All images courtesy of KISSonline.com
By Andrew Daly
By the time KISS released Alive! in 1975, there has been a great many live albums released, and while KISS was not the first, what they did manage to do with Alive! was completely reinvent the idea of what a live album could do for a band and be for a listener.
KISS’ has many detractors, and most of them will immediately point out that the band logged time in the studio with engineer/producer, Eddie Kramer, going back and touching up mistakes, recording overdubs, and more. The band has never denied this, and it is in fact true, still, the idea that it takes away from the magic of what KISS was and is as a live band simply isn’t accurate.
Say what you will about KISS’ stage show, antics, and more, but there simply is no denying the fact that KISS, as a band, and as artists, were as innovative as they were influential.
Think about it, go back and read interviews with your favorite rock and metal artists, where time and time again, their influences sometimes start, and often times ends with Ace Frehley or Peter Criss. Moreso, when asked about their favorite albums, KISS’ Alive! often tops their list.
The answer is simple, yet complex. Alive! isn’t just a live album, it’s a testament to rock ‘n’ roll the way KISS saw it, in their own words. It was recorded by four young guys out of NYC, who wanted nothing more than to make it. Four guys who had no idea how to harness their sound in the studio, but in the live setting, were simply unable to contain their bombast.
So, what did they do?
Out of desperation, they hit the road and recorded a live album, and brought their live show into unsuspecting bedrooms across the world, and in doing so, they saved KISS as a band. In some ways, they saved rock music, and in many ways, KISS reinvented the live album — they set the template — a template which is still being copied over, and over, and over again to this day, ad nauseam.
Love them or hate them, with Alive!, KISS created the live album as we know it, but they didn’t stop there. Throughout the band’s nearly fifty-year history, KISS has consistently put out live music. Let’s dig into all of those albums, some of which may surprise you, and see how they stack up.
Kiss Symphony Alive IV (2003)
In 2003, KISS, as a band, was once again tasked with picking up the pieces. On the heels of the Reunion era, which had seen Ace Frehley come and go, and Peter Criss, come, go, and come again, KISS was reeling. It was during this time that KISS made the shrewd choice to install consummate professional, and underrated axe-slinger, Tommy Thayer, as its new lead guitarist. Peter Criss had also once again rejoined KISS, undeservedly unseating Eric Singer, who had filled in for Criss during the final leg of the Farewell Tour, after Criss has stormed off in a contract dispute. With a new lineup ready to go, KISS decided to go in typical “go big or go home” fashion and hook up with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for KISS Symphony Alive IV. While the concept is cool, and the show served as Tommy Thayer’s first official gig with KISS, the reality is that Peter Criss’ playing sounds a bit tired, if not uninspired, and it simply doesn’t jive with the band here. Ultimately, the album is a fun footnote in KISStory, but it’s not KISS at its finest. KISS Symphony Alive IV is essential for diehards and completists and is good by the band’s standards, but it’s not great. All in all, it makes for a fun listen now and again, but it won’t be topping this list.
Alive! The Millennium Concert (2006)
As the title suggests, Alive! The Millennium Concert was recorded at the turn of the century. The idea was for KISS to record its long-awaited Alive IV album on New Year’s Eve as 1999 gave way to 2000, hence the namesake. As history dictates, the four original members of KISS did just that, so, why was the album not released until 2006? The understanding is KISS had numerous contract issues at the time which perpetually delayed Alive IV’s release. The idea was to put out Alive IV during the band’s supposed Farewell Tour, as a companion piece, which was supposed to signal the end of the band. In the ensuing years, we’ve come to find out the total hell the Reunion era actually was, and eventually, the Farewell Tour came to be reshaped as a farewell to the original foursome, as such, combined with the contract issues, KISS’ Alive IV was decidedly shelved. Eventually, KISS regained its footing and stabilized with the help of Eric Singer, and Tommy Thayer, who alongside Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, formed KISS’ still longest-running lineup. In 2006, KISS finally decided to release the album as a part of the boxset, KISS Alive! 1975-2000, and retitled the show, Alive! The Millennium Concert. All in all, if we’re being honest, the album is just OK. Ace Frehley’s playing is inspired, and as always, Gene Simmons, and Paul Stanley hold serve, but once again, sadly, while Peter Criss keeps fine time, his tired arms have him plodding along, and unfortunately, he holds the band back. The high energy that is present on earlier KISS live efforts, and subsequent ones with Eric Singer, simply isn’t there. It seems by this time, age had finally gotten the best of the Catman, and it shows. Alive! The Millennium Concert was a nice effort, and a fine idea, but the need for personal changes was very apparent, and simply put, KISS has done better.
KISS Rocks Vegas (2016)
If there was ever a band that was built for Vegas, it’s KISS. As such, it comes as no surprise that KISS decided to record its most recent (official) live record, KISS Rocks Vegas, in Sin City. Overall, the record is a wonderful live testament to the very real comradery that Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Tommy Thayer, and Eric Singer share. Musically, the band is tight, well-rehearsed, and the symbiosis is on display. The show has all the pyro and greatest hits any self-respecting KISS Army veteran could handle. Overall, it’s hard to criticize what KISS did here. As one of the biggest rock bands on planet earth, they went ahead and recorded a live album on one of the grandest stages. Sure, we could complain that they didn’t play more material from recent albums, Sonic Boom, or Monster, but they did invigorate the setlist with some 80s and early 90s fan favorites, but as usual, nothing too scandalous, as KISS is far too businesslike for that. We suppose one could complain that Paul Stanley’s ongoing vocal issues are present here, but as a man in his 60s (at the time of the recording), and with many miles on his engine, anyone who feels the need to complain about that needs to check themselves at the proverbial door. All in all, KISS Rocks Vegas is a great late-stage live testament, by a band who at this point, was as well-oiled as they were battle-tested. The odds are that time will be very kind to this release, but we suspect that seeing as KISS is on their current End of The Road Tour, KISS Rocks Vegas will not be the band’s final live testament. Call it a hunch.
Rock the Nation Live! (2005)
Here is the first of a few surprises on our list. KISS’ Rock The Nation Live! is an official release, but it was only released on DVD home video, and not on CD, cassette, or vinyl…yet. For those that missed this one due to a lack of a DVD player, we strongly urge you to remedy that, as 2005 found KISS a band reinvigorated. The injection of life KISS received via a prescription of Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer was just what Dr. Love ordered, and in a very real sense, saved KISS. KISS’ more objectionable fans love to berate Singer and Thayer for their donning of the classic Spaceman and Catman kabuki style makeup, which once belonged to original members, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. It’s here where we would like to remind you that it’s not as if Singer or Thayer had a choice — they were given the opportunity of a lifetime — and they took it. We’re more than certain you’d all have done the same. While it’s wonderfully easy to object from one’s armchair, it’s important to remember that while we love Frehley and Criss, they both willingly sold their makeup to the KISS Corporation for tidy sums. It’s also imperative to remember and understand that without the presence of Thayer and Singer, KISS would not exist today in any form. Why do we make light of all this? Well, because we can, and also, because KISS’ Rock The Nation Live! is a fantastic live testament, which shows the rebirth of a band which almost died before its time. For the first time in years, the musicianship was vivid, fluid, and inspired, and the setlist included 80s and 90s classics which were forcibly collecting dust due to Criss’ refusal to play them. Here’s to hoping KISS’ Rock The Nation Live! gets an official release beyond DVD. It’s an undisputed gem.
KISS Unplugged (1996)
One of the most watershed moments in KISStory took place on the MTV Unplugged stage in 1995. As many fans will recall, KISS’ lineup of Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Eric Singer, and Bruce Kulick, was moving through a torrid set of acoustically altered KISS classics as many of their contemporaries had during the Unplugged series 90s reign, when suddenly, original members, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss took the stage to rejoin their bandmates for the first time in fifteen years. It was a legendary moment and one that had been in the works behind the scenes for some time. The original members, with the help of Singer and Kulick, ripped through “2,000 Man,” “Beth,” “Nothin’ To Lose,” and “Rock ‘N’ Roll All Night.” The vibes were good, and the joy was real. As history will recall, this event set forth a chain reaction, which sadly led to Singer and Kulick being jettisoned from KISS, and Frehley and Criss re-entering the fold. Soon, the Reunion era was underway, and while things worked out well at first, soon enough, members were up to their old tricks again, and things broke down, and the rest, as they say, is KISStory. As for the album, KISS Unplugged is sublime. The reunion gimmick aside, for the first eleven songs, KISS demonstrated how accomplished of musicians they were, and the acoustic renditions of these songs shine a light on the exceptional songwriting, and forceful talent which the early to mid-90s line up of Stanley, Simmons, Singer, and Kulick had. While most KISS fans would say they are glad the Reunion era happened, we are of the opinion, especially in light of how things went down, that the Revenge/Carnival of Souls era lineup was robbed of a chance to continue to shine. With all that being said, KISS Unplugged is a great if not bittersweet affair.
Animalize Live Uncensored (1985)
Another surprise addition to the list, Animalize Live Uncensored is another one hundred percent official recording, which KISS, for some reason, chose to forgo on CD, cassette, and vinyl, and this time (as it was the 80s), release the album exclusively on VHS home video. Why? Who knows? Anyway, as many KISS fans would probably agree, it’s criminal that KISS never released a live album during Eric Carr’s tenure in KISS, which lasted from 1980, until his death in 1991. To many fans, justifiably so, Carr is thought of as the best drummer KISS has ever had, and at the very least, Carr was a massive factor in KISS’ 1980s resurgence, which saw the band push toward a more heavy metal sound, and once again, platinum-selling success. Animalize Live Uncensored is an intense live document of KISS seemingly on speed, as Stanley, Simmons, Carr, and newly-minted member, Bruce Kulick, who was at the time, something of a fill-in for an ailing Mark St. John. As the release’s title alludes to, Animalize Live Uncensored was recorded during KISS’ supporting tour for its platinum selling 1984 album, Animalize. The show itself finds KISS in a return to old stomping grounds, Detroit’s Cobo Hall, at its live 80s peak, and Bruce Kulick’s induction ended a long-running game of guitar roulette KISS seemed to have been playing after the departure of Ace Frehley in 1982. As for the setlist, it includes a mix of KISS’ 70s concert staples, aptly sitting alongside early and mid-80s soon-to-be favorites from Creatures of The Night, Lick It Up, and of course, Animalize. The highlight, for most fans, would be seeing Eric Carr slashing and pounding away on his drums in his typically monumental fashion. In recent years, for some reason, the KISS machine has seemed to downplay Eric Carr’s contributions to KISS, which again, is criminal. If you’re a fan who has overlooked Carr or simply forgot his important contributions to KISS, Animalize Live Uncensored is an important live testament for you to revisit.
Alive II (1977)
It comes down to the big three, and here is where it gets sticky. Thus far, we’ve stayed from any overly provocative choices, and we suspect that for many reading this list, that trend officially ends here, with the “shocking” inclusion of KISS’ Alive II at any position other than number one of two on this list. Oops. Before you crucify us, at least hear us out. The reasoning is simple. Sure, Alive II is a quality album, and we get what KISS was doing here — capitalizing on the very literal height of the band’s 1970s peak, and trying to duplicate the success of 1975’s Alive!, and in some ways, KISS succeeded, but in many ways, they failed. The first issue, for us at least, is that Alive II is not indicative of what a KISS concert in 1977 sounded like. While it’s true that Alive! contains many overdubs, the fact is that if you compare the recording to bootlegs such as Winterland 1975, Alive! does sound like KISS in the live setting around that time. Simply put, the same cannot be said about Alive II. Don’t believe us? Go back and listen to bootleg recordings from Houston, Largo, or Budokan in 1976, and 1977, and then compare them to Alive II, and tell us we’re wrong. The mix and aesthetic for Alive II is all wrong, Peter Criss’ drum sound is all wrong, and simply put — Alive II was the first of what became a commonplace cash grab. Does this sound harsh? Well, we’re not done. Another glaring issue with this “live” album is the seemingly random inclusion of five, albeit steller, studio tracks at the end of side four. Why KISS didn’t save these tracks for the next studio release is beyond us, but again, the tracks are fantastic. Overall, before you get too wrapped up in our criticism of Alive II, remember that it still has garnered very high placement on this list, and while it is a good live record, in retrospect, it suffers from many glaring issues, and probably was simply a case of Casablanca Records pushing the issue too soon. Alive II is a good record, but a reality check is in order at times, and so, allow this to serve as Alive II’s. Looking back, it’s sad that KISS wasn’t properly documented during the original foursome’s commercial peak. Alive II could have been so much more, and with a little more foresight, it could have been. Perhaps, KISS should have waited, and put Alive II out with Vinnie Vincent in the band on the Lick It Up Tour, or was that just too much to ask? We can dream, can’t we?
Alive III (1993)
It’s hard to gauge how the average KISS fan will feel about Alive III’s placement on this list, but one thing is certain — we are about to find out. Jokes aside, Alive III is a very underexposed album in all of KISS’ discography, in general, let alone within the canon of live albums. For some reason, it’s rarely mentioned, which is very sad considering its merit. We’ve long championed the versatility, musicianship, and cohesiveness of the Revenge era lineup, and with good reason — in the wake of Eric Carr’s death, and in the face of grunge, KISS did what any self-respecting, veteran band would do — they turned up the amps to eleven, and ripped their listeners faces off with some of their heaviest material to date. Once on the road, KISS fans were suddenly exposed to a band whose musicianship was exponentially taken to the next level. In addition to the fantastic tracks such as “Take It Off,” “Domino,” and “Unholy,” which were being road-tested for the first time, KISS was now making it a habit of fiercely ripping through old guard songs such as “Duece,” “Watchin’ You,” and “Parasite,” with renewed vigor and intensity not seen in a very long time. For those reading this, while we love Peter Criss, and unnervingly respect and admire Eric Carr, the simple fact is Eric Singer is the best drummer KISS has ever had, and it’s an honor that he’s graced KISS fans with his skills for as long as he has. Bruce Kulick’s playing is at its absolute peak on Alive III, and his respect for Ace Frehley and Vinnie Vincent’s classic licks is masterfully paired with his own tasteful, personal spin. KISS’ early to mid-90s era was sadly cut short by the Reunion, which garners a true ambivalence for many fans in retrospect. Thankfully, KISS’ Alive III exists as an outstanding live document of one of the finest eras in KISStory. Alive III stands proud and tall against any live release, by any band, and ably fights chest to chest with KISS’ flagship live effort, Alive! It isn’t a stretch to say that between Alive III and Alive!, it’s something of a tossup, if you’re really listening that is. In regards to this era, given this lineups songsmith, nostalgia aside, as a KISS fan, do you ever find yourself wishing that Stanley, Simmons, Singer, and Kulick held it together instead of the Reunion happening? If you’re like us, then you do.
KISS Alive! (1975)
While there are arguments to be made that Alive III is perhaps superior, at the end of the day, it’s hard to wager against KISS’ 1975 album, Alive! as anything but their best live effort, and best album in general. As a KISS fan, you can debate until you are blue in the face about Destroyer, Love Gun, Creatures of The Night, and more, but if you’re are being honest, Alive! is the album that saved and defined KISS. It’s the album that exposed weary fans to the band’s true sound, and it’s the album that laid forth the template for all live albums, of any genre, forever onward. These are undisputed facts, and while Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons like to respectively say the album sounds as if, “It was recorded in a washroom,” deep down, the duo knows Alive! is their bread and butter, and it’s why to this day, KISS’ setlist is still peppered with tracks from Alive!, played exactly as they appear on the album. As we’ve mentioned, myopic types will berate Alive! for overdubs, as if every other live album ever recorded doesn’t contain them, but deep down, those fans will remember that their favorite band’s live album explicitly doesn’t happen if not for the very existence of Alive! There is a long-running narrative that KISS’ peak was around 1977, but to be clear — KISS may have peaked commercially in 1977, but their creative peak was 1975, as evidenced by the mere existence of Alive! KISS was never better or more energetic than during the 1975-1976 period, which was just before, and just after the release of Alive! The reason being was they had youth, moxy, balls, and a literal need to save their collective asses. If Alive! failed, the four original members of KISS would be back on the streets, driving taxi cabs, or worse, but Alive! didn’t fail, instead, it launched KISS to heights and stardom unknown, and set forth everything that happened thereafter. Alive! made the likes of Destroyer, Love Gun, and Creatures of The Night possible. Alive! not only changed the trajectory of KISS, but it changed the trajectory of four men’s lives, and it served up untold good fortunes and riches for their management, record label, and the genre of rock music in general thereafter. Say what you will about Alive!, but it’s not only KISS’ defining moment, but it’s anything short of genre-defining, as well as an outright showcase of balls-to-the-wall, glammed-out, explosive-laced, cock-rock at its finest. Once and for all, Alive! is not only KISS’ best album, Alive! is the best live album of all time. Period.
For KISS fans, we find ourselves in unprecedented times, times which finally, we will be forced to say goodbye to our masked (and sometimes unmasked) heroes. After all these years, the boys in KISS will be wrapping it up. As age closes in, road-weary bones are becoming unable to carry the weight of their warpaint and gear, and so, each day draws us closer to the final time Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Eric Singer, and Tommy Thayer will take the stage as members of KISS.
While it remains to be seen if Ace Frehley, Peter Criss, Bruce Kulick, and dare we say it — Vinnie Vincent — will join KISS on stage for any of their final shows, if we were the betting types, we’d bet on that happening…well…maybe not Vinnie.
As the final days of the band draw nearer, this is a time to remember KISS as one of, if not the best live act of its era, a band that has perpetually pushed boundaries for both themselves and the genres of hard rock and heavy metal music.
KISS, as a band, demands excellence, and their live shows and subsequent live documents are evidence of that. Their naysayers will always be aplenty, but over the years, KISS has laid forth some truly outstanding live performances, which we can be thankful for having seen wide and official releases.
Perhaps, if we’re lucky, KISS will treat us to one last live effort documenting this End of The Road World Tour. Time will tell. If you’re new to KISS, well, as Paul Stanley would say, “We say welcome to the show.” Enjoy getting to know these albums.
In the meantime, the rest of us in the old guard will be watching and waiting for the hottest band in the world’s next move.