Hotter than Hell
1974: Casablanca Records 824 147-2
This album seems to have a bit of a bad rep these days, always being described in retrospect and in a context that hadnt 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 itthats for sure, with Goin Blind still seeming a bizarre choice to include among all the other tracks, and Watchin You sounding like desperately loud fillerbut most of it. If you dont 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, Ill 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 contributionsin vocal and instrumental performance as well as in songwriting and musical style. This album gets knocked for audio quality, too, but I dont find it to be horrendous, just uneven and sometimes quite appropriate for the gritty muscle they were flexing at the time.
Taken as a wholeand I do like to listen to the whole thing in sequenceits 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 Crisss 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?). Its 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 Frehleys lead guitar alongside Paul Stanleys 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, theres 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 Stanleys songwriting: a passionate, macho-bombastic lover (despite the odd enunciation/accent) still recognizing his lovers validity and needs. Unlike Gene Simmonss songs, in which its 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 Frehleys 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 hadnt been singing those silly verses (with his silly voice) as emphatically as he did. (On the live recording its more like a story told among bragging male friends.) I think its safe to describe Let Me Go, Rock & Roll as a rock concert/party vehicle written to be just that, and it certainly didnt fail in that effort; its 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 Im not so sure, because I can see a similar range of topography across them both even though the peaks and valleys arent 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 doesnt sound like anything else Kiss had done by this point its not quite Country, even though it seems to high-step over into that territory a little here and there, but its 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 thats followed by Comin Homeanother slightly-too-happy-sounding song that seems to be more Pop than Rock despite the guitar/bass/drums machinery cranking it along. Ive 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 its 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 Crisss great vocal and Ace Frehleys genius lead guitar (and not just the solo). It ends the album with a guillotine cut that hasnt 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 Zeppelins mightier When the Levee Breaks, but Strange Ways doesnt quite have that sustained musical dramatic power.
As for the album artwork well well, thats a toughie alright. Usually when I see it I think DAMN that is garish, and yet Im so used to it that I cant fully convince myself its ugly even though logically I know it is. Decades later (thanks to the Internet and Kisss 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.
Comments © 2012 Mark Ellis Walker, except as noted, and no claim is made to the images and quoted lyrics.