KISS – Music From "The Elder" (Casablanca, 1981)
KISS was in a weird place as the 1980s dawned. They'd ruled the hard rock scene for the latter half of the 1970s, but their empire was swiftly crumbling in the new decade. 1979's Dynasty provided a platinum hit single via the disco-influenced "I Was Made For Lovin' You," but it resulted in a backlash from diehard fans who missed the band's raunchy hard rock sound.
KISS unwisely continued flirting with slick, radio-friendly pop rock on 1980's Unmasked, which is considered to be one of their weakest efforts - except in Australia, where the sappy ballad "Shandi" somehow managed to become a massive hit.
Stung by the mostly-negative reception to Unmasked, the four KISS members - Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, and new drummer Eric Carr - called a meeting with manager Bill Aucoin and together they decided that an even bigger change was in order to revive their fortunes.
For reasons that remain unclear to this day, KISS somehow came to the conclusion that the best way to turn their ship around was to record.... a concept album?
The origins of The Elder concept differ greatly, depending on who you talk to. Some say that Aucoin was the first to pitch the "concept album" idea. Others claim that Simmons and Stanley came up with it, with the misguided hope that such a project might finally garner them some respect from the mainstream rock critics who had continually belittled the band. Ace Frehley thought Elder was a bad idea and said so, but he was outvoted by Simmons and Stanley and ended up working on the disc under protest. (Eric Carr, being the newest KISS member, didn't have any say in the band's business matters.)
Whatever the inspiration, the album was pretty much doomed from the get-go. Concept albums had been a staple of the progressive rock genre during the 1970s, but they were in a cooling-off period by the time KISS decided to throw their hats into the ring. Besides, the band best known for party-hearty hard rock anthems like "Love Gun" and "Rock and Roll All Nite" were probably not the best candidates to bring the format back to prominence. Nevertheless, Simmons and Stanley threw themselves whole-heartedly into the project.
Inspired by his extensive collection of comic books, Simmons came up with a medieval-themed science fiction/fantasy story about an ancient race of guardian Gods called "The Elder," who keep watch over the world and choose a champion to defend it whenever a great Evil rises. KISS reunited with producer Bob Ezrin, who'd previously worked with them on 1976's Destroyer and had also recently co-produced Pink Floyd's conceptual epic The Wall. Nobody outside of the four KISS members and Ezrin were allowed to hear the work in progress while it was being recorded... which was probably not the best idea in retrospect.
Legend has it that when KISS finally played the completed album for executives at their record label, their response was a collective, "What the f**k is this?" The reaction from KISS' fans wasn't much better—they treated The Elder like an explosive device to be avoided entirely.
The rock critics that KISS had been hoping to win over were mostly unimpressed, though a few reviews gave them some grudging respect for being daring enough to take such an unexpected creative leap. On the charts, Music From 'The Elder' performed even worse than Unmasked, notching a lowly position of #75 on Billboard before quickly sliding into oblivion.
The album's first single was the cinematic power ballad "A World Without Heroes," and it also fared poorly, reaching #56 on the charts before doing a fast fade. MTV ignored the track's pretentious music video—which ended with a close up shot of a tear running down Gene Simmons' demonic visage.
Due to the toxic reception to the album, KISS never mounted a concert tour for The Elder, and a movie version (which was in the planning stages under the assumption that the album would be a hit) was quickly shelved. KISS' promotional efforts for the album were limited to television appearances on Fridays (a late night SNL wanna-be on ABC, see below) and Solid Gold.
An additional "live via satellite" performance of "I" from the album was also filmed for broadcast on European TV—without Ace Frehley, who opted to skip the taping, so the band went on as a trio and lip-synched to the album track. Music from "The Elder" effectively ended Frehley's involvement with KISS, though they would not officially announce his departure until the following year.
The Elder really isn't that bad, it just doesn't sound much like KISS. It's certainly their most musically adventurous offering, and contains more than a few listenable tracks. If nothing else, you've got to give KISS some props for going so far out of their comfort zone.
The macho chest beating of "The Oath," with its lyrics about swords and steel, and the medieval "Fanfare" quickly let the listener know that we're definitely not in Kansas anymore. As the album chugs along, Paul Stanley shows off an impressive falsetto in the aforementioned "Oath" and also on "Just A Boy," where he portrays the story's youthful protagonist who's not sure if he's worthy of the honor being bestowed upon him by the Elder. (Paul could not hit those notes today!)
The gruff-voiced Simmons naturally portrays the story's heavies - the members of the Elder, aka The Order of the Rose (the moody "Only You" and epic "Under the Rose") who choose the Boy to be their champion, and also the evil Mr. Blackwell, whose song is a punchy, bass-heavy metal number (and my personal favorite on the record). The estranged Frehley checks in with his lone lead vocal on "Dark Light," which is full of Ace's trademark guitar flash and spacey vox. It doesn't fit the vibe of the record at all, but it's the only song on the album that actually sounds like KISS.
Back in Storyville, The Boy eventually battles Mr. Blackwell and, I dunno, rescues a princess or something ("Odyssey," "Escape From the Island") before proudly accepting the responsibility bestowed by the Elder (the hard-rockin' closer "I")....or something like that.
The album closes with a brief spoken-word bit between the members of the Order of the Rose, who proclaim The Boy ready to take on his mission. So in other words, if this album had been a hit, we probably would've had Elder II and III albums that continued the saga. (We should probably be glad that it wasn't.)
Music from The Elder might have worked if KISS had injected some of their trademark high-energy, comic book camp. Unfortunately, the whole album is so morose and stone-faced serious that things eventually lapse into unintentional comedy. I mean, when Stanley is singing lines like "On a mountain high somewhere/where only heroes dare/stand the stallion and the mare" (from the fluffy "Odyssey"), you can't help but laugh.
You can practically hear Simmons and Stanley saying, "Please like us, Mr. Rolling Stone Critic, sir! We can be deep 'n' serious 'n' artsy, too! Look, we even got Lou Reed to help us write these songs! You guys friggin' LOVE Lou Reed! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEEEEASE LIKE US!"...
The Legacy of "The Elder"
KISS began distancing themselves from The Elder soon after it crash-landed. The following year they released the back-to-basics Creatures of the Night, which didn't sell particularly well at the time, but it began to repair the damaged relationship with their fans. KISS' fortunes turned around later in the decade when they removed their trademark makeup and released a string of hit albums like Lick It Up (1983), Animalize (1984) and Asylum (1985).
A funny thing has happened in the years since The Elder was first dismissed as a bomb, though... it's developed a small, but dedicated, cult following. Throughout the '80s and '90s the band ignored The Elder in live sets and tried not to discuss it in interviews (if pressed, they'd say Elder was "an OK album," but stressed that it was "not classic KISS"), but in 1995 they finally threw Elder fans a bone by performing "A World Without Heroes" during their historic MTV Unplugged set (see ablove)—the first time the album had been acknowledged in a concert setting.
The album's Star Trek style following has only grown over the years, and their love for The Elder has manifested itself in a 1998 comic book adaptation, in fan fiction, and maybe someday... on the silver screen. In 2011 a British KISS fan, author and musician named Seb Hunter completed a screenplay based on the album and was soliciting fan donations in the hopes of producing a film version.
Hunter's Elder movie, which was (according to a concept teaser video on YouTube) supposed to be released in 2014, has yet to materialize, so we should probably stop holding our breath while we wait... but it provides further proof that Music From "The Elder" continues to intrigue, fascinate and divide the loyal members of the KISS Army.
"The Elder" Movie Trailer
© 2012 Keith Abt
Vinny Jimenez on October 26, 2016:
I got the remaster version on christmas '95, but somehow it was damaged ( i think my newphew walk over it and never told me) then a girlfriend gave me for birthday present the first cd version, which I still play. I think this is a very good album if you sit and listen to it. Great cuts such dark light, escape from the island and I.
Griffy on June 19, 2016:
I've been referred to as a "metal snob" more than once, so take it with a grain of salt. I hate KISS, actually. But I love "The Elder". Great record. "Creatures" was definitely underrated too. I get why Gene felt he needed to do the Lick/Animalize/Asylum thing - they were about to get dropped by the label; he had to do something... But Elder proved that Gene was a consummate songwriter, perfectly capable of doing legit art rock if he had the inclination. I can't stand the goofy party anthem thing, but he does it because it's what sells. Does that make him a sell-out? Nah, just makes him someone who understands how to capture a core audience and keep their attention.
AridaiAT on June 19, 2016:
@fatfreddyscat Thank you so much for the information!
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on June 18, 2016:
Hi Aridat - there is no "Elder" movie. It was in the planning stages prior to the album release but the film project was canceled when the album bombed.
A fan in England has been trying to raise money for his own independent production of an "Elder" movie for the past several years but last I checked, that had yet to get off the ground.
AridaiAT on June 17, 2016:
Im sorry that I'm late but do you know where I can find the actual movie "The Elder (1981)"? I have been looking everywhere in store's and on the internet but I don't find a thing just reviews. My father is the one that told me that he heard but has never seen "The Elder" (1981) and he really wants to see it. If you could please help me out on the 1981 film. I would appreciate it!
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on November 10, 2015:
Updated in honor of The Elder's anniversary! It was released on this date (November 10th) in 1981!
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on September 16, 2015:
Hi Ric - cool info, I hadn't heard any updates on the film in awhile. Good to know they're still trying to get that movie off the ground.
Ric deckard on September 16, 2015:
I meet the guys trying to make the movie at a London comic con around 18 mths ago, masses of enthusiasm for it real fans. I think there's some kind of promo trailer they put together to give an idea for potential backers. Until that point I didn't think anyone liked the Elder at all, will definitely have to revisit it.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on May 03, 2015:
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on September 28, 2014:
Hi Aaron... I like your idea about an "Elder Resurrected," give them time, I'm sure once they've used up everything else in the vaults, they'll get to it!!
Aaron Clow on September 28, 2014:
My younger brother and I bought all the KISS albums as they came out in the '70s, but then fell away from the band after Dynasty. Then we heard (I can't believe I'm going to admit this) they were going to be on Solid Gold playing their new stuff. We didn't have cable at the time, so we were pretty jazzed. KISS p̶l̶a̶y̶e̶d̶ lip-synched "I," and it was about as rockin' and anthemic as anything else the band had done, and my brother and I loved it... And then "A World Without Heroes" came on, and it sealed the deal. We went out and bought the album and played it until it wore out. It was our favorite album for a long time. Still is probably my favorite KISS album. Maybe tied with Destroyer. Nah, probably just a tad higher.
My brother passed on in 1994, and didn't always see eye-to-eye on music, but we did share a real love of "Music From The Elder." Those were special memories. Every few years I spin up this album, lay back with the headphones, and just get lost in the artistry, and yes, the pomp and ridiculousness of it all.
I'm glad Paul and Gene have softened on it bit over time. Really, I think they were hurt that it was so strongly rejected. You don't spend this much time on a project and turn your back on it so viciously unless it really meant something to you.
I also would love to have seen them do an "Elder" DVD concert. Too bad that ship has sailed through the stormy sea (Paul's vocal issues). What I *would* love to see the band do is get Ezrin to do an Elder Resurrected disc with a full surround mix, real backstory and any other trinkets he/they could find.
I bet it would actually sell pretty well. It's probably one of the few remaining untapped Simmons/Stanley mines still in wait for plundering.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on September 25, 2014:
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on January 14, 2014:
Hi El Monga - I mentioned their "Fridays" appearance in the article and even included a clip of the performance from YouTube! Thanks for stopping by!
El Monga on December 31, 2013:
Only you, Ace's solo on Dark Light backed by bongos, Mr. Blackwell, the instrumental Escape From The Island (recorded by Ezrin on bass, Frehley on guitars and Eric Carr on drums) are brilliant!!!
They played a 3 song set live on a TV Show called Fridays back in the day. The Oath, A World Without Heroes and I were performed live back in the day. Ace's solo in the live version of The Oath is the last "Real Kiss" moment in Kisstory.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on September 09, 2013:
Hi BDC - yeah, I have often thought the same thing about poor Eric Carr. How much must this experience have sucked for him? "Oh boy! I've joined my favorite band! This is a dream come true! I can't wait to start on my first record with them...wait a minute, we're doing WHAT now?" Hahaha
I've always thought that KISS should've thrown the fans of this record a bone by playing the whole thing live, just once. If they'd done it as a one shot deal (probably not enough interest in it to do a full tour) and taped it for a live album and a DVD, it would've made those Elder trekkies very happy and then KISS would never have to go near this album again... hahaha.
BlackDiamondCheesehead on September 09, 2013:
I always laugh when I think of how excited Eric Carr must have been to record his first KISS album, and in walks Bob Ezrin and says "here's what we're doing...". "Oh, and Eric, you're not good enough to play on "I", so we're bringing someone else in...