KISS - "Monster" (2012) album review
KISS - "MONSTER" (Universal Music Enterprises, 2012)
It seems odd to be reviewing a new KISS album, even with thirty years as a (mostly) proud KISS fanboy under my belt. The truth is, until recently there hadn't been much going on in the band's camp that was worth getting excited about. The mid 1990s reunion of the original lineup had fizzled by the turn of the century (as we all knew it eventually would) due to ego problems and financial disagreements among the band members, and a so-called "Farewell Tour" which was hyped as being the final curtain call for KISS only proved to be the end for guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss. Main men Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley then made the controversial decision to keep the KISS machine rolling by tapping longtime drummer Eric Singer to assume Criss' "Cat-Man" persona behind the kit, and placing new guitarist Tommy Thayer into Frehley's "Spaceman" boots and shoulder pads. Many fans (including this one) raged at the outright "disrespect" to Frehley and Criss, but the band played on regardless, circling the globe for a number of years flogging the usual set list of "Greatest Hits." As little as seven or eight years ago, Simmons himself claimed that the new KISS lineup would probably never record new material, because in his eyes there was "no market for it" in the age of rampant illegal downloading and declining record sales. Fortunately that decision was eventually reversed, and the result was 2009's Sonic Boom - a welcome return to KISS' classic hard rock sound that easily erased the bad memories of 1998's half baked "reunion" album, Psycho Circus. Though I had low expectations for that album at first, I was pleasantly surprised by Sonic Boom, and the mere fact that the band was finally creating new music with this lineup went a long way towards "legitimizing" the Thayer/Singer version of KISS in my eyes.
Three years later, KISS has now returned with Monster, a new 12 track album (13 if you count the iTunes-exclusive bonus song "Right Here Right Now") that's been described by Gene Simmons as "meat and potatoes rock" and "Sonic Boom on steroids." Sounds promising, doesn't it? Of course, I bought a copy during its first week of release (Once a fanboy, always a fanboy, I guess...), so what say we slam Monster into the CD player (yes, I'm one of those old school weirdos who still buys CDs), press 'play' and see how it stacks up?
"Hell or Hallelujah"
Monster 's lead off track, "Hell or Hallelujah," immediately topped my playlist when it was released as a single in the summer of '12, and it starts the album off on a nice, all-guns-blazing note with its classic KISS vibes. Just like on its predecessor, Sonic Boom, KISS are obviously not interested in screwing around with what's hip or attempting to "modernize" their sound on Monster - it's back to basics, all drums, bass 'n' guitar, no ballads, and no trendy production tricks. The result is a take-no-prisoners disc that should bring a smile to the face of even the most jaded KISS Army member!
As usual, the lead vocals are evenly split between Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley throughout the album, and this time out I'd have to say that the songs sung by Gene are stronger than Paul's. Following "Hell or Hallelujah," Mr. Simmons comes blasting in with "Wall of Sound," a crunching, lumbering beast of a song with a killer bass groove - this track simply slams, and is my favorite on the record. Gene has further fun tweaking his demonic caveman persona on the chunky "Back to the Stone Age" and the sinister "The Devil Is Me," while his "Eat Your Heart Out" is the type of sneering, leering "babe-I-wanna-do-ya" ditty that KISS practically owns the copyright on. (it also contains one of the funnier lyrics on the album, when Simmons deadpans "Eat your heart out baby, a hot mess is just what I need! ")
Over on Paul's side, "Freak" is probably his strongest vocal track aside from "Hell or Hallelujah," with its irresistible chorus of "I got streaks in my hair, people point at me and stare, if they ask me I say YEAH, I'm a freak !" After Paul underwent vocal cord surgery in late 2011, fans wondered how his voice would sound on the new material; it seems to me that he's lost a chunk of his high end, since most of his vocals here are in the lower register, but he can damn well still belt when he wants to (even if he sounds a bit huskier than in the old days). He warbles nicely on "Long Way Down," a middling track that wouldn't have sounded out of place on one of KISS' mid-80s albums like Asylum or Animalize, and "Shout Mercy" would probably sound a lot better if it weren't for the irritating "Woo! Woooo!" backing vocals during the choruses. None of Paul's songs are out-and-out bombs, but in my estimation, The Demon came to the table with better material this time out.
Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer also get to sing lead vocals on one song apiece, doubtlessly to preserve the illusion that they're "full" band members like Ace and Peter used to be, rather than salaried employees of KISS Incorporated. Tommy Thayer's track, "Outta This World," is a decent enough song but it's also a pretty blatant bite off of the kind of stuff Ace Frehley used to sing with the band, with its references to outer space, rockets, and the like. I hope they're paying Ace some royalties for this one. Meanwhile, Eric Singer's "All For the Love Of Rock N' Roll" is the kind of bluesy rocker that would've had Peter Criss singing on it if it had been on one of KISS' 70s albums. Singer appropriates Criss' whiskey-soaked rasp nicely and the song gets extra points for its liberal cowbell usage. (You can never have enough cowbell y'know!)
Simmons and Stanley trade off on the verses of the next to last track, "Take Me Down Below," which picks up the dirty-old-man motif where "Eat Your Heart Out" left off with its tales of chance meetings with hot sleazy babes in elevators and on airplanes. This one contains one of the most cringe-worthy lyrics on the album (Paul: "She took my finger, here's a button to press; I raised my flag and she dropped her dress; I'll take you on a cruise you'll never forget; she said 'we'd better move because I'm already wet' " -- bwahahahahahaha!!!), but then again, if KISS lyrics don't make you cringe at least once per CD, then they're not doing their job. Paul leads the charge once again on the final track "Last Chance," which ends the album with a satisfactory bang.
"Wall of Sound"
Despite favorable reviews and a strong debut showing on the Billboard Top 200 chart (opening at #3 during its first week of release), Monster made a surprisingly swift slide off the charts shortly afterward. According to the fan site KissFAQ, Monster fell to #14 in its second week on the charts, then to #41 by the third week. After seven weeks it fell off the Top 200 entirely, - the shortest Billboard stay by a KISS studio album since 1997's ill fated Carnival of Souls: The Final Sessions (which only charted for four weeks). By the end of the year Monster had moved a relatively weak 132,000 copies in the United States. By contrast, the band moved more than 300,000 copies of Sonic Boom in 2009.
One has to wonder why the album fared so much worse than its predecessor. Sonic Boom was released on the band's own label (KISS Catalog Inc.) and sold exclusively through a single retailer (Wal-Mart), while Monster was a major label release on Universal Music that was available everywhere. So who dropped the ball? Maybe the band would've been better off continuing to do it themselves!!
Git some KISS!
Summin' it up
I've owned Monster since it was a new release and it still gets fairly regular spins after all that time. I'm not sure if I prefer it to Sonic Boom, but then I haven't lived with Monster for quite as long, either. Either way, it's an impressive piece of work from the veteran rockers. Thayer and Singer have certainly earned their stripes here and their (relatively) youthful energy has obviously provided Simmons and Stanley with a musical shot in the arm. Simmons has even gone so far as praising Tommy and Eric for "revitalizing" the band and saying that the Monster recording sessions went so smoothly that "we could have easily done another record."
KISS began the Monster tour overseas but returned to American shores in 2014, co-headlining outdoor amphitheaters with fellow hard-rock vets Def Leppard throughout the summer. If the video clips I've seen from recent gigs are anything to go by, the KISS live show is just as bombastic and over-the-top as ever. If you've let your KISS fandom lapse in recent years, Monster is a pretty damn fine place to get back on board with the face-painted four. It may not be the "preferred" KISS lineup but it's packing some pretty heavy duty ammunition nonetheless. Check it out and let it move you!!
© 2012 Keith Abt