THREE-VIEW: KISS – Unmasked (1980)

Back for Round Three.  For the first two Unmasked reviews, click here and here.

  Unmasked (1980 Casablanca, 1997 Mercury remaster)

This has been a weird year.  Comforting, nostalgic sounds in the age of Covid have dominated at LeBrain HQ.  There are two Kiss albums that have been absolute joys this summer for blowing the blues away.  They have been Dressed to Kill, and Unmasked.  Originally rated 2.5/5 stars, I was definitely wrong on Unmasked.  The band may have disowned it, and it might not be hard rock, but reviewing it is not as “Easy As It Seems”.  This album definitely has “Two Side of the Coin”.  It might not be “What Makes the World Go ‘Round” but this summer, I just want to say one thing to Kiss Unmasked:  “You’re All That I Want”.

One reason I may have judged Unmasked harshly before is that first impressions are strongest.  My first impression was not good.  In fact, for the first two years of hearing Unmasked, my copy was all but unlistenable.  In the beginning, I taped my first Kiss albums from next door neighbour George.  He fancied himself a bass player.  While he was recording Unmasked for me, I sat in his bedroom while he played bass along to it.  Every song.  Unbeknownst to him, his bass bled onto my tape.  Every time I played the album, it was like a remix with George overdubbed on bass, and I had the only copy.  Sometimes he continued playing well after the fade, other times he came in prematurely.  Either way, my first two formative years with this album were awful and that had to be a factor to my dislike of the album.  A dislike which, in 2020, has turned to love.

“Is That You?” asks Paul Stanley on the opener, a Gerard McMahon song that boasts grinding verses and a killer chorus.  Piano tinkles quietly in the background, but the guitars are nice and rich, especially Paul’s solo.  His lead vocals absolutely rip, while a sultry Gene sings the backgrounds.

A second Paul vocal follows, and it’s the big hit “Shandi”.  Listening with 20/20 hindsight in the year 2020, it’s amusing to ponder how anybody thought this was Peter Criss on drums.  It was a secret that Anton Fig played on Unmasked and Dynasty, but it’s really obviously not Peter Criss.  That disco groove is too impeccably perfect to be the Catman.  Paul is, in fact, the only Kiss member to play on “Shandi”.  And while this song is a softie, it ain’t a baddie.  It’s clear that Kiss were not the rag-tag rock and roll beast they once were.  They had evolved.  Temporarily, at least.

If the first two tracks were light on Ace Frehley, that’s not indicative of the album.  Three lead vocals for the Spaceman this time, including the single “Talk To Me”.  Shiny and chromed-up, Frehley’s songs are among the best on Unmasked and “Talk To Me” could be the top track.

I always had problems with “Naked City”, but part of that might be that I can still hear George come in early on the bass.  Gene Simmons makes his album vocal debut here, and while the chorus and riff are still not top-notch, the verses are excellent.  Songs like this also demonstrate that Gene is an underrated singer.  He’s more versatile than people realize.

Paul strikes a cool riff on “What Makes the World Go ‘Round”.  He often talks about how the album had good songs, but they should have sounded different.  This one sounds like it could have turned out more like the first three albums.  You can imagine how the riff would have been more prominent.  As it is though, it’s one of the most unabashedly catchy songs Paul’s ever written, and his guitar solo is simply delicious.  You can slag Paul for doing something so pop, but can you slag him for doing it so well?

Side B’s opener is “Tomorrow”, with Paul’s vocals cleanly produced as per the pop trends of the day, with slapback delay and airy EQ.  But like “What Makes the World Go ‘Round”, this is pop rock done really well.  The keyboards are too prominent, but at least Ace gets a tasty solo here.  As Kiss songs got catchier, so did the Spaceman’s solos.  Frehley’s next lead vocal follows on “Two Sides of the Coin”, the song title which inspired a podcast (“Three Sides of the Coin“).  Y’see, Ace just can’t pick a girl!  But he has to.  “Two sides of the coin to choose from, I’m getting weary.  Which one should I choose?  I need time.”  He insists that the girls don’t mind, but I question that assertion.  But he has to pick a mate because he’s “tired of all those dates”!  Silly words aside, Ace has knocked out two top-notch songs on Unmasked so far.

Gene’s back on “She’s So European”, a song about a girl with a French accent who drinks pink champagne.  I’ve softed my stance on this one too.  You can certainly hear the rock n’ roll riffiness that it could have been.  That’s been replaced by keyboards and slick beats, and it’s fine.  “Easy As It Seems”, a Paul song, really sneaks up on you.  It disappears into the fabric of the album until one day you just can’t get it out of your heard.  Paul lays down another fine solo, and weaves a plaintive tapestry with his incredible voice.  What range he had.

An album highlight is the third and final Frehley concoction — a weird little number called “Torpedo Girl”.  Surf rock meets the Space Ace.  The guitar lick is a tricky little off-beat riff, but with Anton Fig behind on drums, Kiss could do complex stuff like this.  Especially since that’s Ace playing the bouncy bass part too.  It’s also one of Frehley’s most entertaining lyrics.  A submarine with a pretty girl on the bridge has surfaced in the bay!  Better go check it out.

The final track, “You’re All That I Want” is a Gene number.  Like “Easy As It Seems”, one day it just catches you.  Especially Paul’s “answer” vocals in the outro.  One thing (among many) that made Kiss truly special is the multiple lead singers.  And unless you’re a Catman diehard, you don’t really miss Peter in that mix.  Frehley more than made up for the lack of Criss.  While four singers is better than three, remember that Kiss only had three lead singers for their first five studio albums.

I don’t want to have to three-view the entire Kiss catalogue but it is amazing how Unmasked just opened up to me this summer.  I’m enjoying more than ever, with that nostalgic glow for days gone by.  The “good old days” were not always good, but at least the music was.

4.5/5 stars

49 comments

        1. It’s nowhere near my favorite, but it’s not bad. All in all I prefer the entirety of their ’70s output to it, as well as the rest of their ’80s stuff up to and including Asylum.

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  1. I don’t mean to be pedantic, but you’ve said in all three reviews that the use of compression is a practice inherent to pop production of the day. While that’s true, I think it’s a bit misleading. I guarantee you 100% that every single Kiss album ever created has had compression on the drums and vocals, and in some cases a lot more than on this album. Otherwise it’s too dynamic and the whole thing sounds weak, some lyrics would get buried and the drums wouldn’t slam properly. Compression has nothing to do with pop exclusively, it’s used in pretty much every single commercial recording regardless of genre or budget.

    Hell, the ultra powerful drums on Creatures of the Night? They got that sound by compressing the living shit out of them, way more than on this album. Also they used a good room, good mics, and probably some additional reverb. In 1982, I’d guess it was a plate, though gated sounds were getting more popular then since “In the Air Tonight” had just come out.

    It’s been said that compression is the sound of rock ‘n’ roll. Just felt the need to intervene, but I didn’t want to be “that guy”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some of the pop aspects I heard in the production was how hi-passed the guitars are. There’s barely anything below 300Hz, no chug to them. Totally clean. The bass sounds really clean and trebley too, not a lot of meat to it. Very polite and agreeable sounding, no warts. The drums are very punchy, which is partially due to compression, and also because the room mics aren’t mixed super high, you’re getting a lot of the close mic in there so it doesn’t sound huge, but seems to hit and then disappear quickly. The drums drive the song along, but don’t call attention to themselves, giving more focus to the vocal melodies, many of which contain a super poppy slapback delay. The hi-hat is prominent and sparkly though, likely so it makes the whole thing sound clean. Even the toms don’t have any meaningful bass response.

      One thing that bugs me is the pre-delay on the reverb of the snare at the beginning of “What Makes the World Go ‘Round”. It sounds like it’s slightly out of time with the song, which is not something you want when you’re using such a long pre-delay.

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    2. I dunno man I just got it from Dale Sherman’s book and I don’t know how else to describe what I hear going on in the vocal department. Let me know a better word and I’ll do the edit.

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      1. Tell Dale Sherman he’s wrong on Unmasked! He’s clearly not an engineer. I mean you’re technically correct, Paul’s voice is compressed, but that’s not why it sounds poppy.

        The prominent slapback delay is definitely very pop rocky. Also as opposed to earlier records, it sounds like there’s a hi-shelf EQ to boost the treble on Paul’s voice, which is good because the Eddie Kramer records have his voice sounding so dull it’s almost like he has a lisp, and he sort of does, but not on Unmasked. Like Love Gun you can’t hear the S’s at all, as if someone used a de-esser on his voice and turned it up to 11. His voice sounds way more airy on this album, because of the treble EQ. Maybe Maag EQ, that’s a popular option for air boosts. Maybe just the on board EQ with the shelf turned up. There’s definitely a treble boost, but it’s possible Eddie was also using a low-pass on Paul’s vox on his albums with Kiss, which might be why they sound so dull. I’ve hardly ever heard a low-pass I like on vocals, with the exception of the one on the SSL 4000 E series, that thing’s kickass. Best sounding console ever for mixing.

        The way Paul’s signing also is why his voice sounds poppy too. Instead of his intense almost operatic vibrato he’s sassing it up a little bit. Doing some punchy less intense vocals, softer, less throat shredding like “A Million to One” or something. He’s really stressing the consonants to give it character. An LA-2A compressor with a slow attack time also makes the consonants stand out, but that’s not a pop exclusivity either. Using an 1176 REV A (fast attack) with the LA-2A (slow attack) behind it is like peanut butter and jelly for all pro vocal production. A lot of people do it because it sounds great. I chock the pop vocal sound up to the performance first, followed by the slapback delay (that really fast echo you’re hearing) and the EQ choices.

        So if I had to replace a term for you it’d be “Side B’s opener is “Tomorrow”, with Paul’s vocals cleanly produced as per the pop trends of the day, with slapback delay and airy EQ.”

        https://dalesherman.blogspot.com/

        Tell Sherman to recall all copies to replace with corrected reprints!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. DONE! I’ve made the edit and now I don’t have to do a fourth review! LOL

          Absolutely no way was I going to be able to follow all that tech-speak. May as well say “Tachyons are penetrating the shields at a frequency of blah blah blah, Captain!”

          Anyway it is fixed and I thank you for that.

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      2. All that techno shit being said, I’m glad it wasn’t originally your fuck up. It makes me feel like a dick for pointing it out. That’s like charisma 101, if you want people to like you, don’t correct them. Looks like I need to go back to charmer’s school.

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  2. A worthy score.

    I owned Dynasty and Unmasked before I got any of their other 70s albums.

    So this album is a favorite of mine because I listened to it a lot and after my Kiss collection grew, this album became even more important because of the variety on it.

    Ace still delivered old school Kiss, Paul was delivering a more melodic Kiss and Gene delivered one of his best songs in Naked City. You should check out Jorn’s cover of that song.

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        1. Yeah, Lynch loves his tritones. Particularly the E-A# one, probably because E’s the lowest you can go without downtuning on the axe, so it sounds heaviest.

          He loves the E3-E4-B4, to E3-E4-A#, to E3-E4-A chromatic riff a lot. “Unchain the Night”, “When Heaven Comes Down”, etc. Going from the perfect 5th, to the diminished 5th/augmented 4th/tritone, to the 4th, like a half-assed sus4 chord without the 5th on top of it. Makes for an awesome intimidating sound. I wrote a song using those chords with my own spin thrown in, I think I went even further down and it’s in 7/4 (different chord order too). Still sounds like Lynch though, he’s got a monopoly on those chords almost.

          I’m not 100%, but I think the Sabbath one goes E3 to E4 to A#3 for a descending tritone. Spooky!

          It’ll probably sound like jazz too, they use tritones with a lot more subtlety. You can be the next Louis Armstrong or something. Or sing almost anything Danny Elfman has ever composed.

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        2. Fuck, I forgot. He uses the same thing in “Wicked Sensation” too. Dude made a living with the same three chords like AC/DC, only he picked weirder chords!

          This comment section is becoming a music engineering and music theory lesson.

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        3. Lol Sorry Mike For the thread.

          Hellchild has it has well. It’s Not Love..

          And your right his, favourite is the E to A#. I suppose that’s why I gravitated to him as an influence. His riffing is a bit different. And when he was doing the Lynch Pilson project in the 2000s, I read that Pilson was the key to introducing the tritone riff idea.

          Compare the Breaking The Chains album (Pilson didn’t write anything on it) to Tooth N Nail (when Pilson wrote all the songs)

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        4. I haven’t heard Breaking the Chains in a long time, but I don’t remember nearly as many tritones. Makes sense Pilson would bring it up, he’s a big music fan. Lynch totally copped it for his style for the rest of time though.

          I think Mike is used to me rambling by now.

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  3. Awesome review Mike. I like this one as well but don’t know if I like it that much. 😂. We will see. I am still on the solo albums right now. Writing Gene’s this weekend. Glad to see this one finally connected with you. It just needed 40 years to breath.

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  4. Slick production and poppy tunes aside, I was always a sucker for Unmasked. Maybe because of nostalgia (it was the first KISS album I ever got), but maybe because – just like you wrote – there’s a lot of tunes that are either insanely catchy (Is That You, What Makes The World Go Round, Tomorrow) or insanely Acey (well…yeah). Plus, we’ve got Gene’s tribute to “Eleanor Rigby” in here, and that’s an awesome song. Other than “Shandi” (haven’t heard that name ever since in the real world), which is pure unlistenable, sugary pap.

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    1. Hi Bjoern! Thanks for the awesome comment. Funny you should mention that about Shandi. I have a friend John who named his daughter Shandi. Massive Kiss fan, obviously!

      I think Torpedo Girl is insanely Acey and I wish he’d do something with it again. Play it live, re-record it for Origins 3, anything. It’s just a cool tune and so funky for Kiss!

      Thanks for reading!

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  5. Sorry–there hasn’t been a moment in the last 40 years when I’ve said, “I really need to throw on ‘Unmasked'”. It’s lame. I also don’t like the fact that the band lied to its fans. I do remember wondering why Peter’s drums sounded so good, yet he didn’t have a single vocal on the album. But this is not a strong album at all. I’m one of those who loves mid-80’s KISS, but I guess everyone has their favorite era.

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    1. Hi Mark, I totally get it. Totally. I reviewed this album 3 times and gave it a 2.5 the first time. You’re probably more in line with that review. I wrote it back in 2009 originally. I guess I’m just got softer in my old age. LOL

      Thanks for the comment man!

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