Archive for October, 2009

Music Review: KISS, Sonic Boom

Posted: October 14, 2009 in Album Reviews

kiss_sonic_boom

It’s been quite evident since oh, say, 1982, that KISS’s best recording days are well behind them. That was the year Ace Frehley officially left the group (although he didn’t contribute anything to that year’s great Creatures of the Nightalbum. Aside from Lick it Up and 1992’s Revenge, the band hasn’t produced many memorable songs, let alone albums.
They have, however, remained a viable touring band, seemingly unleashing a farewell tour every two years or so. They even reunited in the late 90s with Frehley and original drummer Peter Criss, putting the makeup back on and pleasing many fans on a few tours.
The only album from that reunion, 1998’s Psycho Circus was pretty disappointing and as it turns out, wasn’t really much of a reunion at all. Frehley and Criss appeared on just a handful of tracks, although they were given full credit throughout the album. Aside from that, the album was overproduced, which definitely hurt the few worthwhile tracks the album contained.
That was the last we’d heard from KISS, studio-wise. Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons continued touring (with replacements Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer), also keeping the KISS marketing machine going with all sorts of merchandise (including a KISS Kasket, for crying out loud).
They finally headed into the recording studio earlier this year to lay down their first album in 11 years, Sonic Boom. In interviews, Simmons said it was the best thing the band had recorded since their 70s heyday, and I was very skeptical. For one, every band says this when they’re promoting a new album. And for KISS, three good albums in 27 years isn’t a very good ratio.
I bought Sonic Boom at Wal-Mart (you can only get it there as the band signed an exclusive deal with the retail chain like AC/DC did last year), and much to my surprise, the thing rocks. Opening track “Modern Day Delilah” is the album’s first single, and it’s one of the best tracks on the record. Heavy guitars, a classic Paul Stanley vocal, it feels like it could have fit nicely on an early 80s album like Creatures or Lick it Up.
I’ve always enjoyed Gene Simmons’ songs the most (if you exclude Frehley from the equation) and on this album, he’s produced four songs that fit rather nicely with some of the band’s 70s work. The lyrics are still pretty juvenile (as are most KISS lyrics) as Gene sings things like “If it’s too hot, then you’re too cold, if it’s too loud then you’re too old” on “Hot and Cold” and commanding his female companion to “take off your clothes” in “Yes I Know (Nobody’s Perfect), but I’ve always enjoyed his bravado. He sings this stuff with such conviction and you truly believe his arrogance with a line like “Yes I know nobody’s perfect, but baby I come awful close.”
Stanley has always been the band’s most consistent songwriter. He’s written most of their most successful singles, including the aforementioned “Delilah.” He has a few other strong rockers on the album, including “Danger Us” and the excellent closing anthem “Say Yeah.” He spouts some ridiculous lyrics, as well, like “Danger you, danger me, danger us” but great lyrics were never the band’s forte. Putting out tight, rocking, melodic tunes is, and it’s something they haven’t done much of since their glory days.
Even though Criss and Frehley are no longer with the band, their replacements Thayer and Singer, do a nice job of filling in. In fact, they each get a lead vocal on the album, making it feel like more of a band effort. Singer’s “All for the Glory” is the better of the two, as his voice sounds like a less rough version of Criss’. Thayer’s “When Lightning Strikes”, which he co-wrote with Stanley, is very good, though, and it almost sounds like a tune Frehley could have written.
There are a few missteps. “Never Enough” sounds way too much like Poison’s “Nothin’ But a Good Time”, and sounding like Poison is never a good thing. “Stand” has good intentions, it’s the closest thing there is to a ballad on here. It was probably the most challenging song to write, with several chord changes and musical shifts. Co-written by Stanley and Simmons, the verses are very good, and the Beatle-esque coda near the end is a left-field surprise. However, the chorus just ruins the song for me. “Stand by my side, I’ll be next to you, stand by my side and we’ll make it through” is not only cheesy, the way they sing it sounds like it was lifted right from the worst of hair-metal ballads in the 80s.
Still, this is an album I’ve enjoyed cranking in the car. The production is clean, no bells and whistles added, just guitar, drums bass and vocals. It has the feel of a classic KISS album, which is something the band should be proud of. With a bit of editing and slightly better lyrics, it truly could have ranked up there with Destroyer, Love Gun or the self-titled debut album. As it is, it’s the best they’ve done since 1982, so I’ll take it.

The Sod rating: *** 1/2

Kiss discography as seen through my eyes
KISS (1974) *****
Hotter than Hell (1974) ****
Dressed to Kill (1975) **** 1/2
Alive (1975) *****
Destroyer (1976) **** 1/2
Rock and Roll Over (1976) ****
Love Gun (1977) *****
Alive II (1978) ****
Dynasty (1979) ***
Unmasked (1980) ** 1/2
Music from the Elder (1981) ** 1/2
Creatures of the Night (1982) ****
Lick it Up (1983) ***
Animalize (1984) **
Asylum (1985) * 1/2
Crazy Nights (1987) *
Hot in the Shade (1989) ** 1/2
Revenge (1992) ***
Psycho Circus (1998) ** 1/2

aic
It seems I’ve been stuck in an early to mid 90s grunge groove lately. Last week, I reviewed the outstanding new Pearl Jam release. A week later, Alice in Chains’ first album in 14 years comes out, and of course, I bought it.
I always enjoyed the Seattle bands, although I had trouble with calling all of them “alternative” or “grunge” bands. To me, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Soundgarden were four distinct, outstanding hard rock bands, some of the best of their era.
In their heyday, AIC cranked out sludgy, depressing tunes that often dealt with the band members’ (namely lead singer Layne Staley) struggles with drug addiction. What made them so much better than the numerous imitators (Staind, Godsmack, Nickelback, etc.) were great tunes and versatility. They put out three proper albums, as well as two excellent, mostly acoustic EPs. The vocal cohesion shared by Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell produced countless haunting harmonies, often sending chills down the spine.
Staley succumbed to his heroin addiction in 2002 while the band was on an extended hiatus (due to Staley’s sickness). Their last album with Staley was the underrated self-titled release in 1995, probably their best-sounding record production-wise (1992’s Dirt was their best songs-wise and it still stands as one of the greatest albums of that era). The group recorded a pair of tunes for their 1999 box-set Music Bank but that was it. Cantrell released a pair of Alice-esque solo albums, but it appeared the group was finished when Staley died.
In 2005, Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney regrouped to do a show for Asian psunami victims, eventually deciding they’d like to hit the road again.
Eventually, they picked former Comes with the Fall singer William DuVall as a new singer/rhythm guitarist for the band, eventually deciding to record an album under the Alice in Chains moniker again.
I’ll be the first to admit, I was highly skeptical about the project. Replacing well known lead singers in rock bands is very difficult, often resulting in failure. AC/DC, Van Halen and to a certain extent, Black Sabbath have been successful.
DuVall’s task wasn’t easy, but Cantrell made it a bit easier on him by singing lead on most of the new material. DuVall is the lead singer on one track (the searing “Last of My Kind”) and for the most part he sings co-lead with Cantrell or backup to the guitarist.
DuVall obviously isn’t Staley, but what surprises me is how well he blends with Cantrell’s vocals to produce those killer AIC harmonies. You can hear it throughout the album, but it especially shines through on the acoustic Indian-tinged track “When the Sun Rose Again” as well as the album’s best tracks “Acid Bubble” and “Private Hell.”
“Acid Bubble” lands right in the middle of the album, and it’s one of Cantrell’s best songs in years. It almost feels like three songs in one, with an extremely heavy bridge built around slower, more melodic passages.
Other highlights include current single “Check My Brain” (which has landed at #1 on billboard’s rock chart) and its down-tuned, off kilter riff that gets stuck in your head. Also of note is the closing tribute to Staley, the title track. Elton John played piano on the track and Cantrell sings extremely heartfelt lyrics to his former bandmate.
This album exceeded my expectations and then some. And I’m hoping it isn’t a one-off project (the band seems to be revitalized now), as I believe there is room for growth in Alice in Chains, phase two. I believe Staley would be happy with what the band has done here.
NOTE: I’ve been reading a lot of reviews for this album, many of which were positive. A few of the lukewarm reviews came in big publications Rolling Stone and Spin. That’s fine, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I have a problem when a short review is written by someone who seems to have A. never listened to the band and B. gave a cursory look at a few tracks from the album. The Spin reviewer said he thought the album would have been better had Cantrell sang lead more often. This guy obviously hasn’t listened to AIC before, because if he did, he would know that Cantrell was sang most of the tunes on the album. The Rolling Stone reviewer said the drama in the band was gone, because much of the great songs were turned out due to Staley’s drug addiction, saying the band’s catalogue played like a soundtrack to Staley’s battle with drugs, totally ignoring the fact that Cantrell was the band’s primary songwriter. And the band dealt with addiction a lot in the tunes, but it wasn’t the only subject matter (see Rooster, about Cantrell’s dad’s Vietnam experience). Oh well, to each his own. Just would like writers to be more informed about their subject matter.

The Sod rating: ****
Rating system
***** Hall of Fame album
**** Perennial All-Star
*** Solid starter
** Bench warmer
* Jose Lima and Sal Fasano

Other Alice in Chains albums
Facelift (1990) ***
Sap (1991) *** 1/2
Dirt (1992) *****
Jar of Flies (1994) **** 1/2
Alice in Chains (1995) ****
Music Bank (1999) *** 1/2