Album Review: “Ace Frehley” — Ace Frehley (1978)

blgacefrehleysolo78Legendary Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley — the original and ONLY Spaceman, as far as this fan is concerned — had been an integral component of the band’s success since its inception. As Kiss’s lead guitarist, his licks, riffs, and solos gave their music much of its memorable character and tenor. Frehley wasn’t a perfectionist, nor was he a virtuoso; he’d probably be the first to admit his playing can get entirely down-n-dirty sloppy. And God bless him for that. Ace didn’t go for technical precision or musical fluidity. His musical vocabulary was centered around that hard rock sound, period, and his style and swagger influenced entirely too many players that came after him.

So Ace brought the rock, he brought the solos, he even wrote or co-wrote many of the band’s greatest tunes, but he never took his talents to the microphone as a lead vocalist until 1977, on the band’s sixth album Love Gun. The result was the classic Kiss rocker Shock Me, and with that number Ace was off and running. He would continue to bring his singing to bear on subsequent albums like Alive II, Dynasty, Unmasked, Music From The Elder, and the 1998 “reunion” album Psycho Circus. His extensive solo career after leaving Kiss would further showcase his songwriting, vocal, and guitar talent.

But it was the 1978 solo LP Ace Frehley that would perhaps leave the strongest, or even most iconic impression upon Kiss and Ace fans. That year saw all four band members releasing solo LPs (while still being branded as “Kiss” product). Paul Stanley’s album would closely adhere to the Kiss hard rock model, although with lots more of a pop vibe than the band had shown before. Peter’s album was aimed squarely at the adult contemporary/blue-eyed soul market, with entirely sub-mediocre results. And Gene’s album? Just plain weird man, and not entirely in a good way.

Ace Frehley, on the other hand, came out of the gate guns a-blazing with hard rock of the whiskey-soaked, rip-snortin’ variety. He wasn’t trying to do something new, but rather what he knew best: Les Pauls, Marshall amps, crunchy distortion and blistering solos. He sang lead on every track, did all of the guitar work (and most of the bass), and took along pal (and future collaborator) Anton Fig for drums and percussion. The legendary Eddie Kramer, who had produced the Kiss albums Rock and Roll Over and Love Gun, produced this album as well. And somehow in the middle of it all, Ace recorded a pop cover that became a Top-20 single and one of his signature tunes. The resulting album not only sold the best of the four LPs, it is generally accepted to be the best of the four.

I concur with that sentiment, although I think Paul’s is a close second. We’ll leave Gene’s and Peter’s (ecch) for another debate.

You couldn’t ask for a better album opener (or concert opener) than “Rip It Out”, which is full of fury and power chords and uptempo rock crunch. It’s also surprisingly catchy as hell, with a sing-along chorus and a thunderous drum break provided by Mr. Fig. That spirit continues in tracks like “Speedin’ Back To My Baby”, “Snow Blind”, “Ozone” and “I’m In Need Of Love”. These are prototypical late 70s hard rock tunes: loud, hard, crunchy, distorted, lyrically middling but drenched with attitude. “Snowblind” and “Ozone” are overt references to Frehley’s drugs and alcohol abuse (along with “Wiped Out”, one of the album’s stranger but lesser tracks).

Ace most memorably struck pay dirt with his cover of the 1975 British import “New York Groove”. Originally written by Russ Ballard for the band Hello, Ace’s cover burst into the US Top 20 and made it as high as #13. It became the biggest Kiss-related hit since “Beth”, and emerged as a mandatory inclusion in almost every Kiss setlist during Ace’s tenure. It’s a fantastic cover, too. Different from the driving hard rock that populates most of the album, the song is neon, slinky, almost glam-like, eminently danceable, and a fine pop song.

He briefly continued in that lighter vein with the power-pop’ish “What’s On Your Mind”, a tune that wouldn’t have felt all that out of place on Paul Stanley’s 1978 solo album. It’s a good track as well; Ace wasn’t the strongest lyricist, but he knew how to mine for memorable musical turns-of-phrase. Ace never got too into pop either with Kiss or in his solo career, but he definitely knew how to do it well.

The album finishes with the winning instrumental “Fractured Mirror”, featuring layers upon layers of guitars (acoustic, electric, even synth guitars) engaging in an ethereal melody. It’s a fairly engaging piece of work, not entirely musically complex but then again it didn’t need to be. It’s a fine album closer.

I think one of the reasons Ace Frehley stands out among and remains the most memorable of the four 1978 solo albums is because of its sheer lack of pretense or perceived lack of ambition. Ace didn’t want to step out of the box; he wanted to blow the lid off it. While Gene was engaging in every bit of self-indulgence he could muster and Peter was showcasing his love of soul and r&b (badly), Ace was having a blast in his own element, delivering a no-bullshit, straight-from-the-gut hard rock album (with a few forays into the pop-rock world). As far as “Kiss” albums go, this one’s absolutely essential.

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