It’s risky to form an opinion behind a curtain. Sometimes the curtain lifts, and you discover that you’ve picked a fight with the entire world.
For example, I have a friend who purchased a certain Atari 2600 game in 1982. It had an alien on the cover. From the above clues (and my tone) you might be able to guess the game he bought. This happened around Christmas, if that narrows it down further.
He didn’t like the game. It was arcane and frustrating; he wasn’t even sure of what he was supposed to do, and he spent half the time falling into holes he couldn’t see. It had glimmers of creativity, but it was also a confusing pointless headache. He returned the cartridge to the store.
Two decades later, he heard people on the internet talk about that game. First a couple, then hundreds. They hated it. It was seen as mythologically awful. Many of these people had obviously never played it—their descriptions were littered with factual errors—and they didn’t even want to. It was a fetish object to them: a thing to hate. As its legend grew, the criticism became ever scathing. It was the worst game for the Atari 2600. No, the worst game ever, full stop! The worst thing!
Huh, my friend thought. It wasn’t that bad. More annoying than anything. Loads of worse games on the 2600.
The question is…was he wrong? Or was everyone else?
Music from “The Elder” is KISS’s version of the Atari E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial game. It’s remembered as the worst thing they ever did—their St Anger, their Ishtar, their Microsoft Zune. Its own producer has compared it to Springtime for Hitler.
I think it’s good. Turns out I’m in disagreement with everyone there, even KISS themselves. Oh well. Gene Simmons can bite me. His album’s good.
Most of the criticism The Elder receives is well out of proportion to its crimes. Yes, it has some bad songs. KISS has released albums that are uninterrupted shit from end to end, so I can live with that. Yes, it’s cartoonish in places, and the “story” makes no sense, and Paul sings in falsetto. But if you’re allergic to kitsch and are spinning KISS records, then I don’t know what to tell you.
The Elder is heavy and catchy and intricate. It shows a band trying to evolve their sound and do something new. More than anything, it’s brave. KISS was a shock and an affront, but how shocking are you being on your twentieth LP of party anthems? You might not like it, but “The Elder” is what peak shock rock looks like. I respect the hell out of it.
It’s “Bob Ezrin: The Album”. KISS was floundering in 1981: with their sales collapsing and their drummer vanishing out the exit chute, they reunited with the legendary Destroyer producer in the hopes of getting their career back on track. Unfortunately, Ezrin was high on the success of Pink Floyd’s The Wall—
(and on cocaine—let’s get that out up front)
—and he decided that only one thing could save KISS from certain death: a concept album.
As a band, KISS can be decoded in many ways. One of the most useful is “the Beatles with pyrotechnics and makeup”. Right from the start, they wanted to be the Fabber Four (Simmons often cites seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan as the hearing-Elvis-on-the-radio epiphany that spurred him to become a musician), and many of their questionable decisions are explained by “Paul and John did it”. The late-70s glut of KISS merchandise was no different to what Brian Epstein did for the Beatles a decade earlier, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park was a stab making their own A Hard Day’s Night, and when Ezrin decreed that the hour was nigh for KISS’s version of Sgt Pepper, how could Simmons and Stanley refuse?
Simmons came up with an exceptionally cruddy fantasy story, which Russell and Jeffrey Marks rewrote into a 130-page script that everyone knew would never be filmed. KISS superfan Brian Brewer bought the script at auction in 2000, and shares some details about the plot:
If you’re going describe this particular story it’s kind of on the same level as “Through The Looking Glass” [by Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland”]. It starts off in one era of time and you’ve got Blackwell, who’s the king and chief bad guy, and his henchman Xyte, who was actually a sorcerer for the Elders before he picked up with Blackwell. Blackwell is under attack when the script opens. The story starts with Blackwell under attack in his day, which is apparently 600 years in the past. There are allusions to a varying number of years in the script — one says 600, one says 800, one says 500 — they jump around, but on an average it seems to have been set about 600 years in the past. Xyte created another world inside Blackwell’s mirror chamber with the rose, which was a ring that the Elders created with magical powers and…
Actually, let’s just pretend there is no story and discuss the music.
The album is split between heavy rockers, conceptual pieces, and soft stuff. Ezrin is a pretty overwhelming creative force on here (along with Lou Reed), and the music is full of his signature touches—like that muted electrocardiogram bassline on “A World Without Heroes”.
“Fanfare”/”Just a Boy” throws KISS fans into the deep end. This is flowery twelve-string guitar stuff that sounds more like Renaissance Faire filk than hard rock. “Odyssey” is a torpid progressive piece with strange-sounding vocals from Paul Stanley. He seems to be trying to growl like Louis Armstrong in “What a Wonderful World”. It’s an okay song, but the key is clearly wrong for him. I wonder why Ezrin (normally a consummate perfectionist) didn’t insist that deep-voiced Simmons handle the track.
“Only You” has a powerful chorus riff, as heavy and twisted as a writhing serpent, and “Under the Rose” is a tricksy 6/8 prog-rock tune. “Dark Light” is the first uptempo song, with some ad-libbed asides from Ace Frehley. He barely seems to give a fuck, and it’s wonderful. Frehley apparently hated “The Elder” from the jump, and refused to even be present for many of the sessions. Needless to say, much of the lead guitar he’s credited for was actually performed by someone else (though honestly, it’d be faster to list the “classic” KISS albums where some form of that doesn’t happen!).
The Stanley-penned ballad “A World Without Heroes” was a bad choice for lead single, but it’s a fabulous song in the context of the album, with petal-delicate strings and one of Simmons’ most emotional performances. “The Oath” turns the intensity dial to 11 and then rips it off, with crushing NWOBHM-style riffs and wild drumming from Eric Carr—am I hearing power-metal style double-bass in 1981?
The album’s nadir is the Simmons/Reed composition “Mr Blackwell”, which is slow, club-footed, and lacks any sort of hook. Apparently Mr Blackwell was meant to be the villain of the piece: a “Washington D.C. power broker” who seeks global domination or something (note that the lyrics describe him drinking alcohol, which is the mark of Cain in Simmons’ world). The song’s just an absolute stinker, and derails the momentum of “The Oath”. At least there’s the Ace Frehley instrumental “Escape from the Island” to wake you up afterward.
There’s one song left. Gene Simmons, who has been a muted presence until now, stirs to life and delivers “I”, possibly the album standout. It’s an energetic, furious rocker, full of fire and heart. The lyrics could be applied to the story’s character, but could also be a dig at Ace Frehley (“Don’t need to get wasted / It only holds me down”) who, by this point, was eyeing the exit door himself.
I’m not really a KISS guy, truth be told. I like Destroyer well enough, and usually a few songs on each of their albums. But much of their party-hearty shlock just bounces off me: it feels like a dumber American take on what British glam rock managed with far more simplicity and purity five years earlier. But maybe that’s why I respond to Music from “The Elder”. For better or for worse, it’s the album where KISS is least themselves. “The mind was dreaming. The world was its dream.”$i;?>
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