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Ace Frehley: In The Solo Album Spotlight

Fractured reflections on "Ace Frehley," 35 years later. Is it really that good? You bet it is.

By Tim McPhate

"There's no question in my mind that the competition between Ace, Gene, Paul, and Peter was going to be huge. And certainly, they denigrated the possibilities that he would come up with a good album. They all thought that they were going to have the top album. In fact, what happened was Ace trumped them all with a brilliant album." -- Eddie Kramer

Going into the solo album project, it is no slight against Ace Frehley to say that his LP was going to be the wild card of the quartet. After all, Frehley had only written a handful of KISS tracks (mind you, some klassics such as "Cold Gin" and "Parasite") and sang two lead vocals up until that point ("Shock Me" and "Rocket Ride"). And sure, he had displayed an uncanny ability to craft fiery, memorable solos that fit KISS' songs like a glove. But could Frehley come up with enough musical goods to carry an entire album?

For all the talk about Frehley's laziness, he wasted little time in getting to work on his album. Right off the bat, he made a key decision to surround himself with talent who would help him shine. Bringing Eddie Kramer onboard was a brilliant, if obvious move. The statured producer/engineer had helmed KISS' previous two studio albums, "Rock And Roll Over" and "Love Gun," long players that showcase an Ace Frehley in his musical prime. There was a comfort zone for Frehley in working alongside Kramer, who seemed to bring out an intangible quality in the Spaceman.

In a more curious move, Frehley secured the services of a relative unknown to fill the drum chair: South African-born Anton Fig. It proved a stroke of genius. The classically trained and jazz-schooled Fig added a powerful depth and rhythmic dimension to the album that is still evident some 35 years later. In a twist of fate, Fig learned of the opportunity through one of Frehley's friends, Larry Russell, who was auditioning for Fig's then-band Siren.

"He was auditioning for us and he said to me, 'I've got a friend, Ace. He's doing a solo record and he's looking for a drummer. I think I can get you an audition,'" said Fig. "You know, I had heard of KISS. But to me, KISS was a band on the side of a bus basically. Anyway, I went up to play with Ace."

With his jamming partner in tow, Frehley penned some lethal hard-edged material, with lyrical themes centering around the darker sides of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Outside of the KISS framework, Frehley enjoyed room to experiment musically with different sounds and textures. Appropriately, for his solo project the Spaceman took matters into his own hands by playing a majority of the instruments on the album.

"I played lead guitar, rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar, synthesizer, and bass," boasted Frehley.

Harkening back to his days with Led Zeppelin, Kramer set up tracking sessions for the album at the Colgate Mansion in Connecticut. Sequestered away from the hustle and bustle of New York, recording in the spacious mansion afforded Kramer, Frehley and Fig the perfect fun, creative atmosphere to graft the album's basic tracks. For overdubs, sessions moved to Plaza Sound in New York, which was situated above Radio City Music Hall. Frehley and his team were able to take plenty of time to ensure the tracks were in tip-top shape.

"Whenever we did KISS albums, a lot of times we were on a very hectic schedule," said Frehley. "A lot of times we didn't have as much time as we wanted to to do records, especially guitar solos. In this case, I took two months to record [my album]. It was the kind of thing where I brought all my guitars and all my amplifiers to the studio and sometimes we just spent a whole day on a guitar solo to get the right sound. I think it shows."

Indeed, Frehley's six-string work is superlative throughout, and represents arguably the high-water mark of his career as a recording guitarist. With his battery of guitars and amps at the ready, Kramer and engineer Rob Freeman captured some sterling guitar tones. The combination of Frehley's guitar and Fig's drums made for a powerful hybrid, forming the framework for the heaviest, most sonically assured set of the four KISS albums.

"Rip It Out" gets the album off to a raucous start. Heavy power-chord riffing and a monstrous Fig groove set the right mood for Frehley who sends a kiss-off to some bitch who probably wasn't worth it in the first place. "I think it's better/If we just part and don't so goodbye," growls Frehley. Fig's drum break is arguably the song's high point. (Interestingly, Fig double-tracked his drum solo to add an extra layer of punch.) The drummer's boisterous fills finally give way to Frehley, who tears into a masterful solo ripe with Aceisms -- spaced-out bluesy licks, unison bends, dizzying vibrato, and pull-offs -- that form a cohesive musical statement.

One of the more fun tracks on the album, "Speedin' Back To My Baby" is driven by Fig's sturdy shuffle beat. Centering around the key of G, Frehley's blues-based intro lick is doubled an octave above. Similar to situations on Paul Stanley and Peter Criss' albums, the presence of female background vocals -- provided courtesy of Susan Collins -- add an element of contrast to Frehley's vocals. (Check out Collins cutting loose at 3:06.) However, the cherry on top of this particular track is the Hendrix-inspired backward guitar solo. Today, one click of the mouse in Pro Tools will flip a guitar solo. In 1978, however, there was meticulous craftsmanship involved.

"Ace overdubbed his solo normally, doing any number of takes until he was satisfied with what he played," said Freeman. "After Eddie and I comped a track, I copied the solo onto a piece of ½" tape on another machine and marked the head and tail of the solo with paper leader tape. Then I flipped over the ½" tape and "flew" the solo back onto the multi-track, recording it forwards on the 24-track tape as it played backwards on the ½" machine."

"Snow Blind" gets off to subdued start with a sluggish power chord-based riff that descends in half steps from C5 to A5. After four bars, Frehley plays the rhythm part in a lower position to fatten the sound. (Also, check Fig's coy use of the cow bell.) One of the more deliciously weird tracks on the album, careful listeners will detect spaceship-style sound effects in the background and a nice bit of audio trickery with the delayed repeats when Frehley sings "Lost in space...Ace...Ace...Ace..." The tune kicks into double-time for the solo at 1:42. Underneath Frehley's solo is the ARP Avatar synthesizer, which provides an off-the-wall melodic counterpoint. The Spaceman's lead here is a clinic in how to utilize repetition in a musical manner.

With lyrics such as "I'm the kinda guy/Who likes getting high," the lyrical motif of "Ozone" is hardly confusing. Led by a simple lead guitar melody that is hard to shake, the lyrics take the backseat in this composition, which seems more of a musical showpiece. Tucked in the mix is acoustic guitar, which shimmers nicely alongside Frehley's Les Paul riffing. The solo section is based entirely on triplet-based lines, giving off an exercise-type feel that is atypical for a Frehley lead. "Ozone" is one of the three tunes to feature Will Lee on bass.

"What's On Your Mind?" is a fresh slice of power pop in the key of D, and perhaps a harbinger to such future Frehley gems as "Talk To Me." "You're breaking my heart/I'm falling apart," sings an almost vulnerable Frehley. The song's harmony changes modes between the verses and chorus. The presence of the natural C in the Cadd9 chord in the verse evokes D Mixolydian while the presence of C# natural in the descending chorus chord sequence spells D major. There are little guitar pyrotechnics here, just perfectly layered rhythm parts and a simple lyrical solo. Another fun harmonic tidbit: the song ends on the V chord: A major.

The lone cover on the album, "New York Groove" is the perfect storm of musical ensemble playing and expert production. According to Fig, there was a different approach to this particular song.

"I think that song was recorded more like you would approach a single," said Fig. "The drum part was really defined. I wasn't just jamming and playing."

In delivering one of his more comfortable vocals on the album, there's little doubt that the tone of the lyrics resonated with the Bronx-born Frehley. That feeling surely translated to Russ Ballard, the song's author.

"When Ace did his thing on it, it sounded a bit more mature," said Ballard. "He brought a hooligan, tough guy kind of attitude to it."

A little-known fact is that "New York Groove" was re-cut twice in the search for the perfect take.

"Eddie and Ace arrived at Plaza Sound with a version of 'New York Groove' recorded at the mansion. But there was something about the overall feel of it that wasn't sitting quite right with them," explains Freeman. "Ultimately a decision was made to re-cut the song from the ground up, starting with a new basic track consisting of drums and rhythm guitar. So one day we cleared the studio, set up Anton's drum kit, and recorded a second version of 'New York Groove' utilizing Plaza's nice open room for drum ambiance while Ace played along in the control room. But after careful analysis of Russ Ballard's original songwriting demo (a cassette tape they kept playing over and over for comparison to what we were doing), it was decided to re-record 'New York Groove' yet again with further subtle changes to the tempo and/or drum feel. So on another day we set up the drums again and recorded a third basic track for 'New York Groove.' The third one was the charm and became the final version of the song."

"New York Groove" ascended all the way to No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song's success not only caught his bandmates by surprise, but the interior of the KISS camp.

"It was unexpected, which is one of the reasons you do creative projects that hopefully stake out some new territory," said Christopher K. Lendt, who oversaw the business affairs for the solo albums. "I don't know who identified the Russ Ballard song for Ace Frehley but obviously that was a brilliant choice and the way it was produced was perfect for Ace."

The rhythm guitars in "I'm In Need Of Love" rely on a heavy use of delay. Another tune that breaks into double time, Fig and Lee hold down the rhythm section while Frehley's busts out his longest solo on the album. The 36-bar lead is a nice study in contrast and contains many of the hallmarks of Frehley's style. For the first eight bars, he brandishes a composed melody, which he doubles with a harmony part in bars 5-8. Frehley then lets loose into a series of improv-based flurries. (Check the rare Ace tap at 2:41). The Spaceman ends his solo with a line built from sixths, coming to rest on the sweet major third note (G#).

"Wiped-Out" is a head-spinning collaboration between Frehley and Fig. Frehley plays a Keith Richards inspired rhythm figure in the verses, revolving around C and D major chords. The drummer takes the spotlight on this track, twisting and turning rhythmic feels during the verses, pre-chorus and chorus, lending an unsettling and unpredictable undercurrent. Lee's slippery bass line and Frehley's wah-wah scratches add touches of funk. (Once again, Frehley ends his solo on the major third note.)

Closing the album is "Fractured Mirror," a hypnotizing instrumental that is both beautiful and ominous. The ringing of a bell in the intro adds an eerie sense of finality as Frehley enters with a arpeggiated guitar figure based on B and A major triads. An open-chord acoustic guitar figure utilizing the open B and E strings follows yields a strong ringing effect. Sparse percussion and thick power chords enter the fray. In the second verse, Frehley adds touches of melody on top with the ARP Avatar synthesizer. His sinister line at 2:34 would not sound out of character in a horror film. As the song fades, the reprise of the opening guitar figures provide a bookend of sorts. The journey is complete.

Certainly the stride Frehley found on his solo album would spill into "Dynasty" and "Unmasked," albums on which he would contribute three songs each. "I would say I'm more confident now as a singer and guitar payer than I have ever been in my life," said Frehley in 1978.

Frehley's musical talents also caught the attention of his collaborators.

"No diss to the other guys in KISS, but Ace was the musician in the band, as far as I'm concerned," said Lee. "He's the real musical craftsman on his instrument kind of guy. What can you say? The guy's a mother-fucker man."

"Sometimes when he plays it's almost like you can hear that mental determination and grit where he'll just force his will through," said Fig. "It's just an inner strength I feel that he has."

Though unbeknownst to him at the time, Frehley set the bar for his career with his 1978 solo album. It's a creative standard he has unfortunately been unable to match. That said, "Ace Frehley" is an inspiring achievement to be proud of.

(For further reading material, be sure to peruse Julian Gill's dedicated KISS Album Focus chapter on "Ace Frehley.")