Destroyer was Kiss’s larger-than-life effort to keep momentum rolling after the multi-platinum success of their landmark 1975 live album Alive!. After releasing three studio albums to middling results, the band bet the farm on an album that endeavored to replicate their “live concert” experience, and successfully at that, even if the amount of actual “live concert” material on that album might be limited to a drum fill on “100,000 Years”. Maybe.
Anyway after that album blew through the stratosphere, the band had some serious heat, and exploited their cache by retaining the services of mega-producer Bob Ezrin, who had helped bring Alice Cooper into super-stardom in the early 1970s. Ezrin broadened the bands sound, resulting in an album that felt nothing like the raw, stripped down, lean-and-mean sound of their first three studio albums. This was a richer, fuller experience. The album featured orchestrations, choirs, layered guitars, binaural audio, a deeper low-end and a more pronounced mid-range. Ezrin brought the band’s music to another level entirely, adding in a layer of sophistication that earlier albums had noticeably lacked.
The resulting album Destroyer ended up as one of the band’s best-selling LPs, a moderate hit when initially released but smashing into platinum (and eventually multi-platinum) status thanks to the powerhouse single “Beth”. This unexpected track went to #7 on the charts and gave the band even broader exposure on the Top 40 / Pop Culture landscape. The album cover became immediately recognizable (the Apocalyptic imagery seemed to mesh well with the band’s burgeoning self-aggrandizing mythos) and instantly iconic, an immutable hallmark of the entire Kiss brand.
So how does the album itself hold up?
I’ll be honest with you: I used to slag on Destroyer. A *lot*. It was always elevated by most as Kiss’s “best” album, or their most “quintessential” or “iconic”. People often point to it as the best Kiss “starter” album if you’re trying to get into the band’s music. I found the deafening hype to be rather aggravating. And the album isn’t this perfect slab of 70s hard rock; there are a few quizzical tracks on the record, either out-and-out filler or just plain bizarre.
And yet over time, I’ve come to really enjoy Destroyer. Removed from the effusiveness of its hype, it remains one of the strongest Kiss albums in their entire catalog. What Bob Ezrin did was expand the band’s musical palette and production potential; a move that, at the time, alienated a few of the band’s earlier, more ‘hardcore’ fans who pooh-pooh’ed the slick, polished, more commercial and audience-embracing shift into Top 40-ville. Phooey on them. While this would be taken to some strange and often terrible extremes in future albums, it worked really well for Destroyer.
There are a host of Kiss concert standards here, with stalwarts like “Detroit Rock City”, “Shout It Out Loud”, “Beth”, and “God Of Thunder”, plus other popular tunes like “King Of The Night Time World” and “Do You Love Me?”. Those six tracks alone are instantly recognizable among fans and somewhat recognizable among casual- or even non-fans. Almost all of them are pretty much great tunes. “Detroit Rock City”, for example, is one of those massively overplayed songs that I still never tire of. Compare that to, say, 1975’s cringe-inducing “Rock And Roll All Nite”, which still makes me climb a tree and weep incessantly. DRC has a drive and intensity and fist-pumping anthemic quality that holds up really well after multiple listens.
“Beth” was the big hit and a massive departure for the band, Peter Criss’s standout moment with the band. It’s maudlin, syrupy, and dripping with all the accoutrements of over-produced mid-70s love ballads. And it’s still a fine song. “God Of Thunder” is also an iconic Gene tune (ironically written by Paul, whose original demo features an entirely different feel and tempo), but on Destroyer it comes off as a slow, limp, meandering track. Now go listen to it on Alive II and see what happens when it comes to life with power and ferocity. The live version completely smokes the studio track.
“Shout It Out Loud” is a classic Kiss tune and an obvious attempt to repeat the anthemic success of “Rock And Roll All Nite”, this time with dueling vocals by Paul and Gene that leads into one of their most harmonically-pleasing choruses to date. It’s a silly song, but a fun one. “Do You Love Me?” is even sillier, just this dopey Paul ode to someone getting to know the “REAL ME” instead of the trappings of Kiss success. Strangely enough though, it works; the larger-than-life production of the song lends the song a credible air of “the Starchild leaving the heavens and coming to Earth with heartfelt earnestness” or some other such nonsense. “King Of The Night Time World” is an OK tune, an uptempo rocker that doesn’t wear out its welcome and does what it’s supposed to do; amplify the self-aggrandizement of the band (specifically Paul) with distorted guitars and thundering drums and all that goes along with it.
This now leads to the three album tracks that don’t seem to gather much attention: “Sweet Pain”, “Flaming Youth”, and “Great Expectations”. Let’s start with the latter; “Great Expectations” is a Gene number that sounds like a cross-pollination Jim Steinman and Richard O’Brien. It wouldn’t have been entirely out-of-place on either Bat Out Of Hell or the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack. I think it’s almost a decent album track… at least until that absolutely horrible chorus. The rotten kids choir towards the end of the song really underscores this observation.
“Flaming Youth” is this teen empowerment power pop song from Paul that is probably the biggest departure from anything else he had recorded to date, and probably the first hint that Paul had a really strong ear for good pop melodies. The song itself isn’t much; it’s interesting and has some cool moments, but it’s filler in the end. Finally, “Sweet Pain” is the only real clunker on the album. It probably would have been a decent track on Gene’s 1978 solo album, where it would have stood out nicely (faint praise, indeed), but it’s just not that good. I like some of the guitar work, with lead guitar performed by Dick Wagner instead of Ace Frehley (Frehley’s solo would eventually resurface in the 2012 re-mix of the album).
So even removed from all the hype, Destroyer is still essential Kiss and is easily one of their “big” albums. The big songs and big hits are there, and Ezrin brought the big production values. The band’s musical toolbox was widened and the added sophistication brought to their straightforward rock approach adds to album’s appeal. Kiss would scale commercial heights in the years (and decades) to come, but musically they never got “bigger” than Destroyer. It set the “classic” tone for much of their appeal and approach for nearly the entirety of their career.