In the four decades after they first exploded (literally) onto the stage, KISS have become so overshadowed by their own mass-marketed image that latter-day fans may forget they were once standard-bearers of simply built but spectacularly larger-than-life rock 'n' roll. I started to remember that standard once again in 2009, when the band summoned up that old heroic strut and spontaneous energy for their well-received comeback Sonic Boom. With this year's new release Monster (which is also their 20th studio album, by the way), KISS managed to clear the bar that they'd hiked up pretty high already, and the music even stacks up well to some of the band's time-tested classics... thanks in part to the band's choice to embrace a jam-session songwriting approach, with the band members often tracking their parts simultaneously in the studio, and the rejection of digital recording equipment, all the way down to choosing analog tape to lay down the master tracks.
Wildly energetic but still musically tight, the foursome have come up with some of their best riffs and melodies since their own studio benchmarks Destroyer and Love Gun, while borrowing ideas from the prime era of peers like Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Aerosmith and the MC5. The vocals are also among KISS's strongest in years; not only are they carried well by co-founders Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, who strut and snarl their best, respectively, but guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer make solid vocal contributions (listen how well all four combine in the intro to “Eat Your Heart Out”), and each has his own well-earned moment in the spotlight. Singer takes the lead in the heartfelt anthem "All for the Love of Rock & Roll,” earning his stripes as both a vocalist and songwriter; Thayer had established himself as a solid singer on the previous record, and he rocks the mic on “Wall of Sound,” plus his guitar work throughout Monster is a lot more distinctive here, allowing him to find his own signature instead of trying to fill the epic boots of former lead axe Ace Frehley.
The opening track "Hell or Hallelujah,” which broke this summer as the first single, is a mighty shot across the bow, with a slick high-speed riff that signals a return to classic form, as well as their intention to out-heavy their previous record (which they do for the most part). The follow-up single "Long Way Down" summons up a grander, more sweeping feel, and it's also a good showcase for Paul's finely-honed vocal range. While most of the riffs and beats fall solidly into the '70s hard-rock model, mighty anthems like “Freak” serve up modern bottom-end weight (with Gene's bass making one hell of an anchor) and enough crunch to keep newer fans amped.
“Back to the Stone Age” does exactly what it says on the label (though not a reference to the Rolling Stones; they save that one for “Shout Mercy”), playing like a sequel (or prequel?) to “God of Thunder,” and it's a great party piece along with loud and raunchy cock-rock number "Take Me Down Below,” which is full of dorky sexual double entendres, but carried off with such ecstatic energy it's sure to be a crowd-pleaser. The song title "The Devil Is Me" points its claw directly at Gene; it's heavy and mean, as it should be, but also lyrically solid, with Simmons offering a moment of self-reflection as the man behind the Demon, making for one of the standout tracks. While the standard edition of Monster closes with the uplifting "Last Chance,” the iTunes version features the bonus track "Right Here Right Now," which is equally strong; I'm actually surprised it didn't make the original cut.
When KISS announced they would be going back to the basics for this one, they certaily weren't the first decades-spanning band to make that kind of statement, and they've obviously been cashing in on the nostalgia factor for at least two generations. But they also have the ability to back up their boast with a sound that often feels like slipping into a comfy old denim jacket... you know the one, plastered with logo patches of your favorite bands? It's not a perfect time machine (like the man says, you can't go home again), but it still represents everything I love about an amazing era of straight-up rock 'n' roll, and that's just fine by me.