UNMASKED gets better every time

Yup. As David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap would say: “Check me on this…am I losing my fucking mind?” UNMASKED is way better than I remembered. Maybe’s it’s the high-end turn table and brand new Shure headphones that aided in this recent KISSTory lesson? In any event, some random observations and quips in no order….

Well, swear to God, it’s actually a cool mix. I give Vini Poncia long overdue high marks for how he transformed KISS on Unmasked,  They wanted pop, and they got it.  Each song gets a slightly different treatment one may only catch on a great system, or with the speakers spread far apart, or in headphones, or on an actual record. A band? If it doesn’t sound like a band, it’s because it wasn’t – in terms of dis-function, it may KISS’s White Album.

Guitars? There is not a bad solo on this record, they all just fit like a glove. Paul’s on “Shandi” is a crowning achievement and Ace’s are easy as it seems and right-on high points of each track, as is customary.  Really catchy and singable. In fact some of his most ‘pro’ sounding shit, period. I hear drop in’s here and there on guitar to carry small parts through that I believe are Paul as I really can’t imagine Ace sitting through the process to add color on such poppy stuff, at least not the stuff that he didn’t write.  Plus, Paul usually knows what he wants already. he must have done the solo on Gene’s “Your All That I Want” as well and, during its’ fade, Paul is stellar is not, dare I say better than Ace? Damn right dreamy. The rhythm guitars are also nicely distinct throughout the record . If you listen close, they are a tad more intricate also than the standard KISS fare ….you’ll see.

Drums? It’s the drum sound that sucks the sheer life out of the record, from the kick to the snare and on and on, save for “Shandi”. On the other cuts, the cheez-verb is a serious distraction. Not that Anton doesn’t play really well-crafted, tight drum patterns/parts on every tune, he does — but the snare sound alone is enough to make you want to look for one of Pete’s old Pearl snares in the vault. It’s second only to the disaster that was the drums (especially the snare) on Hotter Than Hell.  It’s a damn good Peter impersonation by Anton but, even as a kid when I first heard it, I was like “Wow Peter sounds really good on “Torpedo Girl” huh? Maybe he was trained by Krupa after all?

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The Spaceman? Unless your high and full of shit, it’s clear Ace’s contributions shine far above everything else on the album. While we don’t know the behind the scenes on Unmasked (yet), I find the quality of his cuts here fly in the face of everything Gene & Paul have said about the Spaceman’s lack of effort to bring in new material. The fact that Ace to get “Torpedo Girl” on the record speaks volumes to pecking order of the day. He played the bass and apparently all the guitars on his cuts and they are super-duper, no? Go back and listen – headphones.

Our Starchild? With “Shandi”, “Easy As It Seems” and “Is That You”, a cover, Paul’s tunes verge on minor pop revelations (at least in KISS terms) and are downright gutsy in retrospect, as if he literally was able to forget who he once was, and what they once were entirely. That shipped sailed when “I Was Made For Loving You” hit the airwaves in ’79.  If Dynasty was the KISSco record heard around the world, Unmasked was the full-departure that set the table for the next ill-conceived experiment; The Elder.

The Demonic Bat-Lizard? Gene’s whole thing gets a little fractured on the record but I still say “Naked City” is a semi-cinematic KISSterpiece in production, vibe and content. I feel it’s a way under-rated snapshot of the demon in reflective flux that highlights his versatility as a songwriter and singer.  At one point in the tune, one can even hear the influence of The Police in the bass line and quasi-reggae / faux-sca guitar tags. It’s very cool. In fact Gene’s baseline’s on the record are pretty out of the box and don’t sound like anyone else. Pretty fun.

Oh yeah, great back vocals all over this record and the keyboards? Take them out and you’ feel a sadness no KISStorian wants to feel, betcha.

It’s almost an arrogant effort and I still love it, better with every listen somehow. Perhaps for that very reason, because KISS does what KISS does and well, no matter what it is. No one seems to want to talk about or remembers anything about it leaving me to wonder if they planned to angle Unmasked‘s promotion over-seas from the albums inception? I’ll assume they knew they couldn’t risk a proper US Tour in support of the album but to everyone else, KISS were still legends. In America, they had sold out and Unmasked was the final stake in the their rock coffin, not The Elder.

I bought a Van Halen shirt right after I heard Unmasked year and wore it every other day.  Even though I bought The Elder too, only Creatures could have really brought me back as it did, setting the table for the kick in the ass that was Lick It Up was for all of us holding out hope.

Except for the bubble-gum finger snapper “What Makes The World Go Round” and the regrettable chorus of “Tomorrow”, both Starchild offerings, I don’t know if I would change a thing on Unmasked and even then, how could I? You wouldn’t either!

BOB RICE talks KISS Spokane ’74

KYRSbobriceatboard2008KISStorian takes a 70’s deep dive with renown rock & roll radio dj & musician BOB RICE: >>>> How did you end up going to the KISS show in Spokane in May of ’74?  I’m glad you asked this question as I love telling the story. I was 14 years of age and playing bass in my first rock band, Angel Painted Lady. Boasting two guitarists, with one of them doubling on trombone, we also had a trumpet player and a flutist. Our drummer doubled on vibraphone, and I doubled on percussion. This was my first dream band. We performed a mixture of rock, fusion, funk, and jazz, covering the music of David Bowie, Jethro Tull, Alice Cooper, The James Gang, Chicago Transit Authority, Maynard Ferguson, and Chase, as well as playing our own original music. Our lead guitarist/vocalist often wore make up, when we performed. We always played to packed rooms, which I thought was odd at the time, not that I complained. I am pinching myself, as I write this, as all of the members of Angel Painted Lady went on to create professional, if not satisfying musical careers. It was the lead guitarist, the one who wore the make up, that told me that I NEEDED to see this band, KISS, because he believed that they were going to be “the next big thing”.

What are your most enduring impressions from the night?  I arrived at the concert early, which was normal for me, as I always liked to scope out all of the gear on the stage and possibly catch the eye of one of the musicians who might still be on or near the stage. There were very few people in the venue, with the majority being employees and stage and sound crew, and hardly any concert goers. While I was eyeballing how the venue was set up, one of the crew struck up a conversation with me. After inviting me to check out the house mix, we made our way to the stage … talk about an instant high!

Did you have any pre-show expectations? Yes, it was their first appearance in Spokane and their first official tour. Going into the concert I knew very little about the band aside for the fact that they wore make up and dressed in costume portraying individual characters. In fact I have to admit that I had not heard any of their music before seeing them. In respect to their show, I did have very high expectations based on my guitarist’s adamant recommendation that I see them. They did not disappoint me … they fucking blew me away! When they hit the stage it was like a bomb dropping. I looked around me and everyone was wide eyed and picking their jaws up from off of the floor. Within 20 min. of their set I realized that Ace was the true glue in the band. His ability to create bedrock guitar riffs while seamlessly lacing his lead lines around the other player’s parts, and his riffs, found me standing stupefied, laughing and shaking my head in awe.

Was there already a KISS Army to speak or did the band have to win the crowd over?  There was not a KISS Army, in fact it was very apparent that most of those who were there had come to see Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. By the end of KISS’s set they had won over everyone who was in The Kennedy Pavilion. I heard later that The Earth Band was a little reluctant to take the stage after KISS’s set. The last time this had happened was when Led Zepplin opened for The Vanilla Fudge 4-1/2 years earlier in the same venue. I feel as though I personally witnessed history being made in Spokane that night.

As you re-listen to the show today anything that strikes you in terms of the tunes?   There are two things that struck me, about that night’s performance: The first was that the songs were very fresh, with a beautiful raw and spontaneous feel to them. There was true interplay happening between all four members. If you are a musician you’ll be able to relate to what I am about to say. There were many times, as an example,  when Gene would emphasize a certain bass note, or series of notes, with Peter being lock step with him, punching his drum beats just a little bit harder, and with more authority. Or Ace suddenly ripping into a lead to counter point a particular vocal flourish that Paul is laying out. It is these moments and intuitive exchanges which allow the music to breath. There was a lot of naturally, spontaneous breathing going on that night. The second was that their stage show was loosely choreographed, compared to what it has become. Since their first tour I have seen the band more than a few times. Their stage show has become a major component to their overall concert presentation but not without consequences, being, having that space for spontaneous musical interplay considerably narrowed. When I saw them in 1974 they were playing together with pure joy, as a unit, but also with individual freedom.

Did any of the four seem to be the band leader ….or did KISS come off more as a unit?  Paul did most of the talking, with Gene close on his heels, when announcing in-between songs. Ace was generally tuning his guitar between songs (no surprise with 70’s era Gibson guitars). When they were performing they were united as a band, as I said previously. At the same time they displayed their individual personal made up character persona. In direct answer to your question, they performed like a band of brothers, although the under pinning of Paul and Gene’s ultimate leadership roles were well in place.

Do you think that may be part of their early fan appeal, someone to root for like with a favorite sports team?  Absolutely! If you were not a fan going in, you were one when you came out. They embraced the audience and drew them into their rock n’ roll party, with them being the host.

I was in the front row pressed against the stage. There were moments during the show when you could feel the pressure of the bodies behind you building, sometimes near crushing. Spokane had no idea what this band was about but Spokane’s first KISS Army was born that night. I auditioned a guitarist 6 years after that concert who had KISS tattooed across the knuckles of his right hand, upside down and backwards, and KISS tattooed across the knuckles of his left hand in normal orientation. Hence, if you are a right handed guitarist, your picking hand, (right), clearly shows KISS, and your fretting hand, (left), does as well, to an audience in front of you. During our conversations I asked him what his connection to KISS was, with his first answer being … I saw them at The Kennedy Pavilion in 1974 … he was one of Spokane’s first to enlist and support The KISS Army!

Did you think they would make it big after seeing them live?  Absolutely, and without a doubt … my guitarist was dead on!

You’ve seen perhaps more shows in Spokane than any other single human: who else did you see of note in the 70’s and how does KISS in ’74 rank on your 70’s ‘Best Of Live Spokane’ menu?  This is a very tough question… wow! In reflection there were many shows, some which I played a role in presenting in Spokane in the 70’s. One of my most memorable series of shows was watching the band Heart develop, beginning in 1975. My best friend, at that time, was related to the Wilson family. His older brother, Ray, was the editor of the newspaper at what was then Eastern Washington State College, now Eastern Washington University. He was also a huge music fan who possessed, what I thought was, the largest record collection in the city. In fact he turned me on to Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention as well as introduce me to the world of record retail a few years later. Late fall of 1975 Heart released what would become their ground breaking debut album “Dreamboat Annie”, originally released in Canada. The band was living in Vancouver, British Columbia at the time but had roots in the Seattle area. One day Ray received a phone call from his aunt, Ann and Nancy’s mother, asking him if he thought that he could arrange a concert for his cousins at the college. He coordinated two shows for the band beginning with an afternoon show followed by an evening show. During the coarse of the day he also created an interview, which he shared with the Spokane newspapers. He needed a couple of gophers for the day with his brother and I raising our hands without hesitation. On February 14, 1976 “Dreamboat Annie” was released in the US and the band soon skyrocketed. Following the success of that first album the band routinely made Spokane a necessary part of their tours with me being treated as family when ever they were in Spokane.

I mentioned earlier that Ray introduced me to record retail. Working from the ground up I positioned myself in management with a chain of stores called Eucalyptus Records & Tapes, which was originally based out of Fairfield, CA. Part of the companies expansion was into Spokane, and at it’s peak having 4 locations in the city. We would often host touring bands with in-store appearances prior to their show which found me working directly with concert promoters and media entity’s. There were a number of band’s which we routed through Spokane on an annual basis with Heart, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Blue Oyster Cult, Kansas, The Pat Travers Band, Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent, Sammy Hagar and Van Halen being core bands. I have fond memories of shooting hoops with the REO boys, talking with Robin Zander about working with George Martin on the bands album “The Dream Police”, getting drunk with David Lee Roth, jamming with Pat Thrall prior to a Pat Travers Band sound check, playing poker with Emmylou Harris and losing $100, leading Ted Nugent through the cities underground stream tunnels for seven blocks, the only way to get him into the store as the fans had circled the entire city block and were stopping traffic … and yes, seeing KISS for the first time in 1974. That concert was, and continues to be a memorable rock n’ roll highlight for me.