By this point in your music-listening life, either you're a KISS fan or you're not. I happen to be a KISS fan, dating back to when my godmother — my godmother! — bought me Alive! and Alive II for Christmas when I was about 10 years old. I was hooked. That said, Alive III sucks, and I had serious reservations about Alive IV. Not only is guitarist Ace Frehley absent from the proceedings, replaced in space-age makeup almost sacrilegiously by longtime band cohort Tommy Thayer, but I had no clue how the elegant musicianship of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was going to click with KISS' simple song structures. I'm pleasantly surprised by Alive IV's ability to capture my imagination, although I'm appalled at how bad bassist Gene Simmons' voice (never the band's strong point, anyway) has deteriorated since I last saw the band live in 1998.
Recorded during a one-off gig at sold-out Australia's Telstra Dome, Alive IV opens with six songs performed solo by KISS. "Act One," as it's dubbed here, plays like a miniaturized version of the set the band's been performing since 1996: "Deuce," "Strutter," "Let Me Go Rock & Roll" and "Calling Dr. Love." "Lick It Up" and "Psycho Circus" are tossed in to represent subsequent KISS eras. The second half of the first disc features five songs performed with the 12-member Melbourne Symphony Ensemble, which adds a more three-dimensional unplugged vibe to "Beth," "Forever" and "Sure Know Something." The real surprise in "Act Two," though, is the inclusion of the disco-pop ditty "Shandi," pulled from 1980's uninspired Unmasked.
The second disc contains "Act Three:" 10 tracks — six of them from 1976's Destroyer — recorded with the full face-painted, 60-piece orchestra. And it rocks harder and heavier than you can imagine. Rousing, often brass-heavy arrangements by conductor David Campbell inject new life into "Detroit Rock City," "Do You Love Me," "Shout It Out Loud," "I Was Made For Lovin' You" and "Rock and Roll All Nite." But there is something discomforting about bringing out the 24-member Australian Children's Choir — basking in KISS makeup, no less — to sing along on the slightly skanky groupie ode "Great Expectations."
Frehley's guitar is missed, as Thayer does little to leave his own mark on these songs, and Simmons has become a liability — at least in the vocal department. Drummer Peter Criss, on the other hand, returns gloriously to the KISS fold after being dismissed in 2000, his drums resounding with stadium-ready bombast and boom. Even singer and guitarist Paul Stanley can still hit most of the high notes.
The orchestra sounds stoked, the crowd goes nuts and the stage, judging from the three dozen or so photos included in Alive IV's elaborate packaging, replicates the Alive II and 1996 reunion tour look — elements that should translate even better via the DVD slated for release in September. Until then, Alive IV (the first release on KISS' new vanity label) emerges as an impressive experiment that would have packed more credibility if KISS had done it before Metallica back in 1999. Still, for a change of pace and KISS as you've never heard KISS before, Alive IV succeeds. The band has taken its biggest risk since the reunion tour and given fans a worthwhile souvenir of the latest annal in what the band annoyingly refers to as KISStory. That's about all KISS fans can ask for at this point. And if you're not a fan, you probably don't care, anyway.