morgenstern

Harry Pussy
Live
(Cherry Smash)

Harry Pussy lives! On vinyl, at least. The Miami noise band's final show occurred almost exactly a year ago at Churchill's Hideaway, and the indie record label Cherry Smash has issued a limited-edition ten-inch of that gig (approximately 50 copies remain). It captures the vanguard trio's best-known aural elements: vocalist-drummer Adris Hoyos's bone-rattling screams and guitarists Bill Orcutt and Dan Hosker's anti-music twangs -- all of it blended together to create some well-orchestrated discord. For its last hurrah, Harry Pussy put on a noise clinic, the fifteen-track, twenty-minute recording deconstructing just about every element of the conventional "song." Forget about merely abandoning structure -- that's a given with a noise band. Hoyos/ Orcutt/Hosker break down the standard set list by playing songs more than once ("Sex Problem") and even by playing the same song consecutively ("Ice Cream Man"). And they confound the notion of song title by announcing names on the actual recording that differ from those used in the liner notes ("For Emil," "Stop"). One they I.D. as simply "_____." (Cherry Smash Records, 3322 Mentone Ave., #6, Los Angeles, CA 90034; CherrySmas@aol.com)

-- Larry Boytano

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