KISS—"Monster" Album Review
(Universal Music Enterprises, 2012)
KISS' Monster was a bit of a weird experience for me when it first arrived in 2012. At the time of its release, my interest in all things KISS was on the wane. The mid-'90s reunion of the original lineup fizzled by the turn of the century (as we all knew it eventually would) and a so-called "Farewell Tour" in 2000, which was hyped as being the final curtain call for KISS, only proved to be the farewell to Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. (As of this writing in early 2019, the current lineup is now on their supposedly last-ever, we-really-really-mean-it-this-time-no-kidding End of the Road final tour, but I guess only time will tell if they actually keep their word.)
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 "disrespect" to Frehley and Criss, but the band played on regardless, circling the globe for quite a few years while flogging the usual set list of "Greatest Hits." In the early 2000s, Simmons claimed that the new KISS lineup would probably not 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, the Demon changed his mind, 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. The mere fact that the band was 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 returned with Monster, a new 12 track collection that Simmons described as "meat and potatoes rock" and "Sonic Boom on steroids," which sounded promising. I bought a copy of Monster as soon as it hit stores (yes, I'm one of those old school weirdos who still buys CDs), and even now, after all these years, I'd say the album holds up pretty well.
"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 vibe. As they did on Sonic Boom, KISS were obviously not interested in "modernizing" 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 steal of the kind of stuff Ace Frehley used to sing with the band, with references to outer space, rockets, and the like. Meanwhile, Eric's "All For the Love Of Rock N' Roll" is the kind of bluesy rocker that Peter Criss excelled at back in the day. 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 album, 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. Thayer and Singer have certainly earned their stripes here and their (relatively) youthful energy provided Simmons and Stanley with a musical shot in the arm. 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.
© 2012 Keith Abt