KISS’s “Destroyer (Resurrected)” … and Revisited

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I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear that an album has been “remixed” – I am reminded of that old line about re-fried beans, which essentially points out that the beans weren’t fried correctly the first time.  Such is the nature of the lumbering music business that “remixed” albums have become a cottage industry. I liked it better when they were “remastering” everything because at least you knew what you were getting – some enhanced bottom end and a louder overall signal.

But this remixing business is a crapshoot. It’s a little dodgy to expect that a producer or engineer, or even the band, would remember what they wanted the album to sound like had they been paying attention to the mixing desk instead of the standard recording studio distractions. I mean, does Bowie wake up every five years and say, “Wow, Iman, I just realized that Ziggy sounds like shit…I better get Ken Scott on the phone…again.”  Of course he doesn’t. But you can count on a re-issue of “Ziggy” every five years all the same. The fact is that very few people ever really complain about how those old albums sound. And at the end of the day, the only people who go out of their way to praise the new versions are record company accountants and PR people.

So it should not be any great shock that Universal has elected to release a remixed version of KISS’s landmark 1976 album Destroyer.

For my generation, who in 1976 and 77 were just about getting ready to pop out those first pit-hairs, Destroyer and its follow-up, Rock And Roll Over, were our emancipations from our brothers’ record collections. And those albums rescued us from crap like the Bay City Rollers. And in the pre-punk days of 1976, KISS weren’t just freaks in make-up singing “Rock And Roll All Nite.” They were forging massive alter egos to compliment their massive actual egos. Destroyer was the introduction to this superhero KISS, the lunchbox KISS, the Phantom of the Park KISS (editors note: it was a made-for-TV movie starring the band). For those of us who were just learning the ropes, that album told us everything we needed to know. It  narrates, in subtle-as-Godzilla terms, exactly where the artists and their fans stood; a million miles apart socially, and claustrophobically close emotionally, with dysfunction to spare. Destroyer, for anyone still denying it, is an epic concept album with a clear narrative. I always thought that the only improvement they could make on it was to have the guy in “Detroit Rock City” head-on collide with the rock-stars limousine from “Do You Love Me.” That would have been a wonderfully tragic ending.

The progenitors of Destroyer, however, thought that any improvements should be of the sonic variety. So now we have Destroyer (Resurrected). Album producer Bob Ezrin (Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd) has taken his 63-year-old ears back to tapes he made when he was 27, with a goal towards putting yet another Koi pond in Gene Simmons’s east-bedroom shoe closet. I know that sounds cynical. But when was the last time you listened to Destroyer and thought there was something wrong with the way it was mixed? Nevermind, here’s your chance to buy it again for the first time.

Packaging wise, it’s a bare bones release – one bonus track (“Sweet Pain” with Ace Frehley’s original solo) and no ephemera. Considering they could have released a ginormous boxed set, you have to respect Universal for keeping this one simple and affordable.  The album cover art has been changed to the originally submitted “brown cover,” which the label thought was too violent. This version makes Ace Frehley look even more effeminate than he did on the familiar “blue” cover, if that’s even possible.

Sonically, Resurrected wins big when the source material has something to prove. At the time, the first three tracks comprised some of the most challenging music the band had attempted. The cultural moment encapsulated in that 13 minutes would soon explode into a global phenomenon that made those guys “living-off-interest” wealthy and gave millions of kids a band they could trust right into middle age. And if it all ended with that last piece of noise at the abrupt ending of “God Of Thunder,” I highly doubt that many of the second stoner generation would have noticed. That’s the power of those three songs. And that power is now re-focused with an improved stereo spread.  Ezrin holds back the big reveal until the drums come in on “Detroit Rock City,” which now comes barreling down at you headlights ablaze. Paul Stanley is driving and you’re in the passenger seat, air-guitaring the riff and bracing for impact. I’ll admit it’s an exhilarating ride. But towards the end, it becomes evident that the remix isn’t really adding anything at the elemental level, it’s all re-balancing and EQ done with a paint roller. And about halfway through “King Of The Night Time World…” you realize that’s all you’re getting.

The revelations to come were better off unrevealed. Ezrin may have overdone the drums a bit – they are overly compressed and the high-hat practically devours a few verses. In some places, the kick drum still sounds like the one at the merry-go-round. But the vocals are right up front and the guitars have presence to burn. On the harder tracks, the guitars have a live-in-the-studio feel.  The backup vocals by Ezrin’s kids are a bit louder on “God of Thunder,” which changes the overall effect. It used to sound like they were trailing the demon through the wasteland, perhaps as his minions. Now it sounds like little kids mocking Gene Simmons. Again, there’s no a-ha moment, and the remix starts to feel perfunctory. This is a big bummer because Destroyer, like so many classic records which we apparently now must re-evaluate, is not without its problems in the content department. As we all know, something terrible happens after “God Of Thunder,” and it’s called “Great Expectations.” If the former is this band’s “I Am The Walrus” then the latter is its “Mr. Moonlight.” It would be a year before Bat Out of Hell would validate the inclusion of shmaltz like “Great Expecations” on an otherwise solid hard rock album like Destroyer. Also, Simmons ain’t Meat Loaf. He can’t sing. And the vocal arrangement of this track isn’t exactly “Rock and Roll All Night.” There are subtleties and lilts that a singer of Simmons’s incredibly limited ability shouldn’t go near. Furthermore, if Simmons even has a key, this song is a parsec away from it. But when Simmons croaked his way through it out of my brother’s Fisher speakers back in late ’76, the songs’ production quality and poor execution took a back seat to what the song was actually about.

This is where the remix fails to improve on the original. Instead, it unearths the crap as it polishes the turd. Destroyer’s increased musicality and Ezrin’s re-mix put KISS’s limited abilities on display much like the blow-off in a sideshow; you’ve paid the extra nickel to see something exotic and shrouded in mystery – and when they pull back the curtain it’s just a pig fetus in a jar – well preserved, but nothing special.

Thankfully, Resurrected doesn’t toy with Destroyer’s emotional heart, which has always been laid bare on the album’s second half. The first three songs on side two are all about setting the world on fire, driving you insane and shouting it out loud. Ezrin wisely didn’t overly futz with the mix here, so those sentiments remain intact. But the upgrade makes them sound like they were recorded in 1984 instead of 1976, which gives the impression that these songs were written much later on the KISS timeline. So “Flaming Youth” and “Shout It Out Loud” come off sounding like show-tunes written by a Broadway hack — their angst insincere in the hired hands of someone completely disconnected from the subject matter.  And that reduces them to kitschy paeans to the KISS moment, and makes them seem contrived when you need them to be genuine.

But at least the guitars are in the room now — and “Flaming Youth’s” 7/8 break, which always sounded out of place, now seems like a moment of prog-rock awakening from a band that lived in 4/4.  The harmony-stacked guitar intro to “Shout It Out Loud” borders on lush, and Simmons’ bass gets a Pro-Tools nudge that makes you remember that it’s actually a THREE-part harmony. “Sweet Pain” is still harmless filler – a naive S&M song with a gospel breakdown. The alternate version at the end of the program offers Ace Frehley’s rejected guitar solo, which is no less pedestrian than the Dick Wagner solo they used on the original. Resurrected again defeats its purpose by shedding light on how KISS was now becoming a “thing” – on how the focus was on the commodity and its marketability. If nothing else, Ressurected exposes why they never went down the Destroyer path again. In the end, the lunchboxes won out and we got “Tomorrow and Tonight.” And you can make a case that it all started when Ace Frehley’s solos started getting cut.

If the communal, long-haired party anthems on Destroyer were KISS hocking some early spit into punk’s wind, then “Beth” was the loogie heard ‘round the world. Ezrin ran roughshod over the KISS mythology with an over-the-top string arrangement your grandmother would love. Nobody in the band even plays on it. But get this; “Beth” sounds gorgeous, and not at all out of place. It feels like the album actually builds up to “Beth.” Ezrin, obviously protective of his masterstroke, does finally manage to make the experiment pay off – the orchestra has gone from embarrassing to enveloping. Wagner’s acoustic guitar is felt throughout the mix and gently rises up at the end. Peter Criss’s performance is the best vocal on the album – you have to wonder why this guy didn’t sing “Great Expectations.” (That was a trick question. NOBODY should sing “Great Expectations.”)

Closer “Do You Love Me” does little to dispel the feeling that the entire second half of Destroyer was some lame attempt at rock theater. It ends the album on a note of such narcissism it makes you wish for my aforementioned alternate ending. At least it would have been symbolic, because the KISS that everyone knew up to that point was about to be smeared across the pavement by a speeding tractor-trailer full of KISS merch.

Destroyer was a divisive record for KISS. It won and lost them fans, both for obvious reasons. It gave them their biggest hit single in their most uncharacteristic song. It sowed the seeds for Ace Frehley’s increasing dispensability. It also signaled a sea-change in the band’s musical charter. Their next two albums were Eddie Kramer-produced carbon copies of each other – and both were devoid of ambition. They were cookie-cutter crotch-rock and served mostly as the backing music to KISS’s quest for global domination through touring and merchandising. They are not culturally significant and produced one moderate hit single.

They’re also much beloved, sound like shit and are in dire need of remixing. There, someone complained.

Destroyer (Resurrected) is available now as an iTunes download. A physical release is scheduled for August 21.

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