Understanding KISS

From: The Province (Vancouver, B.C.) via Steve Araki
By Tom Harrison, Rock Reporter The Province

How do you produce the institution that is KISS? If you are Bruce Fairbairn, it helps that you've produced the most successful albums in the careers of Aerosmith and Bon Jovi as well as multi-platinum albums for AC/DC, Van Halen and other KISS contemporaries.

You're not going to be intimidated by the KISS mythology or the wide-ranging industry the group has built from it. It helps that you don't know too much about KISS's music and aren't a fan. You're not going to be awed by the group's records or its unimpressive record sales.

Thus, the real Bruce Fairbairn met the real men behind the mythology, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss.

He said: "Boys, you've got 30 albums but only five songs that anyone can remember. Here's a chance to move ahead sonically and with good songs."

They said: "We need a benevolent dictator. We need someone who has the balls to stand up to us or we'll run right over you."

With that understanding, Fairbairn has produced Psycho-Circus, probably the best-sounding album in the KISS catalogue, containing some of the least and most KISS-like songs the group has ever written.

It is the first album the band has recorded in the studio since Frehley and Criss were allowed to re-enter the KISS domain so carefully maintained by Simmons and Stanley, and follows two successful tours with the reunited original foursome.

They'd always said they were four very different, often-combative people and no one could say any of them were virtuosos. A successful studio album would cement the reunion, but to make that record Fairbairn had to understand the dynamics of the personalities within the group.

"The balancing of these four guys is a work of art," says Fairbairn, sitting in the office of his Armoury Studios near False Creek.

"Everybody has their own opinion of what is a KISS record. It was a real exercise to get these guys to play well, though Gene and Paul are quite good players.

"They were well-prepared but definitely not on the same wavelength. That took work but they all agreed they wanted to make a good record. They didn't have their ego hats on."

With lead guitarist Frehley mostly concerned with getting enough solos and drummer Criss "just happy to be there," the direction was set by bassist Simmons and second guitarist Stanley.

Although each member of the group has a lead vocal on at least one of the 10 tracks on Psycho-Circus, the bulk of the songs came from Simmons, who had his written before the group entered the studio, and Stanley, who worked on his as the recording progressed.

"Paul is a nice guy, very sophisticated," says Fairbairn. "But if he doesn't like something, you pay attention. Gene is very business like but he has a warm side.

"They gave me all the rope I needed but, with a guy like Gene Simmons, you know that, no matter how much rope you've got, Gene has a grip on the end of it."

With that rope, Fairbairn got the band to stretch. There are few songs in the KISS repertoire as delicately melodic as I Finally Found My Way. KISS has always tried to write air-punching anthems but few succeed on record as well as We Are One.

It's also a Fairbairn trait to begin an album with a song that acts as an invocation -- a ritualistic intro to the rest of the album. This is the title track (and first single), a contrived piece of rock theatre that addresses KISS's imagery and history.

The self-mythologizing continues with the next track, Within, and on the tracks I Pledge Allegiance, You Wanted the Best and Raise Your Glasses. It's not a concept album but Fairbairn connects these themes and reinforces the record's structure by taking the guitar figure of Psycho-Circus and using it as the basis of a string arrangement on the finale, Journey of 1,000 Years.

"KISS can get away with having an intro and an outro on their albums, and this one has a perspective . . . and a sense of theatre," Fairbairn says.

"If anybody can pull it off, it's KISS. It can use different elements and tricks that may be hokey and over the top to someone else, but KISS can get away with it . . .

"A lot of the the lyrics are directed at the fans and relate to their history. What they can talk about is the theatre of KISS and what KISS is about -- so, of course, some of it has to be contrived.

"KISS has one big advantage over other groups. As soon as they put their makeup and their gear on, they immediately are in touch with who KISS are and what they represent.

"Now, with this album, they've got the gear AND 10 good songs with which they can move forward."