Ace Frehley putting out new music in 2014 is almost as miraculous as the fact that he’s still floating above Earth’s surface. The original lead guitarist of KISS has lived a little—the oceans of alcohol and boatloads of blow, the endless groupies and piles of money, and a few wrecked cars. The Space Ace might truly be a miracle of science.
Fair or not, he’s also the one original member of KISS with any serious musical cred; his guitar playing has influenced thousands and is an immeasurable part of the band’s sound. But in recent years KISS fans—the ones who make up about 100 percent of Frehley’s fan base—had to wonder if he still had anything left in the ol’ rocket boosters. Space Invader comes five long years after Frehley’s last album, Anomaly, which was his first solo output since 1989’s Trouble Walkin’ (OK, there was a billion-dollar KISS reunion somewhere in there). Now almost eight years sober, Frehley is in fighting shape, both musically and vocally, and Space Invader is his best and most cohesive collection of songs since 1987’s Frehley’s Comet.
Anomaly had some great moments, but it was unfocused as it drifted through tepid hard rock riffs, power pop and proggy instrumentals. A long list of contributing musicians only added to the record’s unevenness. As with his excellent first solo record (released in 1978 simultaneously with the other members of KISS, and easily the best of the bunch) Frehley does most of the heavy lifting on Space Invader, handling all guitars and vocals, and most of the bass duties (he’s accompanied throughout by drummer Matt Starr). It doesn’t reach the greatness of 1978, but Frehley does occasionally tap into his inner free-wheeling mad scientist.
First single “Gimme A Feelin’” is the best pure rock song he’s written since 1979, a throttling, windows-down scorcher with a couple of ripping solos squeezed into those four minutes. In fact, he unleashes a fury of juicy, string-bending, squealing, sloppily perfect solos throughout Space Invader (Frehley’s rhythm and bass playing are solid as well, and thoroughly cranked). The only thing missing are the hummable, songs-within-the-song leads he pulled off in classics like “Shock Me,” “Firehouse,” or even “Rock Soldiers.”
Space Invader includes a few other Ace-isms that date back to his KISS days. There are some pedestrian lyrics (“Now you’re lookin’ so tight, I’m gonna make you feel just right” from “What Every Girl Wants”), and a couple of flat choruses that sound like they were tacked on to otherwise good songs (“I Wanna Hold You,” “Space Invader”). But, as always, what the Space Ace lacks in substance he makes up for in delivery, style and a little green blood flowing through his veins. And songs like the excellent “Immortal Pleasures” and the sneaky-good “Reckless” could eventually find a place among Frehley classics. Add a couple of wildcards—a serviceable cover of Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” and the proggy, Zep-flavored instrumental “Starship”—and Space Invader goes on enough detours without getting lost.
Frehley really drives home the space theme this time around, from the album’s title and cover art (expertly illustrated by Ken Kelly, who also inked classic KISS covers for Destroyer and Love Gun), to the songs themselves (“Past the Milky Way,” “Inside the Vortex”). It’s a little heavy-handed, but maybe a message to his former bandmates that there is only one true Space Ace (Hint: it ain’t the guy currently filling Frehley’s moon boots in KISS).
Of course, no one sounds like Ace Frehley; he’s a guitar god. Space Invader is good rock album, and it’s an even better guitar record. While KISS has tried to capture its classic sound on recent albums, Frehley continues to do what’s come naturally for the past four decades: Plug in, and let the good times rock and roll.