Review Summary: If you aren’t familiar with KISS, this is not a good starting point, and probably won’t appeal to you. But if you like the group to some extent, then it may make a worthy addition to your collection.
After a dismal decade in the 1980’s, KISS picked up a little steam with Revenge
. They followed it up with a kooky, self-aggrandizing tribute to themselves, in 1994, and a tour which recaptured most of their lost fanbase of the 80’s, immortalized in the third installment of Alive
. So from there, it was only a baby step until MTV became infatuated with the group again.
Back when the “M” in MTV still stood for “Music”, the channel was known for their “Unplugged” series. Showcasing none but the most successful artists, the practice spawned career-defining classics for bands like Nirvana and Alice In Chains. The fact that grunge lent itself to this format quite well helped these bands perform above-average and conquer a substantial number of new fans. But KISS was a band known for its electricity: not only in their live shows, but in the albums themselves, where huge riffs were often used to mask musical shortcomings. So when MTV invited Simmons and company to do their own Unplugged
, the doubt lingered: would this kind of sound suit the group"
The answer is, fortunately, “yes”. Although by no means a career-defining album – heck, it mostly preaches to the converted – MTV Unplugged
remains an enjoyable listen, even featuring a couple of standouts.
For this album, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss were admitted back in the fold, the latter requesting a pass for him and his teenage daughter, and subsequently being invited to play. For the rehearsal sessions, strict rules were laid down (well, strict for a rock band): nobody was to get drunk or high, everybody had to practice and get to the studio on time. Ever the rebellious soul, Ace Frehley promptly broke all those rules, very nearly avoiding a second dismissal and making the sessions, in Simmons’ words, “nightmarish from start to finish”.
However, listening to the album, you wouldn’t guess that. This is a tight performance from Criss, Frehley, Stanley, Simmons, Kulick and Singer. The group seems to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience, which – unlike in the Alive
series – actually sounds organic and “real”, being audible throughout. The setlist is similarly laid-back, eschewing most of the hits in favor of long-unheard songs. Nothin’ To Lose
is a standout just for being here, even if it’s far from the best performance on here. The same can be said for 2.000 Man, Goin’ Blind
– Gene Simmons’ college ballad which wasn’t heard since 1974 – and puzzling choices like Comin’ Home
and See You Tonite
. The sad news is, there’s no Detroit Rock City
, but that’s probably for the best, since that song wouldn’t fit the acoustic format anyway.
Now, one thing you should be warned about is that, for KISS, being acoustic doesn’t mean being stripped. Unlike Nirvana’s chillingly visceral performance, Simmons and Stanley come armed with all the orchestra triggers, and they are audibly and unabashedly used in songs like Every Time I Look At You
. Still, the sampled doodads cannot detract from the music itself, and in this particular, Bruce Kulick shows that he is the best guitarist to have ever played in KISS. If anything, his solos sound even better without the aid of electricity, with their sound often coming across as nearly neo-classical. The others all play it straight, and while it’s never a good idea to give much space to Simmons’ bass, he never compromises, adding to the overall high quality of the musicianship.
The songs themselves are more of a mixed bag. The first few tracks make for a breezy listen, losing very little from the lack of electricity. Opener Comin’ Home
is even, arguably, the best song on here, presenting a peppy, fun sound which is later repeated on another standout, Simmons’ See You Tonite
. Arguably the only good song to come out of the Demon’s dreadful solo album from 1979, this song’s only sins are being over too quickly and being stuck in the middle of the worst songs on the album.
In fact, Sure Know Something
, the first weak spot on the album, ushers in a slew of weak songs. A World Without Heroes
is insufferably tacky, from the lyrics right through to the music and vocal performances; Rock Bottom
loses a lot from the format, probably because most of its charm came from its heavy riff; and I Still Love You
is, if anything, even more interminably dull than the studio version, although it provides a nice base for Paul Stanley to flex his vocal chops – and that high note he holds halfway through is pretty impressive! Still, you’re glad when this portion is over, and Every Time I Look At You
pulls you back to Quality Land. One of the best songs on Revenge
, it sounds even better stripped of electricity, and is the complete opoosite of the previous track.
From then on, the album is on cruise control, and the ride to the end is relatively smooth. Beth
starts out by sounding weird, until you realize why – there was no guitar on the original, although this arrangement sounds good; 2.000 Man
is another song that the format benefits immensely, even though its rollicking riff was part of the original’s charm; and Rock and Roll All Night
definitely sounds odd, although we get to hear everybody sing a few lines, with Criss showcasing an absolutely destroyed voice, as well as getting his lines wrong (somebody must have had his share cut off after the show!)
In the end, however, the general feeling is of satisfaction. Sure, there’s some bad spots on this album, but the average-to-good bits far surpass the oh-my-God-awful bits. Plus, the band seems to be having fun. If you aren’t familiar with KISS, this is not a good starting point, and probably won’t appeal to you. But if you like the group to some extent, then it may make a worthy addition to your collection.
See You Tonite
Every Time I Look At You