bThe KISS RE-REVIEW SERIES Part 18: It’s a KISS three-fer! LeBrain and Uncle Meat discuss KISS Unmasked below. Meanwhile Deke at Stick it in Your Ear has an accompanying piece called Peter Criss: Tossed and Turning!
– Unmasked (1980 Casablanca, 1997 Mercury remaster)
“I think Unmasked is a pretty crappy album. It’s wimpy” – Paul Stanley, KISS Behind the Mask
Here we are at Unmasked, the very album that inspired the Kiss Re-Review series in the first place. It’s a polarizing platter. The band often trash it and shun it in concert. Meanwhile, some fans have grown to appreciate it, particularly in Europe and Australia. There is even a tribute CD on a German label with covers of the entire album. Indeed, Unmasked is not without strengths. Ace Frehley contributed another three songs of his own, continuing the growth he demonstrated on his solo album and Dynasty.
On the other side of the ledger, there were factors that fans see as a diluting of the Kiss sound. Co-writers were now the norm. Returning producer Vini Poncia had eight co-writes. They used a track by songwriter Gerard McMahon. Even ghost guitarist Bob Kulick had a co-write on Gene’s “Naked City”. Most importantly, but publicly unknown at the time, was that Kiss had effectively become a trio. Peter Criss’ substance issues had come to a head and he was not involved with the album at all. He was on the cover, and in the credits, but all Peter did was mime some drums for the “Shandi” music video. When that shoot was done, Peter was gone. Anton Fig (Dynasty, Ace Frehley) returned again to fill the gap behind the scenes.
The album demonstrated a slick turn towards pop rock. Not disco so much, although the compression on the drums and guitars gives it a disco sound. The keyboards and slick production sweetened the album to the point that the thunder of Alive! or Love Gun was completely absent. Kiss were becoming caricatures in pursuit of megahits.
The Gerard McMahon song “Is That You?” was selected to open Unmasked. This sexy grind is one of the best tracks, with Paul in peak voice showing off what he can do. The slow and dirty pop rock number gets the job done, with minimal loss of integrity. That’s Paul on lead guitar too, one of several songs on which he solos, though it is hard to tell. In fact Unmasked is one of those Kiss albums on which you can’t be sure who played what.
Only one Kiss member appears on the big single, “Shandi”, and that’s Paul Stanley. On bass was Tom Harper, and Holly Knight on keyboards. There is little doubt that “Shandi” is a fantastic song, and it worked particularly well live in the acoustic setting. While Unmasked blurred the lines between rock and pop, “Shandi” is pure pop joy — almost adult contemporary!
Frehley’s first track was a favourite called “Talk to Me”, a song many Kiss fans easily embraced. These first three songs were performed on the Unmasked tour, which demonstrates their worth. “Talk to Me” has a cool guitar riff and one of Ace’s most infectious choruses – an instant classic. Ace had really grown as a singer by this point.
The waters get murkier after the first three tracks. Gene’s “Naked City” is a grower. It possesses hooks and great verses, but the main guitar riff doesn’t hit the spot. Gene’s falsetto voice is employed to great effect. It takes a few spins, but “Naked City” has a cool darkness to it and a strange kind of class. That is followed by the very pop “What Makes the World Go ‘Round”, a keyboard-heavy Paul Stanley tune. It sounds very little like Kiss, but Paul’s performance (guitar solo included) is stellar. Falsetto must have been very popular at the time. Bee Gees, anyone?
Paul’s side two opener “Tomorrow” is just as pop as “What Makes the World Go ‘Round”. These would be great songs for somebody else’s album. Perhaps Rick Astley. Fortunately the side is quickly redeemed by Ace’s excellent “Two Sides of the Coin”. Notably, this song inspired the title of Michael Brandvold’s Kiss podcast, “Three Sides of the Coin“. Ace’s track is a fan favourite, upbeat and melodic with just enough guitar bite. If the production was meatier, as on Ace’s solo album, it would be an absolute killer.
Gene continues chasing the ladies on “She’s So European”, a filler track with familiar themes. “She makes love on a brass bed, because her parents are still awake.” Not Gene’s finest moment. “Easy As It Seems” is a Paul track, and also not one of his finest, but the bouncy bass (by Paul) is quite great. But is that a bloody keyboard solo that I detect?
One of the most interesting tracks, and most instrumentally impressive, is Ace’s surf rock classic “Torpedo Girl”. This is just a fun summertime track with infectious ooh-ahh vocal hooks. His role within Kiss resulted in some of their more unique songs, and “Torpedo Girl” is unorthodox. Ace’s picking is enviable, and the lyrics are just pure fun. “Come on, get your feet wet.”
Album closer “You’re All That I Want” is one of Gene’s tunes, but Paul’s vocals on the outro sell it. It’s a little on the light side, as is much of Unmasked, but it remains a good song.
On a personal note, I have one very strong memory of Unmasked. I first heard it by taping it off a friend, my late neighbor George. George dropped the needle on the record, hit record on my tape, and then got out his bass and played bass along to every song. Unbeknownst to him, his bass playing bled onto the tape. From that point until I finally got a store-bought cassette copy, I always heard George’s bass on the fade-outs of every song. I can still hear it in my head. I suppose that’s one way that George is still alive, in my memory.
Unmasked was released on May 20, 1980, with a bright cartoony cover including Peter Criss. Meanwhile the band were already preparing for their first of many lineup changes, something that was kept quiet until the right moment.
In July, Kiss were ready to unveil the new member. Paul Caravello, from Brooklyn, impressed Kiss with his audition and humble personality. The story that everybody remembers is that Caravello asked the guys for their autographs in case he never saw them again. No worries there; the job was destined to be his. But Kiss couldn’t have another guy named Paul, and his last name was too “ethnic” (obviously Italian), so his name was changed to Eric Carr. (Fortunately, Gene’s suggestion of “Rusty Blades” was discarded.) The newly dubbed Eric was an energetic mighty-mite of rock, and the band quickly grew to love him. Everything was new to him.
A new makeup design was required. This was a big deal — a new challenge. A hawk concept was tried, but in the costume Carr looked more like Big Bird than a rock star. He drew up an inspired fox design which immediately clicked. The new character was born!
Carr’s first appearance with the band was at their only US date on this tour: New York on July 25 1980. The rest of the tour took place in Europe and Australia where “Shandi” became a hit. There were only 41 shows in total. Despite their best efforts, Kiss’ fortunes were shifting. Opening acts on the tour included Iron Maiden, which must have been quite the mismatch. Given Maiden’s reputation for blowing away headliners (much like Kiss when they started out), you must wonder how this went down. Girl, featuring future Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen and future L.A. Guns singer Phil Lewis, also opened a handful of gigs.
Unfortunately for fans, especially in North America, this was the last tour for a long time. It was also the only tour featuring this lineup. While Kiss had endured their first lineup change, that was only just the beginning of the problems to solve.
Uncle Meat’s rating:
Meat’s slice: Unmasked was released in May of 1980. A couple of months later I had heard that Kiss was going to introduce their new drummer on a show called Kids Are People Too. Seeing Kiss in the Phantom movie on TV was one thing. But knowing they were being interviewed, and introducing their newest member…Eric “The Fox” Carr. I watch it today on YouTube, and it’s so…umm…not what I remember. But it was monumental at the time for me. At this point, I had heard Unmasked once at a friend’s place and was underwhelmed. But I loved the album cover and still think it is probably their best. My take on Unmasked is much different now, and was how LeBrain’s Re-Reviews started in the first place. First of all I will address this. Mike referred in the beginning of this series to the two “Disco” era Kiss albums of Dynasty and Unmasked. Dynasty has one Disco song. Unmasked does not have anything close to a Disco song. Some would say “Shandi”, but that is Kiss capitalizing on the Soft Rock success of the day. Unmasked may not be a typical Kiss album, but thanks to Vini Poncia it’s a great album of Rock tunes and one of my favorite Kiss albums.
The drumming on this album is a major high point. Anton Fig shines all over this disc. Ace also continues his consistent roll with great rock songs like “Talk To Me”. He has such a great Rock and Roll voice. The background vocals are great too. “Two Sides of the Coin” is another song with incredible drumming, and a single writing credit. Both this song and “Talk To Me” are the only two songs on the album that don’t have an outside writing credit. Subsequently these songs sound more like classic Kiss than the rest of the album. However “Torpedo Girl” is another story. This might be the shining moment of Ace’s career in Meat’s opinion. Unbelievable guitar riff and funky drum beat. I have had it in my head for days now.
It seems that the addition of Vini Poncia to the Kiss machine inspired Gene Simmons as well. Unlike Dynasty where his songs were mostly forgettable, a couple of his songs on this album shine here. “She’s So European” is “completely ridiculous” but a “great fucking tune” (according to my longtime Kiss-mate Scott) . That about says it all. “Naked City” sees the falsetto of Gene Simmons on display here in another catchy song. There are great hooks within this song, which is indicative of the whole album really. However the album closer, “You’re All That I Want” might be the weakest track on the album. I do though love the ending, which you hear Stanley screaming in his typical live-show style.
Paul Stanley’s contributions on this album are good as well, with a few curveballs thrown in. “Shandi” was a massive Australian hit, and even though the song is about as limp as it can be, I still love the song. Reminds me of the Little River Band and Ambrosia songs of the Soft Rock era that I still dig. “What Makes the World Go ‘Round” is a solid song, with some of the greatest solo guitar playing Paul Stanley has put to record. “Tomorrow” sounds a lot like .38 Special to me and is just OK. “Easy As it Seems” is a solid song that incorporates keyboards in an interesting way, and might be the best Stanley song on Unmasked.
Overall Unmasked is a misunderstood, understated classic. I am curious to see if time has changed LeBrain’s take on this album. All I can say is…this may be Kiss’s last truly great album. From here on in, the “Meat’s Slice” section will start to get a lot shorter, with a couple exceptions.
Favorite Tracks: “Torpedo Girl”, “Shandi”, “Is That You”, “Talk To Me”, “She’s so European”
Forgettable Tracks: “You’re All That I Want”, “Tomorrow” (both borderline)
To be continued…
Original mikeladano.com review: 2012/07/25