Wednesday, April 10, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 502: KISS

This review marks the completion of an artist – I’ve now reviewed all twelve of my KISS albums.  I think this is the largest artist I’ve finished yet.  Most exciting, but as Alice Cooper would say, ‘we’ve still got a long way to go.’

Disc 502 is… Hotter Than Hell
Artist: KISS

Year of Release: 1974

What’s up with the Cover?  This is a terrible cover.  It looks like KISS is appearing on some cheap Japanese game show, and I can only assume this is Gene Simmons hard at work marketing the band internationally.  Peter Criss looks like some bimbo trying to get into the band photo (dressed appropriately like a streetwalker).  And worst of all are the thumbs with green nail polish in the upper corners.  Dear God, why did there have to be the thumbs?

How I Came To Know It:  I’ve told the tale about how I came to know KISS at a very early age – to read all about it go and look at my other KISS reviews.  This particular album was me drilling through their even earlier stuff as an adult, and liking what I found.

How It Stacks Up:  We have ten studio albums by KISS, not counting two of the four solo albums the band put out.  Of those ten, I’m going to put “Hotter Than Hell” at 5th, bumping “Dynasty” down to 6th in the process.

Also, as this is the last of my KISS reviews, tradition dictates that I now recap how they measured up:
  1. Love Gun: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 495)
  2. Destroyer: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 210)
  3. Dressed To Kill: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 318)
  4. Self-Titled: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 321).
  5. Hotter Than Hell: 4 stars (reviewed right here).
  6. Dynasty:  4 stars but should’ve been 3 (reviewed at Disc 78).
  7. Rock and Roll Over:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 217).
  8. The Elder:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 55).
  9. Lick It Up:  2 stars (reviewed at Disc 31).
  10. Creatures of the Night:  2 stars (reviewed at Disc 383).
And the two solo albums:
  1. Ace Frehley: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 94)
  2. Gene Simmons: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 428)
If the two solo albums were in the main list, Frehley’s album would fit between “Hotter than Hell” and “Dynasty” and Simmons’ would be between “Lick It Up” and “Creatures of the Night.”

Rating:  4 stars

Late last week I had the opportunity to buy tickets to see KISS in my hometown, and listening to “Hotter Than Hell” reminded me why I’m glad I didn’t.  The band touring today isn’t KISS anymore.  Instead, tt was the band that made “Hotter Than Hell” that I fell in love with as a kid, and listening to this record reminds me why I still love that now extinct band today.

“Hotter Than Hell” is the middle of KISS’ first three records, and of the three it has the heaviest sound.  Ace’s guitar is thick and crunchy, particularly on harder tracks like “Got to Choose,” “Goin’ Blind,” and “Strange Ways.”  I don’t necessarily think this makes it better (in fact I slightly prefer the albums on either side to this one) but for this record it is the right decision.

Frehley also has a lot of writer credits on this record, which speaks well for it.  Ace is consistently the most legitimate rocker in the band, and his strong presence gives this album a weight that it wouldn’t have without him.

In retrospect, this is what is missing on a record like “Rock and Roll Over” where Paul and Gene have been allowed to run wild.  That record is fun, but the music feels subservient to the campy lyrics.  On “Hotter Than Hell” KISS’s lascivious shock-rockery is grounded in true rock and roll riffs, and heavy driving guitar.  The combination is a toe-tapping, head-banging good time.

The intro to the first song “Got to Choose” really benefits from Ace.  Paul does his usual lover-boy singing, complete with a little coquettish falsetto.  With the high harmonies of the band going ‘o, yeah!’ in the background the song could lose itself in a kitschy melody, but Ace grounds the whole thing with a thick guitar sound and a solo that wouldn’t be out of place in metal music ten years later.

Got to Choose” has a noticeable bit of cowbell as well, and in fact the whole record has a whole lot of cowbell going on.  Will Ferrell would be proud.   In fact, on songs like “All The Way” I couldn’t help but think the song title referred to the amount of cowbell they decided to include.  In its own strange way, the ‘more cowbell’ approach works, and it isn’t like KISS was alone in the mid-seventies adding cowbell to their songs.  It was everywhere back then.

The title track is vintage early KISS, simple melodies with a tinge of fifties doo-wop mixed in with their proto-glam metal stylings as they warn us that the girl in question is so hot that she can both ‘leave you well done’ and ‘burn you like the mid-day son.”  Er…yeah.  KISS lyrics are an acquired taste.

There are a couple lesser tracks, notably the directionless “Let Me Go Rock and Roll” and “Comin’ Home” which tries to do way too much in way too little time (rock, glam, blues and a bit of Motown all in 2:39).

My favourite song on the record is the final track, “Strange Ways” – notably a Frehley song.  Exceptionally heavy guitar, raunchy vocals and some well-chosen chord progressions take this song out of camp and actually make it legitimately sexy.

Like most of KISS’ early efforts, this is a very short album, clocking in at only 33 minutes.  The songs are generally very short, with none over four minutes and a few under three.  I found myself wishing “Strange Ways” would go on a bit longer, because I liked the groove so much but generally I think the songs end tastefully when they should.

I often give this record short shrift in the KISS rotation, going with bigger splashes like “Love Gun” or “Destroyer” and when I want some early stuff, defaulting to their self-titled debut or “Dressed to Kill.”  It was great that the Odyssey made me pay a bit more attention to “Hotter Than Hell” and truly appreciate it as one of KISS’ hardest hitting true rock records.

Best tracks:  Got to Choose, Goin’ Blind, Hotter than Hell, Mainline, Strange Ways

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