All images courtesy of Getty Images/KISSonline.com
By Andrew Daly
Every era has its share of great bands, and the Classic Rock era of the early 70s through the 1980s is no exception. Any period of time boasting a roster of bands such as Led Zeppelin, ACϟDC, Boston, The Who, Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Rush, and of course, KISS, is a sure bet to have produced some pretty memorable music.
As we all know, all of the groups mentioned earlier have had their fair share of preeminent, and now celebrated records, in the Album vs. Album series, I pick out two lesser-loved, underrated, or maybe even downright loathed records by larger bands that didn’t get their due at the time, and then I pit them against one another.
For the first installment of Album vs. Album, I’ll start with two often overlooked KISS Klassics in Unmasked (1980) and Creatures of the Night (1982).
When it comes to KISS, the mainstream often ignores and/or derides them for various ridiculously myopic reasons. If you’re a fan of Classic Rock radio, you’re well aware that with the exception of the Alive! version of “Rock ‘N’ Roll All Night,” and the occasional Eddie Trunk midnight spin of “Detroit Rock City,” KISS is all together and unfairly ignored.
If you’re a KISS fan or just a fan of Rock and Metal in general, you’ll recall that while KISS was “generously” granted induction into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, they were made to wait fifteen years, having been eligible since 1999. Remember, when it comes to KISS, we are talking about one of the most influential bands in Rock and Metal history, and the fact that they were made to wait is a farse and it shows the hypocritical faultfinding which The Hall is writhe with.
I’ve found that most fans of the band, be they passive or diehard, will often choose Destroyer or Love Gun as KISS’ best studio effort. While these are fantastic choices, not including the solo records, KISS has twenty-four studio records, many of which are underrated. Today, I am honing in on 1980’s Unmasked, and 1982’s Creatures of the Night, and pitting them against one another. While some KISS fans have come to love these records over time (especially Creatures of the Night), there are still many (the band included) who perpetually ignore and devalue these records (especially Unmasked).
Today, I’ll make a case for these two records being KISS’ best albums. Let’s see if I can change some fan’s minds.
The background of Unmasked.
By 1980, KISS was a band in deep trouble. While it’s true they were coming off yet another multi-platinum-selling record in Dynasty, the band had grossly alienated its core fanbase by infusing Disco and Pop music into their traditionally Rock-oriented sound. With the era of Disco now coming to an end, KISS was finding that its newfound fanbase was not going to be sticking around, and without their core Rock fanbase, who had become disillusioned by the group’s sonic shift, KISS was a band commercially left out in the cold. Further complicating matters was the fact that issues surrounding the band’s drummer, and founding member, Peter Criss, had come to a head. Criss’s erratic behavior and drumming over the course of the Dynasty Tour in 1979 had left the band at an impasse. The resolution was that Criss was to be voted out of the band and to be eventually replaced by newcomer, Eric Carr. Going back a bit though, before the band could replace Criss, they had an album to record.
Now a trio, Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, and Ace Frehley had reached a fork in the road. On one hand, they (especially Ace) knew they should probably get back to their roots. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was sweeping through the US, with bands such as Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Motörhead threatening to render KISS all but irrelevant. On the other hand, the band (especially Stanley and Simmons) were looking at the success of the Dynasty album and tour and felt with Criss out of the band, perhaps they could grab that success by the proverbial balls, and run with it without distractions and drama. And so, it came to pass that the band would hire Vinnie Poncia once again to produce Unmasked, as he had Dynasty, and continue on with their more slicked down approach, much to the dismay of Frehley. In retrospect, with the exception of Ace, it’s obvious that the band did not fully grasp the very real shift which was happening within Rock and Metal music. The decision to move forward as they did would cost them dearly in more ways than one as it not only buried the band commercially, and critically– it nearly killed them altogether.
The background of Creatures of the Night.
After an extremely tepid start to the 1980s, KISS was in complete and total disarray by the time the recording sessions for Creatures of the Night were set to begin. While Unmasked and Music From “The Elder” are two excellent albums in their own right, they proved to be major commercial and critical missteps for KISS. Unmasked was the group’s first album not to reach platinum status in the US (it went gold), and while the album was a smash success in both Japan and Australia, the US market simply was disinterested as KISS’ estranged fanbase had all but given up on them. This led the band to completely forgo touring in the US market on the heels of Unmasked, which was the first time KISS had failed to support a studio album with a US tour in its history. In the wake of the poor reception to Unmasked, and despite Ace Frehley’s continued insistence that KISS get back to their roots, KISS (mostly Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons) instead chose to attempt a bold statement in the way of the Prog-Rock disaster that was Music From “The Elder,” an album whose sales and reception was so non-existent that the band chose to forgo touring for it entirely. By the dawn of 1982, Ace Frehley, like Peter Criss before him, was out of KISS, which only left two original members in Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley.
The period leading up to, and the actual recording of Creatures of the Night would prove to be critical for KISS. The band was looking its literal mortality in the mirror, and the reflection staring back at the remaining members of KISS was pretty ugly. Ego, drugs, alcohol, infighting, über-commercialization, and general oversaturation had deteriorated the bedrock of the once-mighty KISS. With two founding members gone, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons had to right the ship or else face certain death. The Hard Rock and Heavy Metal scene was awash with hard-edged bands who were younger and perhaps hungrier than KISS had been in years. KISS had become complacent, and it showed in their music, and their image. With Ace Frehley having quit the band, KISS needed a guitarist who was not only capable, but could also bring a fresh, hard edge, and who also could write songs…enter Vinnie Vincent. In Vinnie Vincent, KISS found a player with style, skill, and flash, and one who had an innate ability to write fantastic Heavy Metal songs. It can be said that the addition of Vinnie Vincent to the KISS lineup, coupled with the presence of a now unleashed Eric Carr, basically revived KISS, but Vincent’s presence was also something of a double-edged sword, as his brazen ego and intense bravado would bring the levels of drama, and infighting within the bands ranks to heights previously unimaginable.
The writing, recording, and reception of Unmasked.
Love them or hate them, the original lineup of Peter Criss, Ace Frehley, Paul Stanley, and Gene Simmons had special chemistry, and before the ego-driven issues took hold of KISS, the four original members recorded some classic music, with the bulk of the songs generally written without the help of outsiders. This all began to change during the recording of Dynasty with Desmond Child, and Vinnie Poncia assisting in the writing of several songs. As the sessions for Unmasked began to take shape, Peter Criss had already been jettisoned from the band. Even though he was to be featured on the cover, credited for drumming on the album, and even participated in the filming of the music video for “Shandi,” Peter Criss had less than zero to do with the recording of Unmasked. Once again, Anton Fig (AKA the best drummer who was never actually in KISS) was behind the drum kit (as he had been for Dynasty), and once again, outside voices were brought in to help with songwriting, with eight of the eleven tracks featuring co-writes from Vinnie Poncia, Bob Kulick, and the immortal Peppy Castro. I attribute this to the fractured nature of the band at the time, and also the group’s insistence on deviating from their traditional Rock sound, which left them in uncharted waters, and in need of help crafting songs.
Still, even with the turmoil and uncertainty surrounding KISS at the time, Unmasked is a great album. The songwriters brought in to assist the band served the album well, and there are seriously standout tracks here. Paul Stanley‘s first love was always R&B and Soul music, and it really shows on Unmasked. Outstanding tracks such as “Tomorrow,” “What Makes The World Go ‘Round,” and “Easy As It Seems,” are infused with R&B influences throughout, and I could easily see any of Stanley’s heroes covering them to great success. Some of Gene Simmons’s most underrated tracks ever are featured on Unmasked in “Naked City, and “She’s So European.” I find these tracks interesting, and distinct as Gene has always been well known for his menacing, and hyper-sexualized “Demon” persona, but with these tracks, Gene shows us his very real ability to craft a genuine Pop song, which I find to be a refreshing take. Gene is not generally given enough credit as a bassist, let alone as a songwriter, so this is a nice showcase for him. As for Ace, well, he steals the show, with “Talk To Me,” “Two Sides Of The Coin,” and “Torpedo Girl” being the absolute standout tracks on Unmasked. I am not delusional, and I understand that this is not a “traditional KISS” record. Furthermore, there is a case to be made that KISS was downright all over the place with this record. The entire album is slick and laced with Pop production. The drumming is tight, and at times fusion inspired. Ace Frehley‘s normally Hard Rock and Heavy Metal inspired guitar playing is replaced with a chiming Jangle-Pop and at times, albeit subtle, New Wave style of playing, which sounds bizarre, but somehow works. The thought behind the record was chaotic, and shows KISS to be exactly what they were– a band in disarray. Still, somehow, Unmasked features a cohesive sound, and overall, in the face of adversity, KISS recorded an outstanding record. It’s a shame people at the time simply didn’t get it, or perhaps…didn’t care.
The writing, recording, and reception of Creatures of the Night.
As I touched on earlier, the dawning of the 1980s had not been kind to KISS. With the loss of drummer, Peter Criss, and now guitarist, Ace Frehley, KISS was down two of its original members, and in Frehley– a critical songwriter. While the induction of new drummer, Eric Carr, into the band has stabilized things to a certain degree as he was ever-capable, and perhaps more reliable than Criss anyway, the vacancy left by Ace Frehley was a massive void to fill. As I also touched on earlier, the band ended up crossing paths with the extremely gifted, Vinnie Vincent, and while they had reservations about his combustible personality, they loved his flash and flamboyantly heavy guitar stylings, as well as his innate ability to write a damn good song. Vinnie’s presence was felt immediately, with him being credited for co-wiring at least three of the album’s nine tracks, and his lead guitar work is featured on the bulk of the album. Much like Peter Criss had been with Unmasked, Ace Frehley was credited for, and depicted on Creatures of the Night’s cover. Ace was also featured during the album’s press junket and appeared in the music video for “I Love It Loud,” even though he had nothing to do with the creation or recording of the record.
Much like Unmasked, Creatures of the Night features a lot of help from outside voices in terms of songwriting, and once again– to great success. KISS was a band with its back up against the wall, and in no uncertain terms, they needed to prove to the world that they were still worthy of commercial attention. They needed to prove that they could compete with the likes of Iron Maiden, Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard, and the like. In short, if KISS didn’t make a heavy record, they were done for. To say the band succeeded would be an understatement. The band’s focus during the recording of Creatures of the Night is very apparent, and the result is what I feel amounts to the heaviest album of KISS’ career. Bringing in Michael James Jackson to produce the record was a shrewd move, as he really helped KISS dial in their sound, and further gear toward the Heavy Metal side of things, leaving the Pop stylings in the dust. The machine-gun drumming of Erc Carr is tremendous, and his influence, as well as newcomer, Vinnie Vincent’s, are felt permeating through the very soul of this record down to its bedrock. Tracks such as “Creatures Of The Night,” “Rock And Roll Hell,” “Keep Me Comin’,” and “Saint And Sinner,” (which is Simmons expressing anger toward Ace Frehley for departing) are as heavy as anything from that era, and show a depth and maturity of songwriting not often shown by the band. It’s a shame that this album was a massive commercial failure (it didn’t obtain gold status until 1994), but make no mistake– this proved to those who were listening that KISS was in fact still relevant, and would be the precursor to the KISS’ multi-platinum-selling 80s success to come. The accompanying Creatures of the Night/10th Anniversary Tour was a disaster here in the US, which saw the band playing to half-empty halls and even several cancellations due to poor ticket sales. Still, it saw the band play to a career-best, 137,000 people in São Paulo, Brazil, during the final show of the tour, in 1983, which would prove to be KISS’ last show in makeup until 1996’s Reunion Tour. Most importantly, the lineup of Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Eric Carr, and Vinnie Vincent was tighter and more fierce than ever. Creatures of the Night was a harbinger of things to come. A lot of success was on the way, but more drama than ever was to come as well.
Which album comes out on top? Unmasked, or Creatures of the Night?
It’s important to remember that when comparing these two records, we basically are comparing apples and oranges in a general sense. However, Unmasked, and Creatures of the Night are both KISS albums and thus are up for debate and in this case, are being pitted against one another. So, who wins? For my money, the answer is both simple, and complex.
So, the simple answer is that, for me, Unmasked wins. I do suspect that this opinion will be one which most KISS fans, both passive, and diehard, will disagree with. While Creatures of the Night was a massive failure upon its release, in the years since, while it’s still underrated within the canon of the band’s entire catalog, it’s also become a chic, and trendy pick for KISS Army fans to latch onto (rightfully so). Meanwhile, Unmasked is still consistently denied KISS Klassic status even amongst the most fervent KISS fans (and by Paul Stanley). All of that being said, I feel Unmasked is one of the most unique albums KISS put out in their entire career. The diversity amongst the tracks, the quality of the songwriting, and the caliber of musicianship exhibited on the record are all second to none. KISS’ early-80s genre-bending foray into Pop, and R&B-tinged New Wave is a trip most never expected, and the band paid dearly for it. However, the enduring legacy of the record is one of true singularity, and in retrospect, the maturity, depth, and quality of Unmasked are nearly unmatched. I understand that these are bold, if not inflammatory statements, and will most likely find me crucified by the leaders of the KISS Army, and that’s just fine– I’ll die on this hill. When you find my corpse though, just know my KISS Army dog tags will have a shaky engraving that reads, “Unmasked is KISS’ best record.” Like I said…I’ll die on that hill.
On the more complex side of things, I find it interesting how even though both Unmasked, and Creatures of the Night could not be more different, they are still intrinsically linked in probably more ways than most KISS fans realize. In these two records, we see a band that at the time was defined by chaos of its own creation. The absolute mania and hysteria that surrounded the band in the 1970s had come to devour its members, and as a result, they lost two of them, Peter Criss during the Unmasked era, and Ace Frehley during the Creatures of the Night era. I find it ironic that Vinnie Poncia was hired as a producer to appease Peter Criss and that very same producer deemed Criss unfit to drum for KISS in the studio, which expedited his departure. Furthermore, Poncia’s influence and subsequent slicked-down production style and songwriting angered Ace Frehley so much that it set forth in motion the events that would cause Frehley to quit KISS during the Creatures of the Night era, even though Creatures of the Night was the exact type of album that Frehley had been yearning to record for years.
In short, these two albums are important transitional sign markers for KISS, one’s which would come to signify major changes to come in terms of personnel, sonic styling, image, and public perception as the 1980s worse on. In Unmasked, and Creatures of the Night, we find the band spiraling out of control, and yet still managing to craft what I would deem quintessential albums. They were unpopular then, and they’re underrated, but at least in some ways, retroactively appreciated now. These two records are very different, yet forever deeply linked, and both are tremendously important to the band’s development. For me, while I love Creatures of the Night, and find it to be outstanding– Unmasked wins and it’s not even that close, and yet, it sort of is. Like I said, simple, yet complex all in the same.
But that’s just my opinion, right? Which one of these two KISS Klassics is your favorite?