Before they became "the hottest band in the land," KISS struggled through three quickly recorded, low budget, and even lower selling studio albums, not to mention endless club touring which is where they really made their reputation. Inspired by the New York Dolls, Alice Cooper, The Beatles, and glam rock, KISS had to be seen to get the full effect, but I'll talk more about their live show later, because this is supposed to be a review of their first studio album! Released on Neil Bogart's disco label, Casablanca, KISS contains several songs that became cornerstones of their legendary live sets, but unfortunately the majority of this album is comprised of good songs that are poorly recorded. I'm not going to totally blame producers Richie Wise (ex-Dust who I recommend you check out) or Kenny Kerner, because they weren't dealt the best cards to begin with (KISS weren't great players and the recording budget was miniscule), but let's just say that neither are Eddie Kramer or Bob Ezrin, either (more about them later). As for the members of KISS, the "superhero" guys who would later be embraced by their fanatical KISS Army, the leaders and primary songwriters of the band were rhythm guitarist/singer Paul "Starchild" Stanley and bassist/singer Gene "The Demon" Simmons, while guitarist "Space" Ace Frehley (the band's best musician) and barely competent drummer (but a good singer due to his gravelly whiskey soaked voice) Peter "Catman" Criss rounded out the lineup. Later on, the battle lines would be drawn, with the sober control-freak workaholics (Simmons/Stanley) often at odds with the less ambitious drunks (Frehley/Criss), but early on the band had a "one for all" attitude that was arguably their greatest asset along with their sheer determination to do whatever it took to make it. But I digress again, back to the first album, which starts with a KISS "greatest hit" (even if it was never actually a hit) in the simple but effective, dare I say it strutting rocker "Strutter." Any fan of hard rock should be able to enjoy this one, on which Stanley (vocals) and Frehley (great riffs and a cool solo) are the standouts, and "Nothin' To Lose," a simplistic yet catchy boogie on which Stanley and Criss share lead vocal duties, is a less satisfying but still enjoyable guilty pleasure whose theme (Gene trying to talk his girlfriend into anal sex) pretty much sums what KISS was all about in those days. What can I say? These guys weren't exactly trying to be Bob Dylan, but they could write and perform (just well enough) catchy hard rock tunes, though "Firehouse" is a forgettable plodder even if it provided an excuse for Gene to breathe fire during KISS concerts! Much better is Ace's alcohol anthem "Cold Gin," sung by Gene as it would be some time before Ace would be confident enough to try singing. "Let Me Know" shows Stanley to be the band's most melodic songwriter, while "Kissin' Time," a pointless cover of an old Bobby Rydell song, was added by Bogart without the band's approval in order to tie in with a kissing contest promotion that the band was somehow involved with at the time! (Bogart was pretty much shameless when it came to promoting his acts, and KISS would later be pretty much the same way, peddling damn near anything KISS related (lunch boxes, action figures, posters, pins, t-shirts, etc.) to make a buck.) Fortunately, the ship then gets righted on Gene's "Deuce," another catchy, hard charging stage favorite featuring good performances by all involved. "Love Theme From KISS" is a rare instrumental and a mildly successful attempt to add diversity, while the energetic, chugging "100,000 Years" became another live favorite, as did the finale, the Stanley written but Criss sung "Black Diamond." KISS get dark and metallic on these tracks, especially "Black Diamond," which was later notably covered by The Replacements, who had the right idea in stripping it down, as this version, while quite good, is too long, as perhaps the band were looking to pad out an album that was otherwise on the short side. On the whole, this is a good first album, poorly recorded but featuring several classic KISS songs.
Hotter Than Hell (Casablanca ‘74) Rating: A-
I seem to be in the minority on this one, but I think that Hotter Than Hell is an improvement on the debut due to its darker, heavier (yet still melodic) songs. Perhaps it has few songs that are synonymous with KISS, such as "Strutter" or "Deuce," but the album has quite a few sleeper favorites, even if it was pretty much a commercial failure when it was released. Sure, the album's less than stellar sound quality is again a much remarked upon problem, but the murky sound actually fits many of these hard-hitting songs, which contain lots of cool riffs and solos from Ace and plenty of hooky vocals from Paul, Gene, and Peter. Paul's "Got To Choose" is certainly a hooky highlight, poppy yet rocking, and Ace's "Parasite" (sung by Gene) contains good choogling riffs and a simple (no kidding) but effectively catchy chorus. "Going Blind," one of several songs here inspired by underrated early hard rock pioneers Mountain (and later notably covered by influential grungesters The Melvins), is among the band's best songs ever; heavy, moody, and perverted, what's not to like? The title track is another straightforwardly effective (subtle these guys 'aint) hard rocker, and "Let Me Go, Rock 'N' Roll" also has good energy and guitar playing going for it even if it's a bit too dumb for me to totally embrace. Predictably, like most albums, side two is less impressive but in this case still pretty formidable, particularly Simmons' hooky, also Mountain-esque "All The Way" and Ace's heavy, atmospheric mid-tempo stomper "Strange Ways," which is sung by Criss but is highlighted by Ace's exemplary guitar acrobatics. Criss also sings Stanley's "Mainline," which is generic and dumb but also catchy and fun, while Simmons' heavy "Watchin' You" has its moments as well, and Frehley/Stanley's melodic "Comin' Home" is another winning entry. On the whole, like the debut, Hotter Than Hell fails to completely capture the reckless energy and sheer heaviness of their live sound, but the band delivers the goods songwriting and performance-wise, making it their best early (pre-Alive!) studio album.
Dressed To Kill (Casablanca ‘75) Rating: B+
Neil Bogart's strategy was to have the band release an album every six months or so, thereby preventing record stores from returning records because a new one was on the way and the store would want to keep the band's back catalogue. This frantic work rate at times took a toll on the band, and Dressed To Kill was a bit rushed and therefore lacks the consistency of Hotter Than Hell. Heck, the band was so pressed for material that they even revisited a pair of songs from their Wicked Lester days (that was the name of their pre-KISS band), but flawed though it is this is still a key early album that contains a few essential KISS tracks. Produced by Bogart in order to save money, Dressed To Kill unsurprisingly has a more commercial sound than the prior album, and there are a few too many simplistic, generic hard rockers that delve into customarily deep topics such as partying and having sex with groupies. Lyrics aside, I appreciate the quality of the music delivered on energetic, hard-hitting album tracks such as "Room Service," "Ladies In Waiting," and "Anything For My Baby," as well as the attempt to add diversity on the mellow instrumental first half of "Rock Bottom". Better still are the melodic harmonized vocals and falsettos on "C'mon and Love Me," the stomping, heavy, intense "She," and especially the all-time numbskullian weekend anthem (and the band's signature song) "Rock and Roll All Night." Of course, the song didn't really take off until the live version hit a year later (more about that in a minute), but at this stage a buzz was already building around the band, largely due word of mouth about their live shows (the actual studio albums were selling better but still not selling all that much), as the live spectacle that was KISS simply had to be seen to be believed.
Alive! (Casablanca ‘75) Rating: A
This landmark live set will always be KISS’ greatest album, and THE KISS album to own. Its 1975 release changed KISS from underground curiosities to rock superstars, a remarkable achievement as releasing a double live album from a band whose prior albums weren't really selling was a gutsy and somewhat desperate move. It made sense though because KISS were always all about the live experience, where their vivid costumes (spandex, armor, big platform boots, and makeup) and wild stage antics (Gene's ridiculously long tongue, blood spitting, and fire breathing, not to mention stage bombs, fog machines, and Criss' levitating drums) provided a visual feast for many a teenager headbanging along to the band’s brand of simple hard rock played at deafening volume. As Ace has said "we weren't the first group to ever wear makeup, but we were the first group to take it to the extreme that we did," and say what you will about KISS, but (at least in the early days) putting on the best show possible was what mattered most to them, and they always put a lot of money back into their stage shows, unlike say The Eagles who charge a fortune to just stand there. Anyway, this album was "recorded" primarily at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, and I say "recorded" in quotes because the album was famously touched up in the studio. As producer Eddie Kramer (ex-Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix) said, "it was somewhat recreated in the studio, but faithfully to the point where it sounded live." This revelation disappointed many of the band's fans (who only found out after all the checks had cleared, naturally), but I'm not a purist when it comes to these sort of things; so long as the album sounds good I don't really care how authentically live it is, and this album most definitely does sound live and good, which is good enough for me. Alive! consists of material from the band's first three albums, and by and large they picked the best tracks ("Deuce," "Strutter," "Got To Choose," "C'mon and Love Me," "Parasite," "Black Diamond," "Cold Gin," and breakout hit "Rock and Roll All Night," among others). Not only that, but the live versions of these songs are so much heavier and more full of life that they almost sound like different songs altogether, and like any great live album the pumped up audience is also part of what makes it so special. The band's powerful guitars and booming bass were pretty damn heavy for the mid-‘70s, and “Space” Ace’s simple but effective guitar heroics inspired a generation of rockers (let's face it, for any prospective guitar player it's a hell of a lot easier to try to copy Ace Frehley than Eddie Van Halen!). Of course, Alive’s drawbacks are its inane lyrics (but you already knew about those) and some over-indulgences musically, but hey, that’s also part of why this record so embodies the seventies. This is most noticeable when Criss’ extended drum solo (Neil Peart he ain’t) intermingles with Stanley’s adolescent rantings straight out of the arena rock clichés handbook (“do you believe in rock n’ roll?”) on “100,000 Years.” The faithful members of the KISS Army clearly do believe, however (so do I), as would record executives the world over when this multi-platinum album proved that double live albums could sell tons of copies (the monstrous seller Frampton Comes Alive! would come one year later).
Destroyer (Casablanca ‘76) Rating: A-
The follow-up to the classic Alive! album, this 1976 release is widely regarded as KISS’ best studio album. Not many KISS albums can be called ambitious, yet this one is, in large part due to the presence of take-charge producer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd), who co-writes seven songs, adds a grab bag of cool sound effects, and helps the band expand their range of sounds as well as their range of emotions. Basically, he tried to get the band to evolve, and though not all the band's fans appreciated the album's more commercial direction (yes even back then close-minded fans would cry "sell out" at the drop of a hat), it paid off both artistically and commercially (it became the band's first platinum seller), even if it turned out to be a bit of an atypical one-off (they would soon return to their simpler ways). Destroyer has several of the band's catchiest party anthems, and even the weaker songs are melodic and singable, though some of them aren't especially heavy or even KISS-like. The album starts with the chugging "Detroit Rock City," an Ezrin tour-de-force that's something of an ode to their home away from home as Detroit had really embraced the New York band. Famous for its effects, flamenco guitar solo, and a death drama worthy of The Shangri-Las, this is arguably the most famous and greatest KISS rocker aside from "Rock and Roll All Night." "King Of The Nighttime World" is a catchy, cocky, hard charging anthem whose harmonized guitars exemplify the band's increased sophistication, and the stomping "God Of Thunder" was another cocky if somewhat cartoonish anthem that became Gene's theme song despite the fact that it was written by Stanley, who showed that not only Gene could write heavy material (remember, Stanley is typically known as the band's more melodic songwriter). Other anthemic highlights include "Shout It Out Loud," which is impossible not to shout along to, and the simple but effective "Do You Love Me," one of two tracks oddly written with fringe cult figure Kim Fowley (probably best known for managing The Runaways), the other being "King Of The Nighttime World." Then again, Kim isn't the only outside hand helping out, as the Brooklyn Boys Choir backs the band on the orchestration-heavy ballad "Great Expectations," which is a whole lot over the top and not at all KISS-like, but still not bad. Although I like both tuneful songs, "Flaming Youth" and "Sweet Pain" are also a bit cheesy and not all that heavy, and in fact the best attribute of both songs are arguably the guitar solos from session ace Dick Wagner (ex-Lou Reed, Alice Cooper), a favorite of Ezrin's who was enlisted allegedly due to Ace's erratic behavior and poor attendance (plus I suspect that Ezrin simply preferred Wagner's playing). Wagner also plays acoustic guitar on "Beth," another heavily orchestrated piano ballad that became Criss' signature song and the band's breakthrough single. A simple, affectingly heartfelt ode to his wife, "Beth" was the song that enabled the band to "cross over," as now they could appeal to adults and even women; somewhere future members of Poison and Bon Jovi were likely listening and smiling. Anyway, on the whole Destroyer is a very strong album that represented a departure from the band's usual straightforward hard rock assault, as Ezrin pushed KISS in a more diverse direction that incorporated new elements into their music. Not everything works, and there is a certain cheese factor and at times a lack of heaviness that can be a bit disconcerting, but by and large Ezrin and the band accomplished their goals.
Rock and Roll Over (Casablanca ‘76) Rating: B+
With Kramer (basically an engineer) producing again rather than Ezrin (really a co-artist as much as a producer), KISS scaled back to the simpler sound of their earlier albums, perhaps placating the older fans who were none too pleased with Destroyer. Let's face it, KISS dumbing down can be pretty dumb (sample: "put your hand in my pocket, grab on to my rocket"), and some of these songs are too basic and derivative. For example, "Take Me" seems overly familiar though I can't place the original source, "Mr. Speed" is about as Stones-y as they ever got, and "Makin' Love" has riffs reminiscent of Zep's "Whole Lotta Love." Then again, these are all catchy songs for the most part, even if they're not as memorable as the best tracks on Destroyer, and I also like the album's raw sound, though certainly the cheesy but still singable "See You In Your Dreams" is as poppy as anything on the prior album. The best songs here are the two hits, including "Calling Dr. Love," which features good riffs and a stellar guitar solo but of course is mostly known for its amusing lyrics (Gene would later poke fun of himself via this song in a commercial) and catchy high pitched harmonies on the catchy chorus. The superb "Hard Luck Woman" was certainly surprising, being an atmospheric acoustic ballad that Paul actually wrote for Rod Stewart. Criss sings/rasps it instead and does a great job on it (you could argue that he's the band's best natural singer), and the song adds some needed variety and emotional heft to the album. Criss also sings (and even co-writes) "Baby Driver," one of the stronger album tracks that's notable for its harmonized vocals and guitars, and Stanley's "I Want You" is another very good hard rocker that stands out due to its acoustic intro/outro and a great Ace guitar solo. Elsewhere, songs such as "Ladies Room" and "Love 'Em and Leave 'Em" are exactly why the more PC among the professional critic set despised this band, but at least KISS weren't phonies, and this album saw them again embracing hard rock basics in a way that satisifed the majority of their fans.
Love Gun (Casablanca ‘77) Rating: A-
Although they were really stepping up the marketing, at this point music was still KISS' primary focus, and Love Gun (a play on the Sex Pistols?), the last album to feature all four original band members on each track, is one of their very best albums. Stanley and Simmons may have been sex addicts but they weren't into drinking or drugs so they could remain productive (unlike say Motley Crue), and this album has stronger songs and more of its own identity than Rock and Roll Over, which could more easily get lost amid the rest of their prolific output. This album is comprised primarily of consistently catchy yet still pretty heavy power pop a la Cheap Trick, and the influence of 50s rock 'n' roll is also apparent on "Christine Sixteen" (that's Kramer playing the boogie piano) and "Tomorrow and Tonight," a cheesy yet undeniably fun attempt at a party anthem a la "Rock and Roll All Night" featuring prominent female backup singers. "Got Love For Sale" is another catchy, underrated album track, and "Plaster Caster" (inspired by Cynthia Plaster Caster) sees Gene at his catchy, perverted, poppy best (as does "Christine Sixteen," come to think of it). Gene also contributes "Almost Human," a dark, menacing, funk attempt that somehow not only isn't horrible but is actually quite good. For his part, Ace, who hadn't contributed anything to Rock and Roll Over, writes arguably his best song, "Shock Me," about him getting electrocuted in Florida and living to tell about it; Ace even takes his first lead vocal, but of course his guitar playing is what really stands out. But Stanley contributes the two best songs, as "I Stole Your Love" starts the album off with a fast-paced, seriously rocking entry that's highlighted by its catchy chanted chorus and kickass guitar solo. Better yet, the metallic title track gets my vote as the best heavy KISS song ever, despite its laughable lyrics ("I really love you baby, I love what you got, let's get together, we can, get hot"). On the plus side, Stanley delivers arguably his most intense and rugged lead vocal, the chorus is catchy yet evocative, and Ace's guitar soloing is flat-out wicked. On the negative front, Criss' "Hooligan" is average and their gender reversed cover of Phil Spector/The Crystals' "Then She Kissed Me" is pointless even if I still kind of like it because it's out of character and it's hard to mess up this fantastic song too badly (The Crystals version crushes it, of course). On the whole, Love Gun is a heck of a lot of fun, even if many of these songs are more "guilty pleasures" than major efforts.
Alive II (Casablanca ‘77) Rating: B+
This double live album attempts to recapture the magic of Alive! but fails for several reasons, the primary one being that it doesn't have the same excitement or energy and lacks that special "it" factor. Touched up or not, the performances on Alive! were spot on, and though this album is less doctored (though there are still some obvious touch ups) since the band had become better musicians by this time, there's little here that sounds fresh or new, though the track listing is strong and the performances solid enough to make it entertaining anyway. Whereas Alive! was comprised of songs from their first three studio albums, this album makes the conscious decision to have no overlap and instead concentrate on songs from their next three albums, Destroyer, Rock and Roll Over, and Love Gun. I actually that think the songs from the latter three albums are better on the whole, but the sub-par production on the first three albums made the vastly improved versions on Alive! seem that much better, whereas the superior production of the 1976-77 studio albums make the Alive II versions less vital, if not redundant on the Ezrin songs which are inferior. In addition, no song exceeds six minutes as there is very little improvisation, perhaps because the band's by now gigantic stage show had become more important than the actual music; the eye popping visuals were undoubtedly cool to experience in concert, but they don't exactly translate well on a live audio album! As for the 5-song studio side (the band didn't have enough live material to fill up two discs), it's not bad as "Larger Than Life" is a very good Zep knockoff and "Any Way You Want It" a fun Dave Clark Five cover. "All American Man" is average and "Rockin' In The U.S.A." sucks, but Ace's great guitar solo elevates "Rocket Ride," the only new original song that he plays on as future official KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick handles guitar duties on the other three tracks, for reasons that aren't entirely clear other than that Ace was "preoccupied." Anyway, Alive II is a largely enjoyable live/studio album that I suppose works as a satisfactory "best of" their 1976-1977 output, it's just not entirely necessary given how strong those studio albums are, and it certainly pales in comparison to its far more ballyhooed predecessor.
Dynasty (Casablanca ‘79) Rating: B-
After a good but should've been better best of/remix album (Double Platinum, 1978) came the folly of the band releasing four solo albums simultaneously. Peter's was awful, Gene's weak, Paul's decent, and Ace's surprisingly the best of the bunch (even spawning a top 20 hit with "New York Groove"), but in any event the solo album idea backfired as it amounted to a severe case of overkill. Even the most rabid member of the KISS Army would have to admit that the 1979 movie KISS Meets The Phantom was ludicrously bad, and many older fans were further alienated by "I Was Made For Loving You," a smash disco hit that while catchy and danceable certainly wasn't very KISS-like. (As disco moves go it was certainly better than Rod Stewart (“Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”) but not as good as Blondie (“Heart Of Glass”) or The Rolling Stones (“Miss You”).) Its attendant album, 1979's Dynasty, was a less than stellar effort produced by Vini Poncia, who was a bad match as he essentially neutered the band by attempting to modernize and commercialize them. There are some good songs, such as their poppy and quite different cover of the Stones’ “2,000 Man” and Paul’s poppy, moody semi-ballad “Sure Know Something,” but even these are decidedly slick and un-KISS-like. A major exception is Ace’s, well, ace hard rocker “Hard Times,” as, his confidence obviously bolstered by the success of his solo album, he actually sings three songs here (also including “2,000 Man” and the hard rocking but not as good “Save All Your Love”), or one more than Gene, who phones it in, only writing and singing the dreadful “Charisma” and “X-Ray Eyes.” As for Peter Criss, well he wasn’t really still in the band anymore, as Anton Fig rather than Criss actually drums uncredited on the vast majority of Dynasty and its weaker follow-up Unmasked, also limply produced by Poncia (who co-writes three tracks here, including the big single with Stanley and noted hit maker Desmond Child). The one song Criss was involved with, “Dirty Livin’,” is more prototypically KISS-like, with some agreeably dirty guitar; rounding out the set list, “Magic Touch” is a decent mid-tempo stomper from Stanley. On the whole, this album starts strong but loses steam, with the end result being a decidedly mediocre KISS offering.
Creatures Of The Night (Casablanca ‘82) Rating: B+
Unmasked was weak while their reunion with Bob Ezrin on the over-ambitious concept album Music From "The Elder" was an admirable flop (Gene: "As a KISS record I'd give it zero stars. As a bad Genesis record I'd give it a 2 out of 5 stars."), as Ezrin was hooked on drugs and off his game, and as a result of this period of unfocused confusion KISS were in serious danger of becoming has-beens. A big part of the problem, beyond the music slump and out of control egos (Gene was dating Cher and courting the Hollywood crowd), was the marketing overkill and the fact that the makeup was no longer fresh but in fact seemed like a tired contrivance. I forget where, but I once read that the magic of KISS was in how they made you feel like you were 13 years old again, and let's face it when KISS' older fans were entering their 20s and their kid 13 year old brothers were worshipping their former heroes, KISS wasn't quite so cool or dangerous anymore. But I digress, the band made a big artistic comeback on Creatures Of The Night; even though it was a commercial dud, the band got their bearings back and success soon followed. Powerfully produced by Michael James Jackson (no, not that Michael Jackson!), who in particular helps gives new KISS drummer Eric Carr an incredibly loud, explosive drum sound, the album saw KISS back doing straightforward hard rock. Heck, even the two songs (Rock and Roll Hell,” “War Machine”) co-written by Bryan Adams (before he was famous) and Jim Vallance with Gene Simmons are quite heavy, and Vinnie Vincent ("The Elder" was the last straw for the unhappy Ace who left the band soon afterwards) also co-writes three songs and plays guitar on five; Kulick, Robben Ford, Steve Farris, and Jimmy Haslip also lent their guitar talents, though Vinnie would be given the official guitar slot on the subsequent tour. Adam Mitchell also co-writes two songs with Paul, and Mikel Japp one with Gene, so as you can see the band had plenty of help on this one, perhaps at least indirectly providing the blueprint for Aerosmith's comeback a few years later. As for the actual songs, all of which are at least good even if there are few true standouts, they're consistently heavy and at times surprisingly atmospheric, as on "I Still Love You," a big power ballad that's actually quite convincing rather than cheesy. Other highlights are the chugging, hard-driving title track, "Keep Me Comin'," with its metallic Zep-derived groove, twisting riffs, singable chorus, and good guitar solo, the aforementioned Adams/Vallance co-writes, and "I Love It Loud," a simple yet effective party anthem with a thundering drum sound and a supremely singable shouted chorus (I really got a kick out of its ridiculous music video back in the day as well). But again, this album's strength is primarily in its consistency, as it's a rare post-'80s KISS album that is thoroughly listenable from start to finish, even if its highs don't rise as consistently high as on the band's best '70s albums.
Lick It Up (Mercury ‘83) Rating: B
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so with sales running low the band pulled out the last rabbit they had in their hat, re-introducing themselves to America without makeup on MTV (for you kids out there, MTV was a station that used to play music videos before it turned into a cesspool for reality TV). Fortunately for the band, the gimmick stirred interest in KISS again without alienating too many older fans, perhaps because they pitied Simmons once they realized how ugly he is without makeup! Stanley, on the other hand, became something of a sex symbol and the main face of the band, starring in the video of the title track, which became a sizable hit due to its chugging groove and catchy pop metal chorus. The attendant album also sold well as a result, though on the whole it's a step down in quality from Creatures, as the production is thinner and there's some filler, as some of the choruses are a bit too cheesy hair metal-ish at times. Vincent actually co-writes eight out of the ten tracks, making it a shame that he would soon be fired from the band (he says he quit); he would later find modest success with his own Vinnie Vincent Invasion and briefly reappear in the KISS world by co-writing three songs on their Revenge album. Anyway, this album has some good songs, including the intense, hard rocking "Not For The Innocent," the tough, fast paced, "Gimme More," and the atmospheric semi-ballad "A Million To One," a rare attempt at diversity. Most of the other songs aren't all that memorable, or are but for the wrong reasons - the stupid attempt at a teen anthem "Young and Wasted," Stanley's awful rap on "All Hell's Breaking Loose," and the ridiculous lyrics on "And on the 8th Day" to cite a few examples - but at least they're admirably hard rocking and well performed for the most part.
Animalize (Mercury ‘84) Rating: B+
The band's second album for Mercury after many years on Casablanca is an improvement on Lick It Up, and for my money the underrated Animalize is the best '80s KISS album along with Creatures Of The Night. Of course Stanley and Simmons deserve most of the credit, especially Stanley as Simmons had gone Hollywood (moving from Cher to Diana Ross and trying to get into movies) so he assumed a larger leadership role (getting a production co-credit along with Jackson, for example). The band gets songwriting help from Desmond Child and Mitch Weissman (three co-writes each), and new guitarist Mark St. John provides consistently strong and flashier than usual guitar playing (Kulick also helps out on a couple of tracks). The album is consistently heavy and even the lesser tracks like "Lonely Is The Hunter" and "Murder In High Heels" are somewhat saved by the guitar playing. "I've Had Enough (Into The Fire)" and "Under The Gun" are good fast-paced Stanley rockers, his more mid-tempo, Zep-ish "Get All You Can Take" is also notable, and "Thrills In The Night" (a co-write with The Plasamtics' Jean Beauvoir) is more serious and atmospheric but is another solid effort. Simmons' main contribution is "Burn Bitch Burn," with its catchy chorus and unintentionally hilarious lyrics ("I wanna put my log in your fireplace"), but "While The City Sleeps" is also heavy and has a decent chorus. The album's big hit, probably their best single of the '80s by virtue of its huge hooky chorus, was Paul/Child's "Heaven's On Fire," which propelled Animalize to platinum status and completed their commercial comeback. Alas, St. John's tenure in KISS would be short-lived, as he got arthritis and had to retire from the band, with Kulick again stepping in, this time as an official band member.
Revenge (Mercury '92) Rating: B+
After Animalize came 1985's Asylum (basically a lesser Animalize whose most notable song was the moderate hit "Tears Are Falling"), 1987's Crazy Nights (too pop and too influenced by producer Ron Nevison much like their previous work with Vini Poncia), and 1989's Hot In The Shade (over long and weak overall and containing their absolute nadir with the Michael Bolton co-penned ballad "Forever," which was a sizable hit naturally). Fortunately, after that fallow period the band regrouped and came back re-energized on the extremely consistent, and consistently hard rocking Revenge, on which the band were helped out by a couple of old acquaintances, Vinny Vincent co-writing three songs ("Unholy," "Heart Of Chrome," and "I Just Wanna") and a cleaned up Bob Ezrin again producing and co-writing six songs (Ezrin is the antithesis of a "hands off" producer, after all). The album was dedicated to drummer Eric Carr, who tragically would die due to cancer shortly before the release of this album; perhaps this situation helped focus the band, and certainly Eric Singer (who has also played with Black Sabbath, Badlands, Brian May, and Alice Cooper) was a fine drummer who fit in well with the band's hard hitting attack here; Carr was too sick to drum though he does sing backing vocals on the album's best known track, "God Gave Rock and Roll To You II," which was also featured on the soundtrack for the movie Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey and was a revision of an earlier track by the band Argent. This anthemic number is an obvious highlight on an album whose highlights don't jump out at you but which offers consistent quality instead. In particular, Gene seems to have finally given up his star trip and writes a sturdy batch of heavy tunes, some of which are quite atypical for KISS. "Unholy" is KISS at their heaviest, "Spit" sees Gene singing a capella a la Robert Plant on "Black Dog" before Stanley takes over on the chorus (I disliked this one at first but like many tracks here it is a "grower" and Kulick's guitar solo which quotes the "Star Spangled Banner" simply smokes), and "Domino," a good ZZ Top pastiche, became the first single to feature Gene's lead vocals since "I Love It Loud" (let's face it the photogenic Stanley was a better fit to lead the makeup-less band during the MTV era anyway). For his part, Stanley's most notable contributions are probably the catchy stripper tribute "Take It Off" and the syrupy yet heartfelt acoustic ballad "Every Time I Look At You," both of which likely would've been big hits had the album been released a couple of years earlier. After all, grunge was starting to take hold, and though Revenge hit #6 on the U.S. charts and received their best reviews in ages, it still didn't sell quite as well as it otherwise might have had the timing been better. Still, Revenge was a very good effort that's easily KISS' best album since Animalize; it's also generally considered their best latter day studio album, period. The aptly titled "Carr Jam 1981," featuring Carr grooving on drums and Kulick - who puts in his best performance with the band on this album - impressive on guitar, provides a fittingly enjoyable finale. Having dealt with Carr's sad passing and reconnected with some former colleagues (Vincent, Ezrin), it was almost time to finally try to make amends with Criss and Frehley. P.S. Speaking of which, originally I was planning on reviewing KISS Unplugged (which was preceded by Alive III, the weakest installment in the Alive series), but since I can't find my copy (my cd collection is hopelessly scattered at the moment), I'll just discuss it briefly. Basically, their 1996 unplugged performance was surprisingly enjoyable, with a non-obvious song selection and performances that proved that the guys could actually play and sing, with or without electrified amplification, makeup, and all the other sideshow stuff that typically accompanies a KISS live gig. Of course, the highlight of the show was the band's reunion with Criss and Frehley, who came out to play four songs. As it turned out (unsurprisingly), this was just a prelude to a full scale reunion tour with the original lineup. During this monstrously successful world tour, the band recreated their massive stage show from the Alive II tour (greasepaint and fireworks included) for a ravenously nostalgic fan base that ate it up. As for what's happened since, I haven't heard 1997's Carnival Of Souls, 1998's Psycho Circus (the only one Criss and Frehley played on, and sparingly), or 2009's Sonic Boom, but what I've heard about them from some trusted sources hasn't sounded too promising.
The Very Best Of KISS (Mercury '02) Rating: A
After numerous lesser compilations (Double Platinum, Smashes, Thrashes & Hits, Greatest KISS, the live You Wanted The Best, You Got The Best!, among others) - for a band who professes to care so much about their fans they sure don't think twice about ripping them off - The Very Best Of KISS finally gets it right. With a few exceptions - I probably would've replaced the good but not great "Hotter Than Hell," the non-KISS song "New York Groove," and especially the wretched power ballad "Forever" with "Goin' Blind," "She," "God Of Thunder," and "Heaven's On Fire" - this is pretty much the single cd "best of" I would've picked, even if it shortchanges the '80s at only three songs. Almost all of the truly great KISS songs are present: "Stutter" and "Deuce" from KISS, "Got To Choose" from Hotter Than Hell, "C'mon And Love Me" and "Rock and Roll All Night" from Dressed To Kill, "Detroit Rock City," "Shout It Out Loud," and "Beth" from Destroyer, "I Want You," "Calling Dr. Love," and "Hard Luck Woman" from Rock and Roll Over, "I Stole Your Love," "Christine Sixteen," and "Love Gun" from Love Gun, "I Was Made For Lovin' You" from Dynasty, "I Love It Loud" from Creatures Of The Night, "Lick It Up" from Lick It Up, and "God Gave Rock and Roll To You II" from Revenge. Really, this and Alive! are all that most casual fans will need, at least until a well-selected 2-cd compilation comes out to replace this one, which will hopefully include all of this album's songs minus "Forever" plus the already mentioned "Goin' Blind," "She," "God Of Thunder," and "Heaven's On Fire" plus early '80s highlights such as "I Still Love You," "Get All You Can Take," "Keep Me Comin," "Creatures Of The Night," "Burn Bitch Burn," and "Thrills in the Night." Until then, The Very Best Of KISS is the best compilation available; of course, hardcore fans should also get the better albums reviewed on this page, and maybe investigate getting the pricey but very well done 5-cd, 94-track The Box Set.
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