Dinosaurs… with sharp teeth!
he problem is: I’m old. And so are you. And so is KISS. Pondering the 20th studio album of a band 38 years old is a daunting task when we’ve come so far together, across mountains of metal and deserts of disco; through the shadow of The Elder, borne on a cross of Crazy Nights; weighing it against the arc of history, measuring it against the panties of paradise…
The second full album with this latest lineup – Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Tommy Thayer, Eric Singer – can these musical dinosaurs amble across the sands of time to deliver a bodyblow to the young and young at heart? Can there be any twinkly magic left to move us, as past lineups on youthful albums did, when WE were also youthful?
Like I said: it’s hard to judge. But judge we must. This 47th overall album from KISS (including Solos, Compilations, Live) is a loosed pack of wild dogs; a crisp, bombastic production of solid, thunderous rock and roll. Producer Paul Stanley (and co-producer Greg Collins) tracked the album on analog for a thicker bite, and they’ve chosen the song list judiciously, as there seem to be no throwaway tracks. The KISS LOONIES (the Paul-Gene-Ace-Peter brigade) will never admit it, but Monster is more consistent than Dynasty, Unmasked, Animalize or even Love Gun. Not many bands are purveying this style of old-school rock anymore and this album holds up mightily against KISS contemporaries Buckcherry, Aerosmith, The Darkness, AC/DC, et al.
It’s amusing seeing so many “critics” (the online variety) contorting, trying to explain why this album is great even whilst tearing it down because it’s not KISS 1977, and they’re not 9 years old anymore. Plus, we know that everyone is listening to this album on their computers with the fantastic lo-fidelity of the computer speakers providing exactly NONE of the sonic frequencies originally committed to the album. You judge this album’s sonic worth on your computer speakers (or other such crap), when in 1977, you listened to Love Gun on 15-inch woofers on your bedroom stereo, when you had no bills, no diseases, no enemies, no complicated personal relationships, no responsibilities? I mean, come on people!
Is great rock and roll ageless – or does age (of the rockers and the rockees) have everything to do with it? For example, it seems disingenuous for KISS to be singing about pussy and pawdying at their advanced ages – dirty grampas! – because we all know the reality of the band’s founders once being chick-hounds, but now being happily married sexagenarians with kids. So what is their demographic these days?
KISS is a hard rock band surprisingly at the top of their game with this release. And there’s a special hellish irony surrounding the criticism of the latest two KISS albums, Sonic Boom and Monster, as basic bland bullheaded cock rock: people are looking back at their Classic Six albums with a nostalgia as if KISS were master songwriters and composers back then. Not remembering that the critics’ complaint for each and every one of those Classic Six albums was that KISS was basic bland bullheaded cock rock. Ah, the good ole days, when everything seemed much better, but was exactly the frickin same!
Hell Or Hallelujah. The opener, the first single, and the worst song on the album. Stock Stanley actioner with little or nothing to separate it from any car chase backing music in an 80’s detective series.
Though it seems I’ve joined the ranks of dutiful KISS detractors, it’s just that boring opener that deserves such vitriol. The album then flows nicely, with Simmons taking over songwriting/vocal duties on Wall Of Sound, in a heavy duty Black Dog-gish riff.
Freak. Before Sonic Boom, big choruses were simply big choruses; now we wonder whether they aren’t disguises for the crumbling temple that is Paul Stanley’s voice. So the most glorious thing we hear on this song is Paul Stanley once again sounding powerful as a Starchild. After the scare he gave us with Sonic Boom, he has returned with his diaphragm strengthened, his lungs loaded with oxygen and his throat fully open for battle. Guitarist Thayer co-writes this epic thumper with the big hair chorus, and a nice eerie talking break that sounds like Alice, but is a perfect harmonic between Gene and Paul.
Back To The Stone Age. A classic Simmons “dirty riff,” like Deuce (credited to all four members), opening with a satanic Demon banshee scream worthy of Gillan. Still, probably the only song that could be termed anything close to a throwaway. Is this about the Flintstones?
Monster is the second album in a row that features the same KISS lineup: Simmons (bass, vocals), Stanley (guitar, vocals), Tommy Thayer (lead guitars, vocals) and Eric Singer (drums, vocals). There are no outside musicians (except Brian Whelan, piano on Freak), and no outside songwriters. Like the Classic Six, it sounds cohesive, with both Simmons’ and Stanley’s compositions being equally effective/catchy.
Shout Mercy. Stanley’s high clear vocals give us a feeling of relief that it’s not yet time for our heroes to die. Classic double-snare beat and catchy chorus. Interesting that the band has tuned to A440, standard E tuning, at least on this song. (Their career songs are tuned down a semitone.) Which means Stanley is singing an actual high D cleanly at one point. Oh thank Satan on his big-assed steed that our vocal hero is back!
Long Way Down. Maybe I was a bit hard on them earlier, but all the songs are not exclusively about those things between a chick’s legs. This epic is a caveat against standing too tall, because – it’s a long way down, “…this life makes fools of wise men, thieves and kings…”
Eat Your Heart Out opens with a gospel a cappella falsetto, before diving into the rock. The backing vocals on this whole album are produced superbly – we can actually hear the individual voices of whoever is singing, unlike those bombastic choruses popularized in the 80s (on all glam/hard rock/metal albums, not just KISS), where it was just an army of thugs quadruple-tracking outside the gates of Babylon. We can clearly hear Eric Singer’s voice in this a cappella intro, and we can pick Stanley’s and Simmons’ voices from their backing vocals, just like the old days from the Classic Six, when the music was thin and the hair was thick…
The Devil Is Me. Simmons voices this song, penned by himself, Stanley and Thayer, and at first blush, it seems like another God Of Thunder, but Stanley subtly writes an introspective, Freudian slip, “Take a look at yourself and tell me what you see / The Devil is me!” Guitar solo is …uh, demonic.
Outta This World. The two best songs on the album are back to back – and sung by Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer! Hah! Take that, Ace-and-Peter LOONIES! Yes, the Ace LOONIES will complain that only Ace is “allowed” to sing about topics like this – “I’ll take you outta this world (to the other side) / On a midnight rocket (’til the morning light)…” but (as I stated in Sonic Boom) it’s not about Ace, it’s about the Spaceman character.
And in what must be the most serendipitous coincidence in all of rock and roll, Tommy and Eric actually have the timbre of their predecessors (bland voice and seasoned grit respectively)! They sound like trained versions of Ace and Peter. (The LOONIES will retort: Yeah, like the robot puppets they are! Oh, go fuck yourselves!)
All For The Love Of Rock & Roll. Stanley writes the best straight ahead old timey rock and roll song on the album. And Singer sings in that raspy r&b tilt. Oh man, this Rod Stewart-meets-The Stones bluesy rocker takes me back to being a teenager in the ’70s all over again, cruisin’ with the top down in my souped-up Camaro, picking up chicks on Sunset Boulevard– no wait, that wasn’t me, that was David Lee Roth.
Two years later, on AC/DC’s Rock Or Bust album, that hard-rocking bunch would also write a bluesy departure from their usual headbanging fare, Rock The Blues Away. It has no connection to KISS, just a grim reminder that we all still bow to the I-IV-V monster.
It’s ironic how the Ace-and-Peter LOONIES regard Tommy and Eric as the lowest of musical scabs – when in reality, the fact they have jobs in KISS puts them at the top of the industry pile; touring denizens in a world-girdling act, respected players on a worldwide scale. No one can grasp exactly how surreal and heady their positions are – which they continually repeat at conventions and Q&A’s.
Take Me Down Below is a throwback classic fun song, Simmons and Stanley sharing a verse each, with Stanley pulling some titanic screeches in the outro.
A basic Stanley shouter Last Chance, closes the album, starting with a heavy picked bass guitar, then with heavy bass throughout.
Thayer’s playing must not go unmentioned, consistently delivering remarkably memorable lead solos, filled with a passion the Ace-LOONIES will never give him the credit for ever having. He ends up with 9 co-writing credits on the album, 10 if you count the iTunes bonus track, Right Here Right Now.
stanley’s vocal timeline
After the alarming slippage we heard on the last album, Sonic Boom, the voice that launched a thousand panties seems to be back on track on Monster – Paul Stanley’s vocals ring clear and stratospheric throughout this album. Either that, or they are using undetectable studio techniques to hide its deficiencies.
Unfortunately, after the album comes the tour, and there have been innumerable live videos surfacing of Stanley scraping his vocal cords into the gutter to get through songs that used to be effortless. Probably a gigantic part of this IS due to old age, but the old age is coupled with an operation in 2010. From what I could research, this seems to be the timeline of Paul’s vocal issue:
2009: Sonic Boom album – we heard the imminent problems in the recordings, especially in the half-smothered screams in Modern Day Delilah, where he sounded totally NOT like Paul Stanley.
2010: Stanley undergoes an operation for polyps on his vocal cords. (We think: Ah, so THAT’S what made him sound like that!)
2012: Monster album – a definitive improvement back to the Paul of old. Being a studio production, he could go in when he was rested and/or feeling powerful, and crunch out the tunes on his best days.
2014: Touring. In videos from 2012 to 2014, we hear the horrible breakdown of Paul’s voice, because – I’m only presuming as a civilian, not a doctor – Paul does not have the luxury of rest between tour dates, and he’s punishing an instrument which was not fully healed or can never BE fully healed. Once someone takes a knife to any part of your body, can you EVER claim 100% again? And his age is not helping…
The final irony: Paul Stanley has always been a remarkable singer who has never gotten the recognition because he was surrounded by the circus that is KISS; now, his failing vocals are thankfully being hidden behind that same circus.
monster – the book
And we thought Kisstory was expensive. Heralded as the “Kiss Bible,” released in March 1995, Kisstory was a comprehensive, giant coffee table book covering the history of KISS from their beginnings to the mid-1990s; reprinted in 1996 to cover the Reunion Tour. 440 pages, hardcover weighing over 8 pounds, and originally $150 (now, anywhere up to $500, depending on signed copies, mint condition, etc.).
Now comes Monster. A literal monster of a book, released in conjunction with the album of the same name. Published July 2012, and limited to 1000 copies, each copy is signed by the four current band members, Simmons, Stanley, Thayer and Singer, and with the choice of ten countries’ flags on the cover, depending on where it is sold. Measuring 3 feet x 2.5 feet and weighing nearly 50 pounds, it is a pictorial history of KISS.
Cost… wait for it… US$4,250! As Gene Simmons says, “It’s not for everyone.” That’s exactly what the Ace-and-Peter LOONIES say about the album…