Released: 18 September 1978
Track List: Rip It Out; Speedin’ Back to My Baby; Snow Blind; Ozone; What’s On Your
Mind?; New York Groove; I’m in Need of Love; Wiped-Out; Fractured Mirror
Best song: “Fractured Mirror”, or “Rip It Out” if you need lyrics.
Worst song: “Snow Blind” is the most boring, I suppose.
On your not-so-humble reviewer’s 5th birthday, the four Solo Albums were released. Kiss was (whatever else you may think of them) one of the hardest-working bands of the 1970s and deserved a vacation. If they had paced themselves a bit more, taken longer breaks between records, spent some time apart, would Ace and Peter not have fallen into substance abuse so badly? Who knows? But in 1978 they took a break — not from recording, but from each other — and produced the Solo Albums.
Unlike their more intellectual contemporaries Yes, who took a similar solo-album break in the mid-70s, Kiss not only released their solo albums on the same day, but with the same cover artwork and packaging format; each contained a folded up poster of the member in question; each had its own distinct highlight color on the track list and member’s portrait, Ace’s being blue (his makeup by the late 70s was the only one which included blue around the eyes); and each one was dedicated to the other three members of the band (and to no one else, except for Peter’s, which was also dedicated to a friend of his who had passed away, so one can understand).
Ace had recently become a bit of a breakout star in the band, having sung his first lead vocals on Love Gun‘s “Shock Me”, and Paul even touts Ace’s singing as “a little surprise for you” on Alive II, so it probably didn’t help the rising tensions in the band when his solo album outsold all the others (although Gene’s went higher in the Billboard charts). A number of reviewers have retrospectively declared Ace’s to be the best of the four. If you’ve read my introduction to the Kiss reviews, you know this album is near and dear to me. But let me tell you more.
We jump right in with a solid crunchy riff a la the beginning of “Detroit Rock City”, but a bit more mid-tempo, for “Rip It Out”, Ace’s hard-rock lamentation of a broken heart. Again, what makes so much of Kiss great is the straightforwardness, and Ace plays that card (get it? “Ace” playing a card? anyhow …) here: “I think it’s better if we just part and don’t say goodbye.” “I hope you suffer.” And that solo! And the soloing over the outro chorus! This song ought to be in the dictionary next to “hard rock”.
“Speedin’ Back to My Baby” is a bit more silly of a rocker with all the “maybes” and the 1950s’-esque female vocals going “ooh, speedin’ back, ooh, speedin’ back.” The internal rhymes of “station” with “acceleration” are bizarrely catchy. It’s not “Rip It Out”, but it shows Ace re-imagining Hard Rock As Oldies, so good on you, Mr. Frehley.
Now for the drugs. “Snow Blind” and “Ozone” pull back that curtain a bit. “I’m snow blind, think I’m lost in space.” “I’m the kind of guy / who likes feeling high / feeling high and dry / and I really like to fly!” When I was a kid, I didn’t know what they meant; I just liked the songs for being catchy and having cool guitar riffs. They are catchy. They do have cool guitar riffs. They’re fun to listen to on their own merits … but as an adult, they’re also a sad reminder that by 1978, Ace’s self-destruction is in progress, and the glory days of Kiss are sadly numbered.
“What’s On Your Mind?” has the jangly guitar tone Ace occasionally showcased, but unlike say “Sweet Pain” on Destroyer, it feels really right here. This is another song about relationship issues. When I was a kid, the little outbursted “Tell me!” in the middle was oddly startling. But yet again, what it comes down to is crunchy riffs and blunt lyrics. “You’re breaking my heart / I’m falling apart.” “If only you would give me a reason why you’re so uptight.” And to end the side, the song actually has a coda instead of a fadeout. Yay!
The big hit — indeed, the only Solo Album song to get played regularly at actual Kiss concerts — is “New York Groove”, which Ace didn’t write, but covered (it’s a Russ Ballard song); but he’s made it his own. And he’s actually from New York, and he loves the place. The song can be put in the “anthemic” category. Great stuff, solid steady beat, bright-sounding but uncomplicated guitar work.
“I’m in Need of Love” is a weird one. It’s got a very drugged-out production, with lots of delay effects on the guitar and lots of up and down slide notes. And it sorta gets rough and jagged at the end when the lead licks go up several octaves. Very trippy, which is probably not an accident, but the words are once again a simple expression of desire: “I’m in need of love / and I’m hopin’ you’re in need of me.” Ace is not a master of lyrical subtlety (is any member of Kiss?) and he does not try to be.
“Wiped-Out” is another “drugs” piece. Again, as a kid, the high-pitched “wiped out!” and maniacal cackling at the beginning was actually a bit scary; it sounded to Little Me like the Wicked Witch was saying “I’ve got you, my little pretty! You’ve been wiped out!” Then we get into Yet Another Good Crunchy Ace Riff and the party starts — literally, as he tells us “Went to a party, dressed so smartly”. Smartly? Unusually good adverb for this, Ace! Well played!
But the song winds up telling us about his substance escapades (“So I thought to myself, wine was out, we should switch to rum!“) And unlike “Snow Blind” and “Ozone”, even as a kid in 1979, I got the message. You can practically hear Mr. Mackey, decades in advance, saying “Drugs are bad, mkay?” So good job, Ace, you set a good counterexample when I wasn’t even six years old. Still, if we simply ask “Is it decent hard rock,” the answer is “I can’t hear you, because I’m listening to this great hard rock song.”
Now the big finale, worth (for me) the price of admission all on its own: “Fractured Mirror.” As a little kid, my awareness of instrumental music was minimal; you start by singing, right? So here’s a song with no words … that still sang somehow. “Fractured Mirror” has the “layered” structure of good counterpoint. After a chiming bell plays us in, Ace starts a bright melody on the high strings. After a few measures, the percussion starts, and after a few more, a single distorted chord overlays the melody. When it fades, the chord is played again. And again, several times. Then it becomes a riff. But the jangly melody is still there, changing key to meld with the riff. The riff goes through — dare I say it — variation. And then a third melody enters the fray, with a much more modulated sound, almost an ethereal whine, over the others. And before long, the fourth comes in, displacing the third (but not the first two) and bringing the song to its climax. Then a fifth harsh one, a rhythmic distortion, enters at the bottom, and gradually all except the first fade out. And we’re left with the first melody alone, which cheerfully plays itself out. FIN.
This song blew my mind as a kid. I identified it as my favorite song until well into my teens. I can’t stress enough how much this song was involved in my growth from someone who likes songs into someone who loves music.
Now if you approach it as an adult and someone who already appreciates music, it won’t change your life, but it is likely to change your perception of Kiss, or at least its lead guitarist. At this time of writing (2017) Ace is still alive and well and making music, and currently sober; one wonders how different things would have been for Kiss, and for him, if he had been clean in the 1970s. Would his music have been better, or blander? Would the original Kiss have stayed together, or would he have left for something different? We cannot know, but it’s natural to wonder.
One question that should be asked with all of the Solo Albums: How is this like (or unlike) a Kiss album? I actually consider this the second most Kiss-like of the four (after Paul’s). It’s got hard rock and songs about love. They’re less overtly “romantic” than Paul or Peter’s sappy ones, and vastly less “sleazy” than many of Gene’s (and some of Paul’s), but they’re still “hard rock love songs”. On the other hand, it also has the drug songs, and the only Kiss song in that category to this point has been “Cold Gin” on the debut album … and guess who wrote that? “Hi, my name is Ace.” “Hi, Ace.”
If you consider yourself a fan of anything generally described as “hard rock”, you owe it to yourself to give this album a try. Nothing on it revolutionized the larger musical world (not even “Fractured Mirror”), but it’s full of catchy riffs and enjoyable (and emotional) solos. Ace is not the fastest guitarist ever, but at least when he plays you know that yes, he has a soul, and for all his numerous flaws and mistakes, one gets the impression that ultimately it is a good soul, and I’m not sure we can say that of all three of his bandmates. But enough about the next album …