What was the best hair-metal band of the ’80s? Guns N’ Roses is the obvious answer, and Axl Rose did have some impressively big hair in the “Welcome To The Jungle” video, but that band (smartly) distanced themselves from their Sunset Strip peers as quickly as they possibly could, effectively and consciously transcending the genre that birthed them. Def Leppard, similarly, flew the hair-metal flag at a few key moments, and they released at least two absolutely bulletproof albums in the ’80s. But Def Lep were hair-metal the same way the early Killers were indie rock; their association with the genre was glancing at best and opportunistic at worst. Mötley Crüe and Poison and Twisted Sister and Skid Row all had classics, as did lesser-knowns like Faster Pussycat and Girlschool. But none of them was as good as Kix. There’s a very good chance you’ve never heard of Kix, but they are my pick for best hair-metal band ever, and it’s not close.
Historically, Kix were a total footnote, and their one real national hit, “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” was a B-level power ballad, one that you probably don’t remember if you’re not at least 30. At their commercial peak, they were opening for Ratt on tour. But in their hometown (which, not coincidentally, is also my hometown), Kix were total gods, rulers of the legendary downtown Baltimore white-trash rock club Hammerjack’s. Throughout my childhood, their horny rave-ups stayed in heavy rotation on local radio: “Cold Shower,” “Girl Money.” The band’s virtues were all very much hair-metal virtues: Their gleaming hooks, their headlong momentum, their absolute shamelessness when it came to barely-veiled sex metaphors. Frontman Steve Whiteman had a strangulated yelp that was obviously descended directly from that of original AC/DC howler Bon Scott, but he was also capable of carrying huge melodies, especially when the rest of the band joined him on backup harmonies, and his endless trying-to-get-laid monologue on the first-album track “Yeah Yeah Yeah” didn’t stop being funny when he embellished on it, David Lee Roth-style, during live shows. But when Whiteman dialed back the schtick, you could hear a ridiculously sharp new-wave tunefulness in the band’s compositions; at their best, they were the closest thing to the Cars that glam-metal had going for it. Chuck Eddy, the first person who hired me to write about music, wrote that the band’s self-titled 1981 debut was the second-best heavy metal album of all time in his 1998 book Stairway To Hell. There’s a lot of willful contrarianism in that book, and metalheads love to scoff at it. But if you listen to that self-titled album, or any of the four that followed it, you’ll hear a band absolutely in control of its own gifts, completely nailing everything they set out to do. This is all a long way of saying that Kix’s new reunion album Rock Your Face Off, the band’s first effort in 19 years, is a total blast, and other than Spoon’s They Want My Soul (which I already wrote about here), it’s the album you need to hear most this week.
Now: I realize that this album, and this band, are a tough sell on this particular website. For all the solid-gold jukebox classics the genre produced, indie types are still apt to look at ’80s glam metal as a total joke, as the sort of major-label foofery that Nirvana washed away like a cold rain. But there was nothing prefabricated about Kix. They were not an industry band. Baltimore is a grizzled working-class town with a pretty significant white-trash near-hillbilly population, and that was completely Kix’s audience. They made music completely suited for getting drunk and blowing off steam, at least in part because it was music about getting drunk and blowing off steam; it was music that spoke to its audience as directly and unpretentiously as, say, the Circle Jerks spoke to pissed-off California teenagers. And within that genre, Kix found space for joy and playfulness and craftsmanship. Their persona was cartoonish devil-may-care Bugs Bunny shit, but their songwriting level was, and is, way beyond what you’ll hear on a typical indie rock record. When I hear a song like “Cold Shower,” I hear as many ideas at work as I do on, I don’t know, the last MGMT album, with the crucial distinction that Kix turned those ideas into breezy, accessible anthems rather than up-its-own-butt silliness.
By all rights, Rock Your Face Off should not be a good album — at least not any more than, say a new Trixter album should be. Kix have been reunited for a few years now, but they’ve been playing the lower tiers of the metal-reunion circuit, hitting on the smaller stages of things like the Rocklahoma festival. They’re working without founding member Donnie Purnell, who wrote many of their best songs. Perhaps more to the point, they’re the type of band capable of naming an album Rock Your Face Off, and doing it without any detectable trace of irony. The album’s first single is called “Love Me With Your Top Down.” Its final song is called “Rock & Roll Showdown,” and it’s about going to a rock and roll showdown. There are love songs, but they’re mixed in indiscriminately with the fuck-everything-that-moves songs. The production is clean and loud and hyper-compressed, and nobody in the band has any interest in incorporating any musical influences from after, say, 1990. Wheedly guitar solos abound. This should be total “where are they now” sideshow material.
Instead, Kix have made an album with all the spirit and joy and craftsmanship that they always brought, an album with a hooks-per-minute ratio enough to grab you even if you never heard of the before reading this review. The band plays with a sense of rhythmic push-pull that reminds you that people used to dance to this stuff, and that they still could, if they were so inclined. “Rollin’ In Honey,” about having so much sex that you feel like you’re drowning, rides cowbells and backing-vocal chants that push the song close to bubblegum-disco territory. “All The Right Things,” which has a line about feeling your jeans getting tighter, starts with a blooz-guitar rumble that turns into fast-and-savage New York Dolls riffage. “Dirty Girls” has the sort of chorus that seems built for the hair-metal strip clubs that presumably no longer exist. “Mean Miss Adventure” is rockabilly filtered through early-’70s Ted Nugent and early-’80s Van Halen. Nearly every song has oh whoa whoa backing vocals that will get stuck in your head for hours. All of it is delirious and catchy, and it proudly flaunts its out-of-fashion party-hard spirit. It’s glittering trash, made by guys in their fifties who probably hold down day jobs these days and who have no business making this vigorous and fun anymore. Its mere existence is an inspirational thing, and it’s a reminder that sometimes exploring new musical space isn’t the most important thing. Sometimes, songs are the most important thing.
Rock Your Face Off is out now on Loud & Proud.
Other albums of note out today:
• Spoon’s commandingly catchy They Want My Soul.
• Twin Peaks’ scrappy garage rocker Wild Onion.
• The Rosebuds grand, shiny, Justin Vernon-co-produced Sand + Silence.
• Adult Jazz’s way-out art-pop debut Gist Is.
• Bear In Heaven’s spaced-out synth-rocker Time Is Over One Day Old.
• Cold World’s rap-heavy hardcore frenzy How The Gods Chill.
• Chrome’s reunion effort Feel It Like A Scientist.
• Veteran instrumental rockers Tuatara’s mood piece Underworld.
• Naomi Punk’s jittery, unstable Television Man.
• Lost Boy ?’s fired-up indie-pop charmer Canned.
• Katie Kate’s DIY pop debut Nation.
• Dikembe’s punchy, melodic, generally emo Mediumship.
• Frightened Rabbit frontman John Hutchinson’s self-titled solo debut under his Owl John alias.
• Columns’ mathy hardcore attack Please Explode.
• Spider Bags’ lo-fi rocker Frozen Letter.
• Bölzer’s Soma EP.
• Lil Silva’s Mabel EP.
• Divorcee’s self-titled debut EP.
• Roses’ Dreamlover EP.
• Lusine’s Arterial EP.
• Eliot Sumner’s Information EP.
• Ladada’s self-titled debut EP.