Review Summary: An album with THESE lyrics and THESE arrangements shouldn't work. And yet, somehow, it does.
By 1976, KISS had finally hit it big. Their hit live record Alive!
had finally introduced the band to a larger audience, as well as to the Billboard top 10. For Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, things were definitely looking up. The other half of KISS, however, remained a problem: guitarist Ace Frehley was a loose cannon, and Peter Criss had always felt like his opinion didn’t count in the band’s proceedings. Only through Simmons’ and Stanley’s apt conflict negotiation skills did the band manage to stay together.
The appearance into the scene of producer Bob Ezrin only made things worse. The now-legendary helmsman, whose main claim to fame back then was having launched Alice Cooper’s career, took a personal interest in what he himself described as “twelve foot tall giants”, and offered to produce their next album. A large part in this was also played by the Ezrin tykes, David and Josh, who first turned their father onto KISS, and who scored a nepotistic guest appearance – on God Of Thunder
- out of it.
Having jumped on the chance, Simmons and Stanley, along with Frehley and Criss, entered the Electric Lady Studios, in New York City, to record what would become Destroyer
. And while the two frontmen were definitely impressed with Ezrin’s meticulous production methods, the backup players were reportedly less than impressed. Frehley skimped out on most of the sessions, sometimes giving the most garish excuses,and forcing Ezrin to hire Alice Cooper supporting player Dick Wagner to register the short, scorching solo on Sweet Pain
and the inaudible guitar on Beth
. (Some sources also credit him with the rather kickass solo on Flaming Youth
, although it is not consensual.) Criss, on the other hand, never hid his discomfort about having to play in more academic fashion, using a metronome and having to understand time signatures. However, in the end, it all paid off, resulting in the best-produced album of KISS’s early days, as well as one of their strongest overall.
Ezrin’s touch is felt throughout. This was a producer known for adding lots of small touches to his artists’ records, and every nook and cranny of Destroyer
is filled with – often literal – bells and whistles. From subliminal keyboards to orchestrations to a friggin’ church choir
, Ezrin’s additions often threaten to smother the group’s visceral rock’n’roll. This ends up detracting from some songs, most notably Great Expectations
, which starts off as a decent ballad, but overdoes itself much too soon. The ridiculously pompous chorus starts off the process, but it’s the addition of the Brooklyn Boys’ Chorus that finally blows the whole thing out of proportion, turning it into a laughable heap of molten cheese. The remaining songs don’t suffer from this syndrome so much, but the constant, unnecessary ringing of bells, keyboards and gospel choirs becomes a little grating.
Another area in which Ezrin heavily influenced the band was the sound. The producer has a hand in co-writing every song on the album, except for Simmons’ Sweet Pain
and Stanley’s God Of Thunder
. It comes as no surprise, then, that these two tracks are the most KISS-sounding of the bunch. On the remaining ones, the band shoots for an overall more accessible sound, incorporating clear influences from other contemporaries. Considering Ezrin’s relationship with Alice Cooper, is it any surprise that KISS come off sounding very Cooper-esque on Great Expectations
or King Of The Night Time World
? Hell, that “chorus repeated but with slowed down, somewhat epic instrumentation in the back” trick used on the latter is vintage Cooper, being easily found on any of the Shock King’s late-80’s records, which, incidentally, were produced by…Bob Ezrin. Similarly, the chorus of Shout It Out Loud
reeks of Van Halen, while the orchestrated, guitarless Beth
could have been an interlude on any prog rock record of the time.
So as we can see, there is huge input from the producer in this album’s sound. However, an area in which Ezrin had very little influence were the lyrics. Even though Do You Love Me
was a conscious attempt to reach out to “the 15-year-old crowd and the women”, according to the producer, the remainder of the lyrics remain vintage KISS –which, as we all know, is far from an asset. Stupidity reaches new levels on Sweet Pain
, a song that, from what I gather, is about getting used to your lover having a big penis (!), while Beth
is about consciously ditching your girlfriend in favour of rehearsing and touring with your band. Great Expectations
, on the other hand, is one of the smuttiest, downright filthiest lyrics I have ever heard, being an explicit account of how KISS’s female audience basically have orgasms while watching the band’s shows. Classy.
The remaining lyrics aren’t so bad, but there are some odd choices. Detroit Rock City
is, according to Simmons, about some fans who had a car crash on the way to a KISS show, yet what it basically amounts to is a typical party-hearty song bookended by eerie car-crash sounds. The rest of the songs split themselves between typically juvenile insurrection lyrics (Flaming Youth
), puerile attempts at bravado (God Of Thunder
, which comes off as a fourteen-year-old’s attempt at writing ‘evil’ lyrics) and the usual “PARTAAAAAYYYY!!” warcries (Shout It Out Loud
, King Of The Night Time World
). Structurally, there are also some problems, with Detroit Rock City
being absolutely shambolic and all over the place, and King Of The Night Time World
getting a little too carried away with its choruses. Not to mention, Gene Simmons couldn’t play to save his life.
After all we have said before, this album had no right to work. It really shouldn’t work, what with the ridiculous lyrics and overblown arrangements. And yet…it does. Blow by blow, this matches Dressed To Kill
as the best KISS record of their early days, if not their entire career. Detroit Rock City
, despite its messy structure, somehow manages to make itself a standout, while Flaming Youth
stands as possibly the only time when Simmons isn’t marching to his own beat and is actually playing along with the rest of the band. The smarmy, insincere Do You Love Me
is, of course, irresistible, having spawned covers by everyone, from Girl to Nirvana, while Beth
doesn’t sound like a standout at first, but eventually becomes one, if only because it sounds different from everything else KISS had done up to then, and because Peter Criss’ vocal performance is rather good. And even the more overblown tracks like Great Expectations
or God Of Thunder
either make you love them or hate them. Unlike previous albums, there are no throwaway, ‘meh’ songs here (Sweet Pain
comes closest, but doesn’t quite rank in that category). The nine tracks are either very good or terrible, mostly the former. In the end, Destroyer
ends up as one of KISS’s recommended listens. If you can get both this, Dressed to Kill
and Love Gun
, you will have all the KISScography you need. It also leaves its mark in history as the only time someone from the outside interfered with Stanley and Simmons’ iron-fisted control of the band. For all these reasons and more, it can’t be anything if not recommended for hard rock enthusiasts
Detroit Rock City
Do You Love Me