When KISS Went Grunge: "Carnival of Souls" Revisited
KISS, "Carnival of Souls: The Final Sessions"
Mercury Records, 1997
The 1990s certainly started off well enough for KISS. When the power ballad "Forever" from 1989's Hot in the Shade album hit the top ten in April of 1990, it was their most successful single in a decade. However, the door was closing on the hair-metal era; record buyers and label execs were already turning their attention towards the grungy, down-tuned sounds from the Pacific Northwest. KISS scraped off the pop metal sheen and heavied things up for 1992's Revenge, which went gold, but ticket sales for the Revenge tour didn't live up to expectations. By 1994 the band—Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, guitarist Bruce Kulick, and drummer Eric Singer—was unsure where to go next.
Gene was gung-ho about tapping into the then-hot Grunge sound for KISS' next studio album, which had a working title of Head, but Paul Stanley admitted in his autobiography Face the Music: A Life Exposed that he had difficulty dialing into the "nineties" vibe. Grunge rock's darker outlook worked for Gene and his longtime "Demon" persona, but Paul didn't think it fit the KISS template, saying, "It ain't that dark in Beverly Hills." Nevertheless, the band went into the studio with producer Toby Wright, who'd previously worked with grunge kingpins Alice in Chains and extreme metal titans Slayer, and completed 11 new tracks in February 1996. Head was slated for release later that year, but things didn't quite work out that way...
I just couldn't picture KISS writing gloom-and-doom stories. 'What are we going to write about?' I asked. 'That our housekeepers didn't show up today? That our limo was late?'— Paul Stanley, "Face The Music"
As work progressed on the new album, KISS was also spending a lot of time revisiting their past. They oversaw the release of 1994's KISS My Ass: Classic KISS Re-grooved tribute album, which featured covers of their classics performed by '90s rock royalty like Dinosaur Jr. and Lenny Kravitz. The fires of nostalgia were stoked further a year later, when the band embarked on their Worldwide KISS Convention tour, a full-day, hands-on fan experience that included displays of vintage memorabilia, Q&A's and autograph sessions with the band members, and nightly live acoustic performances. The popularity of those acoustic sets led to a KISS edition of MTV's Unplugged program in August of 1995, during which Peter Criss and Ace Frehley joined the band for a few songs. By this point, Simmons & Stanley could not help but notice that there was WAY more interest in old-school KISS than in new material from the group's current lineup. A full blown reunion of the original band launched in the Summer of '96, which proceeded to destroy box office records around the globe. KISS was instantly huge again, but the new studio album they'd just finished became a victim of all the hoopla.
Beating the Boots...
According to a Reunion tour-era interview in Metal Edge magazine, Mercury Records had asked KISS if they would add a song from the new album to their live set, which would give them a reason to release the disc. However, the band veto'd that idea, since the material didn't fit the tour's classic vibe, and Frehley & Criss had not played on it. Mercury opted to put the album on a shelf for the duration of the tour, hoping that Simmons & Stanley would return to it at a later date.
However, while it was sitting in a vault at Mercury Records, some advance copies apparently leaked out and landed in the hands of bootleggers, who quickly began printing up counterfeit CDs. The "new" KISS album - now being called Carnival of Souls - became popular "under the table" items at KISS Expos and record-collector swap meets. My buddy bought one at the 1997 New Jersey KISS Expo, and I remember listening to it in his car on the ride home -- the sound quality was so muffled, full of echo and mush, that you could barely hear the music. I asked my pal, "how much did you pay for this piece of s**t?" and his reply was, "$25!" I told him he'd been ripped off, but he shrugged and said it was worth it, since rumor had it that the album might never see the light of day due to the reunion. Mercury Records was not about to let a bunch of bootleggers take their lunch money, of course, so in October of '97 -- more than a year after its intended original release date - a bare-bones official edition of Carnival of Souls: The Final Sessions arrived in stores... and hardly anyone noticed.
Carnival of Souls kicks off on a promisingly heavy note, with the squeal of feedback leading into Gene's rumbling "Hate," which sounds like a sequel to "Unholy" from Revenge. The middling, mid-tempo "Rain," sung by Paul, is next, and you can already tell from his lackadaisical vocal performance on this track that his heart really isn't into this. Things pick up slightly with the peppy "Master & Slave" (often mis-identified as "Tell Me" on bootleg copies) and Gene's moody "Childhood's End," which even references the opening lyric of "God of Thunder" in its closing moments. The acoustic ballad "I Will Be There" is Paul's ode to his son Evan, who was born while the album was being written. Paul has said that "I Will Be There" is the only song on Carnival that he felt a "connection" with.
Gene's burly bass and Bruce Kulick's twisty lead work are the highlights of "Jungle," one of the better Stanley-sung cuts on the album, then Simmons returns to the mic in full Demon Mode with the crunch of "In My Head." For me, at least, the disc hits the wall at this point. "It Never Goes Away," "Seduction of the Innocent," and "In The Mirror" are all pretty much filler. The closing track, "I Walk Alone," is notable for being the first (and last) KISS song to feature Bruce Kulick on lead vocals and its title seems particularly ironic now, since by the time Carnival of Souls was released, he was indeed walking alone. At the end of the Reunion Tour, Simmons and Stanley began working on a new studio album with Frehley & Criss.
"Master and Slave"
Summing It Up
"Jungle" got some minor radio airplay in late '97, but otherwise, KISS did nothing to promote Carnival of Souls. There was no Carnival concert tour, no promotional interviews, and no music videos. As a result the disc sank without a trace. Honestly though, even if the reunion had never happened and CoS had been released in early 1996 as originally planned, the album wouldn't have done much to reverse their waning fortunes. The reunion was obviously the smart business move, even if CoS had to be sacrificed along the way. (It's quite telling that the Carnival of Souls CD came with a mini-catalog of high-end Reunion Tour merchandise packaged inside the booklet!)
Like 1981's equally atypical Music From "The Elder," Carnival of Souls has divided fans' opinions over the years. Some say it's a great album, while others think it's their absolute worst. I fall somewhere in the middle. There are a few songs I like, a few I don't, and the rest are just "meh." Carnival of Souls: The Final Sessions is an occasionally interesting listen, but far from essential.
© 2019 Keith Abt