Into The Circus: Psycho Circus
There are going to be a lot of very disappointed fans out there on September 22, 1998. But, conversely, there are also going to be rabid packs of KISS fans who are truly pleased with the results of KISS' efforts as a reunited group in the studio. Why would anyone be dissatisfied? Simply, because KISS' 30th studio album is not predictable. Many seem to have been expecting a time-warp back to 1976, and to those fans I'd probably have to suggest: Don't bother, just go out and buy another copy of Destroyer. It would seem that many were/are expecting KISS to pick up exactly where they left off c. 1977. Unfortunately, that was never going to happen, nor was it realistic, nor could it be fair. It suggests that KISS are generic. Alive Worldwide 1996-7 was about the past, Psycho Circus is about the "now" & future... well, in parts. There has been way too much development by each of the members during the last 18 years for it simply to be erased or ignored. One simply has to listen to Ace's 1995 demos, Criss' 1994 album and 1995 demos, and KISS' Carnival Of Souls to hear where everyone was "at" stylistically before the reunion ever took shape. And for the most part they were all "at" a heavy-duty sound, a sonic attack, at something so drastically different to the past, even Peter! To the other more open- minded fans who are able to appreciate different styles, or who are more open to KISS trying other things, I'll suggest this, "You're gonna love it"! Simply put, KISS have managed to record an album which is so unexpected, so different, so unpredictable, something that the fans will probably have never expected, something that as a whole is unbelievable! The starting point: While I was extremely dubious about the album after hearing the title, and lead-off, track, "Psycho Circus", that song has grown on me, while it is not impressive, there is no doubting the emotion and power behind it. I was thinking, "whaddafuk"! But, to get any impression of the whole album is impossible from song-snippets, samples, and most of the material leaked to the internet. Indeed, I'd go as far to suggest that you should ignore all you've heard until you've heard the whole thing. Take it as a whole, in pure stereo (turn it up to 10!!) played so loud your furniture moves, or leave it.
But where have KISS gone in the 19 years since they recorded their last studio album together? Off on a tangent some might reply. Others might state that they ceased to exist in 1980. Rubbish, they've always been there and their experiences alone and together during the 80's and 90's show through and "meld" with the power, style and glory that was the 70's, to produce something fresh, something different, and something that "moved"! On an emotional level I'd equated my first listen with that first listening experience of "Crazy Nights" in 1987. Following on from what I'd thought was a really strong album (Asylum, and don't laugh at me, 'cause I like it... so there!), I sat at the bus-stop and tried to imagine what the songs were going to be like. Error number 1. When I got home I listened to it in shocked silence. Error number 2. While I eventually liked one song I thought the rest was unimaginative crap. I then put Double Platinum back on and have rarely listened to Crazy Nights since. "Psycho Circus" gave me a similar emotional response. Yet, the power of the title track comes through. It's got Bruce "Fairybairn" written all over it with the circus-like introduction which is vastly akin to Aerosmith's "Permanent Vacation" and "Eat The Rich", but from the moment you hear that gong, you know something special is coming. The band let's rip, and all you'll be able to think is.... "THEY'RE BACK"! This album is not Crazy Nights, more on that later! While I could easily fault the song for weak chorus, "We're in the psy... We're in the Psycho Circus", it's not important. This will probably be the lead off track on the Tour and it is going to kick butt and melt the excess weight off the fat chicks ('n guys!)! There are no comparisons which can really be made with this track, and it certainly is different to other material written by Paul and Curt Cuomo. It has a similar feel to some of the 80's material, but yet it doesn't. Very Zen.
I Walk Alone. Well, not really. For people who hated Carnival Of Souls... I bet you're gonna hate "Within" (no pun intended) which is alleged to be a COS leftover. Gene's singing like he's really pissed off again. Apparently the happy pills I prescribed for him after Revenge have not worked! Take "Mr. Blackwell". Take "Unholy". Take "Hate". Take "Killer". Take "God Of Thunder". Take "In My Head".... Add 'em all together, with a touch of '78, and you've got "Within". Dedicate this one to Seattle (or Sepultura), and the COS-bashers are gonna have convulsions. Yet, while it is so heavy, it is so experimental, and the guitars flow free-form, and the reverse sections are really interesting, a slight tip 'o the hat to Bruce, indeed this Gene written track allegedly features Bruce on guitar, but I doubt we're ever going to get official confirmation from the band on that one! It's got one of the strangest bass-lines you'll ever hear, it'd almost be more at home on a guitarists compilation like "Smell The Fuzz". And for the vocals. Weird. Strange. Glorious. KISS, they're never boring! But while it is a very diverse song, it does work, even though it might be more at home on Carnival Of Souls.
Paul, as usual, is in stomping form on this album. "I Pledge Allegiance" is evidence of that. It's a solid anthemic song, only like he could do, and do it well, he does, again writing with Curt Cuomo and long-time co-writer Holly Knight! Guitar rock is back, ya better run! This is the track I was most worried about after hearing the title, it could easily have turned into a very pretentious song, with overdone Bon Jovi over-tones, but it doesn't. Unfounded worry, as is the case with most of the album. It's kinda like Bon Jovi meets Dokken and Judas Priest, yet the harmonies and guitar work make this track a 100% winner. It's 100 times better than "I Just Wanna". It's evidence that Paul's got many more miles him yet. Perhaps it truly is Status Quo guitar rock c. 1998! And then.... the Ace-man cometh. After such a silence from Ace for most of the last decade, this perhaps is what most fans were waiting for, "Into The Void" shows development akin to the demos which Ace had worked on in 1995, with a slight difference... it's better! It's got "Ace" written over it with strong guitar and chorus', he sounds awesome! It is interesting to note that this song's similarity to 1995's "Sister" is probably due to former Ace Frehley Band member Karl Cochrane, who co-wrote this one. While it builds on his spaced-out theme, it could almost be a demented brother of "Trouble Walkin" in style. It is not an attempted rip-off of "Rocket Ride" or "Shock Me". Simply, it is amazing. It is by far the best track Ace has done in a decade... (back to a previous point.. Ace's last album "Trouble Walkin" sold very poorly, unfortunate for the quality of material. Since then he has only managed two official releases "Cherokee Boogie", an instrumental on the Smell The Fuzz compilation, and "Take Me To The City" on the Spacewalk Tribute album. Nothing else.) "You're like a magnet, and I'm being pulled". This is yet another song that should crank live, it's a riff-monster, and there is no way that they are NOT going to perform this on tour, especially with the great opportunities to build Ace's solo around it. It has some of the greatest opportunities for group harmonizing in the choruses as well, though I wish this was more evident in the recording. It also has a killer solo and great drums. What more could anyone expect or hope for from KISS. It's non-stop-rock-100-miles-an-hour-in-your-face-blow-you-away, I'm outta breath!!!
And then Gene does his Crowded House imitation. And I'm not kidding, this is not the work of a band on its' last legs, out of ideas and cashing in. This is so original, well nearly... it sounds a bit like a reworking of "Love Is Blind/Love Came To Me". "We Are One" is a concept that the band most wanted to portray on this recording. Again, together after so many years apart, they could do it, with a certain amount of unity. Gene has not been known for doing this sort of material, and doing it well. And thank God that it's not Spinal Tappish, because for me it works. The bass stands out, and I find it difficult to equate it to any material they've done before. Again, there are great opportunities for the band to harmonize. The textures and layers bring back memories of Queen, and the Beatles. Definitely a power ballad of sorts. Half-way through the album and you find yourself asking, "when's it all go to Hell and suck"?
"You Wanted The Best" is like a reworking of Gene's 1985 demo "Russian Roulette" (or "Hello Hello" or "100%", I can't decide, and can't be bothered to dig out the demo CD and check, it's just very '85!) and was written by him wholly. The idea is right, to try and do another "Nothin' To Lose", where they could swap vocal sections, but the verses are just over done somewhat, it's just like they tried too hard for this one and it's forced without the strength of great lyrics. Love the drums though. There were parts of this where I was thinking, "it's Smoke The Sky by Motley Crue" because there are definitely parts which have that same powerful vibe. Again, Paul is the outstanding voice on this track, and Ace's solo... WOW. I just feel that I've heard too many parts of this song before, or that they should have done a bit more work on this one, especially the spoken part at the end which is just pretentious and a direct Beatles rip. Another one that should be good live! But, I don't feel there are enough sections for each member. "Raise Your Glasses" has definite Frehley's Comet overtones. I was left wondering if this one was written by Paul and Ace, but it's not, it was written by Paul Stanley and Holly Knight, which is not too surprising! This track is the pretender to be a "Rock And Roll All Nite" for the 1990s, and perhaps Knight's involvement explains some of that. And it works, with strong music and lyrics make it undefeatable, yet again I feel I've heard it before. Regardless, it doesn't stop rockin' from first note to last, and Ace's recent solo style works so well within this type of song. I can see the crowds singing this one out loud at concerts with lighters in the air as they reach for their 3-D glasses!!
With Peter's song, he has defied my expectations, not that I have any problem with any of Peter's solo material or his style. I guess we all knew that we were gonna get this, but how it has turned out is very pleasing. Dare I say it.. "it's cute". And like "Beth" (cause we all know that it's going to be compared to that too!) "I Finally Found My Way" has strong Beatles overtones, almost a "Reel Love" feel. It is Peter at his best, and for me it is nothing like his material on "Out Of Control", so I wonder if it's another Hard Luck Woman written by Paul and sung by Peter. It is, it was written by Paul and Bob Ezrin. Full orchestration, Peter's version of "Every Time I Look At You", with Bob Ezrin's magical touch. Bob definitely earned his money on this one. It's beautiful and I look forward to Peter performing this one as it brings an emotional feel that you can almost visualize him throwing roses at the crowd. Which leads us very nicely into the KISS opus. For me, lover of "Master & Slave", lover of Lick It Up and Asylum, possibly the greatest KISS song ever written, "Dreaming". I can't get out of my head a video concept for this song. And I hope that they deem to release this as a single with video. Screw MTV and whether or not it is played. It needs to be done. Take an icy field with a blizzard blowing and focus in on the band playing with chunks of ice erupting from the ground. Take elements of the "Tears Are Falling" video, and place Ace on a erupting volcano during his solo. Wow, this song is just so powerful, it gets in your head and forces all sorts of imagery. If we'd had more songs like this one then 1/2 of the KISS Army would not have gone AWOL. I love it, I get so much imagery from hearing this song that I have to force myself not to just listen to this one track. And, perhaps, what is so surprising is that this is the song that was written by Paul and Bruce Kulick. The closing song completes the mystical journey, and it is apt that "Journey Of A Thousand Years" is another of Gene's demented creations. Again, this has an Ezrin feel. But it's creativity is amazing, and I love the "Midnight Oil - Burning Bridges" chorus style! The power is amazing - I never thought of Gene singing his heart out and pouring all of his emotion into a song, yet this one does. He must have been knackered (trans. "exhausted") after this one. The drum beat is addictive. The bells are straight out of Egdar Allen Poe. The orchestration is out of a black (coronation.. Mozart ref, not witchcraft) mass. A dark and brooding parade of hopefulness, of desire, of the past gone, and the road ahead. It's a four minute epic.
So where are we? The pro's definitely outweigh the con's. I truly believe that if this one is promoted properly, it has a chance of becoming the best selling KISS album ever... or it'll completely flop, but at least we'll be left with some of the greatest music ever crafted by the fab-four. It's multi-faceted, textured, layered with emotion and brooding, of hopefulness, of fun, of energy. This is not the music of 50 year old men. This is not the music of spent forces. This is not a swan-song, an opus, the closing of a book. It is but a beginning. It is a promise of what could be. How do I rate Fairybairn? To a certain extent I'm happy that Bob Ezrin was around to stop Bruce giving KISS the "smoothing" treatment that was evident on some of Bruce' other albums.. There have been some accusations that the guitars are toned down, and that Ace and Peter are non-existent on the album. I disagree. I feel that the album is a guitar album, there is an equal blend of guitar intricacy and subtlety along with in your face exuberance. It is an incredibly polished product, no doubt about it, and while there are some lyrical weaknesses the negativity is erased by the energy. As to who appears on the album, I really can't tell. I wouldn't insult Ace and suggest that he's not capable of playing in any other style, or the same for Peter, and I think that suggestions that this is not the real KISS are unfounded, nothing more than rumors. Yet, with all things KISS, nothing would surprise me, and to be honest I don't really care. I love the album. I love the Alive II studio side, even though 4 tracks don't feature Ace. I love Dynasty, and much of Unmasked, which don't feature Peter (well, Dynasty does have a bit of him!), or Gene on a lot of Bass (trout?!) for that matter. I take the whole and am simply reduced to a drooling-wide-eyed KISS Freak!
The cons. The length of the album is somewhat disappointing. After waiting 18 years for a Reunion album the whole exercise is over in 44 minutes. Just ten tracks, after all the hype (none of it from the band) about demos written by Ace & Seb Bach, Peter & Tommy Thayer, etc. And then the biggest disappointment of all: Not one song was written by Peter. And not one collaboration between the current KISS members. Every Paul track has co-writing credits, while Gene's are all solo efforts. That leaves a bit to be desired, I guess I was hoping for a Paul/Ace and Peter/Gene collaboration, and there's not even a Gene/Paul effort! There are also strong rumors that Bruce Kulick is the guitarist on "Within". While I enjoyed his tenure in KISS, and have no problem with him as a musician, I don't think that would (if true) have been appropriate. Yet, it doesn't alter my opinion about the album. We tend to over analyze KISS albums these days, and I raise my hands and admit GUILTY! But all I can say in my defense is, "at least KISS albums are still worthy of over-analysis!"
Ace. Man, he's let rip. The years of frustration of being without a record deal and producing good music seem to have motivated him. I can still picture him on his back, just doing it all for the fun of it.
Peter. I really don't see him saying, "Awww, but Gene.. my arms hurt". I hear nothing that he would not be capable of performing. And I remember the energy and happiness of which he spoke about the reunion. Thanks Cat.
Gene. Apparently, the "happy-pills" Thank God he's still pissed off and experimenting, attempting to define his style, though his influences are pretty obvious!
Thankfully Paul doesn't pussy out with power ballads on this album. Perhaps he's sending a message, "enough of that crap I wanna rock and roll all nite and party every day"!. Perhaps not. Damn, that man can still sing, and at least he's finally figured out that the high-pitch vocals from Crazy Nights really don't work!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10. At around 44 minutes the album is just too damned short! IMO!
Out of the Carnival, c'ya in the Circus!