Best song: “Sure Know Something” or “X-Ray Eyes”
Worst song: “Magic Touch”
Yup, it’s the infamous “disco album.” But we’ll come back to that.
The Solo Albums were huge sellers, but only technically: 1 million copies of each were pre-sold, resulting in them getting platinum certified right off the bat, but once they actually released, sales were disappointing, and many people sold them having actually tried them. That’s why you can still (2017) find many, many copies of them in used record stores. They had given the band a desperately-needed breather from each other, but they had done little to heal the divisions. Ace and Peter’s substance abuse remained a problem. Ace’s ego and sense of entitlement had grown, between his breakout hit (Love Gun’s “Shock Me”) and his solo album being by far the best-seller of the four. Meanwhile, Peter’s sense of frustration and alienation from the band had grown; his solo album did the worst, and was radically different in style from the others.
So things were definitely not happy in Kissland when 1979 rolled around. Peter in fact couldn’t drum much, because his hands were injured in a car accident in ’78, and to add insult to literal injury, Vini Poncia, who had produced Peter’s solo album, decided he (Peter) wasn’t a very good drummer. Gene and Paul agreed, and they hired Mr. Anton Fig, who was the drummer for Ace Frehley, and who would later be known as the drummer for the CBS Orchestra, Paul Shaffer’s band on David Letterman’s show. In the end, Peter plays on only one song on the album, the one he cowrote and sings; Anton handles the rest, admirably. The band also hired Poncia to produce the album, and he plays keyboards (keyboards, Kiss fans!) on it.
Despite its reputation for being disco, only three songs on the album have much of it going on; but two of those are the two singles, so that’s how the reputation came to be. Enough caveats; let’s listen.
The very first sound you hear is the disco beat of “I Was Made for Lovin’ You.” This is not hard rock by any means. Poncia’s keyboards play nearly as much of a role as Ace’s guitar, if not more. The song has whip-cracks in it, and not for the feel Gene would have used in “Sweet Pain”. Paul takes a page from Barry Gibb’s Bee Gees playbook with the extreme falsetto “I can’t get enoughs” in the bridge.
The funny thing is, it’s really not bad. In fact, it’s actually pretty good. I mean, if you’re just dead-set against disco, no, you’re not going to like it. But it’s a fun sing-along, the beat is steady, the energy level is good. This is way more rockin’ and accessible than ELO’s epic “Don’t Bring Me Down”; I enjoy that song myself, but the huge orchestration isn’t to be found in the Kiss effort. Kiss is disco rock. ELO is symphonic disco.
Next up, “2,000 Man”, an Ace-sung cover of a Rolling Stones song. Ace definitely makes it his; the “man of the future” theme of the lyrics obviously suit his character, “spacin’ out and havin’ fun,” as the song goes. I have to say the song drags on a bit repetitively by the end, but just as I was starting to go “Hey, you know …” suddenly there’s the short second guitar solo and coda. So all right.
I said part of the riff from Paul’s “Tonight You Belong to Me” would be back, and it happens in the chorus of “Sure Know Something” (specifically, over the title words). The song’s verses have definite disco influences going on, with funky guitar, but when the chorus comes, it’s pretty much the sort of rock you get in “Do You Love Me” or the hard bits of “I Want You”: bright, brash, with Paul belting it.
“I Was Made” and “Sure Know Something” were the two singles; the former, as I said, is actually rather good, but the latter is for me one of the album’s two highlights. “I Was Made” feels like Kiss’s take on disco; “Sure” feels like Kiss starting with disco and then — presto — it turns into a real Kiss song. And there’s something about that lovely descending bit. It’s the simplest thing ever but Paul makes it work so well in not one but two songs.
Peter’s cameo on the album comes in the form of “Dirty Livin'”, which definitely brings the disco. Yet it’s not bad (not as good as “I Was Made”, either). It’s got a nice groove; Gene’s bass is funky; Ace’s solo has some attitude. It’s not “Hooligan”, but it’s not “Baby Driver”, either.
Gene spends “Charisma” musing what it is that women love about him (“is it my personality / or just my sexuality”). It’s not bad, but it’s not good either. The chorus of Paul singing “What is my-y-y charisma-a-a?” is a little catchy, but it’s not enough.
“Magic Touch” is Paul’s work, and it’s … I dunno. It’s lacking somehow. It just never hooks me, neither with riffs nor vocals. It goes on for four and a half minutes and is just forgettable. Probably the worst song on the album, really; everything else has got something engaging.
Ace gives us “Hard Times”, an account of how adversity has made him appreciate stardom and ease. Well, certainly, we can argue that his addictions undermine his argument, but we’re here for the music. The lyrics don’t scan all that well in the beginning; he’s trying a little hard to fit lots of syllables into those measures. The chorus is catchy enough I suppose, but it ends “the hard times / ain’t where I wanna be.” Then the bridge: “I don’t want to be there / or even think back”. So I’m torn here. Are you celebrating them or not? If you don’t want to think back, why spend three and a half minutes singing about them? And when you say “now I’m on the right track” over and over, I just can’t suspend my disbelief. Meh.
Gene then hits us with my other favorite piece from the album (besides “Sure Know Something”): “X-Ray Eyes”. The riff is simple and straightforward. This is actually a nice direct song from the Demon, not being so sleazy. The chorus and title are a nice, simple metaphor, given the failing relationship the song describes: “here’s your big surprise / I’ve got X-Ray eyes / and I can see right through your lies”. It’s just a nice little piece, quintessential Kiss, that could have been an outtake from Rock and Roll Over or Love Gun. Ace’s solo is good. The background vocals add just the right depth: interesting without bombast. There’s piano in the mix, and it’s just part of the instrumentation without taking away the rock power. This is a great song, guys. Awesome.
We wrap up with another Ace composition, “Save Your Love”. This has echoes of “What’s on Your Mind?” from his solo album. “Baby, it’s over!” he blurts out before the chorus. This is a lot more direct than “Hard Times” and there are more hooks in both words and music. Also, I like the fact that Ace knows when to sing and when to shout in these lyrics. Ace ends the last verse with a kissing noise and “So long!” addressed to the woman; there’s a nice solo bit, and then the chorus a few times. They could have wrapped it with one less iteration of the chorus, but for the most part it’s a decent ending.
Dynasty is neither as disco nor as bad as it’s often made out to be, but it is uneven (then again, aside from Destroyer and Love Gun, pretty much every Kiss album is). The disco songs aren’t that bad (Peter’s isn’t great, but after his solo album, if you told me “Peter does a disco-influenced song” I would have expected vastly worse). “X-Ray Eyes” is the forgotten gem here.
In the iTunes era, pick up “Sure Know Something” and “X-Ray Eyes”; add “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” if you want a bigger hit that’s unjustly vilified. Dynasty is the seventh studio album (not counting the studio tracks on Alive II) and it’s definitely middle of the road: not as good as the second trilogy, but better than most if not all of the first.