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(Stripping the Gears is a new feature of this blog: two new music releases a week, one from the mainstream and one from the underground. Because the music industry is as polarized as everything else now.)

KISS
Monster
09.10.12
UMG

If a 43-year-old claustrophobic can sit in a tiny capsule for three hours and then fall from space, breaking the sound barrier with little else but his middle-aged body, there’s no reason KISS can’t attempt their umpteenth comeback on the wrong side of their fourth decade. Like any good showbiz survivors, these two sexagenarians — Paul and Gene having finally realized that anyone can dress up like a cat or a spaceman — long ago became separated from the pop culture moment, existing as their own untouchable, self-contained comic book Kabuki fantasy of sex, blood, and glitter: the KISSverse.

What’s amazing about Monster, their first daredevil stunt since they proved they could still rock convincingly with 2009’s Sonic Boom, is that it broadcasts right from the heart of that dimension. Their army does not want them to grow old gracefully or accept their irrelevancy, and Gene and Paul are happy to comply, vacuuming the last of their hair-metal nadir out of the production and rewriting their past in a way that is, stunningly, still effective.

In fact, this might very well be the tightest KISS album of all time — nothing moves with the same muscle as “Detroit Rock City,” and there are no instant megaton glitterbombs on the order of “Calling Dr. Love” or “Christine Sixteen,” but you also won’t come across any ballads, or symphonies, or storylines, or dance numbers. This is real KISS Alive!-style stuff, lean and mean and not fucking around: cuts like “Shout Mercy” and “Eat Your Heart Out” and “Last Chance” are gonna fit perfectly inside the new setlist, perfectly ensconced among the classics. And unlike his contemporaries — Stephen Tyler and Brian Johnson, we’re looking at you– rocking and rolling all night for 40 years doesn’t seem to have affected Paul’s voice one bit. (Gene, not so much.)

Recorded refreshingly analog, Monster functions like a slightly cheesy but astonishingly effective time machine, as gloriously shameless as ever. If it seems like “All For the Love of Rock and Roll” is some sort of cover, that’s only because punk band the Tuff Darts already made a different song with the same title… way back in 1978. You guys.

Impact: 70. Going analog was the perfect decision… KISS ironically sound a lot less irrelevant when they don’t modernize.
Innovation: 60. This album lives sometime around the Bicentennial, but it takes talent to make that year sound fresh yet again.
Integrity: 85. You wanted the rest? You got the rest.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor
‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
01.10.12
Constellation

Considering all they’ve done to destroy traditional notions of rock music, it’s oddly comforting to see kings of post-rock Godspeed You! Black Emperor acting like a traditional band, even in a meta sense: returning after a decade-long hiatus, their comeback merely finds them consolidating the styles of their precious landmarks, synthesizing all the elements, and playing to their strengths. There’s literally nothing here that longtime fans haven’t heard before, especially since most of these works were worked out in concert long before they made it to Ascend.

That also means that GY!BE’s most exciting days are behind them, but what they do is still so potent, so unique to them, and so far ahead of their stylistic descendants that it’s still capable of taking your breath away — new fans are finding that out every day, too, if you can believe it. Besides, working it out on stage is what good prog bands do. Like any mature act, they’ve simply learned to do more with less.

Indeed, at “only” four “songs” and a collective 50 minutes, this should have the feel of a Zero Riot-style stopgap EP for this Toronto collective. But the late-model Godspeed offers a condensed hour: the ambient experiments and field recordings are gone, keeping the focus more on the noise than the color, and thus maximizing the emotional impact, just like a “real” rock band. The opener, “Mladic,” is the thesis, removing the airbrushed affect from everyone’s least favorite GY!BE experience, Yanqui UXO, keeping the wall of guitar feedback, and crafting their clearest vision of apocalypse yet.

Indeed, Ascend’s two extended pieces and their shorter drone comedowns, based to varying degrees in Middle Eastern tonality, create a perfect soundtrack for the growing turmoil in that region, and few other noise “artists” remain that relevant, even if the broader arena-rock strokes can make it sound like Bono is about to save the world during the early passages of “We Drift Like Worried Fire.” It only means that after a decade and a half, rock is finally meeting these guys more than halfway. And it hasn’t earned them yet.

Impact: 90. No one does the mind movie better than GY!BE, and they’ve gotten better at editing.
Innovation: 78. If you’ve never heard the group, this is a great place to start… but they’re capable of more.
Integrity: 85. They sound slightly less idiosyncratic, but damn, is that relative.

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