KISS – Monster – Record Review

by John Jeffrey

In 1985, KISS released “Asylum,” touting it as their 20th record. In 2012, KISS has recalculated the counting of their catalog (no longer including the solo albums in their tally) and have announced “Monster” as their 20th studio album. Since “Asylum” was released, KISS started a trend whenever they had a new album coming out, where they would compare their upcoming release to something else that they had put out in the past. Usually, KISS would describe their “new” record as a cross between “Destroyer” and whatever else suited their fancy at the time. I always felt this was a bad idea, because it makes the fan conjure up a preconceived notion of how the record will sound, and if the release doesn’t match their sonic hypothesis, it can leave a lot of room for disappointment. But let me tell ya, “Monster” does not disappoint.

Throw out the window whatever ‘hybrid’ they may have described “Monster” as, and just be certain that it is truly a solid rock record. Leaps and bounds beyond 2009’s “Sonic Boom,” “Monster” has a little bit for everybody, no matter what era fan you are of the band. Where “Sonic Boom” was a homage to mid-70’s era KISS, and had quite a bit of ‘references’ to songs/guitar solos from that era sprinkled in, “Monster” is an homage to the artists/groups which influenced them. There are many ‘references’ to groups like Led Zeppelin and Mountain on “Monster,” and while I wouldn’t say KISS ripped them off, I will say that there’s definitely a ‘tip of the hat’ to those bands on the CD.

Instead of trying to emulate the flat, somewhat muddied sound of 70’s records like “Rock and Roll Over” (as they did with “Sonic Boom”), the production on “Monster” is loud, crisp and in your face. Very raw and organic sounding, with none of the edge rounded off. I really like how Eric Singer’s drum sound slightly varies from track to track. At times, it sounds very tight and controlled, and at other points, it has a huge room sound, with the snare drum just emanating massively, making the whole thing just breathe. What the low end may lack in the bass drum dept. is certainly made up with bass guitar, as Gene Simmons’ bass has never sounded better on any KISS album. Sounding like a cross between his “Alive II” tour distortion and his trademarked Punisher/Ampeg growl, you couldn’t ask for anything more. The guitars have a lot more teeth this time around, and the hard left/right panning of Paul Stanley and Tommy Thayer’s rhythm guitar parts makes it interesting for the listener, especially when using headphones.

“Hell or Hallelujah” – The album opener really sets the tone for this great opus. The main riff sounds like a cross between (now I’m doing what I criticized KISS for, LOL) a sped up version of “All American Man” (“Alive II”) and the break down riff from “Get All You Can Take” (“Animalize”). The skeletal arrangement and drumming is similar to “I Stole Your Love” (“Love Gun”), but even with all of KISS-isms, for some reason “Hell or Hallelujah” reminds of Sammy Hagar’s “One Way To Rock.” That’s not a bad thing by any means, as “HOH” is a great song. Awesome vocals by Stanley, which he has been able to replicate nicely in the live setting, and great (almost Angus Young-ish) lead playing by Thayer.

“Wall of Sound” – The first ‘Gene song’ on the disc. While the main riff reminds me of the chorus of “Murder in High Hells” (“Animalize”), this song kicks ass. Singer goes back to the beginning of his recording career, and delivers a Badlands style groove throughout, while Thayer’s lead riffing during the song reaffirms why he is the lead guitarist in KISS.

“Freak” – Perhaps the most ‘modern’ sounding track on the album, but not surprising since this is the tune they wanted to have Lady Gaga sing on. Lyrically, the song deals with the burden of being different and being outcast for being who you want to be, and following the march of your own drummer. While it’s not always easy being a KISS fan, I’m sure this song will resonate with a lot of it’s listeners. Great ad libbed vocals at the end by Stanley, as this track should be the next single.

“Back to the Stone Age” – Very fun song by Simmons. Starts out with a great “Lick It Up” era style scream by Gene, followed by a riff that reminds me of “Thou Shall Not” (“Revenge”). Drum wise, the song has a very driving “Deuce” type beat, which suits the song perfectly. Thayer once again delivers a stellar solo.

“Shout Mercy” – Another great Stanley song which seems to be an ode to Humble Pie’s “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” The ‘whoot woos’ in the song are absolutely infectious, and Singer’s ‘hand-clapping’ snare hits throughout the song really tie the whole thing together. The high note Paul hits at the end of the song will send shivers down your spine!

“Long Way Down” – I’d say this is the most unique sounding KISS song I’ve heard in some time. It’s totally KISS meets Led Zeppelin. The song starts out with a grind like Zeppelin’s “Out on the Tiles” and the music during the verses reminds me of the chorus from Bruce Kulick and Gene Simmons collaboration on Kulick’s “BK3” (“Ain’t Gonna Die”). The chorus of “Long Way Down” is also a nod to Zeppelin (“Ramble On”), but Paul Stanley makes it all his own with another killer vocal performance.

“Eat Your Heart Out” – On the first listen, this track sounds like the incestuous sister/brother song to “Hot and Cold” from “Sonic Boom,” but upon further inspection, it appears that “Eat Your Heart Out” is actually a re-write of Simmons’ 70’s unreleased demo, “Bad, Bad Lovin.” Nevertheless, it’s another fun song by Gene and has a very cool a cappella intro, where if you listen close, you can distinctively hear all four KISS members singing the harmony. Thayer breaks out a wah pedal for this one, which adds a lot of character to his leads during the guitar solo and the outro passage.

“The Devil is Me” – This song should be called, “The Devil is Gene” as everything about this song totally fits with his ‘Demon’ persona. Perhaps his best song on the disc, Simmons really delivers lyrically, vocally and his bass parts are totally killer. You really have to listen, but the little runs and fills he’s playing on this song tell the story of what an underrated bass player Gene Simmons really is. The song also features another set of MVP performances by Thayer & Singer.

“Out of this World” – Tommy Thayer delivers a great follow up ‘Spaceman’ character song to “When Lightning Strikes” (“Sonic Boom”). As contrived as it may be to have every Thayer sung tune to be character driven, “Out of this World” is a nice addition to “Monster” and Tommy’s lead vocals create an added dimension to the CD. The very 70’s, “Mississippi Queen” (Mountain) inspired verses are offset nicely by the upbeat 80’s sounding chorus, and the phaser added during the driving outro piece was a nice touch.

“All For the Love of Rock and Roll” – Undoubtedly, the standout track on the CD, as the song is so different than all of the other songs on “Monster.” Sung by Eric Singer, the song has a very bluesy, R&B-ish type feel, probably the track most reminiscent of early KISS on the disc. To me, the song reminds me of a slowed down version of “It’s Alright” from Paul Stanley’s 1978 KISS solo album. I think it’s great that they took a chance by putting a song like this on “Monster,” as it makes it just that much more diverse. Singer’s lead vocals and Stanley’s harmonies are pure perfection, and the non-cookie cutter arrangement is an added bonus.

“Take Me Down Below” – While I’m indifferent to Gene’s spoken part in the beginning of the song, I have to say that the vocal tradeoffs between him and Paul during the verses are ultra cool. Unfortunately, I’m not a big fan of the “Crazy Nights”-esque chorus, but I’m certain that this song will certainly appease fans of 80’s KISS. Thankfully, the bubblegum choruses are broken up by a driving middle section and another sensational guitar solo by Thayer.

“Last Chance” – Starting out with a buzzing bass line (ala “Plaster Caster”), “Last Chance” delivers one of the best songs off “Monster.” Perhaps the heaviest Stanley song, conversely, the pre-chorus has almost a Lenny Kravitz feel to it. While there have been several comparisons with parts of “Monster” to “Revenge,” I feel this song is the one that truly fits that mold. Between the intricate bass lines, the pounding drums, the blazing guitars and awesome vocals, what more can you ask for from a KISS song?

“Right Here, Right Now” – The bonus track off “Monster” starts with a creeping guitar riff and a soaring scream by one of the best vocalists in rock……ever….the one and only, Paul Stanley. The verses harken back to early KISS, reminding me of the previously unreleased track from 1975, “Doncha Hesitate,” while the chorus is very similar to the breakdown part in “Never Enough” (“Sonic Boom”). The song has a very cool middle section where the guitars are doubled with chimes (like in “Do You Love Me” from “Destroyer”) and then goes into a cool harmony guitar solo (ala “Psycho Circus”), courtesy of Stanley & Thayer, and ends with a massive gong strike by Eric Singer.

While time will be the real test to whether or not “Monster” has the same shelf life of the most classic KISS albums, this CD is a true testament to who and what KISS is in 2012. Kudos to another great album by “the hottest band in the land.”

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