This is Day 9 of Kiss Kountdown to Rock Hall. Click here to read Day 10.
Monster is an album, in the classic sense of the word.
It's more of an album than Psycho Circus: the hodgepodge combination
of COS leftovers, Ace and Peter tokens, and songs that producer Bruce
Fairbairn didn't reject by a band he didn't know. It's more of an
album than Music from the Elder: which was half-recorded in three
different states - and I mean both kinds of states, physical and
emotional - by three guys at wit's end with each other and a producer
with a serious drug problem. It's more of an album than Dynasty or
Unmasked: which featured members of KISS working with anyone but each
other, including bass roadies, a faceless drummer, and the unlikeliest
KISS ghost musician to date - a female keyboard player.
Monster is even more of an album than many of the
early seminal albums, when the band was apparently its most insular.
For example, Dressed to Kill is 10 tracks that KISS cobbled together
to make a product as fast as humanly possible, which would seem to
suggest cohesion, except that the collection completely disregards
consistency in tone, attitude, sequencing or theme. Hotter than Hell
and KISS - two of the band's highest-rated releases - both borrow
various (pre-Kiss) Wicked Lester castoffs to flesh out a complete lineup as well
as a straight cover, to boot. I could go on, but you get the idea.
.....which brings me to my next point. Monster is an idea, too. I have
absolutely no intention of taking that idea, Monster, as anything
other than its glorious whole, which is why I will refrain from some
sort of track-by-track rundown with ratings. Monster is not that album
to this reviewer. Monster is the idea that a band 40 years on could
enter the studio and redefine themselves from a small focal point
inside a common, sweaty room. It's a room where KISS huddled together
in ways they never do onstage. It's a space where a song is born out
of two, three, or four guys shouting out ideas and coming to a
compromise, and some of those shouts probably become actual vocals on
this album, in the form of "yeeeeeeeeeeeah!" or "alright!," and
possibly from the general direction of Eric Singer.
But....where was this idea born? Let's flash back to three years ago.
In 2009, KISS released the surprise fan- and critic-favorite Sonic
Boom, which proved handily the band could resoundingly deliver a
modern sounding homage to its late 1970's self. The reviews were nearly
unanimously positive, although there were a few valid criticisms
handed to the band. Although the writing was more in line with the
classic three chord structure the band relied on heavily for the first
seven years of its career, at times the album sounded a bit too much like
caricature rather than creation, and a bit too much like stealing
rather than reincorporating. Nevertheless, even the band's most ardent
detractors made it clear that there were probably enough good ideas
and well-executed songs to concede that the band might be moving
forward, rather than bowing out with a final retirement album and
tour, as was the expectation with the release's initial announcement.
Perhaps most importantly, embedded within the writing credits, overall
vibe, tone, and looseness of the band, there was obviously more
insularity oozing out from beneath the KISS surface since
In late 2010, it thus came as no surprise to learn that KISS was
making plans to return to the studio, especially in light of how
obviously satisfied they were working with co-producer Greg Collins.
They were also extremely pleased with the streamlined overall process
and result of Sonic Boom, underscored by their willingness to forge
ahead as a vital unit despite an industry-wide decline in album sales.
Interviews with Stanley and Simmons around this time made some of
their intentions clear - to get harder and meaner. But the question
remained - where to go thematically? How would KISS take the positives
from Sonic Boom's culmination-of-KISS into the future with a modern
sounding look forward? Retreading homage territory in 2012 was
pointless, especially for a band that has bragged vitality and new
blood since the 2004 Rock the Nation tour. KISS found themselves at a
Eighteen months later, fans got their first glimpse, with the summer
single Hell Or Hallelujah. Although the song featured a similar
overall vibe and composition to lead Sonic Boom single Modern Day
Delilah, it contained a more abrasive, up front, dense, thick mix. The
chorus was catchy. The verses were solid. Stanley's voice, while
frayed, was passable, if not very good and above all - fitting.
Reviews were generally positive. Optimism reigned - Monster could be
another big winner.
However, as the samples of the rest of the album were leaked, the
picture became fuzzier. What is this? Some of it made sense, but the
rest was simply too difficult to discern. Many of the snippets
featured just part of a chorus without any further context. It didn't
sound like what we were expecting. Yes, it was heavier and yes it was
harder and meaner - but was this KISS? The jury was out. But when the
rest of the album leaked, the picture became crystal clear.
The whole of Monster is Sonic Boom turned inside out, and more. If
Sonic Boom was an entire, cohesive, delicious orange, Monster isn't
just the insides gushing juice all over your face as you rip it open,
it's the action of ripping it open, itself. The aural center is a
deliberately frenetic mix thick with razor sharp guitars, a bombast of
drums, and a bass tone that slices you in half by boosting the highest
and lowest edges of tone through a cave of distortion. Sonically, the
band KISS has become the desperate, nightmarish effect of Stanley's
frayed vocal cause, just on the edge of viability, just on the edge of
falling apart, just on the edge of something dangerous. It is a
beautiful disaster, and I believe it is thoroughly intentional. You
want rock and roll? It's the rasp of Paul's voice as he screams his
lungs out while the band crashes and burns through your speakers at
the sound of a pulsing, thunderous rhythm. Many critics of this album
will point to the compressed, loud, dense production as a significant
liability. I take the opposite view; it is the album's chief strength.
This is KISS, as in your face as ever before. This is the entire
fucking idea of KISS.
At the center of this, thematically, as they are at the center of all
KISS actions, are the starcrossed-but-sensitive Stanley persona and
Simmons' menacing growl-sleaze. Their hallmarks are there, not only at
the surface but ABOVE it, in Stanley's angry posture-pout in Hell Or
Hallelujah and Shout Mercy, Simmons' playful grind in Eat Your Heart
Out and The Devil Is Me. They're not just self-evident, they're
immediate. There are extremely strong supporting performance and
composition roles played by now-firmly-established members Tommy
Thayer and Eric Singer. Speaking of surface, below it there are also
layers upon layers of vocals, guitars, effects, and nuances - hand
claps, feedback loops, and buried sonic nuggets waiting to be
unearthed. There are embedded harmonies from all four members in
almost every song, inaudible on the 20th listen, unmistakably present
on the 100th. There are riffs drawn from roots influences never as
clearly present in KISS music before, from Zeppelin to Humble Pie,
seamlessly wove into a fabric that retains the indubitable stamp of
the band we love.
Most surprisingly, there are clear brief nods to the predecessor Sonic
Boom, and other KISS albums going back through the canon, all over the
music and lyrics of this release, in carefully embedded but more
seamless, organic ways. KISS playfully recapitulates for extremely
brief moments, before launching into another huge new chorus or
slamming verse. It's almost as if they poke fun at the notion of
borrowing from themselves by tossing off a 2-second ditty from the
past while subsequently punching you in the mouth with the next vital
sequence. The best examples of this conveniently come from the direct
ripped-out middle of Monster, within the songs Shout Mercy and Eat
Your Heart Out. Stanley throws the Ready Steady To Go lyric of
Danger Us in the pre-chorus of Shout Mercy, whips out the guitar
riff exactly once for good measure, and then steamrolls into a perfect
chorus, as if he was taking a past foothill and crafting a mountain
because he felt like it. Eat Your Heart Out takes all the things
that were great about the melodic themes of Nobody's Perfect and
puts them in an entirely new context without once feeling like it's
forced or stolen, going as far as purely virtual-sampling I Got
Something Wanna Talk About from the aforementioned Boom chestnut. And
there's more - from the re-imagining of the Mr. Speed guitar-work
throughout surprise Eric Singer led would-be-hit All For the Love of
Rock and Roll, to the tag of the last three notes of the guitar solo
in The Devil is Me being identical to the tag of the last three
notes of the guitar solo in Say Yeah. These are not accidents or
Yes, Monster is a contemporary KISS album - and it's one that doesn't
sound like '70s KISS and doesn't sound like three years ago's commercial
music scene. It doesn't sound like the mid-'90s, and it doesn't sound
like the early '80s. It's a strange bastard child of an early-'70s heavy
rock band re-imagining itself on the edge of something, while being
smart enough to write sophisticated songs that reference both their
influences and themselves while maintaining something contemporary.
It's difficult to imagine that an album at this stage of the band's
career could be on the level of the group's best '70s material, let
alone Creatures of the Night or Revenge - but there's no question that
this album is near the top of the list, for all the reasons listed
above. In my view, the album is a 9.5 out of 10, and very well might
be KISS' best album, when taken as an ALBUM.
And yes, I am bold enough to say that unabashedly.
Monster is an album, in the classic sense - and it's a hell of an album.
Matt Walters is a contributing writer and utility infielder for the band Roxy Swain. Also, he went on the last Kiss Kruise.