Let’s get one fact out there: KISS was my first, favorite rock band. In fact, they were my introduction *to* rock music. My nine-year-old self went from listening to the Star Wars soundtrack straight to 1978’s Double Platinum. They were the template of how I thought rock bands were supposed to act. When a friend of mine brought Foreigner “4” to show me, I wondered why those guys didn’t wear make-up. My parents didn’t like KISS at all and limited the number of albums I could purchase. The last one I was allowed to buy as a youngster was 1980’s “Unmasked.” My love of KISS waned during the eighties as they shed their make-up and became just another hair metal band. Even when I was old enough to return to buying their CDs, I didn’t. With 1991’s “Revenge,” my interest in the band returned. Then came February 28, 1996 at the Grammy’s: the original band, in make-up, stepped out on stage. KISS had returned. And I’ve been back in the KISS Army ever since.
I’ve been in a serious KISS mood in recent days after finally buying last year’s “Sonic Boom” (it’s really pretty darn good) so I thought I’d break out an old album I really liked back in the day and see how it held up. After leaning toward 1997’s Carnival of Souls, Unmasked won the lottery.
By 1980, KISS was almost imploding under the intense weight from two fronts. One was the marketing and merchandising. KISS dolls, KISS lunch boxes, KISS comics, KISS trading cards. KISS was everywhere. In a pre-Internet age, KISS was over saturated. (BTW, at the time, I didn’t care.) It got to the point where critics looked at the band and accused them of caring more for merchandise than the music.
Ah, the music. If I say “late 1970s,” you will likely think of one thing: disco. I don’t have a problem with disco, per se, especially from bands like Abba. The music was made for them. For other bands, however, disco could be unkind. KISS brought in some disco elements with 1979’s “Dynasty” to much derision from the hard rock crowd. They didn’t care that “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” was a darn good song. It was just too light and fluffy to be a KISS song. For the folks who hated Dynasty, they would hate Unmasked more.
But they shouldn’t have.
Released in May 1980 (thirty years ago!), Unmasked took the newly-altered sound of KISS--lighter, more pop oriented, easier to get on Top 40 radio and appeal to new, younger fans--to the next level. Almost banished from the album was any sense of a heavy metal band (not that they were ever really a metal band). Heck, you could argue that music wasn’t really hard rock either. Paul Stanley’s rhythm guitar had that constant eighth-note riff that would be such a trademark of hair metal in the 1980s. Gene Simmons’ bass, such an integral part of KISS’s sound for its melodic lines, was pushed to the back of the mix. Ace Frehley’s idiosyncratic lead guitar was tamed. And Peter Criss was gone, replaced by session drummer, Anton Fig (of David Letterman’s band now). Fig brought a fuller sound to his percussion work. At the control board sat Vini Poncia, who co-wrote eight of the eleven tracks. He smoothed the edges and produced something shiny and pretty. In short, Unmasked was KISS as a pop band.
So, how does the music itself hold up after thirty years? At the time, I didn’t get any of the musical distinctions I just wrote about. My only criteria for a song was simple: did I like it. And I remember liking every one of the songs. Ah, youth. So easily impressionable, so innocent. But my younger self was on to something.
“Is That You?” kicks off the album with Stanley singing lead. For his vocal stylings, Unmasked was crucial to him becoming one of the more powerful and melodic rock and roll singers of the 1980s (and of all time). Instead of yelling into the mics, he sings, carrying phrases in a way he hadn’t really done up until then. This song is fun pop. It may not be memorable five minutes after it fades away but you’ll move for its three minutes.
The second song, “Shandi,” did something to me that I’ve never tried to restrain. “Shandi” is an out-and-out ballad, pure late 70s sound, acoustic guitar, strings, soul guitar, and “ooo’s” all over the place. It’s a beautiful song and it was instantly my favorite of the album back in 1980. If I had to pinpoint the time and place where my love of ballads started, I’d probably point to this song over “Beth.” If Paul Stanley needed to prove his singing chops to anyone at the time, all he’d have to do is point to this song. Besides, it’s all in his range, unlike that horrible falsetto at the end of “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.”
In 1978, all four members released solo albums on the same date. Ace Frehley’s was the most popular and he parlayed his higher stature in the band into three tracks on Unmasked. “Talk to Me” is the best of the bunch. Ace’s guitar work has always been distinctive and you can hear it here in his solo. Never a strong singer, Paul backs him up with some good harmonies at strategic places. An aside: I’ve always been impressed with KISS’s studio recordings where you can hear every member sing backing vocals. I can’t stand it when producers overdub the lead vocalist to harmonize with himself. As much as I like 1980s Chicago, it got tiring hearing Peter Cetera sing with himself.
Gene Simmons finally makes an appearance on the fourth track (if that don’t show you how popular Ace was, I don’t know what does). While Gene leans on his demon persona in concert (and recent recordings), his studio work in the 1970s showed he could actually sing pretty good. “Naked City” is one of my favorite Gene songs in the entire discography. Not only does he bring up some cool imagery (All the victims have turned to stone\no one is happy, they're all alone; Street vampires in the night, young lovers and love at first sight\This is my flesh and my fantasy) but his nasty bass playing shows up. If someone were listening to this album and wondering where KISS went, he’d smile on this track.
At this point on the album, four tracks in, you have four distinct songs, each trying to do something different (largely well done), their coherence lacking. It’s still KISS, just a different KISS, a band experimenting with a new sound. It’s not bad. It’s just different. I’m not going to mistake the fact that I can still along with every tracks with my forty-one-year-old discerning ear. “What Makes the World Go Round” is “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” part 2. “Tomorrow,” as danceable (yes!) as it is, has friggin’ hand claps in the middle of the tune. Hand claps! And backing synthsizers. Now, Ace’s solo, brief as it is, brings some muscle to this song. “Two Sides of the Coin” and “Torpedo Girl” are Ace’s other two contributions. They are easily-identifyable Ace Frehley songs, so much so that they could have gone on an Ace solo album. I’d think you can use your imagination about what kind of words he uses to describe a torpedo. Oh, and it starts with some sound effects from a submarine captain ordering a torpedo run. Yes, really.
Gene’s “She’s so European,” is an eye roller from a guy who writes eye-rolling songs in his sleep. Put it this way: “She’s so European” makes 1991’s “God Gave Rock and Roll 2 U” seem like something Bob Dylan wrote. “Easy as it Seems” is the best of side two, a nice ditty that lays down a good groove, the synth notwithstanding. It’s a keeper. “You’re all that I want” ends the album. It’s really nothing more than the sequel to 1977’s “Any way you want it.” It does have cowbell.
The album sold well at the beginning but soon faded. A planned US tour was cancelled. Peter Criss officially left the band replaced by Eric “The Fox” Carr. He made his debut on German TV. While their popularity may have faded a bit in America, 1980 was the year of Kissteria in Australia. Unmasked was the album and tour of note when KISS invaded and took the country by storm. “Shandi” was a huge hit there and it’s pretty much the only place you’ll hear it live nowadays. Speaking of Australia, the video footage of the Unmasked songs live in concert show a band that have taken their new pop songs and given them the hard rock veneer. For all the studio magic on the album, the songs really rock in the live setting.
Unmasked has remained one of my favorite KISS album these past thirty years. It’s the middle record of a trilogy of albums where KISS experimented before returning to their roots with a vengeance (1982’s “Creatures of the Night). It’s a really good pop record and captured music at a crossroads. It’s a decent KISS album. Unmasked is nowhere near as good as “Destroyer,” “Rock and Roll Over,” or “Revenge,” and it’s not even in the same stratosphere as “Alive” (still my all-time favorite KISS album) but it remains in my Top 10.
Official Studio Videos: