Hotter than Hell


1974: Casablanca Records 824 147-2

  1. Got to Choose
  2. Parasite
  3. Goin’ Blind
  4. Hotter than Hell
  5. Let Me Go, Rock ’n’ Roll
  6. All the Way
  7. Watchin’ You
  8. Mainline
  9. Comin’ Home
  10. Strange Ways

This album seems to have a bit of a bad rep these days, always being described in retrospect and in a context that hadn’t developed or happened at the time; in addition to disagreeing with much of the tone of such criticism and its irrelevance, I must say that I personally like this album very much.

Not all of it—that’s for sure, with “Goin’ Blind” still seeming a bizarre choice to include among all the other tracks, and “Watchin’ You” sounding like desperately loud filler—but most of it. If you don’t approach the album with an eye to judge it in comparison with other works by the same group, and you just listen to it, you can hear quite a bit of tight-and-mighty rock music and even songwriting craft.

Having so sanctimoniously decried retrospective judgements, I’ll just note that one aspect I enjoy about Hotter Than Hell is that upon later and repeated playbacks I can now discern and appreciate the individual members’ contributions—in vocal and instrumental performance as well as in songwriting and musical style. This album gets knocked for audio quality, too, but I don’t find it to be horrendous, just uneven and sometimes quite appropriate for the gritty muscle they were flexing at the time.

Taken as a whole—and I do like to listen to the whole thing in sequence—it’s a series of struttings and flexings within a fairly dark framework. Only a few of the songs are in minor keys, but most of them sound dark because of the instrumentation and lyrical tone infusing them. Part of what makes that sound so dark and makes parts of it shine out like flames (but not lasers or even spotlights) is the tonal pitch and beefy audio presence of the guitar/bass combination throughout most of the tracks, carried along by Peter Criss’s drumming which manages to be ponderous only when that sound is called for (“Strange Ways” above all) but usually keeps things sharp and exciting, ever-so-subtly containing all the rest of the heavy audio load.

“Got to Choose” remains my favorite track from this album, all these years since I first heard it (1977?). It’s encapsulated Kiss for me: a no-biggie three-chord structure for the verses, yeah, but the chorus struts in from a different angle and redoubles excellently on each of its second passes with the addition of Ace Frehley’s lead guitar alongside Paul Stanley’s rhythm guitar to thrust the imperative mood of the lyric. When the song comes to a cymbal-shimmering pause at the end of the first chorus, there’s a great sense of anger being held back and careful reconsideration preceding a resumption of the statement of the case; that, with the lyric itself, is a hallmark of Paul Stanley’s songwriting: a passionate, macho-bombastic lover (despite the odd enunciation/accent) still recognizing his lover’s validity and needs. Unlike Gene Simmons’s songs, in which it’s usually “Me! My dick! Worship! Fuck!” in essence, with the demon/beast elements now and then just for franchise color. “Got to Choose” is a treat, and the whole band is on display there superbly, right to the end with Frehley’s voice at the bottom of the stack working the chord by pushing the minor-third on the final iteration.

“Parasite” is just great punchy rock with an almost-haiku-like verse structure…a hilarious quirk amid all the hustle and flash. The title track I first heard on their ALIVE! album and therefore sounded almost detached and clinical when I heard the original version…or it would have done, if Paul Stanley hadn’t been singing those silly verses (with his silly voice) as emphatically as he did. (On the live recording it’s more like a story told among bragging male friends.) I think it’s safe to describe “Let Me Go, Rock & Roll” as a rock concert/party vehicle written to be just that, and it certainly didn’t fail in that effort; it’s exactly what it should be, as such a song, but the Alive! recording takes it up to the adrenaline-hyped goal much better.

Side Two (as those of us who know these albums from their LP forms still think of it) is definitely a different beast from Side One. Or at least I always thought it was; now I’m not so sure, because I can see a similar range of topography across them both even though the peaks and valleys aren’t the same. Things get off to a thumping-but-offbeat start with “All the Way,” which seems to be one side of some banter with a young-but-still-of-age girl who might or might not be romantically/sexually involved with the singer (who seems to be just Gene Simmons, double-tracked, on the verses), and aside from some sinister overtones it could be a late-1950s teenage-rebellion-sympathizing rock song with ironic perspective. “Watchin’ You” is counterpart to “Parasite,” again with a slightly Japanese aspect that may be suggested superficially by the album art (on which more at the end of this commentary): it is framing, staging, posing, and grimacing throughout, with only some nice chord sequences humanizing its rigid drama.

Things take an odd turn at “Mainline,” and this is probably what throws me when I try to think of this album as a whole: Paul Stanley wrote it, Peter Criss sings it, but it doesn’t sound like anything else Kiss had done by this point…it’s not quite Country, even though it seems to high-step over into that territory a little here and there, but it’s far too cheerful in its sound compared to the rest of the album to be seen as anything but a red-headed stepchild (as the saying goes). It may be the precursor to “Hard Luck Woman” and other Peter Criss contributions, but that Paul Stanley wrote it checks my assumptions in that regard.

Things continue to seem slightly off, but not necessarily bad or wrong, when that’s followed by “Comin’ Home”—another slightly-too-happy-sounding song that seems to be more Pop than Rock despite the guitar/bass/drums machinery cranking it along. I’ve never felt quite comfortable with this track, but I think I know why now after so many years of having heard it: first, the completely unnecessary and unhelpful key-change at the end invalidates much of the just-heard song, almost making it seem like a falsehood, and second, the choruses are the culprit behind the cheerful intrusion whereas the verses are safe enough. What this track is missing, essentially, is a dark edge or twist, and its outro plays out with entirely too much sunshine for this group.

Especially as it’s followed by the axe-wielding darkness of “Strange Ways,” which really does sound like I would expect Kiss to sound given their presentation. THIS is dark, dangerous rock of its day sounding much better than their few comparable contemporaries managed to do…sharper, more effectively gathered and expelled in alternation to create a sense of foreboding and tension, and implementing degrees of distortion on Peter Criss’s great vocal and Ace Frehley’s genius lead guitar (and not just the solo). It ends the album with a guillotine cut that hasn’t really been foreshadowed, making it all the more surprising to have the blade fall in all this violent and thrashing darkness. The lyrics are borderline drug-addict-singing-to-drug, which too is darker than anything else Kiss had put out so far. Sometimes when I listen to it I hear psychological echoes of Led Zeppelin’s mightier “When the Levee Breaks,” but “Strange Ways” doesn’t quite have that sustained musical dramatic power.

As for the album artwork…well…well, that’s a toughie alright. Usually when I see it I think “DAMN that is garish,” and yet I’m so used to it that I can’t fully convince myself it’s ugly even though logically I know it is. Decades later (thanks to the Internet and Kiss’s own showing of their archives), getting to see some of the other shots from the photo shoot that supplied the photos here certainly enhanced my perspective of that aspect (e.g., they were all pretty much plastered at the time), but the Japanese and cartoony parts remain oblique to me.