Album Review: “Unmasked” — Kiss (1980)


By the time 1980 rolled around, Kiss was in a really strange space. For them, anyhow. The mid-to-late 1970s had been their playground: Platinum records, hit songs, massive tours, constant exposure on both TV and radio… the world was not just their oyster, it was an entire raw bar and the cigarette machine down the hall that could break a twenty.

So of course, the party had to crash. It was 1978 in particular when their slide began. That year they released four solo albums that, in the words of manager Bill Aucoin, “shipped Platinum and were returned Double Platinum”. Pretty harsh, albeit fair criticism, although Ace Frehley’s album sold very well and even had a hit single with “New York Groove”, while Paul Stanley made a pretty great rock record of his own. Nonetheless, the solo albums were viewed as a commercial disappointment. Later that year, Kiss released their first (and only) television movie, the infamous Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park. I won’t even comment on that particular monstrosity. Watchably awful? No question. Hilarious inept? Without a doubt. Did it end up as the “Star Wars meets A Hard Day’s Night” cinematic event the band was shooting for? Schnargles!! Meanwhile, the merchandise machine rolled on, with lunchboxes, action figures, face paint, comic books, the works. The brand, as it were, became more important than the band.

Speaking of which, they rebounded a bit in 1979 with the release of Dynasty, highlighted by the smash disco single I Was Made For Loving You. At this point, longtime rock fans fled like droves while kids and families became the target audience. While the album sold well and went Platinum, their ensuing tour lost money. Kiss was viewed as a late 70s novelty by their newer fans, and as a discarded joke by the hard rock faithful who made them huge.

So 1980 hits and Kiss is trying to keep some momentum going in a changing musical landscape. A disco hit worked for them, but disco is rapidly dying and their rock fans are fleeing in droves. Sticking with Dynasty producer Vini Poncia, they released their next album Unmasked in May — which ended up becoming their biggest commercial disappointment since they went from underground legend to worldwide sensation. With weak sales and no hits to be found anywhere (except in Australia), the album would be relegated to the annals of Kiss’s discography as one of their weakest, most forgettable endeavors.

Too bad. As a “hard rock/metal” Kiss album, it can be viewed as a disappointment. Vini Poncia brought out the pop hooks and sanded down any hard edges whatsoever. Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons remarked that nobody said a thing to oppose him. They wanted this. A pure pop album.

The result? A good album regardless, one that marked a continued evolution of Kiss’s sound. There is an influence of both 70s Power Pop and what became 80s Pop Rock here; the result may not be as pleasing to the ear for “hardcore” Kiss fans, but the result is a melodic and enjoyable (if rather inconsistent) album.

Is That You? is a strong opener, a rockin’ toe tapper with a somewhat strange falsetto pre-chorus. It feels very different from anything the band has done before, almost New Wave but with just enough crunch. It moves right into Shandi, an infectious ballad with a patented sing-a-long chorus. It’s Kiss’s softest work since “Beth” (not counting the solo ballads), but as a single it works. Especially in Australia, where it was a smash.

Then we get to Talk To Me… one of Ace’s best songs ever, a really well crafted pop song. Of his three contributions to the album, this is easily the best of the bunch. Ace never really had another catchy pop song like this with Kiss, before or after. Naked City is the album’s first average track, it’s not bad but not one of Gene’s best. What Makes The World Go Round is also in that OK but forgettable realm.

The bouncy pop-rock of Tomorrow is enjoyable early 80s fluff. This is Paul at his bubblegum heights, behind an up-tempo, poppy, sing-along, melodic happy-time. This sounds like something Rick Springfield would have recorded in 1982, which, depending on your tastes, is reason to appreciate or run screaming.

On the other hand, Two Sides of the Coin isn’t just a lousy song. It’s moronic, it doesn’t have much of a melody, nothing catchy about it whatsoever, and the lyrics are utterly juvenile. And it leads into an even worse song, She’s So European, Gene’s adaption of one of his older songs he never recorded with Kiss, “Stanley The Parrot”. Even he thinks it’s terrible.

Easy As It Seems is a return to disco for Paul, and it’s decent. It’s definitely not quite up there with “I Was Made For Loving You” or even “Sure Know Something” from Dynasty, but its got hooks and a definite beat.

Finally, there’s Torpedo Girl, which is simply one of the oddest songs Kiss has ever released. And I mean that as a compliment. That bass riff at the opening is awesome. Ace is being a goofball here but I totally dig the funky, playful vibe. Plus the song sounds great live. Unfortunately, the album finishes limply with You’re All That I Want, yet another Gene dud. You could sort of tell that his heart really wasn’t into this album.

So overall we have Kiss releasing a total pop album. If you didn’t like the slick production and softer edge of Dynasty, you might end up loathing Unmasked. But I like the album a good deal, flawed as it is. The way I see it, out of eleven album tracks, six of them are good-to-great cuts, two of them are in the average/forgettable range, and three pieces of them just awful. Not a sterling recommendation, to be sure, but if anything it proves that Kiss wasn’t just a make-up, spectacle, and merchandise organization. They could and did adapt with the times and bring in contemporary sounds and influences to make some quality music. With an album like Unmasked you will definitely have to cherry-pick the good songs, but they are well worth discovering.

4 thoughts on “Album Review: “Unmasked” — Kiss (1980)

  1. I liked unmasked myself. It is easily kiss best album I loved everything from the artwork to the songs . Glad peter wasn’t drumming . Anton fig should’ve been the drummer in kiss. Unmasked is a great album period. Dynasty,s little brother

  2. I really liked Unmasked when it was released and over 30 years later revisiting, it still sounds great. I like it better than Dynasty. Dynasty was a change of direction that never found the right niche. Unmasked hit the spot, fresh more poppy rock ready for the new trends of the 80s. It can’t be viewed comparatively to previous Kiss albums. It’s far more refined than Creatures Of The Night. I believe Kiss would’ve had more commercial success in the early – mid 80s if they stayed with the direction of Unmasked.

  3. Great review. I am a stubborn fan, and — though by the late 70s punk and new wave had stolen me away — I always took time to listen to what Kiss was doing. I attended a show on their Dynasty tour and thought it was awesome. I have to say, my view of Unmasked is a lot like yours — Paul is on his game, Gene is missing in action, Ace is great (agree that “Talk to Me” is his best), Peter is credited but obviously absent, even to my then-teenage ears. I like the album to this day. It’s too bad that the baby got thrown out with the bath water (by U.S. fans as well as the band), but ultimately understandable. By that time — what with, as you said, dolls and lunchboxes and 8 year old fans at their concerts — being a Kiss fan was a supremely contrarian gesture of defiant uncoolness.

  4. Apart from ‘Torpedo Girl’, it’s a p*ss weak album (and even ‘Torpedo Girl’ isn’t a masterpiece). But the sleeve is their best since ‘Rock And Roll Over’.

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