Monday, February 10, 2014
It was 40 Years Ago Today - 1974 - KISS - Hotter Than Hell
It's the ugly duckling of the early KISS catalog. The near-flop. The one without a hit single, the one that barely scratched the charts. Oh yeah, it's the one the Record Company forgot to promote and almost forgot to distribute.
It's the musical martyr of the four painted men.
And damn, if it isn't one of my favorite albums.
Following the moderate-yet-promising sales of the debut album, KISS and their label, Casablanca, were looking to make a smash with their sophomore effort. The KISS album had been heavily promoted with later pressings added "Kissing Time" which boosted sales. Eventually, the album was declared platinum, but considering the amount of promotion Casablanca sunk into the record, sales were disappointing, only reaching 87 on the charts, with the "Kissing Time" single barely breaking into the top 100, landing at 83. Today, we look at that debut KISS album as something of a classic, with a line-up of killer KISS songs like "Strutter," "Firehouse" "100,000 Years," "Black Diamond" and "Cold Gin." Standards one and all. But not back then. Then, not many people cared. Something had to be done.
Since the production team of Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise, who worked on the KISS debut album, had relocated to Los Angeles, the band packed up and moved out west to record the album -- and immediately hated their new surroundings. That may be one of the reasons that the album has a darker, less bright feeling than the debut. The band came armed with a stack of new songs, three written by Ace Frehely, and one old song hold-over from the Wicked Lester Days ("Goin' Blind). But despite all the optimism, the album flopped. Casablanca's distribution deal with Warner Bros had ended, so the album barely got out there at all, and their only stab at a single "Let Me Go, Rock and Roll" stiffed on the charts. In the end, the album performed much worse than the KISS debut, maxing out at #100 on the Billboard charts. It was only Casablanca's belief in the band -- and their burning desire to have a rock band on the label-- that kept KISS from being dropped and forgotten.
Casablanca would eventually realize the fruits of their labors on the following album "Dressed to Kill" with it's ubiquitous single "Rock and Roll All Nite". The album reached #32 on the charts and was eventually declared platinum. But truth be told, to my ears, "Hotter Than Hell" is a much better record. "Dressed to Kill" has some undeniably killer tunes, "She" is about as heavy as KISS ever got and has a dynamite Gene Simmons vocal performance, "Rock Bottom" and "C'mon and Love Me" rank with the best of early KISS, and of course, we learned that KISS's mission statement was to rock and roll night and party every day. But really, most of the album is filler dreck, showing KISS at their most pedestrian. "Room Service" is an immediate throw away, same for "Two Timer." "Ladies in Waiting" is so generic it's annoying, "Getaway" is simply horrid with an uninspired Peter Criss vocal. I could go on, but you get my point. "Dressed to Kill" may get a lot of love but really, it's a pretty crap album.
You want some killer early KISS, look no further than "Hotter Than Hell."
Starting off with that iconic cover, the four masked men, in full costume and in full Comic Book mood. Love him or hate him, can you imagine KISS without Gene Simmons? Paul and Peter look good, but really have no personality on photo. Ace is lost in his "outer space" mode --eyes closed, head lifting away from the camera. Then there's Gene. Tongue out, arms stretched, bat wings extended. He's the one that added that "extra" something special that made the whole KISS schtick work. His darkness captured the burgeoning metal community. His theatrics set the stage for everything the band would do to follow. I remember as a kid being mesmerized by this cover, made even more exotic with the Japanese lettering by each of their names, and the band in full "personality" mode on the back.
But a wicked cover does nothing if the band can't follow it up with the songs, and here KISS delivers. In retrospect, following the "one day classic" smorgasbord of songs that made up their debut, the band must've felt some pressure to deliver. They didn't falter. Kicking off with "Got to Choose,"--an unusual song for a Stanley-penned cut-- we launch right into some classic KISS performances. The song is thick, and dark, and surprisingly heavy. Probably a bit too mid-tempo to have been chosen to lead off the album, but still a cut that would go on to be a KISS staple. "Parasite" kicks in next and it's clear that Ace Frehley really was one of the best writers in KISS. We got a taste of this with "Cold Gin" off the debut, but "Parasite" (and later "Strange Ways") really show that Ace had his finger on the power of early metal. With that dark and rumbling riff, and an inspired vocal by Gene, "Parasite" has got to rank up there as one of the all-time great KISS tracks. Anthrax knew the power of this song and their cover version on "Attack of the Killer B's" slays it. If the album had started off with this cut, it would've set a totally different tone for the whole affair, but I suspect Gene and Paul balked at leading off with a song that one of them didn't write.
Then comes "Goin' Blind" one of the most remarkable songs in the KISS cannon. Yes, technically, it was a Wicked Lester song, but Gene wrote it nonetheless. Anybody who's ever heard the "unplugged" version of this song knows how simply perfect the cut is. A deep, heartfelt telling of a tragic love story between a 93 year old man and a 16 year old teenager. Sick? yes. Twisted, absolutely, and absolutely perfect. I love the way the song focuses more on the old man's impending death, symbolized by his going blind, than it does on exploring the strange love affair. In doing so, the song loses most of it's "creepy" factor and instead becomes almost a tear-jerker about a guy at the end of his life. And again, Simmons vocals are perfect. In truth, I always liked Simmons's voice better than Stanley's. Paul's voice got too shrill for me, Simmons had more nuance and texture-- he just didn't always have the quality of his own-penned material to work with. One of KISS's most emotionally powerful song of all time (not hard to say for a band that never really tried to ring up emotion.)
And that's the strangest thing about KISS. Anybody who's ever seen them live knows that KISS is all about the show, not the music. Yet, underneath it all, they did have enough powerful, kickass music to make it all worthwhile. And that's probably the greatest dichotomy in the band. They're not about the music, but the music can be damn good.
"Hotter than Hell," is one of Stanley's better compositions with interesting breakdowns in the main riff, and rightly became a KISS standard. "Let Me Go, Rock and Roll," is an OK filler, nothing too special. It almost certainly failed to chart more from it's standard Chuck Berry-stylings than the fact that the distribution was bad. "All the Way" is another throw away, but the riff is catchy enough and Ace turns in an interesting solo. All of which leads us to "Watchin' You." Holy crap! Again, here we have KISS at their meanest and darkest, heaviest and most slaying. Simmons found a riff with a perfect heavy tone to portray his song of depraved voyeurism. When I hear this song, (and "Parasite" and "She"--from Dressed to Kill) I can't help but wonder what KISS would've unleashed upon the world if they'd ever really focused on writing just one beyond-every-thing-else Heavy album.
"Mainline" and "Comin' Home" bring things back to earth with a couple of perfectly capable, if unmemorable standard rockers. And that would be the end of the story if it wasn't for the remarkable, yet somehow totally forgotten "Strange Ways." Once again, Frehely manages to channel from his outer cosmos a heavy, dark-as-shit, rocker with some twisted Ace guitar work, probably his most unique solo of all time, and some time-shifting riffing that I simply don't think of as being a part of the KISS repertoire. I just don't understand how this song got so overlooked in the KISS cannon. I think having Peter sing lead was the big mistake, as his thin voice simply can't bring to the song the passion and darkness that Gene could've. Still, the song is a forgoten KISS classic. Obviously, others felt the same way as "Strange Ways" was covered more times even than "Parasite" with versions done by Megadeth, Hypocrisy, Ulver and Vicious Rumors.
So the songs overall kicked ass, with a litany of future classics, yet the album still tanked. With that history in perspective, perhaps bringing back the production team of Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise wasn't the best idea. Kerner and Wise failed to boost the "rock" factor enough to make the album grab hold in the marketplace. I think starting off with "Got to Choose" was a big mistake, and too many of the songs fall into a mid-tempo pace that fails to let the album totally ignite. Just listen to "Hotter than Hell" on the studio versus the "Alive"version and you can hear what I'm talking about. Just picking up of the pace on the live album made it a totally different, far more intense, song. Also, a little less filler and a little more concentration on the true metal elements that KISS explored in songs like "Parasite" and "Watchin' You" and we would've had an epic album for the ages.
So, it's not a perfect album, and rightly or wrongly falls into the "ugly stepchild" category between the more powerful debut and the shinier "Dressed to Kill." Still, for my money, "Hotter than Hell" holds it's place as one of KISS's best overall efforts.
check out the entire "Live in Winterland" KISS performance on the Hotter than Hell tour below. This is how I will always choose to remember the band.