Early reviews are declaring KISS' new album, Monster, a bona fide comeback triumph, the full fruition of what they'd first hinted at on 2009's back-to-our-roots jam Sonic Boom. Those critics are on to something: It's indeed their hardest-rocking and most consistent release since 1984's Lick It Up.
Then again, the boys have been in this position before -- several times over, in fact. As with The Rolling Stones, many of KISS' '80s and '90s records -- Hot in the Shade, Revenge and Psycho Circus, to name a few -- were initially hailed as comebacks (i.e. stone-cold proof that KISS were once again hungry to make killer rock 'n' roll). Ultimately, though, none of them were too terribly memorable.
The same cannot be said of cult favorite Creatures of the Night. Released in 1982, it was the very first KISS album to earn Comeback Album status. But even though it underperformed in terms of sales (reaching just No. 45 on the Billboard 200), over the years it has become one of the more beloved entries in their sprawling discography. Not only that, but within the KISS Army itself exist a considerable number of soldiers who firmly believe it to be the group's absolute peak, better than even Alive!, Rock and Roll Over or the mighty Destroyer. They have a good argument: A case could be made that its wildly loud onslaught of screaming hot licks, megaton drums and howling choruses is the most thoroughly heavy metal slab KISS ever produced.
To understand how Creatures came about, we need to revisit the climate from which the record emerged. By 1981, KISS were a sputtering jalopy surrounded by sleek new muscle cars. Distinguishing itself from hard rock, heavy metal was being pushed to glorious new intensities by the likes of Judas Priest, Motörhead and AC/DC, as well as the burgeoning L.A. hair-metal scene (see Too Fast for Love-era Mötley Crüe) and NWOBHM behemoths like Saxon and Def Leppard. KISS, in stark contrast, went in the other direction, making the grave mistake of releasing a string of flaccid albums that featured detours through both schmaltzy disco-pop (Dynasty) and pompous prog-rock (Music from "The Elder").
KISS weren't alone, mind you. Many of the scene's older titans (Aerosmith, Alice Cooper and Thin Lizzy among them) were then staring down irrelevancy's barrel as well. Others, meanwhile, were simply no more (Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple). Yet there also existed older metal dudes managing to keep up with the Joneses. After leaving an all-but-dead Black Sabbath in 1979, bat-meat connoisseur Ozzy Osbourne swiftly resuscitated his snow-blind career with Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman, both featuring the innovative, neoclassical fretwork of Randy Rhoads. Sabbath answered by recruiting Rainbow crooner Ronnie James Dio. The new lineup -- incorporating the NWOBHM's blitzkrieg assault into its sound -- unleashed a pair of metal monsters: Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules.
KISS' own artistic rejuvenation on Creatures of the Night mirrors that of Ozzy and Sabbath, particularly in terms of shaking things up with an infusion of fresh talent. Though Ace Frehley appears on the album cover, he was a non-factor musically. Handling the bulk of the guitar work instead was one Vincent Cusano (aka Vinnie Vincent, aka "The Whiz"). Not unlike Rhoads, his style was fast, nimble and sharp as razor wire. Moreover, he was an excellent songwriter, with co-credits on three of the record's most effective rockers: "I Still Love You," "Killer" and the awesomely booming anthem "I Love It Loud." Also contributing to their newfound heaviness was drummer Eric Carr ("The Fox"), who had replaced Peter Criss in '80. Clearly influenced by the murderous pounding of Zep's John Bonham, Carr's style was far more visceral, titanic and pile-driving.
Equally central to Creatures' success is its streamlined attack. This is a direct outgrowth of how, in the age of punk and New Wave, such pop-savvy acts as Van Halen, Foreigner and Bad Company helped hard rock shed much of the shaggy lumber that marked it throughout the '70s. Paul Stanley's "Keep It Comin'" (the dude so loves his sexy talk) revolves around a tight-ass funk rhythm echoing the rock-as-club-music aesthetic Foreigner achieved on 1981's 4. Then there's the utterly groovy "Rock & Roll Hell," which, interestingly enough, feels like a downer answer song to Bad Company's booty-shaking "Rock and Roll Fantasy."
In the end, whether you're a KISS veteran or a young rock fan just now discovering the joys of the "hottest band in the land," one thing is certain: Creatures of the Night is meant to be played at MAXIMUM VOLUME! So are these records that helped influence it.