Kiss: Last Great, Last Good, First Bad Album Roundtable
Kiss' recording career was a roller-coaster ride filled with dizzying highs, staggering lows and unexpected left turns. Depending on which fan you talk to – and when they became members of the Kiss Army – you'll get very different takes on exactly where those peaks and valleys occurred.
After Kiss' first six albums established the band as one of the most popular of the '70s, they changed musical styles almost as often as they changed lineups – exploring pop, disco, hair metal, grunge, and even concept-album pomposity, with wildly varying levels of success.
Read below as five UCR contributors debate Kiss' last great, last good and first bad albums – amazingly, without ever mentioning Music From 'The Elder.'
1) What’s the last "great" Kiss album?
Michael Brandvold (Three Sides of the Coin podcast): 1992's Revenge. This album had everything going for it: great songs, great producer, great production, great arrangements and, most importantly, a band that finally jelled with the return of a fully committed Gene Simmons.
Michael Christopher: Revenge. All day Revenge. After the hit and miss inconsistencies of the mid-'80s, up to and including 1989's Hot in the Shade, I’d given up on Kiss putting out a great album. Maybe they were reinvigorated by working with Bob Ezrin or Vinnie Vincent (as a songwriter) again, wanting to prove themselves in a new decade or scared straight by the death of glam metal. Whatever it was, it resulted in a harder edge, darker tone and still a bunch of feel good songs – in other words, the perfect balance of Gene and Paul Stanley. I still play Revenge as much as their earlier material.
Ed Rivadavia: Since Kiss' entire career, their modern-day business, and their legacy ultimately hinges on those first six studio albums (plus 1975's Alive! and 1977's Alive II), I'd say their last undeniably, irrefutably, categorically "great" album was ... 1977's Love Gun. To put it another way: I personally thought 1982's Creatures of the Night, 1983's Lick it Up and 1984's Animalize all sounded "great," because I was too young to know better when I first heard them. (Revenge sounded pretty great for the first two or three listens, too.) But looking back now, there's no post-Love Gun album that their fans (or detractors, for that matter) can generally agree on as being undeniably, irrefutably, categorically "great."
Joe DiVita (Loudwire): I'm assuming most will say Revenge, because of the return to their more rockin' form. But as someone who genuinely does not bother with the '70s catalog (call me a heretic, I can take it), I'm going with Asylum, which happens to be my favorite Kiss record. In a lot of ways, this era is appealing to me for the same reasons Manowar's music is. It's blatantly over the top, but in a brazen, cocksure (how could I pass up a chance to use that word in the context of the over-sexualized Kiss?) fashion that it just commands absolute respect for the commitment. The more metallic writing aligns perfectly with my affectation for traditional '80s metal – and, hot damn, can Desmond Child write a hit. And lest we forget the music videos: Hospital beds with car grills and headlights ("Uh! All Night"). I have no words for that. "Tears Are Falling" ... it's just all so amusing. And that's the point of Kiss, right? Entertainment!
Matthew Wilkening: Revenge. It's almost frustrating to see how great Kiss can be when everything clicks. That also makes it very easy to pick apart their lesser albums. You just wish they could stay in a groove for a bit longer once they find it. In retrospect, Hot in the Shade becomes the "oh, I see what you were heading toward ..." album, and 1997's Carnival of Souls the "wait, no no no, back up, you went too far the other way ..." LP.
2) What’s the last “good” Kiss album?
Brandvold: I think Hot In the Shade was only “good.” Too many songs, no producer: The album needed some outside help to make it more than just a good album.
Christopher: Trying to get back to their original sound worked for Kiss on 2009's Sonic Boom almost as much as it did for Van Halen on A Different Kind of Truth. Almost. People tuning out because it wasn’t the original lineup really missed out. It was classic Gene (“I'm an Animal”) and Paul (“Never Enough”), and while I didn’t need individual vocal performances by Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer, I get what they were going for. Peter and Ace were involved so little musically on earlier records that it was easy to look past that flaw. These days, it makes total sense thematically that they would keep a song from Sonic Boom in the set, even on the most recent tour, as it just fits.
Rivadavia: Good is such a broad, forgiving adjective – especially in talking about Kiss. Still, I have to give credit to the surprising Sonic Boom. It was years later before I gave this LP a listen, finally putting it in the full context of Kiss' output. But, when I did, Sonic Boom far exceeded my expectations and certainly stood head-and-shoulders above other post-reunion Kiss releases like 1998's Psycho Circus and 2012's Monster.
DiVita: I think Sonic Boom genuinely surprised everyone. Why it's not on Spotify (a revenue stream!) is a mystery, but let's stay focused. Perhaps even more surprising than the strength of the album is that it was achieved without assistance from outside writers. The production wields the modern heft that keeps this from being a feckless retread of past glories. For a band that relies so heavily on its past whenever possible, it's also a bonus that Kiss die-hards don't have to do the same when it comes to their record collection. Given past flops, Kiss didn't have to do much to achieve "good" status other than just be their honest selves.
Wilkening: As a Kiss fan and answering to other Kiss fans, Monster has more than enough going for it to be counted as "good," as does Sonic Boom. Facing the skeptical outside world, the answer goes back further than the great Revenge to 1985's Asylum, which sounds like the album '70s Kiss would have made if they had been suddenly dropped into the middle of the '80s.
3) What was the first “bad” Kiss album?
Brandvold: Peter Criss' 1978 solo album. It had a Kiss logo and makeup on the front cover, but the music that came out of the speakers when I dropped the needle on the album was not Kiss. It was a huge shock to the ears of this 14 year old: "What am I listening to?"
Christopher: Skipping over the much-maligned Peter Criss solo album, it’s difficult to defend 1979's Dynasty as anything other than a bad record – especially since Love Gun was so damn good. The lack of general cohesiveness in the songs, inability of Criss to take part and overall weak set of songs made it terribly disappointing. The bright spots are there: “Sure Know Something” is excellent. But looking back now, it’s the obvious beginning of a multiple album rut.
Rivadavia: Based on my crazy previous argument, I should probably go with Dynasty, because it effectively ended the career-defining winning streak culminating in Alive II. But, since I'm slowly building my case for commitment to a mental-health institution, I'll also point out that 1975's Dressed to Kill was full of widely documented flaws (Neil Bogart's production, inconsistent material, even lack of enough material), most of which have been acknowledged by the band itself, not least because they set up the triumphant story of Alive as career-saving and vision-vindicating miracle.
DiVita: As someone who already admitted to having no allegiance to the '70s catalog (I was born in '89 if that excuses anything), I don't think you want my honest answer. Objectively, the correct response is Dynasty, right? Even though it spawned one of their most successful and enduring hits as the band changed teams and started playing for rock's rival: disco. It's not just bad because the songs are rather unlistenable. It's bad because Kiss, after finally finding significant success, turned their back on their entire fan base and chased money and trends just as hard as they chased women. You can't honestly say you wanna rock 'n' roll all night if you've got roller skates strapped to your feet and a disco ball over your head when the sun goes down. It almost makes you wonder if they started a rock band because that was the cool thing to do at the time. Okay, maybe that's pushing it too far.
Wilkening: Dynasty has a few great songs – "Sure Know Something" should have been an even bigger hit than "I Was Made for Lovin' You" – but is a disjointed, joyless mess overall. It seems to be the point at which many fans checked out permanently, which is a shame because albums like 1980's Unmasked and Creatures of the Night deserve more attention.
4) What was the Kiss album that just missed being good?
Brandvold: Monster. All this needed was a real producer such as Bob Ezrin, Eddie Kramer or Michael James Jackson. I think an legitimate outside collaborator would have put the final polish on the songs to make this a really good album.
Christopher: I truly think Carnival of Souls could have been a good album were it given the proper level of attention. Had Gene and Paul not gotten distracted by the reunion of the original lineup, they had the momentum from Revenge carrying them on songs like “Hate,” “Jungle” and “Master & Slave,” while “Childhood’s End” was refreshingly different – in a good way. The rest feels hastily thrown together in order to combat the prospect of losing money after bootleg copies flooded the market. It’s an album of unrealized potential and could have been good, if not great.
Rivadavia: There are many to choose from, but I'll zero in on Asylum, because it failed to keep the Animalize sales rebound going, and it just needed to be good – not great, just good – to do so. I'll tell you which album just missed being great, and that was 1976's Rock and Roll Over. It was arguably a more consistent record than the same year's Destroyer, but lacked that one signature hit single/concert staple to take it to the next level.
DiVita: 1987's Crazy Nights went too far in Kiss' attempt to write for the charts rather than the fans. I'm completely understanding of why the band that made a disco album would strive for Bon Jovi level hit-making, especially when it was the time to cash-in on that kind of thing: Just look at what A&R legend John Kalodner pulled off with a revamped Whitesnake that year. There's so much bubblegum pop in the songwriting that the production couldn't possibly stand a chance at being remotely heavy or aggressive. The sticky-sweet "Turn on the Night" and the dreadful "My Way" wouldn't be so offensive if they were willing to show off as much muscle as Paul was with his tattered shirts. Unfortunately, all of that overshadows some really excellent tracks: "I'll Fight Hell to Hold You," "No No No" and "Hell or Highwater."
Wilkening: Carnival of Souls reminds me of ZZ Top's Afterburner. About half of it actually improves upon the undeniably great album that came before it – and the other half is mind-numbingly boring.
5) Kiss said they’re not going to make any more albums. Do you agree with that decision? Do you think they could still make a good or great album?
Brandvold: Personally I want one final great album, with a great producer. But I respect their decision. I do feel they can make one more great album, but it has to have a producer such as Bob Ezrin involved. It can’t be self-produced.
Christopher: It doesn’t make sense for Kiss to make any more albums because even when they’re good – like Sonic Boom – the fans at large don’t appreciate them and just want to hear the hits. I think after two strong recent studio albums they could do it again because there’s four committed musicians on board but, unless it’s to scratch some creative itch, why bother?
Rivadavia: I think Kiss could make another good (not great) album, but I do agree with that decision because a new Kiss album isn't just unnecessary, it's utterly irrelevant. More so than any other classic rock band, Kiss could tour forever without delivering new product – and I guarantee you animatronics or holograms will hit the road even before Gene, Paul and company go into their Kiss Kaskets. Variations on the Alive II "spectacle" are all paying consumers ever want to experience, and that will be true for generations to come.
DiVita: There are so many things other than a new album to put the Kiss name on. There would have to be demand and, if there was, we'd have a new album by now. Rock/metal fans still purchase music more than fans of any other genre, but a lowly sales figure would not be a good look for a band with their sense of self-worth. It would damage perception and egos. Could they still make a decent album? That depends on whether Desmond Child is busy, but as much as I love his contributions to the band, I'm not sure I want the guy who co-wrote "Bang Bang You" writing lyrics for horny men in their 70s.
Wilkening: It's their decision, of course, but selfishly I wish they'd keep at it. Sonic Boom and Monster could have been the start of another chapter instead of the end. If there are more songs like "Modern Day Delilah" and "Long Way Down" in their heads, I wish we could hear them. And as admirable as Stanley's "self-written and self-produced" mantra was for those two albums, of course you want to hear Kiss team up with Ezrin or Michael James Jackson again.
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