KISS "Music From 'The Elder'" Review
KISS - Music From "The Elder" (Casablanca, 1981)
The once-mighty 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 beginning to crumble in the new decade. 1979's Dynasty album provided a platinum hit single via the disco-influenced "I Was Made For Lovin' You," but its success 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 struggled to achieve Gold sales status in the U.S. and 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 details behind the creation of The Elder differ 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, in the misguided hope that such a project might finally garner them some respect from the mainstream rock critics who had continually ignored or 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 that came to be known as Music From "The Elder" was pretty much doomed from the get-go. Concept albums may have 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 comic book collection, Simmons came up with a science fiction/fantasy story with medieval overtones 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 then hired mega-producer Bob Ezrin, who'd worked with KISS previously on their breakthrough album, 1976's Destroyer (he had also recently co-produced Pink Floyd's The Wall) and hit the recording studio under a veil of total secrecy. A disgruntled Frehley, citing his dissatisfaction with the entire project, reportedly avoided his bandmates as much as possible, recording his parts at his home studio in Connecticut and sending tapes to Ezrin via messenger. Nobody outside of the four KISS members and Ezrin were allowed to hear the work in progress while it was being recorded.
Keeping The Elder a secret from everyone was probably not the best move in retrospect. Legend has it that when KISS finally played the completed album for executives at their record label, their reaction was a collective "What the @#$% is this?" That sentiment was echoed by KISS' fans, who treated The Elder the way you would treat an explosive device - by avoiding it. 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 all but 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 feature-film version of the saga (which had been 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) 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 as an active member of KISS, though the band would not officially announce his departure until the following year.
"The Elder" on ABC-TV's "Fridays"
Despite what 30 years of fanboy hatred might have you believe, The Elder really isn't that bad of an album - but it doesn't sound much like a KISS album, either. 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 like this, even if the end results are a mixed bag.
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 KISS Kansas anymore, Toto. 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, a young'in who's not sure if he's worthy of the honor being bestowed upon him by the Elder. (I doubt Paul could hit those notes today!) The gruff-voiced Gene 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 as you might expect contains some sizzling guitar licks and Ace's typical laid-back, spacey vox. It doesn't fit at all with the overall vibe of the record but it's a heckuva cool track and it's the only one 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 coming to the realization that he is indeed a bad-ass warrior and that he will proudly accept the responsibility given to him 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 -- note I said might -- if KISS had injected the proceedings with 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! We even got Lou Reed to help us write "A World Without Heroes" and "Mr. Blackwell!" You guys friggin' LOVE Lou Reed! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEEEEASE LIKE US!"...
"A World Without Heroes" on MTV Unplugged (1995)
The Legacy of "The Elder"
KISS quickly and wisely distanced themselves from The Elder after it crash-landed on record store racks. The following year they released the back-to-basics Creatures of the Night, which didn't sell particularly well at the time, but it went a long way towards repairing the band's damaged relationship with their fans. Of course, KISS' fortunes turned around later in the decade once they removed their trademark makeup and released a string of hit albums like Lick It Up (1983), Animalize (1984) and Asylum (1985).
However, a funny thing has happened in the years since The Elder was first dismissed as a bomb... it began to cultivate a small but dedicated cult following. There are even some fans who consider it KISS' best album. Throughout the '80s and into the '90s the band perpetually ignored The Elder in live sets and preferred not to discuss it in interviews (if pressed, they'd say it was "an OK album," but stress 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 - the first time the album had ever been acknowledged in a concert setting.
The album's small but dedicated 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 (yes, really!) and maybe, just maybe... on the silver screen. In 2011 a British KISS fan, author and musician named Seb Hunter completed a screenplay based on the album and set up a crowd-funding web site to solicit donations in the hopes of producing a film version. As of early 2019, Hunter's film site had not been updated in several years, so we probably shouldn't start camping out in front of our local multiplexes just yet ... but it proves that more than three decades after its release, Music From "The Elder" continues to intrigue, fascinate and divide the loyal members of the KISS Army.
© 2012 Keith Abt