Near the end of KISS’s “classic” era (1973-1978) it took them a couple years to regain their footing and find their place in the musical landscape of the 1980s. During this period they released their mostly laughed at (despite having some KILLER fucking jams) solo albums and an embarrassing (yet still endearing) rock opera before settling on the hard rock and glam metal niche featured on the seven albums from 1982’s Creatures of the Night to 1992’s Revenge.
Also during this time KISS produced a pair of great albums which flirted with disco and power pop, leading to a complete alienation of their bonehead fanbase. The first of these two albums Dynasty yielded their second highest selling single of all time, the unashamedly disco influenced “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”. While earning them accusations of selling out the song’s success is probably why Dynasty is never shit upon with as much hatred as Unmasked is by the band and their fans.
KISS kept the Dynasty formula going for the follow up, 1980’s Unmasked. To this day KISS is embarrassed by this album. Loyal idiot KISS Army members spit on its existence. Every single member of the original band has publicly dissed it. (Peter Criss at least has an excuse since he was barred from playing on the album and all of his parts were played by David Letterman / Holly and the Italians drummer Anton Fig.) Every song is ignored in their set list (minus “Shandi”, a smash hit in Australia and New Zealand which the band only plays when they tour down under). Outside of the above mentioned rock opera, 1981’s Music From The Elder, no album in their catalog has been so discredited by the band.
I’m just gonna come right out and say it. KISS and their fans are fucking idiots. With the endless stream of garbage coming out of his idiot mouth we already know that Gene’s an idiot. But, when it comes to Unmasked, the whole band and their whole fan community are lumped right in there with the Demon’s idiocy. As far as I’m concerned Unmasked is THE KISS ALBUM.
I gotta cut the haters some slack though. I used to be right there with them. Despite being a staple in my DJ sets for the past 10-15 years, it took me awhile before I finally warmed up to the album.
I first got into KISS when I was in second grade. It was the 1980s and my friends and I were all hopped up on poseur-metal bands like Bon Jovi and Ratt. During this era KISS had shed their 1970s comic book costumes and were trying to compete with the above mentioned bands. A friend of mine from the trailer court had played me one of their most recent tapes Animalize, which minus the great “Heaven’s On Fire” single was pretty lackluster even for my undiscerning seven year old tastes. However, I remember being completely amazed by how unapologetic and idiotic Gene Simmons sexual innuendos were. I’ve always appreciated a good dick joke, and this album was the biggest dick joke. I loved it.
Fast forward a couple months later.
At this point all KISS was to me was just another ‘80s hair metal band. They were ok, but they were no Def Leppard. One day I was flipping through a recent issue of Hit Parader magazine which featured a pictorial history of KISS. This was my first glimpse into the beautiful cartoony world of 1970s KISS. It was also the first time I realized that the shredders from Frehley’s Comet and Vinnie Vincent Invasion both got their start in the band as the Spaceman and Pharoah respectively. As a seven year old kid whose two favorite things in the world were heavy metal and comic books, I knew right then and there without ever having heard a single note from this era of the group that they would soon become my favorite band of all time.
After learning of KISS’s past I got my grandma to buy me a cassette copy of 1977’s Love Gun from the Pamida near her trailer in Minocqua, Wisconsin. I had still never heard a note from the 1970s version of the band, so I based my decision on which tape to buy solely on which one had the coolest album cover. It was a toss up between Love Gun and 1976’s Destroyer, both of which featured beautiful Frank Frazetta-esque artwork by the talented Ken Kelly. I settled on Love Gun as I liked the earthier tones compared to Destroyer’s bright purple.
I couldn’t have picked a greater point to start with the band. As much as the point of this article is to hype Unmasked, Love Gun really is the quintessential KISS album. Minus their butchering and re-gendering of the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” every song is a classic. My first listen floored me. As a product of the ’80s I was unfamiliar with the tough sounding guitars in ‘70s hard rock. All of the reverb drenched ’80s glam metal I was accustomed to sounded so weak compared to the raw dry feel of “Love Gun”. I was hooked, and my destiny as a true blue rocker was written in stone from that moment forward.
I quickly devoured their entire discography, starting with the 1974 self-titled debut and working my way towards the present day chronologically. Every time I got a couple of dollars from my parents I saved them up until I could drop another ten bones on a KISS tape.
You could imagine my horror as a young hesher living in the Plover Pines Village trailer community, when I traded the lady at ShopKo ten dollars (which in my pre-teen, never worked a day in my life world might as well have been a million dollars) for Unmasked. I was looking forward to this one for awhile. I had always loved the comic book panel style artwork that adorned the cover, and the Cream Magazine silliness of the guy in the last panel shouting, “I still say they stink!” Then I rode my bike home, popped the tape into my boombox, and was mortified. This was straight up wuss rock. “Shandi”? What the fuck is this shit?! Linda Rondstadt? (note: 38 year old Daniel James loves Linda Rondstadt)
I completely ignored the album until well into adulthood. I didn’t even bother with it when I scammed my 12 KISS CDs for a penny from Columbia House in high school. I totally forgot about that horrible disco album until I was 22 years old and had just moved to Milwaukee. I’d scored the majority of KISS’s discography on vinyl for dirt cheap from the amazing Flipville Records. (RIP) It was at this point residing in the basement of the dirty punk house I shared with Nato Coles and my bandmate Noah where I listened to Unmasked for the first time since dismissing it in elementary school. Fuck. This album was good. God damn.
Here we are sixteen years later, and I’m still in love with this album as much as I was that day in the fall of 2000. in my concrete bedroom at the Crossover House, and I’m breaking it down for you track by track.
“IS THAT YOU”
I never really understood why this song started off the record. Written by Gerard McMahon it’s the only cut composed entirely by an outside songwriter. It has a tough main riff and a really catchy pre-chorus. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s still the weakest song on the album.
Listening now, I can see why this paired with “Shandi” turned me off from the album for so long. They hit you with a 1-2 punch of “why bother” right from the start. That being said, the pre-chorus has a great hook and really saves the song. It’s far catchier than the actual chorus, which is kind of boring and leads to the question why did the chorus even need to exist?
I don’t know why this song exists. I’m assuming it had something to do with the success of “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” or something. Where that song flirted with disco, it was still tough enough to appeal to heavy metal and KISS fans. “Shandi” on the other hand is just full on pop-disco. I ain’t talking power pop, I’m talking AM radio grandma and grandpa are getting ready for church, “I don’t like that Phil Collins ‘cause it’s too violent” sort of pop.
As an adult I don’t hate this song as much as I did in my formative years. I mean, it’s catchy. I just would never find the need to listen to it if it wasn’t on such an otherwise amazing album. If they would have put this in the middle of the second side I’d be far more tolerant of it’s existence but they didn’t so I won’t.
“TALK TO ME”
Right now you’re probably saying to yourself “Why am I still listening to this douche? Seven and a half minutes in and all you have to offer me is one catchy pre-chorus?” I admit, I haven’t really been selling the album the best I could up until this point, but this is where the album starts to get great. Don’t even listen to those first two songs. Just plop that needle right onto side one track three. You can mess with those first two cuts later when you’re bored and need a little build up to this scorcher.
Hot off his amazing 1978 solo album, Ace Frehley was at the top of his fucking game on Dynasty and Unmasked. “Talk To Me” is probably the best song he’s ever written. This song is pure glam-infused power pop genius. Try to write a song this good. I dare you. You can’t.
An interesting note about this album is that Gene Simmons doesn’t play on this song or any other of Ace’s tunes. The two weren’t really on the friendliest of terms at the time so Frehley handled all of the bass parts for his songs. In turn Space Ace didn’t play guitar on any of the Demon’s numbers either.
God, I hate Gene Simmons. It’s really hard when one of the main players behind your favorite band is the world’s biggest douche. He sure could write a good song though. This jam is a dark power pop tune, which at points even takes on a Nick Glider feel. Gene’s bassline on the reggae-influenced verses hypnotize you and thrust you right into a big catchy chorus, and an amazing guitar solo from longtime KISS collaborator Bob Kulick.
Gene’s vocals are top notch. When I think of Gene Simmons my mind is usually too busy conjuring up images of him growling and spitting blood, but this song is really pretty and Gene can hit some high notes.
“WHAT MAKES THE WORLD GO ROUND”
This top notch Paul Stanley number has giant disco production all over it, but in a good non-“Shandi” way. The big splashy snare drum and staccato bass playing keep you feeling upbeat all the way through and the homoerotic lyrics remind you that maybe KISS aren’t just a bunch of meathead idiots after all. This song is great, but nothing compared to what’s about to hit you next.
This is the jam. If you don’t like this song, fuck you. I hate you. This Paul Stanley tune and “Wouldn’t You Like to Know Me?” from his 1978 solo album are the two best KISS songs. Period. All of my musical taste can be summed up in this cut. It might even be my favorite song of all time. (If I had the time to determine such a thing).
This is big dumb riffs and big dumb hooks. Dumbass power pop rock n’ roll. It’s so stupid it’s brilliant. The big hooks are complimented by hand claps, one of Ace Frehley’s best solos, great keyboard melodies, cracking whips, and Paul’s desperate vocals.
This song’s gonna sound best on vinyl, but you should probably play it on Spotify or CD. ‘Cause unless you’re a boring ass turd you are going to want to put this song on repeat it and listen to it at least ten or twelve times in a row. Nothing else I have to say even matters. This song is the sole reason why this album belongs in your collection.
“TWO SIDES OF THE COIN”
Although not as good as “Talk To Me” this is a pretty solid Ace tune. Ace was never known for his lyric writing ability, so sometimes his rhymes can get a little cringe-worthy. He always had a great honest feeling to his voice though, which almost makes his bad lyrics kind of endearing. This is a great rock n’ roll number with a big chorus that fits in great with the theme of the album.
“SHE’S SO EUROPEAN”
This has a similar dark power pop feel to the previous Gene tune but it’s a little more upbeat, which is probably why they chose to promote this one instead of “Naked City”. Lyrically this tune is kind of cheesy, especially the hokey chorus, but it’s still a great song. It climaxes on a big epic bridge reminiscent of Mötley Crüe’s “On With The Show” and a fast Bob Kulick solo, and then it’s over before you even knew it began.
“EASY AS IT SEEMS”
This song is disco power pop as fuck. It took me awhile to realize how much I loved it, but it’s really the sleeper hit of the album. For a Stanley tune, its melodic bass line and minor 7th chords feel more like the Gene songs on the album. I find myself getting this tune stuck in my head all the time when I’m walking around. The groovy textured rhythm and desert-ey guitars kind of recall “Lost Due To Incompetence” from the Up In Smoke soundtrack.
There’s so much going on in this song and it all fits together so well.
This song showcases Ace Frehley as a great bass player. The funky James Gang feel doesn’t really fit with the rest of the album but it’s a really good tune. It’s out of place feel really shows how Frehley was at odds with the rest of the band about their direction at this point (he would leave the band a year later). It’s a good break before the end of the album and really the only song that even kind of feels like classic KISS.
“YOU’RE ALL THAT I WANT”
The closing track feels similar to the other two Gene songs. It’s great power pop and would easily fit on the first 20/20 album. It’s probably not the strongest song on the record, but it’s light years better than “Is That You” or “Shandi” and feels right closing out the album. Now flip that mother fucker over, drop the needle back on track three and listen to these 9 songs over again.