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KISS – Alive IV
Is this how KISStory ends?
In a way, it’s perfectly, wittily right – a grand celebration of a life in the glorious gutter, three decades’ worth of music as beloved as it is disreputable being performed in the most lavish, over-the-top manner possible: backed by the 60-piece Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
It could have been a messy disaster, but on KISS Symphony: Alive IV – a vivid record of that February 2003 performance, and the first release on the band’s own label — it sounds like a triumph. The songs themselves are surprisingly ripe for symphonic accompaniment; new shades are teased out of the overworked KISS catalog left and right, and it’s an undeniable kick to hear these tunes in a new light.
Drummer Peter Criss, never known for technical accuracy, could have been the weak link — but instead he’s the greatest surprise here, hitting with a precision no one could have guessed he had in him. Co-leaders Paul Stanley (vocals, rhythm guitar) and Gene Simmons (vocals, bass) are, as always, consummate performers, never missing a lick. None of the three have ever sounded better.
It’s not who’s present that drags Alive IV down, it’s who isn’t. Original lead guitarist Ace Frehley bailed out of the band’s seemingly endless “Farewell Tour” (as Criss had done previously), and his parts are played here by former Black ‘n’ Blue axeman Tommy Thayer. Thayer’s playing is dazzling and confident, no mean feat for a guy stepping into such intimidating shoes on decidedly short notice, in less-than ideal circumstances.
But Thayer isn’t Frehley. He can put on the “Spaceman” makeup, sure, but he lacks the cracked genius and, most of all, the chemistry that his predecessor brought to the band. If fans aren’t really getting the chance to see the original lineup one last time – which was the ostensible purpose of the “Farewell Tour” in the first place – then it becomes depressingly obvious that KISS is being kept on life support for simple moneymaking purposes. That’s a shame, and one that keeps Alive IV from ever fulfilling its potential. It’s highly doubtful the band will pull the orchestral stunt again should Frehley rejoin (that is, if he can be torn away from helping bored yuppies with too much money live out their childhood dreams at “Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp,” which is one way he’s been spending his time lately), so the fans will never really get to hear how the precious chemistry of the original lineup would have mixed with a symphony.
It’s hardest to forget the three-legged dog status of this version of KISS on the first six tracks, which feature the band au naturel. It’s nice to have these spirited renditions – “Let Me Go, Rock & Roll” sounds especially fresh — but something is perceptibly off. The magic isn’t there.
Frehley’s MIA status is less bothersome on the remainder of the 21 tracks, spread over two CDs. The raw-band numbers are followed by five acoustic songs backed by a small ensemble, and this provides several of the loveliest moments. The most endearing among them is perhaps the finest version of “Beth” on record, as Criss’ rare lead vocal is bathed in the warmth of a real orchestra (rather than the usual taped accompaniment) and the layers of poignance that grow on the nakedly sentimental lyric with each passing year. The second disc offers the all-out attack of the electric band and full orchestra, and it’s just as assaultive – in the best possible way — as you would imagine. In KISS, more has always been more.
Throughout, one of the delights of the KISS-plus-strings equation is that it forces the band to rethink their set list, pulling out the little-played likes of “Shandi” and “Great Expectations.” But even with the most overplayed warhorses, it’s a daring way for fans and band alike to reconsider the KISS catalog — the MSO’s swooping, soaring sound offering a new perspective on the melodies that have always been KISS’ secret weapon, the reason their music has proven indestructible thus far.
Too bad Alive IV is also a nagging reminder that these days, KISS isn’t really KISS at all.
– Chris Neal
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