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Reunion tour could be Kiss of death

It's still weeks before the reunited members of Kiss will face the ultimate test; keeping that pancake makeup from running like an Olympic sprinter in the humid St. Petersburg sun.

They won't hit the ThunderDome until Sept. 20 (tickets go on sale for $45 and $27.50 Saturday at 10 a.m.), but the hype machine has already kicked into high gear for the rock band's first tour with its original lineup and original stage makeup in more than 17 years.

Spin magazine featured four separate covers on its latest issue _ mimicking the four separate solo albums band members released in 1978 _ ensuring that diehard fans would buy four copies of Spin instead of one.

And the band's label, Mercury Records, hopped onboard the Kiss money train with You Wanted the Best, You Got the Best, a collection of tracks from their first two Alive concert albums, a few unreleased tracks and an interview with Jay Leno _ again, ensuring that the diehards would have to buy this new CD, even if they already had the band's three live records.

(If that weren't enough, there's a vinyl version featuring an extra live track recorded with drummer Eric Carr, who died in 1991 from heart surgery complications)

All this activity is supposed to prepare the country for the tour, already hyped as the ticket of the summer _ selling out four New York City shows in 58 minutes, for example. But all it's done for me is reaffirm why I never joined the Kiss Army in the first place.

Put simply, they're a terrible band.

I know, it's a certain sort of sacrilege to say this _ flying in the face of glowing reviews provided by such august publications as Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone. Not to mention the testimonials crowding their press kit from stars ranging from Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker to country music giant Garth Brooks, who said: "My biggest influence through junior high was Kiss. I had all of their eight-track tapes."

And now, through tenacity and a knack for reinventing (or marketing) themselves, Kiss has stuck around long enough to be treated as rock legends _ like Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Lou Reed, they can now do no wrong.

But one listen to You Wanted the Best tells the story.

Hear the plodding, formulaic groove on the until-now-unreleased Gene Simmons feature Two Timer? Notice lead singer Paul Stanley's strained vocals on their hit Rock Bottom? The Rocky Horror Picture Show-style groove and hokey rock 'n' roll sexism in Room Service (also unreleased until now)?

C'mon, be honest. Isn't this a little stinky for a band that's sold over 75-million records in 24 years?

True enough, all these cuts were recorded in the mid-'70s, when sonic and lyrical concerns were admittedly a little lower than today. And some classic tunes, like Parasite, Rock and Roll All Nite and Calling Dr. Love weather the test of time quite well, emerging as seminal rock 'n' roll anthems.

But other songs here _ Stanley's frantic, off key hollering on Shout It Out Loud and the overly-simplistic rock groove powering I Stole Your Love, to name two _ feel like looking at a picture of an old high school flame; you can't even remember why you liked her in the first place.

Like many others, I remember my first encounters with the Kiss juggernaut in junior high school. I remember seeing the comic book and television show _ marveling at how these guys were both rock stars and superheroes; my two favorite things in the world at the time.

I too wanted the lunch box, the Kiss Army shoulder patch and the postcard. I wanted to be down with the hottest band in the world.

Then I heard the music. And wondered what everybody was talking about.

I really wanted these guys to be better than they were. The visual image was so cool, after all _ Simmons spitting blood and stalking around on six-inch platform heels shaped like demon faces; huge explosions and levitating drum kits.

But musically, they were hopelessly lame _ saddled with a singer that could barely sing and a host of generic rock riffs. Even then, as a budding drummer who read Rolling Stone cover-to-cover every month, I knew enough not to believe the hype.

To be certain, in these depressed, grunged-out times, there's a need for larger-than-life entertainers. Just as in the '70s, when overly earnest, folk-influenced singer/songwriters dominated the pop/rock landscape, Kiss fills a need for hyped-up, rock 'n' roll mythology.

That's what makes Kiss fans hyperventilate most these days; the chance to plug back into a band that symbolizes rock 'n' roll's huger-than-thou glamor.

Officially, the Kiss reunion story goes like this (immortalized in a 17-minute taped interview conducted by Jay Leno for You Wanted the Best): drummer Peter Criss met up with Stanley and Simmons at a traveling Kiss convention in Los Angeles last year, they jammed and a seed was sown.

Later, the three recorded an MTV Unplugged record with guitarist Ace Frehley and backing players Bruce Kulick and Eric Singer _ at the time, Criss and Frehley, who had left he band in the early '80s, were joining the contemporary version of Kiss.

That show and CD release went well enough that they decided to pull out the makeup and give it a go again _ over 14 years since they were together in the same band.

"We are so pumped out about going out there and showing people that what they've heard all these years isn't just a fairytale," Simmons says during the Leno interview. "We're going to get up there and show all the bands how the big boys do it."

Let's just hope they do it better than what's on You Wanted the Best. Otherwise, it won't be long before folks start noticing the bitter truth at the center of their rock 'n' roll fantasy.