Kiss Symphony Review

Kiss, the self-proclaimed “most outrageous band in the world” recorded a concert with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra earlier this year. Anthony Nield has reviewed the Region O release of Kiss Symphony, a two-disc DVD set that allows the home viewing public to experience the event.

As such bands as Deep Purple and Metallica had done in the past, Kiss performed a concert on February 28th of 2003 backed by a symphony orchestra. Sanctuary have now released a two-disc DVD to commemorate the event consisting of a documentary and the full concert.

The documentary occupies the entire first disc and spends its 94 minute running time detailing the events leading up the concert, followed by said concert’s orchestra accompanied final section. To be honest, this is something of a cheat as this latter footage, which begins at the 33 minute mark, is identical to that featured on the second disc, and as such doesn’t really justify Sanctuary’s claims that the DVDs’ total running time is 3 hours 39 minutes.

That said, those first 33 minutes are hugely enjoyable, being a ridiculously straight-faced account of rehearsals and sound checks. Adding to this, we have some overly earnest commentary from all four band members (their intention is “to give an orchestra teeth it never had before”) and the occasional intertitle detailing just how vast the entire stage show is: “enough power to run a city”. Sadly, considering how this video diary takes itself so seriously, the expected This is Spinal Tap… moments don’t materialise, though as said it still proves to be hugely enjoyable, primarily owing to the sheer bizarreness of the situation, though also because the band are clearly having fun, and quite frankly, it’s infectious. However, it should be noted that this part of the disc is fairly extraneous, it’s raison d’etre being, of course, the concert itself…

The gig was split into three acts: the first, in Gene Simmons’ words (from the ‘Rove Live’ interview included as an extra on the second disc), was “your traditional Kiss concert”; the second, an acoustic section accompanied by the Melbourne Symphony Ensemble; and the third with the complete orchestra. This works to the band’s advantage, insofar as the songs themselves all follow the same trajectory, namely self-congratulatory odes to either women (‘Strutter’), sex (‘Dr. Love’) or rock ‘n’ roll (the self-explanatory ‘Let Me Go Rock ‘n’ Roll’), and all feature simplistic lyrics (the chorus to ‘Lick It Up’ consisting of the title being repeated three times) and intermittent guitar solos. And yet, perhaps strangely owing to the band’s huge record sales, it isn’t the music that matters, it’s the performance.

Unsurprisingly, this part comes of the best; all the usual pyrotechnics, displays of Simmons’ overlarge tongue, stage flying, and, of course, the face make-up is in place. Which is exactly why the filming of the gig is so disappointing. Directors Jonathan Beswick and Victor Burroughs have decided to make at least one cut every second, often from two cameras focusing on the same person but at slightly different angles. Not only is this somewhat nauseating, it also renders the stagecraft almost incomprehensible. As said, this is Kiss’ speciality (as anyone who saw the band’s contribution to the BBC’s wonderful Dancing in the Street documentary series will know), yet this rapid-cut editing reduces it to the occasional flash of what is going on; more often than not the camera is focusing on the female members of the audience rather the band themselves.

This isn’t to say that the filmmaking is the sole problem, the band also occasionally shoot themselves in the foot. Whilst one of their main joys is how unpretentious they are, this is exactly the criticism that can be levelled at the second act, the unplugged section. Not only does it consist solely of maudlin soft rock ballads, it also produces the concert’s first major Spinal Tap moment, when drummer Peter Criss, in full cat-face make-up, pulls up a stool in front of a string quartet and softly croons ‘Beth’. Admittedly, there is a certain entertainment due its sheer ridiculousness, yet the fact that the following five songs follow exactly the same pattern (though, thankfully, with Criss back behind his drum-kit) soon reduces the hilarity to nausea.

Backed by the full 60 piece orchestra for the final act, Kiss do manage to pull this section off with aplomb. Their lack of any self-importance proves to be extremely welcome here, and as such the likes of ‘Love Gun’ (with titles like that how could you be self-important?) take on a wonderful mock epic status which really shouldn’t work. Of course, the spectacle of every classical musician, as with at least 95% of the audience, similarly covered in Kiss make-up also aids the process, and indeed there is none of the cringe making that the similar endeavours by Deep Purple and Metallica produced.

Of course, it doesn’t always fall on the right side of entertaining. There’s a definite incongruity in seeing Gene Simmons flying about and regurgitating fake blood whilst being accompanied by assorted flutes and cellos (which he refers to as a violin at one point) that was never going to work. More astonishing, however, is the song ‘Great Expectations’ performed with the additional backing of the Australian Children’s Choir, again replete with make-up. Undoubtedly, this is pure Spinal Tap and I’m sure whether my entertainment had anything to do with the music as such. Indeed, this question rears itself a number of times during the concert, and in attempting to answer it you can never respond in a truly positive light. Certainly, it proves to be an enjoyable experience, yet the fact the music is never better than adequate prevents it, at any point, from verging on greatness, although it’s debatable as to whether Kiss are even hoping to achieve this, and I suspect they do satisfy their humble aims.

The Disc

As with most of Sanctuary’s releases, the sound options consist of a simple two-channel stereo, DD5.1 or DTS. Surprisingly, there is little dramatic difference between the three, with the latter two options only utilising the front speakers for the most part. Of course, there is a marginal step up in clarity, though those without DTS or even 5.1 capabilities are not losing out on a great deal.

The picture is similarly satisfactory, though never astounding. As said, the decision to edit the concert in as rapid a fashion as possible is distracting, though thankfully the disc never suffers from this choice. Likewise, any problems with the image are due to the source material, and the digital cameras used to capture the event are merely adequate.

Rating the special features is a more difficult challenge. As the disc contains a documentary plus the entire gig, the presence of a reasonably diverting 13 minute snippet from the ‘Rove Live’ television program, and an acoustic performance on said show, shouldn’t really be seen as a letdown. That said, the lack of subtitles for these extras, as well as the main contents of the disc, is a disappointment.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Sep 17, 2003

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