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.