Album Review: “Unplugged” — Kiss (1996)

kissunpluggedBefore I begin this album review, let’s get one thing perfectly clear, and dare I say, out of the way immediately.

I am a massive Kiss fan, and it’s because of the music.

I mean, maybe not at the very beginning. As a very young child of the 70s, I remember seeing one of their album commercials on local TV. (Remember album commercials??) I distinctly remember a still image of the Destroyer album cover while the classic “Shout It Out Loud” was playing over it. It left an indelible mark on my ever so impressionable young brain. These guys were rock-n-roll SUPERHEROES! I didn’t know who they were, but I was in.

Cut to the summer of 1994. I’m 23 years old now, long past any conceivable Kiss phase in my life, on to a multitude of other bands, artists, music of all kinds. I still had a soft, nostalgic spot for Kiss’s music, surely, but they were a relic. Anyway, I’m driving home from work in my Mustang convertible, top down, radio jacked up (remember radio??), and lo and behold, here’s a brand-new cover of Kiss staple “Deuce” by Lenny Kravitz.

And it was amazing… and I don’t even like Lenny Kravitz! I found out later that the song was featured on a Kiss tribute album entitled Kiss My Ass, which also included covers by Garth Brooks, Toad The Wet Sprocket, Gin Blossoms, Anthrax, Mighty Bosstones, and others. I bought it immediately and remembered why Kiss stayed with me all those years in the first place: not the make-up, the gimmicks, the merchandise, the shameless hucksterism, the costumes. Nope. Just those awesome tunes; unabashed, straightforward rock, mostly hard rock, sometimes metal, often pop, occasionally disco, but almost always catchy, melodic, often well-crafted, but remarkably better than most critics give them credit for.

We know how the Kiss story goes from there: they slap the make-up back on, reunite the original line-up, go on a MASSIVE world tour that makes an insane amount of money, go on to become even MORE of a commercial juggernaut, band members leave, new ones come in, bla bla bla bla. But there was a moment, just before they hit their second big commercial resurgence, when they were — commercially, anyhow — pretty much dead in the water. When the band was lean, humble, and pretty much freed up from any serious expectations from just about anyone. This was the early to mid 1990s, when their fortunes were waning and they were on their sixth line-up (Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Bruce Kulick, Eric Singer) since 1974. The trend during this period was for bands to go “unplugged” on MTV, stripping away the amps, the distortion, the effects, grabbing your acoustic guitars and going straight to the heart of your music in an intimate environment.

Kiss had nothing to lose (heh) at this point. If the project failed, it wouldn’t impact them any more than the 90s “Grunge” revolution already had (them along with pretty much every other 70s/80s rock/metal band still around). If it succeeded, it would remind longtime fans, lapsed admirers, and skeptics alike that their catalog of tunes had so much more to offer than at first glance.

Kiss Unplugged might not have been a huge financial success, but this album proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that, stripped of the make-up, the hype, the spectacle, the costumes and videos and all the accouterments that had been the staples of the band since their inception, that KISS always retained the ability to write and perform great songs. What’s even more remarkable about this album is that it isn’t just “Greatest Hits Unplugged”, although obviously many of their most memorable songs are included on the set-list. There are some deep cuts here, even some borderline obscure songs, that not only were given new life on “Unplugged”, but also showed that they had a deep and surprisingly substantial catalog.

It also showed that, in terms of musicianship, the Revenge-era line-up was probably their strongest ever. I’m a longtime Ace Frehley fan and supporter, and Peter Criss will always be the band’s founding drummer. But Bruce and Eric really shine on this album. Meanwhile, Paul rarely disappoints in the vocal department, so his ebullience on this album is no surprise, but even Gene sounds relaxed and revived. The “lean” years of 1992 through 1995 gave the band a new lease on excitement and creativity. This is reflected throughout the entirety of Unplugged.

Historically the album is extremely important to Kiss fans (and a pretty awesome moment for rock music in general), as it features the first ever “reunion” with Ace and Peter, who join the band onstage for four songs. It was the first time all four had played together live in sixteen years, and it still gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it.

So how about the songs themselves? Let’s do a quick rundown…

Coming Home
This is part and parcel of everything that’s great about this album. “Coming Home” is an odd choice for an opener, given that it’s a pretty deep, pretty much never-played track from Hotter Than Hell, but it’s a beauty: an upbeat, up-tempo rocker that really sets the tone for the performance, basically telling the listener that what they’re gonna hear maybe won’t be what they expect, but it’ll be damn good.

Plaster Caster
One of my all-time favorite Gene songs, and keeps the energy flowing perfectly from the opener. The roar in Gene’s voice from the opening line is strong and pervasive, and segues nicely into the more musical pre-chorus and chorus. Yeah, the lyrics are still junior-high juvenile, but the song still rocks. Bruce’s solo is spot-on awesome here.

Goin’ Blind
This has always been one of my favorite Kiss tunes, but it almost sounds… dare I say… “magical” on this cut? Listen to Gene’s excellent walking bass work here; he just nails it. The vocals sound even more haunting and yearning. Eric’s backing vocals shine pretty damn well.

Do You Love Me
With this we get the first “staple song” on the album. It’s good. Strong vocals, solid musicianship. I just don’t get as excited over it as I do the opening three tracks. Nothing wrong with it, though.

Another one of Gene’s late-era classics from Revenge, one that you’d never expect to sound so awesome when performed acoustically. I actually prefer it greatly to both the studio version and the Alive III track. The song feels looser, more playful, more diabolical. This is one of the best tracks on the album.

Sure Know Something
Again, an improvement over the studio track, which even of itself was one the best parts of Dynasty. Removing the pop/disco veneer of the original reveals a lean, muscular track underneath. Another great song.

World Without Heroes
I still stand by the fact that this is one of the best ballads KISS ever recorded. Maybe spending 14 years evading anything to do with the oft-maligned Music From The Elder made Gene and Paul reevaluate some of the (admittedly sparse) strengths of that album. This is a beautiful performance; I’ve always felt Paul’s solo was one of the simplest yet most effective that the band ever recorded, and acoustically it sounds better than ever.

Rock Bottom
Awesomeness. Pure awesomeness. This is another standout track from the album. Paul is totally on FIRE. My favorite version of this song.

See You Tonite
Who saw this coming? A surprisingly strong performance of a song I always felt to be a mediocre throwaway from Gene’s weird 1978 solo LP. Looking back on much of the garbage Gene wrote and sang on Animalize through Hot In The Shade — basically the mid to late 80s albums — it becomes clear that much of the potential that was hinted at in his solo album laid a bit unfulfilled. Back to the track, the original studio cut seems cold and distant in comparison to the playful warmth of this acoustic performance.

I Still Love You
Another classic ballad (this and WWH are easily in the band’s top 5 ballads). I love this song, but the acoustic performance (while good — really good) doesn’t really add too much or reveal any new dimensions like many of the other songs do. Still, the band sounds pretty damn tight, so no complaints at all.

Every Time I Look At You
Not the hugest fan of the original. My reaction is the same as that in “I Still Love You”. Really good performance, tight musicianship, the strings sound nice, etc. Would gladly have swapped this out with “Got To Choose” or even another deep cut. Heck how sweet would “Wouldn’t You Like To Know Me” or “Mr. Speed” or even “Tomorrow” have sounded acoustically too?

2,000 Man
Ace is back and he told you so… it’s too bad they couldn’t make “Shock Me” work acoustically (Ace’s first choice for the performance). While not a standout track on the album, it’s such a great song as well as a fantastic arrangement. Ace’s vocals are a bit shaky at first but get stronger throughout. A good track and a most welcome return.

Never sounded better. NEVER. No overbearing orchestral arrangements, no pervasive sappy piano work, just a heartfelt song with a beautiful acoustic backing. Definitely a standout track on the album, and my favorite performance of this song ever. It’ll bring tears to your eyes.

Nothin’ To Lose
An up-tempo six-man KISS performance with dueling drummers on vocals celebrating the beauty of anal joy? Bring it. Great track. I especially love Eric’s raw take on the vocals.

Rock And Roll All Nite
*sighs* OK you knew it had to come, so there it is. Having Ace and Peter handle some of the verses was a nice touch. And yes, I could go the rest of my life without hearing this song ever again. But admittedly, it’s their epic closer. And you can feel the crowd going ballistic.

So there you have it. So many great songs, played fantastically, stripped down but still spectacle in its own right. I couldn’t love this album anymore, even if it came with a meatball sub. Unplugged is an absolute requirement in any self-respecting KISS fan’s music collection. The focus and motivation on this album is all about the MUSIC first and foremost, and it shows.

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