KISS: ‘Unmasked’

Released on May 20, 1980 (Casablanca records)

Review by Lance Lumley:
By 1980, KISS had a major problem within the band. The last several albums (the 1978 solo ventures, along with 1979’s Dynasty), took the band on different paths while trying to keep the original members together. Ace Frehley‘s solo record produced a hit  and became the breakout of the four solo attempts. Dynasty‘s “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” gave the band a pop hit, but drummer Peter Criss was basically non-existent, with the exception of one song on the record. The group was no longer the feared Satanic-accused hard rock threats they once were, instead being a family friendly pop band. The album cover of Unmasked could be symbolic of what the band was becoming at the time; pop culture comic characters.

1980’s Unmasked has a place in the band’s history, even though Peter was out of the band at this time (with session drummer Anton Fig playing the drum parts). The band kept the mystery that all four members were still playing on the album, and all was well in the KISS Army. Opening with the song “Is That You,” the group has a nice first track for the release. The guitar driven song, with its catchy chorus, still has a rock style to it. Songwriter Gerard McMahon stated in an interview that he was approached at a bar by a woman who had leather and handcuffs with her, trying to pick him up. He said the song was written about the dominatrix lifestyle. The bridge is a little rough for my liking, but it is still a good opener.

Many die hard KISS fans love or hate this album, but I will stand by my opinion that “Shandi” is one of the most underrated KISS songs, period (I can hear the hosts of the wonderful KISS podcast Shout It Out Loudcast asking for my KISS membership to be revoked now). Yes, it is pop music, but it is still good pop, which Paul Stanley was inspired to write after hearing a Bruce Springsteen song. The video is remembered in being the last video Peter was involved in. The guitar lead at the beginning, and throughout the song, compliments the song nicely without being too much. There is a catchy chorus and melody. Even though Paul doesn’t get the credit as much as he should as a songwriter at times, he can develop solid, catchy hooks, with a great melody, and I think this is one of them (especially for people like me who like a radio friendly style of writing) This is one of my favorite tracks in the whole Kiss catalog that tried to have a mainstream appeal.

“Talk To Me” is one of three Ace songs where he sings lead, the most on any of the KISS albums. The song has Ace‘s signature style all over it, with a nice guitar groove and his signature songwriting lyrics, with words like “dizzy” and ” vibrations,” which fits the Spaceman persona. I remember seeing a video for this track in the mid 1980s (I didn’t start collecting KISS music until then, but knew of the band in the ’70s because my cousin was a die-hard fan), which was one of the first times I saw Eric Carr in the Fox makeup. As I have mentioned before in my reviews of KISS on here, Ace was one of my least favorite members, but you can not question his talent, and this song could not be done by any member but by Ace, who also played bass on all of his tracks on this album, refusing to let Gene Simmons play on any of his songs, according to past Ace interviews.

“Naked City” is a track that inspires Gene‘s love for pop culture and films, being an ode to the TV show with the same name. The drumming and guitar work on here is solid, but the darker style lyrics don’t come off as mysterious as they could have been, with the more pop flavored production. However, the song still flows with the overall feel of the album. “What Makes The World Go ‘Round” continues the vibe from the Dynasty sessions, with a disco/dance song that could have been inspired by Paul Stanley hanging out at Studio 54. The layered vocals show the heavy production that some fans may have not liked, but the guitar work on here gives it a Rick Springfield feel to it, maybe from the Working Class Dog album. As a KISS song, this isn’t as great some of their other work, but as a pop song in general, it is catchy. The listener needs to take in context the time period of the music and what the band was going through. The bass playing on this helps make the song.

If the last track gave me a Rick Springfield comparison, “Tomorrow” has a Sammy Hagar ’70s feel, especially in the opening. The guitar solo gives a boost of power that the overall song lacks for a rock song. Paul continues to have a mainstream pop sound here. If this was on a Stanley solo album, it may not be as criticized by many fans, but again, KISS was trying doing the best they could do at this time under the circumstances. Ace shows up again with “Two Sides Of The Coin,” one of the songs that many KISS fans adore for the most part off the release. Even though many state this as a favorite rare Ace song, and give him praise for it, let’s not forget the solid drumming by Anton Fig on here. Regardless of the overall take of the album in terms of success (Paul and Gene both have stated they give the album one star), Fig and Ace may be the two shining stars on the release. This song about being in love with two women is a nicely written track, and I would say is the best of the three Ace songs.

“She’s So European” is Gene‘s song about wondering what women are like in other countries, where one has to picture the guys in the band thinking the same thing before going out on tour. Although the keyboards ruin the track for me, the drumming is solid. I know I state to keep the time period context in mind, and bands were using keyboards (and will in the following years), but this doesn’t fit the KISS format, as opposed to how the band used keyboards on the Crazy Nights record (which is one of my favorite KISS albums), which does fit with the tracks.

To me, one of the rare tracks that doesn’t get mentioned is “Easy As It Seems.” Yes, it has a disco/dance feel, with its similarities to R&B acts like The Spinners or Kool & The Gang, but the bass line here is solid funk. As I argued before when I did a review on here for “Dynasty”, many call that the “disco album,” due to “I Was Made For Loving You.” Does this song make “Unmasked” a disco album as well, because this is as disco as one gets?  The funky bass line carries the song. Paul‘s vocals on here is as great as any of his other work, and this is a solid written song. It has a nice hook, a catchy chorus, and good musicianship. The keyboards here fit better than on the other tracks I mentioned, but still has a rock feel to the song.

“Torpedo Girl” is a song that was proof of my not liking Ace so much, compared to the other members of the line-ups. I was more in awe of The Demon, The Fox, and even Paul‘s character, over the Spaceman. I was more into horror than science fiction , so that was the first turnoff. Ace‘s voice (although now I can appreciate the uniqueness in it), didn’t resonate with me, along with the sometimes cheesy lyrics about other worlds and alternate universes also was not what I liked in rock songs. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of cheesy lyrics from all the members of the songwriting crew for the band. “Torpedo Girl” is something I imagine Frank Zappa doing, which involves swimming in an ocean and seeing a girl on the bridge on a submarine. Ace has said in interviews that Gene and Paul took songwriting too seriously, and sometimes rock music needed to be plain fun, which is what Ace tried to do here. Musically, this is an amazing track, but for me it’s not a song that fits in the KISS genre, but props for the band to keep moving in directions where others may have not tried. The lyrics for me, especially with “Get your feet wet,” takes away from the song in my praising it.

“You’re All That I Want” is an odd closer for the album. I like closing tracks to be strong, making me want to either listen to the album again, or want me to get more of the act’s music to listen to. The chorus here is weak, but fits in the Dynasty style of the band at the time. This is another miss for me on this Gene song.

Many KISS fans look at the Dynasty through Music From The Elder (and to some extent, the solo albums from ’78) as the period of the band that people either loved or hated. The great thing about KISS fans (and me being one) is that they are passionate about the likes, and dislikes, of the career. Although there are some good stuff on here, I would overall chose Dynasty over Unmasked (I would argue Unmasked has more disco vibe tracks than Dynasty). The band was dealing with the firing (or leaving, whoever side you believe) of the original drummer, while trying to mask it from the public (no pun intended).

To me, regardless of my likes or dislikes, this was an important time for the band, even though the albums were not the best work, Gene and Paul tried to keep the machine rolling. Unmasked was the bridge that led into my favorite KISS era, the Eric Carr years. Without the exception of some nice songwriting from Paul, the stars here are Anton Fig and Ace Frehley. As an overall 1980s release, Unmasked is an average album, but as a KISS album, it falls flat overall for me, besides a few tracks here and there. Taking nothing away from the musicianship and experimental attempts, amidst of not having one of the original members in the lineup, while trying to shield it from the audience, this is a KISS release that gets very limited play for me.

Review by John Stoney Cannon:
Since that first KISS in the fall of ’76, I have been charmed with landing in spots where the band’s music of the moment was at its most appealing. As mega-classic “Beth” was all over the radio, I was singing along as it crunched out of the tiny transistor radio tied to the handlebar of my bike leaving the Mid-west hills of Ft. Riley, Kansas exposed to the soundtrack of the gang of pre-teen hooligans I rode with. Nearly a decade later, I found myself smirking at my Augusta, Georgia high school classmates as they attempted to impress on me, a KISS fan who never turned his back on the band, the hard rock awesomeness of the newly makeup-less KISS who were pretty over in the Southeast and showed their appreciation by dropping anchor on our meager civic center nearly every tour.

During the years in between, the attraction that started with “Beth” grew larger as I was gifted a blank cassette loaded with tunes from albums Destroyer and Rock And Roll Over, awkwardly stumbled across the band’s much rawer 1974 Casablanca debut, caught the masked foursome on Paul Lynde‘s Halloween Special, and spent many an allowance buck on each and every record from the first right up until Double Platinum before landing just outside of Frankfurt, Germany in 1978. Yeah, not just the records, but my room was loaded with KISS notebooks, puzzles, Colorforms, trading cards, you name it.

Our second stint in Germany once again offered up a view of the differences between American and European culture although in many ways American military dependent life wasn’t much different in the seventies as between Kansas and Frankfurt, the kids existed pretty much as portrayed in the movie Dazed & Confused. But even so, the surrounding culture made things obvious and suddenly being surrounded by older kids on a regular basis did as well. In Kansas, KISS were huge, even bigger than Pepsi and Reece’s Pieces but as far as my new classmates were concerned, KISS were for kids. Yeah, that fall while I was staring glassy eyed over the new KISS solo albums, the kids in my new neighborhood were busy with a whole other kinda glassy eyed pastime to the tune of more “adult” rock and roll like Ted Nugent, Van Halen, and Journey. But outside of our American military bubble, German kids existed on a larger diet of music including popular rock and roll but also then unknown harder rock bands and dance acts.

On my first visit to an area disco, I was blown away by the kids dancing to everything from ABBA to Aerosmith which probably explains why KISS‘ 1979 release Dynasty went over so huge in Germany and other European countries. With a pretty wide pop/rock palate, I fell in line with the natives even going so far as to trade a James Gang record I won in our housing area’s DYA pool tournament for a fresh new copy of Dynasty at the post exchange. Despite having fallen out of favor with many of my classmates, in the late seventies, KISS were everywhere in Germany including rock magazines as well as even the military newspaper and by the time I had read and seen the band’s new costumes, I was chomping at the bit for Unmasked to come out. Yeah, even after Dynasty, the more pop sounding new record initially caught me off guard but after just a few listens in, my life long love for catchy pop tunes filled with hooks took over and once again I was ears over eyes in love with yet another KISS album.

Over the years, it seems to me that popular opinion leans towards Ace‘s three tracks on Unmasked and while to this day I love all three, it is still Stanley’s tunes that draw the quickest reaction from me. At first listen, it was that opening “YOW!” blasting into “Is That You?” coupled with chugging energy that initially kept me coming back to the record as the other tracks slowly clawed at my attention. I vividly can recall getting lost in the album art only to be pulled back as “What Makes the World Go ‘Round” bopped side one to a fun finish and “Tomorrow” clapped the flipside off and running. For me, the one-two punch of Unmasked.

Not to be outdone by Stanley‘s great power pop writing, Ace once again delivered as he has since making his vocal debut on “Shock Me” and since besting his bandmates co-solo efforts a couple years earlier. With the album’s only solo writing credits on “Talk to Me” and “Two Sides of the Coin”, Ace not only brings that Space Ace guitar and vocal style and swagger to the table, he also manages to drag along all the bass guitar parts to both as well as funny, quirky track “Torpedo Girl”, a sorta Ace meets the Beach Boys summer song. “Talk to Me” has endured as an Ace classic. “Two Sides of The Coin”, a fan favorite, but if even just for its odd geekiness, my favorite of Frehley tunes on Unmasked has always been “Torpedo Girl.” It’s impossible not to chuckle at the sheer campiness of it all especially the idea of Ace hanging out on a sunny beach clad in nothing more than swimming trunks and KISS makeup.

Despite down two songs less than his rock and roll partner, Paul and finding himself equal in tracks to Frehley (someone he has never considered his musical or work ethic equal) with three, the one-time scary Demon also managed to change his game in creating some interestingly cool songs for Unmasked. Showing up the second half of the first side after a couple tracks by Stanley and one by Frehley, Simmons finally arrives at the party vocally with “Naked City”, a song that while pop in nature sees Simmons putting away sexual metaphors to make way for more thought out lyrics. Maybe due to his background as an English teacher, Simmons still manages to sound himself even without straight to the point, head smacking dumbed down lyrics. So yeah, in 1980, I really didn’t get what he was talking about but it sounded cool, the chorus was catchy, and the word “Naked” was in the title. What more does a fourteeen-year-old American male need? As I grew older I found myself enjoying the song even more. Maybe not as typical Simmons as “You’re All That I Want” (which in some ways sounds like a Stanley solo tune) or as fun as “She’s So European” (my fave Gene Unmasked tune) but clearly the most serious composition of the bunch. Maybe that’s what made that ol’ Demon start to conjure up visions of The Elder. Hmmm.

Funny how on an album many consider to be a lame dud, there are so many solid catchy rock songs just on Gene and Ace‘s half of the album especially when left with the fact that there really isn’t a clunker to be found among Paul‘s songs on Unmasked. It baffles me sometimes not how “Shandi” is so loved in places like Australia and parts of Europe but how infectious tracks like “Tomorrow” and “What Makes the World Go ‘Round” are pretty much unknown outside of KISS fans. Even the least of the Stanley tunes on Unmasked, “Easy As It Seems”, is as good a song as many other band’s 1980 album single. It may be sacrilegious to some but even compared to some of the huge hair hits of the eighties (Warrant‘s “Cherry Pie” comes to mind) Paul‘s tunes on Unmasked are power pop gems. Sure it’s easy to mention that producer Vini Poncia took part in writing four of the Starchild‘s songs here but it has to also be considered that while Poncia also took part in writing every track on Unmasked aside from”Is That You?” and two of Ace‘s tunes, Paul‘s songs still shine the most.

Maybe the biggest fault on Unmasked for KISS fans is that like Dynasty, it contains more spit shine and polish than earlier KISS records even if it is loaded with great songs overall. In a way even that comment is funny as Destroyer, arguably KISS‘ greatest record, was a huge production jump for KISS not just as far as polish but also as far as increasing the group’s commercial sound at the time. Certainly not to compare the two albums as one is a certified classic and the other merely a classic to some, but one did contain a soft piano ballad that turned album sales around and the other, a ballad that helped increase KISS‘ popularity in other parts of the world. Bottom line though, if anything Unmasked is an album filled with great, catchy, well-written songs by all involved and throughout the history of rock and roll there have been many long-forgotten or lost albums worthy of the acclaim of many top albums, and in some cases, worthy of much more.

Yeah, maybe Unmasked isn’t the greatest album ever… Heck as much as I love it, I won’t even say it’s in the top ten of the best KISS albums but track by track it is certainly more deserving of any mediocre rating it has been labeled with if anything for the fact that every song is a solid one. Every song has a hook and pretty much each one is catchy enough to sing along to. Yeah, maybe a bit more pop rock than the average KISS fan might dig but up to that point KISS was way more rock and roll than any hints of heavy metal they might welcome in the near future. But for some of us KISS fans, Unmasked is much more than any certain kind of record or another bit of KISS-tory to debate or compare. Like KISS fans who first discovered KISS in their unmasked ’80s period, those lucky enough to be among the first to join the KISS Army at the beginning or like me, first stumbled unexpectedly across the band with their ear pressed to a bicentennial radio station, Unmasked stands as an important nostalgic stop on the KISS journey for many fans including myself.

At night, a concealed kid edged close to his bedroom stereo as magical rock sounds danced around for these headphoned ears only and by day, a fourteen-year-old American teenager surrounded by 1980 Germany armed with little more than just a raccoon tailed boombox and pockets filled with spare batteries and cassettes loaded with songs like those on Unmasked to push every step. Yeah, these days, adult life might take way more effort but back then I was still hopeful and wide-eyed enough to believe that mainly it was rock and roll that makes the world go ’round. That being said, even now when I just need a reminder that tomorrow still brings new surprises and highs, all it takes is a quick break from life to slide on some headphones, breathe, and get recharged by letting the nostalgic childhood energy of rock and roll talk to me.

Track List:
01. Is That You?
02. Shandi
03. Talk To Me
04. Naked City
05. What Makes The World Go ‘Round
06. Tomorrow
07. Two Sides of The Coin
08. She’s So European
09. Easy As It Seems
10. Torpedo Girl
11. You’re All That I Want

Band Members:
Paul Stanley – rhythm guitar, vocals, lead guitar (2), bass (6, 9), guitar solo (1, 5, 6, 9)
Gene Simmons – bass, vocals, rhythm guitar (11)
Ace Frehley – lead guitar, acoustic guitar, vocals, all guitars and bass (3, 7, 10), guitar solo (4)
Peter Criss – drums (credit only)

Additional Musicians:
Anton Fig – drums
Vini Poncia – keyboards, percussion, backing vocals
Tom Harper – bass (2)
Holly Knight – keyboards

Produced by Vini Poncia
Mastered by George Marino

Band Websites:
Official Website

Reviewed by Lance Lumley and John Stoney Cannon for Sleaze Roxx, May 2020

KISS‘ “Shandi” video: