Essential Albums #5: “Destroyer,” by KISS

KISSBAND

Today, I’ll likely throw pretty much all my metal cred out the window by confessing my undying love to the greatest KISS album of all time, 1976’s “Destroyer.”

Although “Destroyer” is not technically “metal,” the album does contain arguably the heaviest song in KISS’ career, the blazing “God of Thunder.” Meanwhile, hard-rocking tracks like “Detroit Rock City,” “King of the Night Time World” and “Shout It Out Loud” rock enough to keep metal fans happy.

You can read Kiss biographies anywhere, so I won’t bore with too much back story. Suffice it to say, by January of 1976, KISS was poised to indeed become “the hottest band in the world.”

The band’s first live album, “Alive” had been a astronomical success. “Alive” had sold 1 million copies by the time the band went into the studio to record “Destroyer”: The band’s combination of solid rock songs, tight musicianship – particularly guitarist Ace Frehley, although drummer Peter Criss and bassist Gene Simmon were hardly slouches on their instruments – and the strong vocal combination of Simmons and guitarist Paul Stanley had managed to impress rock fans. Meanwhile, the Kabuki-style makeup, crazy costumes and blood-and-fire lives shows were  blowing audiences away.

KISS hadn’t yet crossed the line into comic book caricature that would cause the band members so many credibility problems during the remainder of their makeup years. With the entire rock world watching, the followup to “Alive” had the potential to elevate the band to megastardom alongside Led Zeppelin (who would release their second to last studio album, “Presence,” the same year).

Destroyer didn’t disappoint. In fact, the album proved to be the band’s career pinnacle, where they achieved a level of greatness they were never quite able to recapture.

The album opens with the sound of a television newscast in a diner, with the news anchor (voiced by Simmons), recounts a fatal automobile accident in Detroit. The action then shifts to the soon-to-be-dead teenager getting into his car, gunning the engine and, humorously, humming along to “Rock And Roll All Night.” Then Ace and Paul fade in with the speedy opening riff of “Detroit Rock City,” the first of the album’s six standout tracks. Stanley sounds impassioned as he sings in the voice of the teen. Criss’ drumming is loaded with fills and Gene’s intricate bass lines stand out. There’s no solo, but Frehley and Stanley combine on a surprising twin guitar Spanish melody before shifting back for the final verse and chorus.

“Detroit” ends with a blazing car crash, until the sound of crushing metal is overtaken by a feedback whine and the rolling opening riff of “King of the Night Time World.” Paul Stanley sounds like he’s on fire with energy and the harmony on the chorus is singalong great. Again, there’s not much of a solo to speak of here, but Ace lays down some sweet guitar lines while Peter Criss gallops the track home. “King” is a song that deserves to be remembered by rock radio more often.

“God of Thunder” is Simmons’ first lead vocal of the album and the song is a monster. Simmons doesn’t sing so much as bellow his way through “God of Thunder,” which fits the lumbering, ominous tone perfectly. The main riff sounds like the march of demons, Ace Frehley tortures unearthly sounds out of his guitar throughout and Criss beats the hell out of his drums. An organ kicks in on the last chorus, giving the song an “Addams Family” tinge and the dubs of shouting children add a creepy undertone. It’s the heaviest song on “Destroyer” and is heavier than anything the band had done on past albums.

“Great Expectations” is the oddest track of the album. A complete shift from “God of Thunder,” “Great Expectations” is a song about groupies who would love to love KISS … and God knows there were enough of those (just ask Simmons). The near-ballad features a choir – yes, a choir, singing about groupie dreams of bliss. It’s not the best song here by a long shot … but it is interesting to hear the band expand beyond the traditional rock formula.

Destroyer

“Flaming Youth” is an anthem for the band’s misunderstood young fans. The harmonies on the chorus are impressive and Simmons’ bass work is outstanding: I didn’t realize until recently how bass-driven KISS were in their early days. Stanley again nails it on the vocals and Ace contributes a small solo. It’s a fun track, and much better than the “anthems” the band would pen for future albums, such as “Crazy Crazy Nights.”

“Sweet Pain” impresses with Frehley’s guitar work and strong Simmons vocal. A song about S&M, “Sweet Pain” throws a curve ball with the female backup group on the chorus. Frehley shines on the solo.

“Shout It Out Loud” sounds written for arenas and producer Bob Ezrin captures the live feel perfectly. From the twin guitar opening, Stanley and Simmons trade vocal lines while the band shouts out the refrain. A piano fleshes out the choruses and Ace Frehley, briefly, gets to display his licks. It’s not heavy or “brutal” at all: It’s damn near a pop song … but it’s such a well-executed, likable pop-rock song that it’s irresistible.

“Beth” was an out-of-the-blue hit and is nothing like any of the other tracks on the disc. Peter Criss’ voice is unpolished, which gives the song (which was written for his wife) an honest, lamenting quality. Stanley, the band’s most accomplished vocalist, would not have done the song the same justice.

The orchestration and piano on “Beth” are lovely and subdued: This song was undoubtedly the “couples skate” song at roller rinks all over the country during the summer of ’76. The song has held up quite well over the decades and is still quite moving today.

“Do You Love Me?” turns the tempo back up, with a rolling Criss beat and another great vocal performance from Stanley. The Simmons/Stanley harmonies on the BIG chorus are again pitch perfect. the twin guitars are again used to good effect and the song rides to the fade out on a wave of church bells. It’s more pop than rock (again), but still a home run.

After “Destroyer,” KISS released two excellent albums – “Rock and Roll Over” and “Love Gun” … but after that time, the band suffered from some incredibly bad decisions (who in the world told them to jump on the disco trend?) and began to be eclipsed – first by punk, then by the NWOBHM and finally by thrash. By the mid-1980s, KISS had lost all of its relevance, even though the band – with only Stanley and Simmons left from the original lineup – continued to churn out albums on an annual basis.

But we shouldn’t let what was then the band’s future color the accomplishments of the past. “Destroyer” was a powerhouse rock album that flirted with metal on “Detroit Rock City” and especially “God of Thunder,” while delivering blade-sharp pop-rock songs on every other track. No other KISS album combined those elements so successfully. While other early KISS albums are worth owning, “Destroyer” is the one disc ever rock fan should have in their collection.

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1 Comment

  1. never been a kiss fan but I did have a chance to see them in 2000 or 2001 (for free) so I went to see if maybe the live show could change my mind. Have to say nope but it was entertaining. I honestly was the only person there who didnt know any of the songs so I was the only person not singing along,quite funny.


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