Graded on a Curve:
Rock Your Face Off

Generally, when a band I love puts out a new LP after a decades-long absence, I run for cover. I just know it’s going to suck, and its makers are going to be superannuated versions of their former selves, reminding me that I’m not getting any younger either. And what’s the percentage in that? Besides, why sully fond memories?

But I made an exception for Baltimore hair/glam metal legends Kix because I adore its 1981 eponymous debut—which included such immortal tunes as “The Itch,” “Yeah Yeah Yeah,” and “Kix Are for Kids”—even more than my Light-Up Crazy Faux-Hawk with blinking LED lights, which I like to wear around the apartment while saying things like “Sod off, geezer” and “Johnny Rotten’s a bleeding gobshite, I saw him last night in queue for an ELP concert” to my cat, whose general response is to walk away in disgust at my stupidity.

And I’m glad I did, because Rock Your Face Off, the group’s first LP since 1995’s Show Business, kix ass. That’s the good news. The not-so-great news is that Rock Your Face Off is not as good as Kix’s first album. But then again, none of the five albums Kix put out between tantalizing the world with the sheer brilliance off its debut and breaking up in 1995 were as good as said debut. It’s debatable—as is most everything in this world but the fact that Gene Simmons is an unsightly creature possessing an IQ with a negative sign in front of it—but I consider Kix’s debut the second best American metal album to come our way since 1980, topped only by Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction.

What made Kix’s debut so great? Two things. First, the album was chock full of startlingly original melodies, with virtually every song adding some new twist to metal’s musical lexicon. Second, it was bona fide hilarious, thanks to lots of charmingly self-deprecating lyrics, which found perfect expression in the elastic vocals (show me another metal singer who can do a dead-on Elmer Fudd impersonation, I dare ya!) of singer Steve Whiteman. Kix constitutes a quasi-parody of cock rock, inverting as it does that genre’s typically misogynistic dynamics by making Whiteman—especially on “Yeah Yeah Yeah”—the feckless loser on the playing field of fornication. As such it makes a great double play with Anal Cunt’s Fuckin’ A, which also parodied cock rock by taking precisely the opposite tack, i.e., gleefully supersizing the sexism to truly despicable proportions.

While the band’s subsequent LPs all rocked balls, they were both more uniform in sound and devoid of the first album’s myriad laugh lines. In this respect Kix is the Charm City equivalent of NYC proto-punkers The Dictators, who failed to follow up on both their debut’s sonic variety and its plethora of LOL lyrics. And so it goes with Kix’s new one. It will indeed rock your face off—I strongly recommend you consult your plastic surgeon before listening to it—but it won’t make you bust a gut laughing, nor will it make you marvel at the band’s sheer musical audacity. What it does, mainly, is solidify Kix as the U.S. of A.’s best-ever retort to AC/DC, and while that’s hardly something to sneeze at, songs like “The Itch” off LP No. 1 have always led me to expect and hope for more.

Some brief history: The band began life as Shooze, finally woke up to the fact that Shooze was perhaps the worst band name in history, and wisely changed its name (following a brief stint as the Generators) to Kix. In addition to vocalist Whiteman, the band included two formidable guitarists in Brian “Damage” Forsythe and Ronnie “10/10” Younkins. (How’d Younkins come by the nickname? I dunno. Perhaps he chugged half a bottle of MD 20/20 once.) And last but not least Kix boasted a crack rhythm section in Donnie Purnell—the band’s chief songwriter—on bass and Jimmy “Chocolate” Chalfant on drums.

While Kix’s great songs and tongue-in-cheek attitude set it apart from the rest of the hair spray herd, the boys really made their bones by way of blitzkrieg touring of the east coast, often playing shows in Boston, hometown Baltimore, and Miami on the same night. (Okay, so that’s not true. They usually played Atlanta as well.) And this relentless touring finally paid off with 1988’s Blow My Fuse, which went platinum.

Unfortunately Kix was unable to follow up on this success, and put out two more LPs before taking a seemingly permanent hiatus in 1995. In a recent interview, Whiteman attributed the band’s demise to a decline in interest in hair/glam metal in general: “The genre was kicked out of the party. And we were part of that genre that got kicked out. I just thought there wasn’t any interest anymore for our music.” But you can’t keep true genius down, and Kix finally reunited in 2003 sans Purnell, although it inexplicably released just one artifact, 2012’s Live in Baltimore on CD/DVD, between its 2003 comeback and Rock Your Face Off.

Rock Your Face Off consists of eight speed-limit-breaking rockers, three slightly slower numbers, and one excellent power ballad, most of them about the band’s raison d’être: girls. Dirty girls, mean girls, sticky girls, girls who will collar and chain you, girls who will love you with their tops down, and I could go on but won’t. The important thing is there isn’t a loser in the pack, thanks to the band’s exuberant melodies, super-tight playing, and gads of great backing vocals, to say nothing of Whiteman’s pliable-as-ever vocal chords, which deserve their own star on Hollywood Boulevard.

LP opener “Wheels in Motion,” “Can’t Stop the Show,” “Rock Your Face Off,” and “Rock & Roll Showdown” are all paeans to the sound and the fury of balls-to-the-wall rock & roll, and if you don’t like ‘em, well, you must be a commie and probably spent Kix’s long absence secretly dreaming of being an audience member at a taping of Oprah. (Is Oprah still on TV? Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.)

Whiteman sings “Wheels in Motion” at about 1,000 mph, and promises on the slower, more ominous, and very AC/DC “Can’t Stop the Show” to “roll over all the trash like a monster truck.” As for the title cut, it features some monstrously big riffs, lots of great “Hey! Hey!” from the backing vocalists, and a guitar solo that constitutes felonious assault on your ear holes. “Rock’ & Roll Showdown” features more good-natured braggadocio a la “Can’t Stop the Show,” and invites you to “get up, get the lead out, make your way to the rock’n’roll showdown,” which if it includes as much high-caliber guitar play as this tune, you’d be a fool to miss.

Special shout-outs go to “Rollin’ in Honey” and the gooey but great power ballad “Inside Outside Inn.” The former is a head-banging triumph that makes full use of the band’s strengths, including flashes of the band’s old self-deprecating wit (“She’s got all the boys in a regular rotation/I think I’m number three”), and great backing vocals (after Whiteman sings, “She might be 22/Or maybe 35” the band shouts, “Get out!” in disbelief). Whiteman needs a lifeline to save him from this honey, just as you’ll need one to save you from the guitar pummeling you’ll receive from Forsythe and Younkins.

As for “Inside Outside Inn,” it’s one very pretty song with its cool acoustic guitars and Whiteman’s pseudo-Axl Rose vocals, and sounds like your traditional boy loves girl tune until Whiteman makes it clear he’s singing about his wife (“I love makin’ love to you/And those two kids you talked me into”), which makes it doubly sweet and perhaps the first truly adult power ballad ever. It boasts some great backing vocals as well, to say nothing of a guitar solo I’d fall on a grenade for (hell, make that two grenades).

“Mean Miss Adventure” is a high-velocity warning about a woman who will leave you strung up in barbed wire, while “Love Me With Your Top Down” is a slightly slower but just as big and bad number based on a double entendre about cars (of the convertible variety) and what I like to imagine are tube tops, which seem to have gone extinct, making life a far less tacky but also less exciting place. (I remember my first-ever boss, a total eccentric who was renowned for once driving an Army half-track to work, clearly elucidating the company dress code as “no tube tops or flip flops.” The man was a genius.)

As for “Tail on the Wag” it’s a battering ram of a tune whose lyrics are a string of dog-training metaphors, and reminds me of my family’s long-deceased Chinese pug mix Murky, whose curvature of the spine was so pronounced that when called its ass and mug would reach you the exact same time (thanks Steve!). As for “You’re Gone,” it’s a mid-tempo tune about a former lover and as close as Whiteman has ever gotten to sounding peeved (“You think you’re everything/If I don’t worship the ground/Where you fall down”). It features the usual fantastic guitar work of Forsythe and Younkins, as well as some great backing vocals.

A salty salute also goes out to “Dirty Girls,” for its sheer catchiness, 50-car pile-up guitars, and Whiteman’s brief monologue towards the end. Said monologue may pale in comparison to the howlingly funny one he whips out on “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” off the band’s debut, and will not translate as particularly amusing in print, but Whiteman pulls it off by way of perhaps the only vocals in the history of man that can be described as “leering.” I also like the way the band’s group vocals acknowledges they ain’t so clean either (“We are dirty boys/Dirty filthy boys”). As for “All the Right Things,” it features one very cool and bluesy slide guitar opening, and sounds like Cheap Trick at their best thanks to its playful melody and hypnotic hooks. I especially like the lines, “In my backseat with the Jack and the beer/I died as she whispered in my ear/Oh, Oh! OH! OH!”

I have made my peace with the fact that Kix has about a 2 percent chance (I’ve had a professional hair metal statistician, one “Mousse” Mulligan, do the numbers) of ever putting out another LP as brilliant as its first one. But then the world is a cruel place, and on paranoid days I’m certain God has given us debut LPs like Kix and The Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy simply for the pleasure of pulling the rug from beneath our feet afterwards. That said, Rock Your Face Off is a damn good album, even if it doesn’t include any great Elmer Fudd imitations, and I’m happy to report it debuted in the Top 50, a sure sign that Kix, one tremendous band that deserves a standing ovation for its myriad contributions to human happiness, may at long last get its fair due.


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