It was uncool for a long while, but traces of the catchy, party-minded hard rock that dominated MTV’s playlists right before grunge took over are starting to turn up in the current era. The “bro-country” movement led by the likes of Luke Bryan adds a bit of twang to the big-beat party rock that Def Leppard used to specialize in; teen idols 5 Seconds of Summer have updated the genre’s ability to match crunchy riffs with irresistible choruses in such a way to make young women swoon; lesser-known acts like Diarrhea Planet have presented squealing guitar pyrotechnics to perspiring club audiences. But what about those bands that were actually in the trenches and on the charts during hard rock’s commercial peak — the artists who were dismissed en masse as “hair bands,” even if the only thing they had in common was the length of their locks?
These days, many of those bands have taken their names, if not their classic lineups, to the nostalgia circuit, where they headline clubs and play genre-specific festivals like Rocklahoma and Farm Rock. New albums, when they arrive, are either cover records (a search on any mildly famous band from the hard-rock era will reveal copious amounts of tribute albums to other bands, as well as an alarming number of holiday records), live collections or re-recordings of that band’s classic catalog in order to snag royalties back from former major-label overlords. Brand-new material is rarer than it should be. Part of this is due to the marketplace — there’s a relative lack of outlets promoting songs that haven’t seeped into the nostalgia canon.
One program that bucks the trend is “Trunk Nation,” a weekly show on Sirius XM’s Hair Nation channel, hosted by hard-rock raconteur (and host of VH1′s That Metal Show) Eddie Trunk. Trunk is a cantankerous host, often monologuing, giving callers a piece of his mind or letting his audience know why, exactly, he’s holding grudges against various members of KISS. But the years he’s spent in the biz and his early-FM throwback persona also allow him to get away with something no other host can: He plays new records from bands old and current, with the only qualification being his interest in the music.
It was on Trunk’s show that I first heard a track from Rock Your Face Off, the seventh studio album by the Baltimore outfit Kix. Kix had a brief moment of Dial MTV fame with the anti-suicide polemic “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” a keyboard-propelled plea that peaked in the Hot 100′s Top 20 and became one of its era’s premier power ballads. But their sly update of bar-band swagger was better encapsulated by tracks like “Girl Money,” from 1991′s Hot Wire — they wanted to be the American answer to AC/DC, smirking about their collective sexual prowess and showing off how their fingers could do the walking through keenly deployed solos. Frontman Steve Whiteman had a piercing sneer that sounded like it was constantly on the verge of telling a dirty joke, but it was also used to excellent effect on “Don’t Close Your Eyes” and other moments of relative gravity.
Rock Your Face Off is the group’s first album since 1995; they dispersed in the late ’90s after major-label malaise set in. In 2003 they regrouped, although Donnie Purnell, chief songwriter and founding member, was absent; their touring schedule accelerated slowly, with a live album appearing in 2012 as a prelude to Rock Your Face Off. Despite Purnell’s absence, Rock operates faithfully in the Kix tradition — bar-band blues sporting a lascivious eyebrow-wiggle. The record sounds like it was made in 2014 and not 1989, which means a bit more production gloss and a slightly more claustrophobic feel. But Kix make up for it with their ability to turn out melody triumphs on tracks like the convertible-as-lady stomp “Love Me With Your Top Down” and the harmonica-accented “Tail On The Wag,” as well as the randy “All the Right Things,” which charges along at an even quicker pace thanks to harmonies borrowed from a Poptopia! comp’s outtakes.
What makes Rock Your Face Off work is the way it straddles the chasm between the past and the present. It would have been easy for Kix to play squarely to the crowds who still pony up to see them by making another run through their already-proven hits, or by swapping the band’s aesthetic for a more au courant one — handclappy folk-rock or snarling post-grunge. Rock, instead, takes a stay-the-course approach that both plays to the band’s strengths and implicitly tells its audience that good times can roll on no matter how old you get. There are explicit nods to the notion of improving with age: Take Whiteman’s upper register; though it lacks a bit of the curdled-cream quality it once had, he does let out some high-pitched keening on tracks like the leering “Rolling in Honey.” His voice isn’t as consistently piercing as it used to be, but it’s clear he’s having a hell of a time. “Inside Outside Inn,” meanwhile, is a gooshy-centered power ballad that seems tailor-made for the spotlight dance at anniversary parties: “I love makin’ love to you/ and the two kids you talked me into” is, after all, a line that probably wouldn’t have made the cut during the youth-culture-obsessed heyday of hard rock. But it makes sense now, and it makes even more sense that their audience should grow with them too — after all, the album’s placement of “Inn,” right in the middle of a bunch of tracks about getting it on, is a great sign that Kix isn’t going to let time get in the way.