Header image courtesy of KISS Facebook (official)
By Andrew Daly
“KISS in 1980 equates to the absolute nadir of existence. I know you might think that harsh, but no, KISS isn’t just going with the flow of crap music, they are pushing crap in a new and scary direction. What a horrible, horrible, horrible band, with nothing left in the tank.”
Those were the words of a lesser-known, yet still jarring review of KISS’ 1980 studio outing, Unmasked. Quizzically enough, as KISS entered the 1980s, it seemed to find itself caught up in the same critical malevolence that it had experienced in its infancy. Years of success and riding wave after wave of lipstick-stained triumph had finally turned in on itself, and suddenly, KISS was crashing to the shore in epically horrid fashion.
By 1980, the Dynasty Tour had come and gone, and for all intents and purposes, so had Peter Criss. Years of substance abuse and torrid frustration had finally come to a boiling point, a boiling point which frothed over, and eventually, saw to it that Criss was ejected from the band.
While 1979’s Dynasty had brought KISS to the masses and garnered the NYC native’s droves of new fans, a windfall that the band never could have imagined came with that success – KISS had alienated its core fanbase. As the 70s came to a close, and the 80s dawned, KISS was finally feeling the side effects of their decision to inject disco and pop into their music. Relegation was not on KISS’ agenda for the decade, but as fate would have it, for starters at least, they weren’t going to have a choice in the matter.
The 80s would be an interesting time for KISS, a decade defined by lineup instability, the near-death of the band, the removal of their trademark makeup, and a return to gold and platinum level success. Yes, in rock’s glitziest decade, once again, KISS found themselves in a familiar, yet frustrating position as a band who needed to prove their worth to both critics and fans alike. I touch on all of this and more, as we rank KISS’ eight studio efforts from 1980 through 1989 in KISS Studio Albums Ranked Part Two: The 80s.
8) Asylum (1985)
A proverbial reaching of the summit? Or a harbinger of another downswing on the horizon?
Asylum has an interesting position in KISStory as an album that is often thought of as one of the lesser records in KISS’ long and varied discography. Asylum is a funny record because, on the surface, it’s really very good, and it continued a run of success for the band after both Lick It Up and Animalize illustrated in vivid color a return to platinum-level success for KISS. Asylum is significant for many reasons, one being that it was guitarist Bruce Kulick’s first full album with KISS. While Kulick had come in for two tracks on 1984’s Animalize and had officially taken over for an ailing Mark St. John on the subsequent tour, Asylum was to serve as his coming out party.
Next on the docket of significance was that Asylum, which was the second album in the KISS catalog to be produced by the band themselves (mostly by Paul Stanley), saw KISS fully immerse itself in the glammed-out, hair metal excess of the 1980s. While KISS had touched on this subsector of the genre before with Lick It Up, and Animalize, and with great success, Asylum saw KISS go full 80s, as it were. There were issues with this though, the first being that KISS was already an established band, with an established, and successful mold. In retrospect, it seems slightly suspect for KISS to go down the rabbit hole, so to speak.
To this end, in a 2021 episode of Three Sides of the Coin, Bruce Kulick recounted the band’s overtly glam-ridden approach in the wake of Asylum:
“I remember with Gene especially, he was uncomfortable – he tried to do what he thought could work. It was a struggle. If you look at the Asylum publicity shots, he didn’t look this crazy. Now for the tour, we’re gonna go wild. We’re gonna introduce the rhinestones and the sequins and things. And then we had this wild stage, it was a disaster, it cost like $5000 to create, it came out one night and that was it. It was too much. Overall, it wasn’t in Gene’s comfort zone, obviously. With Paul, he can get away with acting like a stripper on stage and wearing all that color and still be a terrific frontman, he pulled it off.”
In the end, for me, I think Asylum is a good album, but I also feel it’s KISS’ weakest album. As I said though, Asylum is a funny album, and it’s one that I think for most bands, might be one of their best, but for a band with a catalog as strong, and acclaimed as KISS’, Asylum simply doesn’t rise to that level. With that being said, Bruce Kulick, as always, had a strong showing, with fierce, crisp, and inventive leads. For Eric Carr’s part, he was a monster as usual, and his thunderous drums equate to some of the best moments on the record. I appreciate Paul Stanley’s songwriting, and tracks like “Radar For Love,” “King of the Mountain,” and “Who Wants To Be Lonely” are very enjoyable. I do find “Tears Are Falling” to be a bit overrated, but it too is a quality track. Also, if you listen carefully, Stanley you’ll notice that lifted the riff for “Uh! All Night,” from his own 1978 solo track, “It’s Alright, with “It’s Alright” being a much better song, in my humble opinion.
Ultimately, with Asylum, one of the glaring issues is the lack of focus from Gene Simmons, although “Anyway You Slice” is a lowkey KISS Klassic. All in all, Asylum is a good, but not great KISS album, and it probably could have used an actual producer to help the band dial things in a bit better. With a bit more focus, this album could have been a true successor Lick It Up, and Animalize, instead, it took the band in another new direction, with varying degrees of success.
7) Crazy Nights (1987)
A continuation of success? Or a misguided attempted bathed in 80s excess?
If Asylum saw KISS dip its proverbial toe into the waters of glam, the Crazy Nights was their official glam metal coming out party, but this time, in my opinion, they did so with much more bravado, and to far greater results. While I may have ranked Crazy Nights at number seven, don’t let that fool you – this album is fierce, even with the keyboards. On Crazy Nights, KISS’ songwriting is strong and slick, and it’s most definitely aided by the assistance of a producer, but not just any producer, no, for the Crazy Nights sessions, KISS brought in acclaimed knob-twirler, Ron Nevinson.
In regards to his recollection of the project, Nevinson had this say in a 2021 interview with VWMusic:
“I was hot from working with Ozzy and Heart. I had interviewed with Paul in the late 70s when he was doing his solo record. I didn’t get the job – maybe I was too busy or he wanted somebody else – but he told me later he’d always wanted me to do it. So, I don’t remember why we didn’t get together. That happens a lot; where you interview for a job, and for one reason or another, your schedules don’t match up. For me to take on an album project in those days was like a three-month job; you only can do so many albums in a year.
Paul was trying really, really hard to write clever stuff. He got Desmond Child and different writers, and he was trying to follow up with what Bon Jovi had done, not stylistically, of course, but as far as impact singles. I didn’t realize the power of the KISS Army. It reminded me of when [Bob] Dylan picked up an electric guitar; his fans went nuts. Add a synthesizer to KISS? Are you crazy!? Boy, I got a lot of feedback for that. Look, the 1980s were very specific if you wanted to score really big. You had to satisfy CHR, which was Contemporary Hit Radio. There were only 146 of those stations, but that was the key to success. If you had a No. 1 AOR hit, you were headed for gold; if you had a No. 1 CHR hit, you were headed for platinum. If you could do both, you were headed for more. It was the kind of thing where you had to comply with their format in order to get played, so you had to soften things up here and there. I had a great time with all of them. They were so professional.”
When it comes to Crazy Nights, it’s simply a really fun album, choc-full of anthemic songs. Tracks like “Crazy Nights,” “Bang Bang You,” and “Turn On the Night” showcase Paul Stanley’s ability to write quality rock songs, with big hooks. More so, Crazy Nights is an important album, as it featured an upswing of creativity from bassist Gene Simmons. For several years prior, Simmons’ focus was mostly centered on his acting career, while also dabbling in starting his label, Simmons Records, and producing records for others. While branching out may or may not have been critical for Simmons’ personal development, it certainly hindered KISS.
In the 1995 biography KISStory, Paul Stanley recounted confronting Simmons going into the Crazy Nights sessions:
“We were in the parking lot one day, and I said to Gene, ‘Look, you’re off doing all these other things while still reaping the benefits of this band – and I’m getting screwed. It’s not fair for me to put in this kind of time, while somebody else who is supposed to be my partner, is not.’ And Gene looked at me and said, ‘That’s fair.’ I could have used Gene’s input. But my attitude at that point was that I certainly wasn’t going to listen to a guy who’s off managing cabaret singers and producing five bands, while I was trying to make an album.”
While Stanley’s criticism might have seemed harsh, Simmons’ response showed that it was valid, if not warranted. For some bands that might have been the beginning of the bassist’s end, but for KISS, and for Simmons, the conversation with his longtime bandmate manifested some of Simmons’ most inspired tracks in years, with “No, No, No,” “Hell or High Water,” and “Thief in the Night” showcasing a full-blown return for Gene Simmons unique brand of machismo driven camp. And while Stanley and Simmons might have been on their game, when it came to who stole the show, as mentioned before, that award goes to Bruce Kulick, who for his sophomore album with KISS, delivered some era-defining work.
In a 2021 interview with VWMusic, Kulick dug into his memories of his work on the album:
“You know, [Ron] Nevison produced me, and we did the best with the leads that we could. He also made sure that the lead guitar was featured, even though that album has keyboards that some people pick on. When I come in, it’s screaming, hot guitars like, “Look at me, I’m center stage, big spotlight on me, and my solo is right there.” So for that reason, I really did like Crazy Nights. Besides the fact that I think it was a strong record.”
I personally love Crazy Nights, and I think the guitar work, and overall tone of the record really elevates it most. To be sure, Crazy Nights is one to be proud of, with all of its four players giving inspired and successful performances, but the truth is, for whatever reason, Crazy Nights is an album which has been relegated in KISStory. Moreso, it’s one of the least featured albums in KISS’ setlists over the years, which in a way, is very sad, as there are many concert-worthy tracks here. Once again, Crazy Nights is a good album, with tracks that I will always love, and continue to go back to, and for Kulick, it’s nothing short of a highlight reel, but for KISS, they can, and they did do better.
6) Music from “The Elder” (1981)
A musical holocaust brought forth via delusions of grandeur? Or a prog-rock masterstroke?
In 1981, KISS was a band on the rocks, reeling from the successful abroad, but domestically muted reaction to 1980’s Unmasked. To make matters worse, the band’s original drummer and founding member Peter Criss has been unceremoniously ejected from the band the previous year, which left KISS in need of a replacement, which ultimately manifested itself in Brooklyn-born drummer, Eric Carr.
After two successive, and decisively non-hard rock albums, KISS’ guitarist Ace Frehley was demanding an all-out rock affair, and the band’s newest member Eric Carr seemed to agree. The issue was twofold in that Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons did not agree, and also, to them, Carr was not an original member, as such, his opinion on the matter meant nothing. Simply put, if Stanley and Simmons wanted to make a prog-rock album in the face of immense critical and commercial backlash, then dammit, they were going to make a prog album.
Does that sound misguided? Well, in 2021, with Yahoo Entertainment, Paul Stanley recollected KISS’ mindset at the time:
“We were lost. We were delusional. We had become complacent and kind of ungrateful for the success that we had and what it was based on. So, we were lazy, and I think we had all become very comfortable in a rich, so to speak, lifestyle, and became more concerned with how our contemporaries viewed us rather than our fans. And I think the fans were forsaken. We couldn’t make a rock album. We had no teeth. We were gumming at that point.”
In that same interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Gene Simmons echoes Stanley’s sentiments by saying:
“When you do anything, you want authenticity and honesty. That was a dishonest record. The Elder was misdirected. We were very popular and played stadiums and stuff. And when we had a change in the lineup – Peter Criss had succumbed to some of the cliches and the rock ‘n’ roll, and all of us, Ace and Paul and myself, voted for him to be out of the band. So we got a new guy, Eric [Carr], God bless him, who unfortunately passed away. And we had some time off. And I was at the Beverly Hills Hotel, of all places, because I started to fool around with movies and meeting those kinds of people – going to Paramount, all that stuff. And eventually, I’d wind up doing a few movies and producing some, but it wasn’t the real thing for me. And I started writing. And the first thing I wrote was on the Beverly Hills Hotel stationery: ‘The Elder, when the Earth was young, they were already old.’ It started with a story treatment that I wanted to turn into a movie – a Tolkien-esque sort of a thing, with inspiration from The Watcher from Marvel and so on. We brought Bob Ezrin back, who had produced possibly our best record, Destroyer, up until then. It was Bob Ezrin who said, ‘Let’s do a concept record. Gene, I like your story. Let’s craft songs based on your story.'”
With Simmons and Stanley gung-ho in regards to the medievil concept album idea, KISS entered the studio with Bob Ezrin. In my opinion, this is the first misstep KISS made. While Ezrin is hailed as a legend in KISS lore for his work on Destroyer, as I stated in part one of this series: Ezrin is a seminal producer, but his production work on Destroyer and his relevance in KISS’ overall trajectory is overstated. Simply put, to expect Bob Ezrin to come in, and “save KISS” and return them to their core fanbase was misguided, if not asinine. Ezrin, at his core, was a theatrical producer, and his work with Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd backs that assertion up. After two records such as Dynasty and Unmasked, turning to Ezrin to rectify the band’s plight had disaster written all over it, and the producers’ immense drug use only escalated the issue.
In a 2018 conversation with Holywood’s Musicians Institute, Ace Frehley gave his enduring thoughts on the matter:
“I want to give you my two cents about The Elder. Bob Ezrin flew into Connecticut. A lot of it was recorded at my home studio in Connecticut. It was a professional studio – I spent about a million dollars on it. During the recording process, I kept telling all those guys — Bob, Paul, and Gene – I go, ‘This is the wrong album for this period of time. I think fans want to hear a heavy hard rock album.’ They just had a deaf ear to me. I said, ‘It’s not going to work,’ and of course, the album bombed. I guess I had a handle on what was happening. Those guys never had any street sense. It’s no fault of their own – Gene grew up in Israel, and Paul grew up in Queen s, but he wasn’t a guy like me, who hung out on the corner, got into fights, and did crazy stuff. I always had my pulse on what was going on, and I knew at the time – I would have bet a million dollars that the album was going to fail. I didn’t want it to fail, and actually, if you take that album out of sequence with the KISS records, it’s not a bad record. I did some great solos on it and there are some really good songs, but it wasn’t the right record for the time. I was doing an interview with Billboard magazine, and they said, ‘What would have happened if The Elder never happened, and you went from Unmasked to Creatures Of The Night?’ I thought for a second because I like Creatures Of The Night – it’s heavy, it’s powerful, it’s everything I said we should be doing when we recorded The Elder. I may not have quit the band, but you can’t rewrite history unless we go into a time warp or a black hole.”
With the seeds of dissension sewn, KISS hit Ace Frehley’s home studio and began recording the record, which would not only become its most maligned effort of all time, but one which would cost them their lead guitarist, and quite nearly cause the end of the band altogether. Still, as Frehley alluded to, Music from “The Elder” isn’t a bad album, it’s just not a traditional KISS album. Is Music from “The Elder” the record KISS should have made at the time? No. Is Bob Ezrin the man KISS should have hired to steer the ship back on course? Absolutely not. At the same time, in retrospect, you can’t blame the band for the choice they made, it was ballsy, and while the end result was an album that came off misguided, and weird, it also is out and out cool, and enduringly interesting.
In the same Yahoo Entertainment interview, Paul Stanley gave his closing thoughts on KISS’ misunderstood album:
“There were a lot of problems within the band, and Bob was having his share of problems, and it was an album that to me was just a picture of a bunch of people who were lost. You had to be there to know just how difficult it was to see it through to the end. And that was nobody’s fault in particular. It was all of us. It was just symptomatic of all of us not being in a good place.”
While most KISS fans still hate Music from “The Elder” to this day, I for one love the record through and through. Although, I will be honest – as a kid, of course, I didn’t get it – but as an adult, I see Music from “The Elder” as a masterpiece. It’s a total nonconformist in the KISS discography, and its backstory is that of a faltering band, that couldn’t get out of its own way, but I do love the record. It’s by no means a conventional KISS record, but it’s one hell of a prog record. Tracks such as “Dark Light,” and “I” are nothing short of exceptional. Furthermore, “The Oath,” and “Mr. Blackwell” are actually very metal-tinged,” and super heavy.
As Frehley alluded to, his lead work is sublime, and for Eric Carr’s part, he held serve wonderfully on his flagship outing with the band, even if Ezrin, as per usual, weirdly subbed in Alan Schwartzberg on drums for “I,” further showcasing the producers delusional and sidetracked mindset. In the end, if KISS wanted to make an outright rocker as they should have, following Frehey’s lead, and bringing back Eddie Kramer might have been the move. Overall, Music from “The Elder” is not KISS’ best album of the 80s, or KISS’ best album in general, but it’s definitely their most interesting from any and all angles.
5) Hot in the Shade (1989)
A bloated, uninspired decade-ending whimper? Or a reclaiming of a legacy through bravado-driven nostalgia?
Hot in The Shade represents another record that KISS fans simply don’t seem to like, and I suspect, that its placement on this list will outrange some fans. Regardless, Hot in the Shade is a swagger-laden affair, demonstrating a back-to-basics approach which saw KISS hit the road in support of the record with a twenty-two-song setlist, thirteen of which were songs from the band’s 70s heyday.
On the bluster and good times Hot in the Shade elicited, in 2020, Paul Stanley quipped to Louder:
“We had our swagger back. When we went on tour, we rallied. We began to embrace our history. We would literally hit every period of the band, and we did it proudly. That was by far and away, the best KISS show of the 80s. We were doing twenty-some-odd songs and we were on stage for over two hours. There was enough pyro, lasers, and smoke to cause most people’s circuits to overload. It was pretty high-intensity stuff.”
For the album itself, I know many fans often criticized its long length, and at fifteen songs, and at nearly an hour long, I see their point. Still, there isn’t really a lot of filler on the album, with tracks such as “Rise to It,” “Betrayed,” “Read My Body,” and “Cadillac Dreams” representing some inspired work. The album is long, but it’s also cohesive, and its fifteen songs flow effortlessly into one another. Once more, “Forever” is an inspired ballad, if not a bit indicative of the times, and “Boomerang” is a nice slice of quasi-metal mastery from Simmons.
Of all of KISS’ records, aside from Creatures of the Night, Hot in the Shade might represent some of Eric Carr’s finest drum work, even if Carr’s snare is bathed in gated reverb. The album is also significant as it’s the first, and sadly the last time Carr was given the chance to sing lead vocals on a track he’d personally written, with “Little Caesar” coming in hot as the penultimate track. I personally feel that, unlike Asylum, the fact that KISS self-produced Hot in the Shade actually lent itself to the success of the album, as the lineup of Stanley, Simmons, Carr, and Kulick was now five years strong, and ever-consistent. The comradery amongst the members was apparent, the musical symbiosis manifested itself into a really terrific studio album in Hot in the Shade.
Still, if anything, Hot in the Shade’s biggest impact on KISS was a harkening back to the band’s roots on the road. To that end, in a 2020 chat with Ultimate Classic Rock, Bruce Kulick had the following to say:
“I do think both the band and Larry [Mazer] had the idea to bring some new songs into the set, and, honestly, I welcomed it. Many makeup-KISS songs I never played became fun for me. Opening the show with “I Stole Your Love” and others made the set more varied, and more songs mean more fun for the fans. I think the tour showed that the band wanted to give the fans something to talk about. It worked! The fun part was I did not have to play the Ace leads note for note. I did, as I always do, make sure all ‘signature riffs’ are done properly. I really loved the addition of “I Want You.” I think when the reaction from the fans is positive, the band can’t help but to have a good time. It’s a good relationship to have.”
For Hot in the Shade’s detractors, I would counter with two last, and yet extremely important talking points, the first of which is the “Hide Your Heart” fiasco. To summarize, the story is that KISS had recorded the track for Hot in the Shade, and it just so happened that at bassist John Regan’s recommendation, Ace Frehley had recorded it for his 1989 album, Trouble Walkin’ too. While this isn’t ideal, it shouldn’t have been a huge issue, right? Wong. Ace, like KISS, apparently had plans to release the track as the lead single, at the exact same time as them, and even though KISS made a stink, Ace, in true “fuck you” fashion, was not about to relent. The end result is that “Hide Your Heart” stalled, putting the supporting tour for Hot in the Shade in jeopardy.
In a 2020 interview with Ultimate Classic Rock, former KISS manager Larry Mazer commented on the predicament:
“I started to book a tour, and ‘Hide Your Heart’ didn’t really make a big impact. The Crazy Nights Tour had done okay business, but not great business. So the Hot in the Shade Tour, which originally was supposed to start in February, we pushed back, to let ‘Forever’ come out and become a big hit single. It became their first Top-10 single since ‘Beth,’ and that gave promoters confidence that it was hopefully going to be a successful tour.”
The era is also significant, as there are rumblings that KISS had asked Ace Frehley to join them on tour as an opener, with apparent potential for Frehley to rejoin the band had it gone well, but the fiasco surrounding “Hide Your Heart” left those plans on the cutting room floor, so to speak. It’s important to remember that those are only “rumblings” aka unverified conjecture.
One last very cool tidbit of the Hot in the Shade era is the “Rise To It” video, which saw founding KISS members Paul Stanley, and Gene Simmons wear their signature kabuki-style makeup for the first time in over six years to that point, which along with the Frehley rumors, and 70s inspired setlist, only further spurred on hopes for a full-blown reunion.
Overall, while Hot in the Shade might be a touch long, it’s not loaded with filler, quite the contrary. I’ve always loved listening to the album from start to finish, and for me, it’s got some of the decade’s most memorable tracks. I know a lot of fans really don’t like this record, and honestly, I can’t see why. The songs, performances, music videos, and supporting tour all made for an excellent era in KISStory. Frankly, there’s an argument to be made for this record having even higher placement than number five on this list.
4) Animalize (1984)
A platinum-level barnburner? Or strife disguised as success?
By 1984, KISS, after a tumultuous start to the decade, was finally on a tangible winning streak, with Creatures of the Night serving as a moral victory, demonstrating to the band’s fans, and if nothing else, the band itself, that they could still rock, and rock hard. Creatures’ follow-up, Lick It Up, continued that success, but this time, on a large-scale commercial level. Lick It Up’s fresh, glam-tinged vibe, accented by Vinnie Vincent’s presto guitar stylings for the modern era simultaneously harkened back to KISS’ 70s roots, while also bringing the band up to speed for the modern 80s era.
In the wake of its newfound, or shall I say, re-found commercial success, it was imperative that KISS’ follow-up record be as stout as Lick It Up, if not a step further. And so, it was with that mindset that KISS entered Right Track Recording Studios to begin the sessions for what would become Animalize. Of major significance, was that KISS, for the first time, had decided to forgo the aid of a professional producer, and instead, was allowing the band’s de facto leader Paul Stanley to handle duties. I say “allowing” as if Stanley had much of a choice.
Despite the upswing in album sales, all was not well in the land of KISS, with Paul Stanley commenting in Face the Music:
“Gene had basically disappeared by that point. I felt abandoned when it came time to make Animalize. After informing me without any warning or discussion that he wouldn’t be around for the album, Gene went into a studio and crapped out some demos as fast as he could. Then he was off to do a movie – the Tom Selleck-starring Runaway. He left me with a pile of mostly unusable junk.”
To that end, in KISS and Make-Up, Simmons had the following to say:
“Mainly what happened was that I started to get lost. I didn’t know how I was supposed to act, because the no-makeup version of the band was an entirely new idea. Paul was in his prime. He was very comfortable being who he was.”
Despite the dissension, as KISS entered the studios, with or without Simmons’ “crap demos,” Stanley had a pile of songs that were primed for greatness in “Heavens On Fire,” “Get All You Can Take,” “Thrills In The Night,” and Eric Carr co-penned track “Under The Gun.” Still, there were other issues, namely with new guitarist Mark St. John, the band’s third in as many years, who Stanley found extremely difficult to record with and relate to on a musical level.
In Face the Music, Stanley recalled working with St. John in the studio, and the six-stringers seemingly odd approach to KISS’ music:
“Everybody wanted to be fast and flashy, tapping, playing with two hands and their nose if you let them. But it soon became clear that Marks’s busy style – not to mention his inability to play the same solo twice in the studio – wasn’t a great fit for KISS. Another time I said to him, ‘You know, sometimes it’s not about what you play – it’s about what you don’t play. Listen to Jimmy Page, listen to Paul Kossoff, listen to Eric Clapton.’ Mark just goofily scoffed at me, and said, ‘I can play faster than those guys.’ Houston, we have a problem … “
In the wake of the chaos, Stanley grew tired of St. John’s overly finicky playing and resorted to recording solos himself, and eventually, he needed to call reinforcements in the form of Bruce Kulick, who would later join KISS officially in place of an ailing St. John on the Animalize World Tour.
In 2019, via Twitter, Kulick would have this to say regarding his inaugural moments with KISS:
“My first guitar playing with KISS was recording for the Animalize LP. I did ghost (uncredited) guitar work on two songs. All the solos on “Lonely is the Hunter”, and the tag guitar solo on “Murder in High Heels.” It truly blows my mind when I joined them in 1984, first in the studio, and then on tour in Europe and Scandinavia, that I would have a busy twelve-year run in this icon rock band!!”
In Face the Music, Stanley looked back on his importance in regards to seeing Animalize across the finish line:
“I fixed Gene’s songs, fixed the band situation, pulled solos out of Mark, and saw through the making of the album. I also named the album, designed the album art, and arranged the cover photo shoot. On top of it all, I spent big chunks of time in our office personally promoting the album, glad-handing radio people, cajoling MTV into playing the videos, and doing all the things a manager would normally do.”
In retrospect, Animalize represents a critical point in KISStory. Despite coming off the heels of major success with Lick it Up, one of the primary engineers of that record, Vinnie Vincent, was gone. Making matters worse, Gene Simmons had gone adrift. On the surface, things seemed to be going swimmingly for KISS, but at this critical juncture, if not handled properly, KISS was a band that easily still could have crashed in burned.
Luckily, for KISS, Paul Stanley grabbed the wheel and kept the band on course. The end result was, in Animalize, KISS laid to tape what is probably its most outwardly aggressive album. Despite Mark St. John being completely wrong for KISS, he had a few nice moments, and as usual, Eric Carr laid a solid bedrock for each and every track, and the entrance of Bruce Kulick proved to be watershed for the band moving forward. Animalize contains some of Paul Stanley’s most inspired vocal gymnastics, and while it’s not the band’s best album of the 80s, I wouldn’t fault anyone for feeling otherwise.
3) Lick It Up (1983)
A triumph bred through immeasurable chemistry? Or an exercise in frustration via public perception.
If Animalize was a critical point in KISS’ career, then Lick It Up was bar none a hail mary from their own endzone. While the album’s predecessor, Creatures of the Night, is perhaps (retrospectively) KISS’ best record, it garnered little to no commercial success in the wake of several years of bad business decisions, and questionable musical maladies.
Still, regardless of commercial success, the personal windfall for KISS was immense, as they had regained the confidence in themselves to create hard-edged rock music, but the success was not without a cost in the form of the loss of founding member, guitarist Ace Frehley.
To that end, one of the most critical keys to the band’s newfound confidence was guitarist Vinnie Vincent, who starred on six of Creatures of the Night’s nine tracks as an unofficial member, as the departure of Ace Frehley either wasn’t official or hadn’t been announced yet.
To be clear, despite his talent, KISS did not want to hire Vinnie Vincent, who was seen as an erratic maverick, which was frustrating as the supremely talented Flying-V toting six-stringer was good as it gets in terms of talent and songwriting. It could be said that the virtuoso guitarist quite literally brought KISS back to life in the 80s, saving them from the brink of self-imposed destruction with a simple flick of his guitar-wielding wrist.
You could say that, but Gene Simmons certainly wouldn’t. In fact, Simmons had his own opinion in regards to Vincent during a 2018 live Q&A in Australia:
“Vinnie is a great guy, very talented, and maybe, in my view, his own worst enemy – in my opinion. There’s something called the classic failure mechanism, which I was told by doctors and everything – I’m not saying he is one, but there are people who simply cannot handle when things are starting to go their way – success – so they torpedo it by making stupid decisions to make sure they don’t succeed, so they can deal with that. Some people just can’t fathom being up there, so they turn to other stuff and torpedo it.”
Enigmatic as he may be, there’s no denying that the musical kinship between Vincent, Stanley, Carr, and Simmons was real, and it certainly carried over to and permeated throughout Lick It Up. Tracks such as “Lick It Up,” “A Million To One,” “Exciter,” “Gimmie More,” “All Hell’s Breaking Loose,” “Young and Wasted,” and “Fits Like A Glove” are hands down some of KISS’ best work.
Eric Carr’s drumming, in particular, his hi-hat and bass drum interplay flourish with such cache, and the songwriting, and performances by all four members are nothing short of elite. The decision to bring Michael James Jackson back as producer after the buffet of sounds created on Creatures of the Night was a shrewd one, and while Lick It Up is not as sonically explosive as Creatures, the production sizzles with energy and freshness not often heard.
Still, while Stanley is a fan of the record, he seemingly favors Creatures of the Night, and he backed that up in Behind the Mask by saying:
“I’ve always believed that Lick It Up was proof that people listen with their eyes. The response to Lick It Up was four times the response to Creatures, and I think that’s purely because people were tired of the image of the band and couldn’t hear past what they saw. It’s a really good album, but it’s not in the same league as Creatures of the Night.”
I personally believe Paul Stanley is much too harsh with his assessment of Lick It Up. I do agree that Lick It Up is not as good as Creatures of the Night, but to say it’s “not in the same league,” is simply inaccurate. In truth, I’d say that Lick It Up is perhaps a notch or a half a notch below Creatures. Both are monstrous records, but Lick It Up very literally saved KISS, with its hail mary being caught one-handed, eighty yards down the field by none other than Vinnie Vincent. Love him or hate him – Vinnie did save KISS – and I’ve always had a special soft spot for the Stanley, Simmons, Vincent, and Carr lineup. Between Creatures, and Lick It Up, there’s no denying the chemistry they had. It’s a damn shame they didn’t have the chance to continue on.
2) Unmasked (1980)
Utter pop mastery? Or a folly brought on through fracture.
Unmasked is a record that has polarized KISS’ fanbase since its release in 1980. To say it’s not what fans were expecting back in the day would be an understatement. In the wake of KISS’ disco-inspired platinum success, Dynasty, KISS doubled down on the pop vibes, rehired Vinnie Poncia, and hit The Record Plant in January of 1980 to begin recording. On the surface, that all sounds like a relatively sound plan, right? Well, all was not well in the land of KISS.
During the Dynasty World Tour, tensions with drummer and founding member Peter Criss had come to a boiling point. Things got so bad that Criss had taken to antagonizing his bandmates on and off the stage, and even worse, the ill-tempered skin thrasher deliberately sabotaged three of his final five shows with KISS on the tour, which reportedly was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
In Face the Music, Paul Stanley commented on the state of Criss’ relationship with the band during the Dynasty Tour:
“It’s one thing to sabotage things offstage – and God knows he’d done plenty of that. This was in front of people who paid to see us. At that point, me, Gene, and Ace voted to kick him out, but we still had one last week of shows together. Things didn’t improve. Within those few days, Peter stopped playing in the middle of a song with no warning, stormed off the stage after singing “Beth,” hit Gene in the back of the head with a drumstick, and attacked Gene with a broken champagne bottle. At the end of the last show, Peter and Gene begrudgingly shook hands but KISS “as the world knew it, was over.'”
In Criss’ own autobiography, Makeup To Breakup, the drummer commented on the same time period by quipping:
“I wanted to do my own thing, my own music and ten years in KISS was enough for me. I got tired of playing the heavy metal stuff. I like writing love songs. Honestly, I was high on cocaine and a little edgy, and probably playing too fast. Paul and the guys asked me to slow down, and yeah, I was high, so I responded by slowing down to a crawl. Well, then Paul asked me to pick up the pace, and I yelled ‘Make up your motherfucking mind!’ People in the audience could hear me screaming that at him. I just stopped playing; I didn’t care anymore. But me handling it the way I did, what that says to everybody in the arena is that I’m the one who fucked up the band. With each sip and each snort, I felt my world collapsing around me. Then I just started crying again. At the time I felt like I was throwing my life out the window, but who’s kidding who? It really had been over for a long time already.”
In the wake of the Dynasty Tour, it was decided that Criss would in fact be jettisoned from the band, but the rest of the world still had no idea. As the band entered The Record Plant, they did so without Criss, and instead, once again invited Ace Frehley cohort, Anton Fig in to record the drum tracks as he did during Dynasty. For the most part, things went off without a hitch.
In a 2020 interview with VWMusic, Fig was asked if he was ever officially asked to join KISS considering his outstanding work on Dynasty and Unmasked, to which the drummer responded:
“I was not star-struck but I knew it was a big-time rock band so that was exciting, and I was confident enough in my playing to just play the songs as I heard them. They never asked me to play like Peter and pretty much let me do whatever I wanted to do. After both albums, Ace did ask me if I wanted to join. I had a band called Spider that had a song in the top-forty and wanted to pursue that. So I agonized for a bit but knew I could not do it. Later Gene and Paul said they thought that ‘Ace and I might be too much of a team,’ and so not an ideal situation for them.”
Musically, Unmasked was a major departure, it was a departure even from the far-reaching region that 1979’s Dynasty resided in, but at the time, with alternative and new wave stylings creeping in, Stanley felt that a more pop-oriented approach was needed.
To that end, in Behind the Mask, producer Vinnie Poncia weighed in on Unmasked’s slicked-down sonic stylings:
“Those were the kinds of songs that Paul was writing. It wasn’t my idea to come in and change anything. They wanted to find out if they could work in that pop area and be effective.”
To my ears, it certainly sounds as if KISS succeeded at their aim to move into the pop space, and if loving Unmasked means I’m wrong, well, then I don’t want to be right. Simply put, Unmasked is a sickly sweet, power-pop masterstroke from start to finish. All eleven songs are akin to musical nirvana. Starting with “Is That You,” in inclusion on the album, and placement as the opener a clear jab as Peter Criss with the line of “Cat’s drooling on the barstool.” And of course, there is a triumphant trio of Ace Frehley penned tracks in “Talk to Me,” “Two Sides of the Coin,” and the uber funky “Torpedo Girl,” which further served to showcase the guitarist’s songsmith. Additionally, tracks such as “Tomorrow,” “She’s So European,” and “Easy as It Seems,” are as poppy as it gets, but wonderful nonetheless.
Sadly, in the wake of its release, Unmasked mostly bombed here in the States, with hard-core fans feeling completely and totally alienated, and Dynasty bred fair-weather fans moving on to the next and newest thing. But while Unmasked may have been a failure stateside, in Japan and Australia, the band was as big as ever, and “Shandi” proved to be another big hit for the band, albeit on an international level. Eventually, the album did go gold, and the Japanese and Australian success led to KISS forgoing a tour on US soil, and instead focusing on adoring fans across the globe, with newly hired drummer Eric Carr behind the drumkit as the official replacement for Peter Criss, but only after Criss appeared in the promotional video for “Shandi.”
Retrospectively, Paul Stanley harbors resentment toward Unmasked, having said the following in Behind the Mask:
“I think Unmasked is a pretty crappy album. It’s wimpy. The bottom got pulled right out from under us, instead of getting bigger, we were getting smaller.”
In a 2021 live Q&A, Ace Frehley briefly recounted the Unmasked sessions, and the fractures present in the band by that point:
“I liked the songs I brought in, and I liked the performances. I felt a lot of things got dumbed down a bit. My guitars were a lot edgier, but the production softened things a lot. It got to the point where I wasn’t happy, and I just wanted to work on all my own songs myself, with no input. Most of the songs that I wrote in those days, I played bass on. In retrospect, I think Gene might have been hurt a little because a lot of times I wouldn’t even ask him. I’d go, ‘I’m playing bass on this song; I wrote the bass part, I wanna do it.’ I never really gave him a chance to do his version of what the bass part should be. At that point, I guess I was becoming a little pushy about the way I wanted my songs to sound. Be that as it may, it seemed to work at the time. I think that’s a cool album, but it could have been a lot better.”
In the end, I feel Unmasked is an unmitigated gem of a record, but for some reason, it’s one that a lot of fans, like Paul Stanley, seem to hate. I know it’s not as hard-edged as Creatures of the Night, Love Gun, or Revenge, but I find Unmasked to be one of KISS’ defining albums, and I truly think it’s one of their best, in general. It’s not a hard rock album, not even close, but what does represent is one of the finest, and most consistent batch of songs that KISS, as a band, ever laid to tape. Given the immense drama, and uncertainty surrounding KISS at the time, in my eyes, Unmasked is nothing short of a complete and utter triumph.
1) Creatures of the Night (1982)
A seismic heavy metal achievement? Or band finally and fully coming apart at the seams?
As was the case with part one of this series, I feel the choice for the number slot was and is fairly obvious. In some cases, it’s warranted to make a wild-card pick, and in others, it would be arbitrary. In this case, if I didn’t place Creatures of the Night at number one, I’d be lying to myself, and doing anyone reading this a major disservice. Why? Well, because Creatures of the Night isn’t just KISS’ finest album of the 80s, no, Creatures of the Night is KISS’ best album ever. More so, it’s easily one of the finest records by any band in the 80s, and one of the finest hard rock and heavy metal records ever recorded in the history of the genre.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dig into the proverbial nuts and bolts of this seismic monster. By 1982, KISS was a band on the brink of self-imposed destruction. Their self-indulgent forays into disco, pop, and prog music made for some wonderful music, but commercially, it was nothing short of a screw-up. Things were so bad that KISS wasn’t able to tour the US in support of Unmasked, and they weren’t able to tour at all in support of Music from “The Elder.” Simply put, if you’re an established band, with the back catalog that KISS had by that point, and you can’t even fill an arena – you’ve made at least one critical mistake along the way.
In the wake of all that, after years of threatening to do so, Ace Frehley had finally walked out of the band after his bandmates refused to make the hard rock record that he so desired. This was obviously a massive blow, as KISS was already down one original member in Peter Criss, and while Eric Carr had proved to be a fantastic replacement, losing another founding member, and perhaps the band’s most talented instrumentalist to boot would simply not be ideal.
In the 2021 A&E documentary, KISStory, Paul Stanley reflected on Frehley’s departure, and his attempt to keep him from leaving KISS:
“When Ace decided to leave, we couldn’t believe it. We were losing another brother and a terrific guitarist. Ace had a lot of demons, and we knew he was unhappy, but I felt we were stronger if we all stayed together. So, I went up to Connecticut to Ace’s place and spent the whole day with him. We hung out, got lunch, and just laughed and talked. It was like old times. At the end of that, I said to Ace, ‘Please don’t leave the band. We need you, and we want you here. We’ll help you and support you in getting cleaned up.’ Ace just looked at me, and said, ‘Paul, I can’t do it. I’m done. If I don’t do this, I don’t think I’m gonna be alive much longer.’ That was it. Ace was gone, and we knew it. But we had an album to make.”
Still, Stanley and Simmons did not fully accept that Frehley was leaving, and contractually, Frehley still had obligations to fulfill. Frehley was once gain asked – begged – to lend his talents to Creatures of the Night, but the guitarist wouldn’t relent. And so, KISS began bringing in studio musicians to fill the void, with Steve Farris of Mr. Mister handling lead duties on “Creatures of the Night,” acclaimed jazz guitarist Robben Ford lending a hand on “Rock and Roll Hell,” and “I Still Love You,” and hot shot session man Vincent Cusano aka Vinnie Vincent handling the albums remaining six tracks, with Frehley’s duties amounting to an album cover, a music video appearance, and a handful of promotional events in Europe, before finally walking away in 1982.
Ironically, and sadly, in a 2016 interview with Eddie Trunk on Sirus XM Radio, Frehley had this to say in retrospect:
“If we made a back-to-basics record instead of The Elder, I would have stayed. I thought Creatures was a good record. It was really the record that I would have enjoyed recording instead of The Elder. Because during the recording of The Elder, I kept telling Paul and Gene, and Bob Ezrin, ‘This is the wrong record at the wrong time. We should be doing a heavier hard rock record. That’s what the fans want, that’s what the fans expect.’ Everybody just put a deaf ear to me, and we all know what happened and how The Elder was received. So, I agreed to appear on the cover and participate in promotional events despite having already secretly quit the group. I’m sure I bullshitted my way through it. I made Paul and Gene a commitment that I was going to fulfill my obligation to promote the record. That’s what professional musicians do. Looking back though, I wish I could have made that record with them”
During a 2022 interview with Sirus XM Radio, while promoting an upcoming Creatures of the Night boxset, bassist Gene Simmons had simple words to say about the state of KISS and the recording of the record:
“The Creatures record was a transitioning record because Ace Frehley and Peter Criss were out of the band. We were making a real effort to return to stripped-down hard rock after several albums that experimented with disco, pop, and progressive rock. You can’t do it all yourself, and Ace was now gone, so we brought in different guitar players, different things, and we co-wrote.”
Cusano, aka Vincent, proved especially critical to the album’s fortunes, being that he featured on the bulk of the tracks as lead guitarist. While Simmons and Stanley were reportedly warned about Vincent’s enigmatic ways, they rolled the dice and brought him in. The results with Vincent at the lead guitar spot were immediate, with tracks such as “Keep Me Comin’,” “War Machine,” “Saint and Sinner,” “Danger,” “I Love It Loud,” and “Killer” proving to be a metal masterclass in all things guitar and songwriting. The chemistry was apparent, and soon enough Vincent was “hired” on as KISS’ new lead guitarist.
Of all the defining characteristics of Creatures of the Night, and there are many, what perhaps stands out most are Eric Carr’s cannon fire drums, which echo through listeners’ speakers, threatening to menace them to an untimely death. Reportedly, Carr was extremely proud of his work on Creatures, and with good reason – it amounts to some of the heaviest drum work on any heavy metal or hard rock record, period. Carr’s work on Creatures is legendary, and so fierce, that it would make the likes of Keith Moon, or John Bonham shudder.
In a 2021 interview with VWMusic, Eric Carr’s late sister Loretta Carr had this to say about Eric’s work on Creatures of the Night:
“I think Eric was what kept them alive. He was so proud of that album. It was not only the sound, it was his personality. There is more to an artist than the music. If you’re going to be a snob and distance yourself from the fans, you don’t really deserve to be there. My brother loved the fans. I remember him hanging out in front of the house with the fans, rather than going to a party. That’s what kind of guy he was. That’s where people lose touch. People started to love him, and the kids got to know him as one of the nicest guys in the world. And he loved them; that’s more important sometimes than the music. Eric’s favorite album was Creatures of the Night always. He tried to get that sound again, and he could never duplicate that.”
In the wake of Creatures of the Night’s release, the album fell on deaf ears. Years of off-brand decisions had seemingly killed KISS’ fortunes. Moreso, years of having not toured on American soil had severely damaged the band’s reputation to boot. It was bad enough that they were making albums that were perceived as “bad,” but then, they weren’t even hitting the road and reminding the fans that they could still rock.
In the end, KISS did tour in support of Creatures of the Night, with a revamped lineup of Stanley, Simmons, Vincent, and Carr. Sadly, the studio magic did not carry out onto the road for a tour that saw KISS playing to quarter or half-full arenas. As for Vincent, his abrasive personality became harder and harder to stomach, and strife on the road, once again, became a part of daily life for KISS. Eventually, the band made its way to Brazil, where it was shockingly greeted with the largest shows of its career, playing to crowds of over 160,000 people in Rio, before closing out the band’s Tenth Anniversary Tour.
Looking back, Creatures of the Night is one of KISS’ most important records. It was a return to form, but also served as an end of an era, as well as a sign of things to come. It laid important groundwork for the success that was to come for both Lick It Up and Animalize, and it gave KISS a mental shot in the arm, as a not-so-gentle reminder that they still could write heavy music. Retrospectively, Creatures of the Night is thought of as one of the band’s finest albums, with Ace Frehley even covering “Rock and Roll Hell” for his 2016 Origins Vol. 1 album, as a nod to his reverence for the record.
In a 2016 interview with Eddie Trunk on Sorium XM Radio, Frehley commented on covering the track:
“I always felt “Rock and Roll Hell” was one of Creatures’ best tracks. After listening to it again, I thought I could do justice to the track, so why not? It gives fans a little insight into what Creatures of the Night, and what “Rock and Roll Hell” would have sounded like if I played on it.”
For me, Creatures of the Night is KISS’ finest album of the 80s and not only that, it’s their finest album period, and it’s not even very close. Sure, we can talk about the classic era as defined by Love Gun, Destroyer, or Rock and Roll Over, and we can make light of how fantastic Lick It Up, and Revenge are but ultimately, when it comes down to it, Creatures of the Night smokes all of those records. Creatures is a sonically bombastic, and jarringly crushing heavy metal record and one which KISS has never truly approached or bettered before or since.
The performances on Creatures are triumphant, the vocal gymnastics are epic, and Vinnie Vincent and Eric Carr’s work amount to genre and era-defining, with no exceptions. And the lyrical themes explored by Simmons and Stanley, with the help of some friends, demonstrate the maturity of the band to that point. Creatures of the Night is not only KISS’ best studio record, but it may also well be their most important as well. While as a band, KISS still had a great many challenges ahead, Creatures of the Night made known the light at the end of their rock ‘n’ roll tunnel.
Stay tuned for part three, and also the final portion of this journey, where I tackle KISS’ 90s and 2000s output next, and if you missed it, don’t forget to check out part one here as well.