November 23, 2009
By Joe Ardent

Once you get past the grease paint, spandex and 35 years of mainstream merchandizing, Kiss is a rock band to be taken seriously again.

As the band rolls into Southern California nearing the end of what it considers its most successful concert tour in decades, Kiss is seeing a real resurgence in fan support and critical acclaim.

"Sonic Boom," the band's first studio album in 11 years, topped Billboard's Rock Albums chart shortly after its October release, according the band's Web site. Many reviewers are calling it the best Kiss record since 1977's "Love Gun."

Kiss performs Tuesday night at Honda Center in Anaheim, Wednesday night at Staples Center in Los Angeles, and Friday night at the San Diego Sports Arena.

The "Kiss Alive 35" concert tour has been wildly successful, said lead guitarist Tommy Thayer in a phone interview on Friday.

"You know, just the whole world of Kiss the last year has been phenomenal," he said. "We started the tour a year ago in Europe and South America. That was kind of the cornerstone of really getting the ball rolling leading up to this whole new resurgence of Kiss. We started noticing in Europe that a lot of young kids, along with the longtime Kiss fans, were coming out. And it was really exciting. We hadn't seen much of that in recent years."

Because the band members - Simmons, Thayer, guitarist/singer Paul Stanley and drummer Eric Singer - live in the LA area, the band considers this stretch of the tour its "home games."

"This is always an exciting part of the tour for us," Thayer said. "Southern California is going to see the very best of Kiss."

Of course, all the traditions that made Kiss' live shows spectacular - Simmons breathing fire, spitting blood and flying, the pyrotechnics, the costumes 0 are back. Kiss has ramped it up even more with a bigger stage presence and a giant video screen for this tour.

"The Kiss show is bigger than ever right now in terms of staging," Thayer said. "A lot of the basic elements of the show are here that have been around for a long time. That's what makes Kiss Kiss. If you didn't do a lot of that stuff, people would wonder why not. So that stuff will continue to be there.

"The video production is the latest and the greatest thing," he said. "For a band that kind of invented the theatrics, the pyrotechnics, we've taken the video to another level. We're making us appear huge on the screens. We're a visual band, so people want to see those characters up close. It's quite awe-inspiring, even for me."

In making "Sonic Boom," Kiss returned to the basics, despite the fact that Thayer and Singer were in and original members guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss were out.

Thayer said the new foursome approached the album like a brand new band would. They decided to write their own songs and do everything their way, with no outside influences.

The result was something the band was proud of, and the loyal fans and critics applauded.

"Paul said recently that when he goes home, he goes to a house that was built on bad reviews," Thayer said. "All the complementary reviews this time around have gotten him scared. It'll probably sound biased for me to say, but the band is more for real now than it ever has been."

As big as 2009 has been for Kiss, next year may be even bigger. Kiss plans to launch its "Sonic Boom" tour in Europe next summer, and 2010 may also be the year Kiss is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The band was nominated for the first time earlier this year.

"The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination is amazing," Thayer said. "That's a real nod to the original members of the band. They should have been in a long time ago, if you ask me. No band has been bigger longer. It's a travesty that they're not in there already."

Thayer, who originally joined Kiss in 2003, is more in awe of its marketing machine than embarrassed by it. He was a longtime Kiss fan, even before touring with them as a member of the '80s metal band Black 'N Blue.

Seeing Kiss' image on everything from M&Ms to lampshades -- thanks to a new deal with Walmart -- is all part of the band's success.

"Believe it or not, for Gene and Paul, this is a rock band first," he said. "The music and the live show is the core of what Kiss is, along with the image and the look and the characters. We take it to the next level with the merchandising and promotion. One thing drives the other. Kiss really was innovative. They've been doing this longer than anybody. In the '70s, a lot of bands thought it was a sellout. But now everybody has to do it. It's almost the biggest part of the business."

And nobody in the industry has done it quite like Kiss for the past 35 years.

"Not only are they very good musicians and very creative, they've been able to create this great band and be able to market it as well," he said. "Most musicians aren't able to do this the way they've done it. It's unique. You don't create a band and continue for 35 years without being exceptional at what you're doing."