Tuesday, May 26, 2009

'The Dynasty of the Unmasked Elder'

Ever since I was just a little The Hawg way on back in the 1970s, I've loved the hell out of that rockin' KISS band.

A lot of us who were kids when KISS was the big deal will agree that the band hit the ground running with its self-titled release in 1974, peaked around the time of 1977's Love Gun and KISS Alive II and started to fall to pieces around the time every member of the band released solo albums in 1978 and was a total mess by the time the dreadful Music from "The Elder" was released in 1981. Ah, I remember those times well. I purchased the Dynasty album in 1979 when I was a mere lad of 10-years-old and then ignored the band until the very good Creatures of the Night came out in 1982.

At any rate, KISS released three very wobbly albums from 1979 through 1981 -- Dynasty, Unmasked and Music from "The Elder." Separately, those albums go from fair-to-middling (Dynasty) to outright laughable (The Elder). Ah, but digital technology is a wonderful thing because one can rip those three discs to MP3s, remove the junk and come up with an album that's pretty darned good. I did just that and came up with a fantastic CD that I like to call The Dynasty of the Unmasked Elder.

I'll explain just which songs are keepers and which ones are stinkers and the reasons for my informed choices so that you, too, might compile your very own copy of The Dynasty of the Unmasked Elder. Ready? Here we go!

Dynasty (1979)

Here is where it was really, really obvious that something was wrong with KISS. The band entered the studio on the top of the world and managed to record an unfocused collection of songs that was highlighted by a damned disco tune. To make matters worse, drummer Peter Criss was in such horrible shape that he was replaced by Anton Fig -- the drummer on the David Letterman show and the fellow who appeared on Ace Frehley's solo album back in 1978. The only member of the band that seemed to care about what was going on was guitarist Ace Frehley, who was responsible for the best stuff on the album even when things were going to hell in a handbasket all around him. By the way, when I was a kid we had a great amount of fun calling this album Dentistry for some reason. Dynasty will never be considered a great KISS album, but it does have it's merits although most of the songs are decidedly second-tier. Here's how I butchered it:

1. "I Was Made for Lovin' You" (Paul Stanley, Vini Poncia, Desmond Child) = stinker. Good grief. What's the logical move after bringing in soft rock producer Vini Poncia to slick up your album? Go and hire Desmond Child to help write a damned disco song. KISS + disco = suck, suck, suck.

2. "2,000 Man" (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards) = keeper. Yes, Ace Frehley covers a psychedelic Rolling Stones songs and turns into a riff-chugging rocker. Great stuff.

3. "Sure Know Something" (Stanley, Poncia) = keeper. Yeah, it's more soft rock than, well, rock-rock, but Paul Stanley gives a great vocal performance and the mid-tempo thing actually has some memorable hooks. Not bad at all.

4. "Dirty Livin'" (Criss, Poncia, Stan Pendridge) = stinker. I almost included this one because it was the last thing that Peter Criss had anything to do with before he was replaced by Eric Carr. The cat man's voice is a strained mess and he sounds like he's drumming while wearing a pair of boxing gloves. Some people might like it for sentimental reasons, of course, but it's a pretty rotten song on the whole. It at least serves a reminder of why drug-addled, worn-out Criss was booted out of KISS.

5. "Charisma" (Gene Simmons, Howard Marks) = keeper. Gene Simmons -- that fire breathing, blood spitting demon of a bassist -- was at his best when being conceited, filthy and more than a little depraved. This groove-heavy tune has all those elements present and is one of the hardest hitting things on the disc. It's just too bad it was hampered by glossy production.

6. "Magic Touch" (Stanley) = stinker. This, folks, is the sound of Paul Stanley simply not giving a damn. This clunky, unmemorable slice of misery sounds like the kind of thing that should have only surfaced on a rarities album. Yuck.

7. "Hard Times" (Frehley) = keeper. Simmons and Stanley may have started to lose interest in what the band was up to, but Frehley seized on the opportunity to write a bunch of songs and provide the lead vocals (he wrote some classics like "Cold Gin" and gave them to other band members to sing, you know). This up-tempo song simply moves and sounds like something the forerunners of pop metal should have been banging out instead of wasting their time on disco songs. Yes, here Ace wax poetic about getting in trouble while growing up and generally sticking up for losers and morons around the world. Great.

8. X-Ray Eyes (Simmons) = keeper. A mid-tempo song in which Simmons fantasizes about getting revenge on a woman who did him wrong. Simmons' spiteful rants make this one a dandy time, and how about those backward cymbal splashes that sound like they were lifted right out of the end of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever?"

9. Save Your Love (Frehley) = keeper. Every ex-husband in the world ought to love this one, folks. Yes, Frehley generally tells a woman to beat it while chugging guitar riffs and a very respectable solo carry the song.

Unmasked (1980)

What the hell happened here? More light rock, more production work by Vini Poncia, more unmemorable songs and more glossy, glossy mixing. Peter Criss was off wandering somewhere again while Anton Fig filled in for him and Ace Frehley, once again, stepped up to the plate and provided some great songs while Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley didn't even bother trying on this one. Yes, Criss is on the album cover but didn't have a thing to do with this one -- a fact that pretty well sums up the state of the band at that point in time. To say Unmasked is a bad album is putting it too kindly. Still, there are some decent songs here and there:

1. "Is that You?" (Gerard McMahon) = keeper. Who the hell is Gerard McMahon? I have no idea, but this song is a great vehicle for Paul Stanley and the song turns into a bit of a filthy rocker. Oddly, this song is an indictment of a 17-year-old, trampy girl who sounds very much like she's living the kind of life long advocated by KISS.

2. "Shandi" (Stanley, Poncia) = stinker. As least as bad as "I was Made for Lovin' You," if not worse. Boring pop garbage all the way.

3. "Talk to Me" (Frehley) = keeper. Yes, Ace shows up with a great riff, some charming hooks and a wonderfully naive "boy meets girl" song. Reminds me of being a starry-eyed teen and that's rarely a bad thing.

4. "Naked City" (Simmons, Poncia, Bob Kulick, Pepe Castro) = stinker. It took four people to write this wandering, clunky piece of trash? Really? This is one of those songs you'll forget as soon as it's over. Thank God for that. The song by committee approach was a terrible, terrible idea.

5. "What Makes the World go 'Round" (Stanley, Poncia) = stinker. If you don't want to corner Vini Poncia in a dark alley and beat him senseless after listening to this go-nowhere nonsense, you're a stronger person than I am.

6. "Tomorrow" (Stanley, Poncia) = keeper. Yes, it's more light rock and that evil Vini Poncia is involved, but the hooks are larger than Paul Stanley's ego and the chorus just plain soars. It's predictable and more than a bit silly, but it's a heck of a lot of fun.

7. "Two Sides of the Coin" (Frehley) = keeper. Yes, Frehley tosses out a bunch of amazingly obvious philosophy, but the thing holds together quite well. Besides, this song is one of the few up-tempo, enjoyable moments on the album.

8. "She's so European" (Simmons, Poncia) = stinker. Vini Poncia strikes again and this time he takes Gene Simmons down with him. Perhaps he got bored with writing rotten songs with Paul Stanley. Who knows? This one is completely forgettable (once again, that's a good thing -- I'd kill myself if this song had even one hook that kept circulating around in my head). Ugly, slick and miserable.

9. "Easy as it Seems" (Stanley, Poncia) = stinker. Wow. This is one horrible, tiresome little song. Again, this is one that makes you want to simply beat Vini Poncia with a baseball bat. There's not a single hook here -- just a bunch of bleating from Paul Stanley and a band that sounds like it's run out of things to say.

10. "Torpedo Girl" (Frehley, Poncia) = keeper. I'm not sure why Poncia got a credit here because this is an Ace Frehley song all the way. It's nothing but big, dumb sex and some wonderfully busy guitar licks from Ace. Play it loud.

11. "You're all that I Want" (Simmons, Poncia) = stinker. After awhile, you get the idea that most of the songs Vini Poncia wrote sounded pretty much the same. Here's another one that's clunky, overly dramatic and about as appealing as the sound made by a trash can that's full of rocks and rolling down a hill.

Music from "The Elder" (1981)

Wow. This is really bad. Worse than bad. Downright terrible. Trying to describe how awful this album is will remind you just how limiting the English language actually is. This album is so rotten the Germans probably developed a word full of growling sounds and hard syllables just to describe Music from "The Elder." Here's all you really need to know. It's a pretentious concept album with a story line that's impossible to follow and a bunch of orchestration. It just doesn't sound like KISS at all. Peter Criss was out of the band by this time and was replaced by Eric Carr. One has to feel to feel a bit sorry for Carr, seeing how his debut happened to be on an album that is mostly known for being a disaster. Ace Frehley hated this album and was rarely around when the band was recording it. One listen will reveal why Frehley was frustrated at the direction in which KISS was heading and was dreaming of a solo career. This album is proof that some bands shouldn't be allowed to wander off on their own and record whatever the hell they want. Elder is so worthless that it makes Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park look like high art. Still, there are some songs worth keeping:

1. "Fanfare" (Stanley, Bob Ezrin) = stinker. Ezrin, a few years ago, admitted to having a heavy drug problem when this was recorded. That would explain this track, which sounds like stereotypical chamber music from the Middle Ages.

2. "Just a Boy" (Stanley, Ezrin) = stinker. A ballad featuring a bunch of falsetto warbling from Stanley and one of those choruses that is supposed to be "deep" but is shallow as hell ("I'm no hero / though I wish I could beeeee / For I am just a boy...") Ick.

3. "Odyssey" (Tony Powers) = stinker. "Blah, blah, blah -- odyssey! Something, something, something, snore -- odyssey!" Remember, kids -- if you've got a bad song, make it worse by making it really, really crawl. God help us.

4. "Only You" (Simmons) = stinker. In an interview, Frehley said he listened to Elder for the first time and then smashed the tape up against his wall. That seems to be a logical reaction to pretentious dirges like this slop.

5. "Under the Rose" (Simmons, Carr) = stinker. Were it not for the laughable choruses (i.e., a powerful council saying something very important very loudly, this wouldn't be half bad. As it is, you'll want to pull an "Ace smash" on the disc about halfway through this one.

6. "Dark Light" (Frehley, Simmons, Fig, Lou Reed) = keeper. Thank goodness for Ace Frehley! He put together a demo of this song back in 1976 (it was called "Don't Run" at the time) and pulled it out of mothballs for Elder. Toss in a few lyrics from Lou Reed, an intro that sounds like the Jaws theme, a head-spinning guitar solo and some crunchy, heavy metal chords and you've got a winner.

7. "A World without Heroes" (Stanley, Simmons, Ezrin, Reed) = stinker. A saw a video of this once that featured Gene Simmons crying. Yes, there he was -- demon makeup and all, crying like a five-year-old girl. If that doesn't sum up how ridiculous Elder is, I'm not sure what does.

8. "The Oath" (Stanley, Ezrin, Powers) = stinker. This is what "trudging" sounds like. Good grief.

9. "Mr. Blackwell" (Simmons, Reed) = keeper. Gene Simmons finally gets to growl along like the demon he wants to be over grinding riffs that would make Black Sabbath proud.

10. "Escape from the Island" (Frehley, Carr, Ezrin) = keeper. Hot dog! This instrumental is all sizzling guitar chords, a heavy dose of aggression and a blistering tempo. KISS should have stuck with this kind of thing throughout the disc, honestly.

11. "I" (Simmons, Ezrin) = keeper. A big, swaggering celebration of Simmons' ego, you'll actually thrill as Gene and Paul boast about how great they are. Paul Stanley, meanwhile, provided the most enthusiastic vocals he had in years. Throw in a lyrical reference to "Rock and Roll all Nite" and you've got the kind of fist-pumping anthem for which KISS is known.

Conclusion

Still around? You've got some patience for sure and certain. To sum it all up, I've taken 31 songs from three albums and distilled them down to the 15 songs included on the wonderful, wonderful The Dynasty of the Unmasked Elder. Enjoy.

As if you haven't been tortured enough, here's a track listing of the soon to be famous The Dynasty of the Unmasked Elder:

1. "2,000 Man"
2. "Sure Know Something"
3. "Charisma"
4. "Hard Times"
5. "X-Ray Eyes"
6. "Save Your Love"
7. "Is that You?"
8. "Talk to Me"
9. "Tomorrow"
10. "Two Sides of the Coin"
11. "Torpedo Girl"
12. "Dark Light"
13. "Mr. Blackwell"
14. "Escape from the Island"
15. "I"

5 comments:

PaulsHealthBlog.com said...

Hawg,

What does KISS stand for?

Let's hear the official version from The Hawg!

Paul

Eat Well. Live Well.
PurpleGreenPops.com

guitar chords said...

Yeah what did KISS stand for? were they the first to be rebellious or was it because there faces were painted?

The Natural State Hawg said...

Paul and guitar chords -- I must admit I'm a bit disappointed in both of you. What does KISS stand for? That's easy!

Now, we all know that the boys in KISS thought that mimes were really cool. Yes, that's the reason for all the white makeup, the exaggerated motions on stage and etc. Of course, they were different from traditional mimes in that they made a lot of racket, wore a lot of leather instead of those stupid striped shirts, etc.

We also know that the lads in KISS loved chasing tail. Women, women all the time with those lads.

So, KISS = kiss a mime.

Simple, no?

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