Heavy-metal monsters rarely die but eventually collapse under the accumulated weight of their own leaden riffing, Tarzan-like singing and boorish macho arrogance. Three new albums by Kiss, Humble Pie and Judas Priest merely represent different ways of trying to avoid the inevitable.
Once the clown princes of glitter rock, Kiss started cooling their riotous act on vinyl last year with Dynasty, openly courting AOR radio with the disco-inflected "I Was Made for Lovin' You." Melissa Manchester's ex-producer, Vini Poncia, provided the proper sanded-down sound. Unmasked, again masterminded by Poncia, is practically devoid of the mad, amped-up ravings of such head-banger faves as Love Gun and Alive! In fact, "Shandi" almost suggests the Doobie Brothers in Kabuki makeup, with Paul Stanley's dreamy voice floating on a calm sea of high harmonies and shimmering guitars.
Worse, rockers like "She's So European," "Easy as It Seems" and "You're All That I Want" are disappointingly tame. Bulldozing guitars and bloodcurdling vocals take a back seat to teeble hooks in Poncia's lifeless production. That deafening roar of yore might have been an artistic dead end, but the current schlock just isn't any fun—and this band, even at its most obnoxiously excessive, has always been fun. Consumers, beware: contrary to the LP's title, Kiss flash nary an inch of undisguised flesh on Unmasked, the group's last record with drummer Peter Criss.
The only thing notable about Humble Pie's reunion album. On to Victory, is how bad it is. Once the raunchiest of the British blues-rock bands. Humble Pie—who had the good sense to call it quits temporarily in 1975—are back and beating the bejesus out of Otis Redding's "My Lover's Prayer" and the Motown oldie "Baby Don't You Do It," along with several instantly forgettable originals. Technically, this is a refurbished Pie, with original members Steve Marriott (guitars, overwrought R&B bawling) and Jerry Shirley (drums) joined by ex-Jeff Beck singer-guitarist Bobby Tench and New York bassist Anthony Jones. But these guys dredge up the same old sound: half-baked boogie as tedious as it is hopelessly outdated. They shouldn't have bothered.
Birmingham bashers Judas Priest, on the other hand, deftly defy death on their latest volcanic eruption. British Steel. A considerable improvement over such previous Priest plodders as Sin after Sin and Stained Class, the group's seventh American LP rocks with a classic heavy-metal vengeance. Indeed, the new record seems fueled by the machine-gun rhythms and crackling guitar attack of punk offspring like the Ramones and the Damned. The result is a collection of killer cuts: the rollicking "Rapid Fire." "Breaking the Law" and a Kiss-alike called "Living after Midnight" that's better than anything on Unmasked.
Kiss are going pop, while Humble Pie are stumbling around like dinosaurs waiting for another ice age to put them out of our misery. At least Judas Priest are waging a war. On British Steel, they even sound like they're winning.