Alan K. Stout is a music journalist who helped cover rock and pop music for The Times Leader and The Weekender for more than 20 years. He was voted NEPA's "Favorite Newspaper Columnist' seven times and earned a Keystone Press Award for Excellence in Journalism for his music coverage. Though his interviews include conversations with Billy Joel, Steven Tyler, David Bowie, Don Henley and Eddie Van Halen, he's also spent much of his career in music journalism focusing on local talent. He was the founder of the former "Concert For A Cause" and "Weekender/Mountaingrown Original Music Series." His radio show, "Music On The Menu Live," features some of the best music from regional artists and airs every Sunday from 8-9 p.m. Alan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
It was February of 1996, and as the music columnist and music critic at The Times Leader, I was off to cover another event. At that point in my career, I'd already been reviewing shows for about four years, and even prior to that, going back to my early teens, I'd been to a lot of concerts.
This night, however, would not be typical. On tap on this particular winter evening was Natalie Merchant at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre. I showed up, as always, with a notebook and pen and a deadline to file my story. And though I was a pretty seasoned writer at that point and was comfortable with the work at hand, this was to be one of those special nights when the unexpected happened.
It was one of those nights when the opening act - an artist that I had never heard of before - left me awestruck.
Her name was Soraya. She was on Island Records. And obviously by landing a spot on the Natalie Merchant tour, things were starting to go her way. Her songs were captivating. Her voice was beautiful. She was charismatic, yet in a subtle way, and her entire performance was completely engaging.
The next day, I was on the phone with Island Records, asking that they send me a copy of her CD, "On Nights Like This," and her bio. I wanted to write about the record and, hopefully, turn some more people on to an up and coming artist that I thought deserved some attention. And that's exactly what I did.
The album, like her set at The Kirby, was fabulous. I gave it one of the best reviews I'd ever written. I thought, for sure, that she would soon become a star, especially considering this was around the time of the "Lilith Fair" and what was really a golden era of music for female singer/songwriters.
From my review:
"A dazzling-yet-grounded performer with a smile that could stop rush-hour traffic, Soraya's performance was refreshing, inspiring and utterly captivating ... The album is a breezy collection of romantic, acoustic-based ballads that celebrate life's joys, questions its dilemmas and mourns it sorrows .... Her stirring music deserves even more attention.'
Still, though she did later have some commercial success, most of you have probably never heard of Soraya. Adding to her many talents, she was also a bilingual artist, and thus most of her success came on the Latin charts. She also later won a Latin Grammy for "Best Album by a Singer-Songwriter."
I admit I didn't know any of that until recently. Back in '96, I simply loved her show at The Kirby, loved her album, told the readers of our newspaper about her music and - like people often do when they think they've found something special - I played it for some friends. I also remember talking to a colleague who was the program director of an adultcontemporaryradiostation, and him telling me how he too was pretty blown away by her performance in Wilkes-Barre, and that he too thought we'd be hearing a lot more from her in years to come.
Again, however, that never really happened. And that doesn't surprise me. Big record labels often seem to have a knack for signing great artists, but then never really helping them break through to a wider audience. She was also signed around the time of the Polygram/Seagrams sale, when what is now Universal Music gobbled up most of the music industry and, unfortunately, didn't properly develop some of their best talent. And again, in fairness, she did later go on to do very well in other parts of the world.
Me? I lost track of Soraya. But I always kept that wonderful CD of hers, and one day recently, I decided to Google her to see what she was up to. And I was stunned at what I learned.
Soraya died in 2006 of breast cancer. She was 37 years old.
The same illness had also claimed her mother, grandmother and aunt.
Being that this is national "Breast Cancer Awareness Month," I thought would honor her memory by sharing her story and posting my favorite song from that fine album that I wrote about 16 years ago. Breast cancer has also touched my family, and it has touched the lives of my friends and co-workers. Some have survived it. Some have not.
This blog is my pink ribbon for all of them, and to Soraya. Please listen to this piece of music that I've posted here, and know that the artist that wrote it and sang it - like so many of the people that you may have known in your own lives - should still be with us. Please support theSusan B. Komen Foundation, and remind the women in your lives to go for their yearly exams.
Soraya left us with the gift of her songs. And though she's now gone, we can still, in a way, give her something back. We can still listen to those songs, and while doing so, also try to end the illness that took her life.
On Saturday, September 15, we here at 102.3-FM presented “KISS ON THE MOUNTAIN,” a three-hour radio special which celebrated the musical history of one of the most successful American rock bands of all-time. The show was done in conjunction with the group’s September 18 show at Montage Mountain in Scranton. We had a great time putting it together. And based on the feedback we received, we know a lot of people enjoyed it. In fact, thanks to the fact that info about the show was posted on the official KISS website and Facebook page, as well as some of the most popular KISS fan sites in the world, we knew we had people listening not just in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but also all around the globe.
We were also aware, however, that a show broadcast in Pennsylvania, USA, from 8-11 p.m. (EST) might not have been the best time for someone to listen in Australia, England, or Japan. And we also had some of our regional listeners tell us that they'd like to hear it again. Thus, in celebration of the recent release of KISS' new album, "Monster" - which is currently the No.1 album in Northeastern Pennsylvania - the entire "KISS ON THE MOUNTAIN" program is now also podcast. You can now listen to the entire radio special right here on our website, commercial-free. And to make it even more convenient, we’ve broken it down into six segments.
What will you hear?
1. Excerpts from a new 2012 interview with Gene Simmons, during which he talks about “Monster,” as well as several other musical topics.
2. Audio excerpts from archived newspaper interviews that I had done with the band dating back 18 years. They include conversations with Paul Stanley, Simmons and former members of the group and include conversations from 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2004 and 2011.
3. Commentary on the music of KISS. I’ve been a fan since 1976, have interviewed the band more than dozen times, have written more than 35 articles about the group and have now seen them live 32 times. Thus, I had fun sharing a few stories.
4. More than 30 songs from all eras of the band’s career. This includes the classics and some gems that you'll probably never hear anywhere else on the radio.
What do Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley think guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer bring to the KISS lineup? What are Simmons' thoughts on the 2012 tour? And, from the archives, how did Stanley feel, in the early ‘90s, when the band suddenly became the inspiration to countless KISS tribute acts and began to receive long overdue critical acclaim? What were Ace Frehley’s and Peter Criss’ fondest memories of KISS? What were Simmons' thoughts on the grunge movement and how it affected live performances, and how do both Simmons and Stanley feel about the legend of the KISS live show? What are Stanley's thoughts on the successful non-make-up era of the band, which saw KISS continue on as a platinum act? And how does Simmons feel about the loyalty often displayed by the group's fans?
You can hear it all on the “KISS ON THE MOUNTAIN” radio special, as well as some of the band’s best songs. When discussing KISS, it’s easy to get caught up in the image, the innovative stage shows and all of the pomp, but KISS is a band that has sold 100 million records and has 28 gold albums. It has a band that has recored some fine rock and roll music, and this radio show, more than anything, is about that music.
You can hear the entire program simply by following this link:
Since KISS wrapped up the recording of its latest album earlier this year, band co-founders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley have - during various interviews - offered almost conflicting insights into the record. "Monster," said Simmons, was a back-to-basics straight ahead rock album in the tradition of some of KISS' earliest and most classic recordings. Stanley, however, said he wasn't interested in making a great KISS album, but rather just a great rock album. And he wanted it to be unlike anything the band had done before.
Turns out, both were right.
"Monster," released today to record stores across America, is aptly named. It's big, nasty and full of swagger. The guitars and the riffs are torrid, the songs are laced with gritty grooves, the melodies soar and the production booms.
It is, well ... monstrous.
The album opens with "Hell or Hallelujah" a terrific modern-rock track that some have said reminds them of classic '70s KISS, circa "Love Gun." Others, however, have said it reminds them of '80s era KISS, circa "Asylum," while others have compared it to 1992's "Revenge." You'll hear a little of all of that in the tune, plus a continuation of 2009's "Sonic Boom." But the truth is, there's very little retro about it, and as you move throughout the entire record, you realize there really is something different happening within its 12 blistering tracks. Guitarist Tommy Thayer has clearly found his footing in the band. And he is owning it. And KISS, in many ways, has never sounded bigger or better. It's a filthy good hard-rock album defined by its relentlessness.
"Freak" continues a KISS tradition that began in the '80s - a tradition of offering songs that basically tell people that if they don't like you, they can go f-ck themselves. It's a soaring and inspiring number - and in a time when the topic of bullying and the horrid effect that it can have on young people has often been in the news - it's also a timely social statement. Again, it's not a new theme for KISS, but it's a song that many teens in today's society could probably take something positive from. And it's the best track on the album.
Simmons' crushing "Wall Of Sound" combines metal with a riff rooted in funk, while Stanley's "Shout Mercy" cleverly inserts a touch of quirky pop into to its otherwise straight-ahead rock vibe. Stanley's "Long Way Down," fueled by beefy rhythms and a ton of thump, does indeed sound unlike anything KISS has done before. It's a glimpse of a band comfortably jamming in a perfect pocket, yet still pushing itself into new areas. And when Simmons' "Eat Your Heart Out" starts with some a cappella harmonizing, you know that Stanley - who produced the album - did indeed toss out some of the old KISS rulebook for this record. Good for him. And good for KISS.
"Monster" is not only a cohesive album, but also a balanced one. Thayer takes lead vocals on "Outta This World," drummer Eric Singer offers lead vocals on the soulful "All For The Love of Rock and Roll," and Simmons and Stanley share lead vocals on the stompy "Take Me Down Below." And when the band marches triumphantly to the finish line with "Last Chance," you get a sense that - despite noting its 40th anniversary next year - "Monster" won't be the last that we hear from KISS. Nor, based on its power and its punch, should it be.
Simmons and Stanley were both right. "Monster" does indeed break some new ground, but it's all done with grinding guitars, driving drums and big vocals. It's also an instant in-your-face KISS classic.