Something Else! Featured Artist: KISS

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News that Kiss is back in the studio, working toward the 2012 release of a new project called Monster, got us scurrying back to our old album collections. And not just because of those fond memories of playing air guitar with former guitarist Ace Frehley during Kiss Alive.

Bassist/vocalist Gene Simmons said something interesting about the sessions: “This new record feels heavier than (2009’s) Sonic Boom. It feels like a connection between Destroyer and Revenge.

Right on! Those are but two of our favorites …

“DETROIT ROCK CITY” (DESTROYER, 1976): With producer Bob Ezrin at the controls, Kiss put out Destroyer, an album packed with nasty groans, choirs, and enough hits to really piss off the critics.

It’s true: Rock radio was full of “Shout It Out Loud,” “Beth,” “Hard Luck Woman” (which we were certain was really Rod Stewart), and “Detroit Rock City.” Now here was a song where Kiss stepped away from their usual rock themes (read: sex) to present a tragic story that was full of drama and pyrotechnics. Despite the story line, my younger self really dug the crashing guitar chords and nervous bass figures. Like Wayne Cochran’s “Last Kiss,” the song managed the lift up a story of death without taking advantage of the situation.

OK, that and it just plain rocks. Hard. — Mark Saleski

“COLD GIN” (KISS, 1974): Early KISS songs gave the band their original reputation of being skilled thunder-rockers, inspired in part by proto-punks the New York Dolls. “Cold Gin,” a no-nonsense, balls-out heavy-riff rocker, is proto-AC/DC.

Written by Ace Frehley — c’mon, who else is better qualified to pen a song about getting loaded? — Gene Simmons takes up the lead vocals, and his booming voice brings attitude by the buckets as he snarls “my heater’s broke, I’m so tired/I need some fuel to build a fire.” In classic KISS fashion, the song has a hook that gets the concert crowds fired up when they play it. How can you go wrong in a rock show singing that finding comfort from a quart of some cheap liquor “you know it’ll always win”?

Exactly. It’s cold gin time again, for the win. — S. Victor Aaron

“UNHOLY” (REVENGE, 1992): By 1992, the then-current version of Kiss had become an afterthought to me. Their last two records, 1987’s Crazy Nights and 1989’s Hot in the Shade had been less than impressive collections of keyboard-heavy 1980s radio rock. I still loved the classic records and a lot of the stuff from the early 1980s, but I was much more interested in what bands like Pantera, Sepultura, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were doing.

I was attending Louisiana Tech at the time, and the student radio station KLPI had a weekly hard rock and metal show that I listened to religiously, mainly because it was one of the only sources of metal available in the area. I was listening one night when this awesome song came rolling out of the speakers. It had a great riff, a singer growling like a demon, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I called the radio station to find out who it was, and was a little stunned when the guy on the other end of the phone told me it was Kiss.

The next day, I found my way to the record store and brought home Revenge. “Unholy” was the first song on the album and made the band’s new direction clear. After a noisy fade in, this beefy, squealing metallic riff comes blaring clearly out of the jumble. Then Gene comes in, singing from the viewpoint of the devil in a low rumble. Even the bombastic gang vocals on the chorus, which find Stanley adding some of his higher range into the mix, have sort of a horror movie feel to them. The song rocks from start to finish and, for my money, is the finest moment of the unmasked version of the band.

In fact, Revenge as a whole, I believe, is the best record that version of the band made. The lineup on the record, featuring guitarist Bruce Kulick and drummer Eric Singer along with Simmons and Stanley, was probably the most talented of any edition of Kiss. This new version of “the hottest band in the land” seemed poised to storm the hard rock world once again and make itself a vibrant, relative force in it. Unfortunately, shortly after the release of Revenge came an unplugged performance with Ace Frehley and Peter Criss and the eventual reunion tour. While I’m happy that tour gave me the full Kiss experience that I was too young to get the first time around, it also led eventually to the band becoming a nostalgia act for Gene to squeeze as much money as possible out of — a band that’s now touring with two guys (Singer and Tommy Thayer) pretending to be Frehly and Criss. And while I finally got to hear the band perform “Unholy” a few years back (in the place of “God of Thunder” in the set), nestled in a show where it seemed they were going through the motions, it didn’t do much for me.

Since the dissolution of this version of the band, Kiss has released two records with a third reportedly on the way early next year, but they’ve yet to come anywhere close to the intensity and energy of Revenge. Though I keep my fingers crossed, it’s unlikely that the band will ever match that performance again. But who knows? I had pretty much given up hope in 1992, maybe 20 years later they can surprise me again. — Fred Phillips

“HOTTER THAN HELL/FIREHOUSE” (ALIVE, 1975): Any Kiss fan out there thinks not of the studio versions, from 1974, but the pairing of these two songs a year later back-to-back on the first Alive record.

Detractors always point to things like the bands supposed lack of musical talent or the focus on the costumes and makeup. Eh, who cares about any of that?! Most great rock ‘n roll songs center on one thing: sex. And here you have it.

Two songs that, linked together, celebrate a woman hot enough to light your soul (or at least your hair) on fire. Maybe more important is the fact that the tunes are loaded with simple, anthemic guitar riffs. Isn’t that what rock ‘n roll is all about? — Mark Saleski

“NEW YORK GROOVE” (ACE FREHLEY, 1978): Everybody had their disco song, back in the day. Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones, even Frank Sinatra. And, yes, Kiss. The beat is there, as is the chanky-chank riff — and, of course, the lyric: about a pretty lady in the back of the limo racing toward some night of debauchery amidst the towering skyscrapers.

This being Ace Frehley, though, he sings with the kind of blissed-out somnambulance that only comes from too many women and way, way too much booze. That adds a more sinister feel to the Russ Ballard-penned “New York Groove” — something beyond the party anthems of the day, something that sticks with you. It’s an atmosphere, of course, that is only brought into sharper focus by the way Frehley’s own story went. Today, when I hear the song, I can’t help but picture that long cool ride turning down a side alley adjacent the New York City’s legendary Studio 54 — then heading to a darker, more dangerous place, where the junkies and the heartbroken and the lost try to find a way to get through another desperate evening.

“Feels so good tonight,” Frehley dutifully intones, before adding: “who cares about tomorrow?” Wish Frehley had.

This song, which had earlier charted for a British glam rock band overseas, hit No. 13 in the U.S. for Kiss — easily the biggest hit to appear on any of the band’s ’78 solo albums. But for Frehley, it was more like the roadmap from this era’s empty hedonism into the 1980s’ stinging nihilism. A two-time guitarist with the band (1974-82; and 1996-2002), “Space Ace” had begun a steep descent into alcohol and drug abuse over the final years of his first stint with Kiss, then suffered a debilitating car accident in 1982. Backruptcy, a series of often unremarkable albums as a band leader, and a high-speed chase with the police followed. By 2007, an Internet rumor of his overdose was running rampant, though Frehley — who still boasted a fiery liquidity in his playing but, alas, no audience — returned to issue his ninth solo recording Anomoly in 2009.

For Frehley, the moment was gone. His “New York Groove” was simply too deep to crawl out of, and that’s a shame. Moments like this one, the aforementioned “Cold Gin” and his concert staple “Shock Me” showed just how much unrealized talent the guitarist always possessed. Hell, at once point, Ace Frehley almost saved disco. … Almost. — Nick DeRiso

“GOD OF THUNDER” (DESTROYER, 1976): The Demon or the Starchild? For me, the answer is easy. Name any Kiss album, and I can guarantee that my favorite song on it is sung by Gene Simmons. I’ve got nothing against Paul Stanley and the rock star party side of the band (though, admittedly, his voice can get annoying in his more over-the-top moments), but the Kiss songs that I really dig are those heavier, darker tunes. Those, invariably, are sung by Simmons.

There’s no better example of that side of Kiss than “God of Thunder” from the classic 1976 album Destroyer, arguably the band’s finest hour. It’s funny, though, that while the song has been immortalized by Gene, it was originally written by Paul, who also planned to sing it on the record. Producer Bob Ezrin suggested that Gene handle the vocals, and though producers are often maligned for leading bands in directions they shouldn’t go, in this case, it was a fantastic move. I can’t imagine what the song might have been with Stanley singing, but it certainly would have taken one of the most iconic moments of any classic Kiss performance out of the set.

So, maybe Gene Simmons would have found another song to spit blood and fly up to a riser over the audience, but it wouldn’t have the same impact as that thumping opening bass line and the lyrics where he’s proclaiming himself the “god of thunder and rock ‘n’ roll.” When the bloody-faced demon flies up into the rafters, there’s no better song in the band’s repertoire to drive that moment home. They’ve replaced it in recent years with “Unholy” and “I Love it Loud,” but as much as I love those songs, they don’t fit the moment the way “God of Thunder” does.

I was grown before I actually had the chance to experience that moment, Kiss having removed the makeup and lost Ace Frehley and Peter Criss a few years before my concert-going days began. I finally had the chance to see the show in its full glory on their first reunion tour in 1997, and I was stunned. I had, of course, seen Kiss several times in the 1980s sans makeup, but this was a completely different experience, and the performance of “God of Thunder” is the memory that sticks out in my mind. Gene stood above the crowd and delivered the song like the subject of the lyrics, holding a mesmerizing power over about 15,000 people in the arena and putting them in the palm of his hand. I’ll never forget the rush of that moment – one of the most memorable of any of the many concerts I’ve been to in my life.

While it’s made for the live treatment, the studio version of the song is no slouch, either. The swaggering main riff and Gene’s over-the-top growl are perfect, and the sound effects toward the end that simulate all sorts of demonic sounds plays right into the overall feel. I’ll admit that I’ve never understood the kids screaming and laughing in the song, but what the hell? It’s Kiss, and for me, there’s no better song in their catalog. — Fred Phillips

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