Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Unappreciated: Music from 'The Elder' by Kiss

As a Kiss record I'd give it a zero. As a bad Genesis record, I'd give it a two.
Gene Simmons

Imagine it's the early 80's, and you've just joined KISS, the hardest rockin' band in the world (stop laughing), you're ready to bust heads and take names, and then you find out that Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons want to release ... a duff 70's-style concept album. Shudder.

Such was the situation that new drummer Eric Carr found himself in back in 1981. Simmons and Stanley, the business-savvy two who controlled the band (as they would explain themselves) had reacted strangely to the excesses of their late-70's fame. Stanley decided that the solution to more recent low record sales was to record a concept album as a bizarre attempt to make KISS somehow more (ahem) credible. Excuse me? Credible? KISS? Stanley and Simmons seemed to have forgotten their original, and highly successful, scheme for the band: screw credibility, have a good time, and put your highly-marketable fizzog on as much merchandising as possible. Instead, Music From 'The Elder' became the KISS album most hated by the KISS army (as they like to be called), as well as being just another KISS album for everybody else to trash. Simmons, by his own admission, was so intoxicated by Hollywood schmoozing at this time that he didn't really care what was going on. Original drummer Peter Criss was temporarily out of the picture, and lead guitarist (and lead drunk) Ace Frehely had less influence, or interest, than ever. So what did the boys come up with, and how does it fare today?

Well, imagine what a concept album made by KISS in the early 80's would be like, and you've probably got a pretty accurate idea of what it's like. It's got a nebulously concieved 'story' that's about the simplest rehash of the 'hero quest' theme I've ever heard, pompous pseudo-medieval melodies and instrumentals, and liberal uses of words like 'destiny' and 'prophecy'. I imagine that when The Beast from Krull is finished menacing the countryside, he goes home and listens to Music From The Elder. To be fair, let's place the album in the right cultural context: Conan had just done big business in movie theatres, and Dungeons & Dragons was takin off too. Cheesy, Tolkien-esque fantasy was in.

Nevertheless, I really like the album.

In fact, it's probably eclipsed its original position as my favourite thing that KISS ever did (not a particularly lofty position, granted) and become an album that I enjoy in it's own right. Today, the members of KISS universally pan it as a mistake, and certainly there's a lot about it that just isn't KISS...

... and yet, there's just enough of KISS's own musical strengths and limitations, their egos and bullying, their very human desire attempt something musically they knew nothing about, that I find adds to the experience. Whatever. I have a friend who I always associate with this album, who just enjoyed it because he said 'it kind of reminds me of an RPG' (this was waay before you could just google to find out about the Hero's Journey), so I guess you can just enjoy it for that, too.

And so, in an unusual move, I'm going to talk about each track in turn.

Fanfare:In the immortal (to me) words of a long-gone review of early internet days, 'What's this? Where's KISS?'. This 'song' is the first clue of what we're getting into- it's just a bunch of horns playing cheesy Robin Hood music to get us into the 'mood'.

Just A Boy: Now we're getting somewhere. The balance between rock and Robin Hood isn't perfect, but at least it's an actual song, and I like the melody. The words are fine (considering it's KISS), and it sets the theme without being overly cheesy. In this song we learn that there's a boy, and that he'll be expected to shoulder some kind of responsability, but he doesn't yet feel ready. Fair enough.

Odyssey: Yeeuch. The first serious misstep. Stanley tries for cosmic-sounding lyrics to suit the theme, but it sounds like he's trying waay too hard. Try this for size:

From a far off galaxy, I hear you calling me
We are on an odyssey
Through the realms of time and space
In that enchanted place

Sucky sucky, five dollars. Most of the lyrics are just the kind of random 'cosmic' nonesense that Hawkwind wouldn't have rolled a joint on, but it's been argued that this song represents a character called Morpheus calling the boy. Morpheus will soon become his mentor.

Only You: This is much better- there's a slow, menacing riff to start with, and some more rockin' ones later on. Also, tick one box on your 'prog rock to-do list', because the end of this song quotes the chorus to Just A Boy. This is a pretty good song that would work on any KISS album. Lyrically, we learn that the Boy has all this potential inside him, and that he's gonna be pretty important and all. Inspiring stuff, even including the use of the God-awful phrase 'man-child'.

Under The Rose: My personal favourite. The melody and riffs are top notch- haunting when they need to be and rockin when they should be. Simmons sings this with just the right amount of authority and toughness. It's not fast, but it's the perfect balance between a good rock song and a compliment to the kind of demented story they're trying to tell. In terms of the story, we learn that the Boy is now involved with some kind of organisation who are going to train him, and they're letting him know that he's making a really serious commitment, like he's signing up to a new bank or something. Unlike Only You, in which the Boy is being buttered up by the Elders, now the attitude is much scarier. It's like they're trying to scare him into backing down. I like the chorus lyrics:

Loneliness will haunt you
Will you sacrifice?
Do you take the oath
Will you live your life
Under the rose

Simmons really thunders these lines like an angry judge. Incidentally, I don't know if Under The Rose is the name of the organisation or not. Possibly it's their emblem, and living your life 'under the rose' means that you've made the commitment. In any case, I kind of like the multiple interpretations possible with this line (not something KISS are famous for, not with lyrics like let's put the X in sex and I wanna put my log in your fireplace). ALSO NOTE: The word 'oath' features prominently here, though it is the name of a different song on the album. That's prog, kids.

Dark Light: One of the things I do like about KISS is their original idea to be 'like the Beatles, but with super-heroes'. The way they intended to be like the aforementioned Liverpudlian moptops was by having each member compose and sing songs on every album, so that fans could each have a favourite (and perhaps so that they could sell four times as much merchandise). This, ahem, wasn't exactly how things turned out, but Simmons and Stanley did try to keep up this fiction over the years, having all four original members in the credits and album sleeves even when they had been fired and replaced by annonymous studio musicians.

Dark Light is Ace Frehely's song on this album, and I like it for several reasons. Firstly, it's fast and has a decent melody. Secondly, I like Frehely's voice. Thirdly, I like it as a change to the Simmons/Stanley songs, and as a reminder that there are other personalities involved too. It makes me genuinely sad to read that Frehely hated the album so much that he smashed tapes of it against walls, but it seems to represent to him a bad time, coming soon before he (temporarily) quit the band.

Lyrically, there's some terrible talky-bits, but I don't care. In terms of the story, we learn that there's some evil force out to get our Boy, so this is the first hint of whatever it is our here is up against. Absolutely no concrete details about this force are revealed, but there's plenty of talk about black skies, darkness falling and death, so fill in your own favourite fantasy bad guy, I guess (not Jack Palance from Hawk The Slayer, presumably).

Incidentally, KISS pretty much completely give up on the whole 'medieval' thing at about this point of the album, and lapse into more standard rock-style songs. Whatever.

A World Without Heroes: No. Just no. This is the kind of sappy, pointless ballad that rock bands sometimes stick in at the 3/4 point of an album, thinking that the fans want something a little 'different'. No they bloody well don't, especially not KISS fans. Incredibly, this was the only single released from the album. Even more incredibly, Lou Reed had something to do with the writing of it.

Lyrically, I can only assume that this song represents something like the despair that is felt throughout the land as the 'dark light' takes control and everybody wonders if a hero is going to save them, but even this vague explanation involves a bit of guesswork.

The Oath: Even Paul Stanley's annoying falsetto can't ruin this song. I literally can't understand much of what he's saying, but occasional lyrics such as 'a boy walks through and suddenly a man returns', which do fit in with the overall theme of the Boy's journey. Allright, it's a fairly standard chug-chug-a-chug metal song, but it's still fun, and there's some fairly outrageous double foot-pedalling going on.

I figure that at this point in the story, the Boy is finally appears to help the people of his benighted land, having become more confident in his abilities (whatever they are).

Mr Blackwell: Ok, so there's this guy called Mr. Blackwell, and he's not a nice guy. We learn that he's a cheater and a liar and that he likes being that way. He's also got a cynical view of humanity when he says

I am the truth about this crummy hole
There's nothing here that can't be bought or sold

Gene Simmons sings this one with real delight, he clearly enjoys being this unashamably self-serving character, who probably shares many of his real-life philosophies.

Whether or not Mr. Blackwell is actually the personification of the 'dark light', I don't know, but he's presumably another foil for the Boy on his journey of self-discovery. Appearing so late on the album, he's probably the head honcho villain of the piece , too. It's a pity we never learn more about him. Mr Blackwell is a great track with a swaggering, minimalist riff that could have been included on any KISS record.

Escape From The Island: An instrumental with a couple of very simple riffs that sound like danger music from a stupid kid's cartoon, or a heavier version of Green Day's Espionage. Dumb but fun.

KISS kind of cheat us here by having an instrumental placed exactly where the 'climax', if you will, of the story should occur. So the Boy's gone on his voyage of discovery, he's taken the oath, he's travelled through the world without heroes and fought the Dark Light and even the fiendish Mr. Blackwell. Now, we've got to infer only from the title 'Escape From The Island' and the tone of the music (and the sirens), what the hell's going on. Well, I guess we can assume there's an island, though there's been no mention of it so far. And our Boy has to escape from it. Is it Mr. Blackwell's island? Did he defeat him? What? Is this his final test? Is defeating Mr. Blackwell part of the training? Did the Boy acquire a bunch of stereotyped comrades to accompany him on his journey (you know, a thief, a dwarf, etc), because I can sure imagine them all running around in the dark while the sirens blast during this song (I can't help but think of the climax to Yellow Submarine, actually).

I: To finish up, Paul Stanley delivers a fairly routine song that promotes the common KISS theme that if you believe in yourself, than everything will work out peachy, and maybe one day groupies will want to make casts of your genitals in plaster. Actually, they were always pretty good (if unsubtle) at this stuff, and I is a fairly rousing and positive end to the proceedings. Also of note in this song is the line-

Don't need to get wasted
It only holds me down
I just need a will of my own
And the balls to stand alone

which is very Gene Simmons, who famously never let alcohol enter his life, or prevent him from being a self-serving prick. Also, it's funny to go waaay back to the beginning of the album, when KISS were still pretending to be Jethro Tull at the Court of Camelot, and know that the word 'balls' is going to be used later on.

A few seconds after the song ends, we get this bit of immortal dialogue:

Morpheus, you have been summoned here to offer your judgement of the boy
Do you still deem him worthy of the Fellowship?

I certainly do, my lord. As a matter of fact, I, I think you're gonna
like this one. He's got the light in his eyes and the look of a
champion, a real champion....

Which confirms most of what I figured was going on with the 'plot'. The Boy has been chosen for this Fellowship. Fair play to him. And now, having probably looked into Music From The Elder in more depth than anyone should do, I say fair play to me too.


  1. i came upon this review of the elder and i really had a blast reading it. not only brought it back some long buried memories, but i got -real- insight what was going on on this record. almost 30 years after its original release.

    i always liked the album, too. although they completely screwed up the order of the songs for us europeans. have no idea why, but the coherence of the storytelling wasn't given anymore. in spite of this i still thought it was a really cool album. no typical kiss album, but it really got my fantasy going back in the day.

    i laughed out very loud at your sentence "I imagine that when The Beast from Krull is finished menacing the countryside, he goes home and listens to Music From The Elder."
    that one really cracked me up.

    your sum up of kiss in general and music from the elder in detail pretty much depicts them as i see them, too.

    cool review!

  2. Cheers!

    Actually, I'm Irish, but for whatever reason, that's the song order we got.

    I think Kiss are kind of fascinating, and though I don't really listen to a lot of them, I've read several books about their lives and careers. All four of them are interesting in vastly different ways- Stanley with his unashamed iron grip on the band, Simmons with his vice-less philanderings, and drunken Frehely and Criss (who was once mistaken for being homeless) being given increasingly raw deals as their drinking/drug use made them more and more unreliable.

    Sometimes, I get the feeling that the music was almost incidental...