We’ll get started with John Young’s list.
This was not only an era of big changes regarding KISS’s look, but also an era of big changes in their sound. Beginning with the first non-makeup album Lick It Up, the band made a concerted effort to go head to head with bands like The Scorpions, Motley Crue, Judas Priest and the LA Sunset Strip metal bands. With original lead guitarist Ace Frehley conveniently gone following the 1981 concept album Music from the Elder, KISS bosses Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley were free to audition lead guitar players who could bring them into the early 1980’s metal scene with speed and flash. Through their run of seven non-makeup albums between 1983 and 1995 (not counting the 1988 greatest hits compilation “Smashes, Thrashes and Hits”) they burned through three such axemen (Vinnie Vincent, Mark St. John and Bruce Kulick, respectfully) and each one contributed something unique to the top KISS albums of this weird era.
One of the challenges involved in ranking the non-makeup era albums is that each album, from Lick It Up through Revenge had at least one song that charted and at least three decent songs in total. In other words, all the albums are basically interchangeable (with the exception of 1987’s Crazy Nights, which is a bland pop-rock piece of slop, and 1995’s Carnival of Souls, which sounds like a post-grunge copying afterthought). So, here are my personal preferences:
This record gets rated higher by other critics and KISS fans…I think people romanticize it because of the strong title track and the fact that it’s the first non-makeup album. However, after you get past “Lick It Up” (which sounds much stronger in a live version, much like “Rock and Roll All Nite”), “All Hell’s Breakin’ Loose” and “Fit’s Like a Glove” it’s just not a very strong album. This collection of songs features the lead work of Ace Frehely replacement #1, Vinnie Vincent, who’s playing style was more in line with the “shredder” guitar heroes of the early 1980’s — so he gets the credit for starting the non-Makeup KISS on their path to ‘80’s metal competitors. Speaking of guitarists, the song “Exciter” features Rick Derringer on guitar, which is kinda cool.
The first non-makeup album to feature Ace Frehley replacement #3, Bruce Kulick (the brother of frequent KISS studio collaborator Bob Kulick), this album was much maligned at the time of its release for its horrid cover art and ridiculously over-stylized videos. However, the single from this record, “Tears are Fallin’” was a rock chart success, and songs like “Radar for Love” and “Uh! All Night!” show off some tasty, Zepplin-esque guitar and vocal work. Paul Stanley’s vocals are particularly strong on the record as he shows off his mature, multi-octave abilities. A better album than you remember.
This was the first record to feature new drummer Eric Singer — replacing the great Eric Carr, who passed away from heart cancer during the making of this album. Carr’s vocals are featured on the track “God Gave Rock ‘n Roll to You” and tribute is paid to him on “Carr Jam ‘81”. This is KISS entering the 1990’s, with scowls, goatees, hair extensions and black leather on the cover — and considering the competition at the time (Alice in Chains, Extreme, Soundgarden), the album is pretty strong. This record features one of the last decent songs written and performed by the creatively bankrupt Gene Simmons, the concert staple (at the time) “Domino.” The song “Unholy” made the rounds of rock station playlists at the time, and it’s still performed in concert today, as is “I Just Wanna (Forget You)”. The best song on this record, though, is “Take It Off”, Paul Stanley’s ode to strip clubs.
Animalize is known in fan circles as the project Gene Simmons all but abandoned as he pursued his largely unsuccessful acting career, leaving the musical heavy-lifting to Paul Stanley. Good thing, as the mostly Paul-penned tunes are the strongest. This album rocks as hard as anything that year from Ratt, Motley Crue or The Scorpions. The hit single, “Heaven’s on Fire”, is still a concert staple, and songs like “Get All You Can Take”, “Under the Gun”, “Thrills in the Night” and “I’ve Had Enough (Into the Fire)” are all pretty strong rockers. This record was the first and last to feature Ace Frehley replacement #2, the late Mark St. John; Bruce Kulick and his much more nuanced style would replace Mr. St. John in December of ’84 following St. John’s diagnosis of a rare arthritic condition that kept him from playing guitar. Again, a good thing, as St. John’s hyper-fast but soul-less playing is the weakest part of this album.
Some like it, many hate it, but you can’t ignore the fact that one of the bands’ biggest hits ever — the Paul Stanley-Michael Bolton tune “Forever” — came from this collection. So did the unusually poignant “Hide Your Heart” and the great slide-guitar intro on “Rise To It”. Just ignore the downright stupid album cover, and enjoy late great drummer Eric Carr’s only original vocal track on the Simmons-penned “Little Caesar.” Sure, Stanley’s “Read My Body” is a bit of a guilty pleasure (and hilarious to listen to now, in the digital age, as Paul references books and libraries), but the song rocks. Great guitar work on this record from the underappreciated Bruce Kulick.
I was a huge KISS fan in the 1970s – when I was but a young lad. After 1979’s Dynasty came out, I dropped them. I couldn’t take the “Disco KISS” of “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” and that just made me not want to buy the record – which, it seems, did contain some good rock songs. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was more enamored with alternative rock to even bother following KISS’ evolution into hair band hard rock. Except for the singles that got airplay during this time, I never bought nor listened to their records. So, it’s with a fresh pair of ears (or maybe more seasoned) that I sat down and listened to the their non-makeup records. Would I find flashes of “Klassic KISS” in these records? I had my doubts I would since the band was trying to distance themselves from their more cartoonish past. Their business plan from 1983 until the reunion with Ace and Peter in the mid ‘90s was, in a way, to go back to being a real hard rock band. Did they succeed? Yes. Much of the songwriting is certainly a product of the time (what band’s music isn’t?), and while the albums really don’t have that pound for pound greatness of the classic line-up, they do demonstrate that KISS was dedicated to hard rock again. This was due in large part to Paul Stanley’s songwriting, whose guiding force in the band kept them from fading into a nostalgia act during a time when music fans weren’t interested in a greatest hits band from the ’70s.
For the record: when I was a young member of the KISS Army, I was not a Paul Stanley fan. I thought Ace, Gene and even Peter were the cool ones. Paul’s “starchild” make up showed a lack of creativity to me at the time. Sure, like many, I was mesmerized by the bombast and the spectacle of KISS. Except for Paul, the others had more intricate make up, better costumes, and just looked like gods of thunder. But when listening to the non-makeup albums, it’s clear to me that Paul is the better songwriter. Gene has the menacing look, can play a wicked bass guitar, spits blood, blows fire, and stalks the stage, but he struggled to write good songs in the post-classic line-up.
While this album certainly emphasizes a more melodic sound with songs like “Rise to It,” “Read My Body,” and the nod to David Bowie on “The Street Giveth and the Street Taketh Away,” there’s a kind of warmed over Def Leppard sound to KISS at this stage of the game. It’s not that the songs are bad; it’s just that Hot in the Shade represents the kind of ’80s arena rock that was starting to exhaust itself around 1989. From start to finish, the record is good, the songs certainly rock, but there’s something missing. With all that said, one would wonder why the album is on my top 5. It goes back to the melodic sound, which KISS is known for. On Hot in the Shade, KISS remains true to melody, but, to me, the songs rarely rise above what was in fashion for rock bands at the time.
By the late ‘80s, KISS had locked into a formula for churning out technically polished music. Clearly the addition of Eric Carr, and a rotating group of accomplished guitar players like Vinnie Vincent, Bruce Kulick, Mark St. John and Tommy Thayer, meant that the music KISS created certainly had technical proficiency, but lacked the kind of messy and scrappy sound that propelled them to superstardom in the ‘70s. What’s notable about the songs on Revenge is that producer Bob Ezrin was able to add the right amount of heaviness to the music. The lead track, “Unholy,” typifies the culmination of focusing solely on hard rock for almost a decade. Sure, the more melodic songs Stanley usually pens bubble up (“Take It Off” and “I Just Wanna”), but I have to give props to Simmons for his contributions like “Domino,” “Spit,” and even “Thou Shalt Not.” Granted he had help on two out of the three songs, but he still delivered the goods when it came to singing them.
I love it when bands take their music and stand it on its head. Case in point: Carnival of Souls. Clearly an ode to grunge, the music on Carnival of Souls shows a band that is trying very hard to stay relevant during a shift in the sound of rock music. Much like when Rush started infusing their music with synthesizers, this album divides fans because it’s so un-KISS-like. Me? I really enjoy hearing a band trying to progress beyond certain trademark sounds, and even though the sound KISS embraces was wholly derivative of what was in fashion at the time, the album has a freshness that’s appealing. Even the one power ballad written about Paul’s infant son (“I Will Be There”) has a kind of darkness to it. However, the stand out track for me was the sizzler that Bruce Kulick and Paul Stanley co-wrote with Curtis Cuomo, “Jungle.” It’s hypnotic, gritty, and just grooves in a most stratifying way. Maybe that’s why it was the one and only single from the record.
As John noted, Animalize was almost an exclusively Paul Stanley project – even though Simmons penned (or co-wrote) four out of the nine tracks. The acting bug bit Simmons at the time, and he booked gigs on “Miami Vice” and the Michael Crichton science fiction film, Runaway. This must have made him a scarce presence in the studio because, except for the rather catchy “Murder in High Heels (saved in part by Stanley’s guitar hook) his contributions to the record are pretty forgettable. Paul Stanley, however, turns in some mighty fine work on Animalize. From the album’s opener, “I’ve Had Enough (Into the Fire),” to “Heaven’s on Fire” Stanley really took the reins to make sure KISS didn’t sink into mediocrity.
This album tops my list because it’s the record that made KISS popular again. After a few years in the proverbial wilderness with a few misfires (Unmasked, and Music from The Elder), KISS found their way back home. With a kinda-sorta new line-up (Eric Carr and Vinnie Vincent), the band hit the ground running with “Exciter” – probably my favorite track on the album. The dissonant chords of “Not for the Innocent” signal a more classic sounding Gene Simmons tune, and it’s not a disappointment. The title track is a playful rocker with a soaring chorus ready-made for big arenas. “Gimme More” is propelled into almost speed metal territory with Eric Carr’s drumming, and Paul Stanley certainly keeps up with the tempo of the song – while keeping his trademark melodic sound intact. Sure, the album isn’t perfect, but Lick It Up comes closest to that pound for pound greatness I was looking for from the Klassic Kiss era.
Okay Popdosers, here’s your chance to vote for the top non-makeup KISS album: