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Kiss’s non-makeup years started in 1983 and came to a close in 1996 with the reunion of the original four-member group. It’s a short period in the context of their overall history but it was the do-or-die time for the group, an era where they worked hard to shake off the cartoon/kiddie vibe that had overtaken their public image at the end of the ’70s. The music they produced during this time was variable in quality for a number of reasons – constantly shifting lineups, Gene Simmons being distracted by other areas of showbiz and a tendency to follow trends rather than lead – but there’s also a decent amount of it that deserves a reevaluation by hard rock fans.

If you’re interested in exploring all the ups and downs of this intriguing era, rock book specialist Greg Prato has produced a worthwhile guidebook in Take It Off: Kiss Truly Unmasked. Each album from Lick It Up through Carnival Of Souls gets a chapter. It’s worth noting that the final makeup-era outing, Creatures Of The Night, gets grandfathered into the rundown because it was reissued with a non-makeup cover and a couple of remixes during this era (this works because this album also represents the unofficial beginning of the commercially up-to-date “non-makeup” Kiss sound).

Prato kicks off each chapter with a critical essay on the album being covered that mixes his thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the album, mixed with well-researched historical facts to provide context for the band’s motivations behind the album in question. He strikes the right balance between the fondness for the group and a search for meaning you’d expect from a fan with the clear-eyed assessment of the work’s foibles you’d expect from a critic.  For example, he’ll make a case for the back-to-basics appeal of Hot In The Shade but isn’t afraid to admit it has too many songs and too much experimentation while pointing out which songs fall short.

The author also adds in some worthy sidebars: fun examples include a look at the movies that Simmons starred in during his side-career as a film actor during these years (wait ’til you read about Never Too Young To Die), a rundown of the solo albums produced by former Kiss members in the ’80s and ’90s and explorations of the group’s music videos and VHS releases during the non-makeup years. Perhaps the coolest of these sidebars is a surprisingly involved and descriptive rundown of on-camera interviews that the group did during this era, complete with commentary on the nature of the Simmons/Stanley relationship and how it varied from interview to interview.

In a savvy move, Prato enhances the complexity of the book’s viewpoints and critical commentary by bringing in a variety of voices to supplement his work. For example, you get to read Richard Christy from the Howard Stern Show testify to his childhood love for Animalize and Brent Fitz make his case for Hot In The Shade. There’s also a nice collection of thoughts from different people, connected to the band and outside it, that pay tribute to the gone-too-soon Kiss drummer Eric Carr. Of particular interest is a recurring feature with Curt Gooch, who is known to Kiss fans for writing an excellent history of the band’s concerts called Kiss Alive Forever. He provides excellent detail on how the tours went, what the setlists and stage design were like and how the fortunes of the tour reflected the fortunes of the band at that time.

Even better, there are interviews or self-penned features by people who have worked with the band. A notable example is Bruce Kulick, Kiss’s lead guitarist between 1984 and 1996, who chimes in with his thoughts on Alive III and a guide to the guitars he used during the non-makeup era. You also get a chat with Ron Nevison, producer of the uber-controversial Crazy Nights album, who offers a frank assessment of the songwriting situation in the band during that time. There’s more where that came from: Charlie Benante of Anthrax talks about being produced by Simmons and Paul Stanley for the Kiss My Ass tribute album, Richie Ranno of Starz gives fascinating insight into how the Kiss conventions began, etc.

In short, Take It Off: Kiss Truly Unmasked is a must-read for the Kiss fanbase because it provides a fresh look at an underexplored run of albums in the band’s history as well as tons of new background info and commentary that will enhance fans’ understanding of the factors that influenced those albums. If you grew up with the non-makeup Kiss on the radio and MTV, you’ll find this book a rewarding read.