In a lot of ways, you have to admire the sheer chutzpah that Kiss exhibited by dubbing their 1981 concept album Music From “The Elder” with that moniker. Almost immediately that title elevates the material to something of a new plateau; I mean, it’s not just another dopey album or anything like that. It’s the actual music featured in something else! Something GRAND perhaps… a movie? No no, then it would be a soundtrack album, right? Orchestrations, maybe? Or perhaps a cantata based on literary material? It has to be epic! Ho baby, this is big! “Rupert Holmes” big!! Slap the vinyl on the turntable, dim the lights, and let Music From “The Elder” wash over you in all of its Ceasarian glory!
Kiss was floundering in really strange waters by 1981. Their last hit album was 1979’s Dynasty, and while it went Triple Platinum it was also the line of demarcation in which their longtime hard rock faithful fans stepped off the Kiss train, to be replaced by kids with lunchboxes and soccer moms who loved playing I Was Made For Loving You on the station wagon 8-track player, while helpless Dads had to schlep the entire mespucha to see these costumed clowns in concert (on a tour that lost millions for the band). They followed it up with 1980’s power-pop influenced Unmasked, which, while a fairly decent record on its own, was their biggest commercial disappointment since 1975’s Dressed To Kill, “only” going Gold for a band that was used to multi-Platinum success. None of the singles charted (except for in Australia), and they didn’t even tour North America to support the album.
By this time, founding drummer Peter Criss was out of the band, but for reals this time, replaced with new drummer Eric Carr (who took the stage persona of “The Fox”). The band’s dynamic had changed as a result, with founding guitarist Ace Frehley finding himself outvoted by Gene and Paul on band matters (he had usually allied himself with Criss), and he would in turn leave Kiss after this album.
Still, you have to give Kiss credit. They decided to go BIG with this LP, and re-hired producer Bob Ezrin, who had shaped their landmark 1976 album Destroyer into incredible success, to help them create Music From “The Elder”. Ezrin was also super-hot, having recently produced Pink Floyd’s massively ginormously popular landmark album The Wall. Their strategy was to create a concept album, a soundtrack album of sorts to a tale that would eventually be told in other media — music, TV, comic books, a stage show, all of the above, maybe none, who knows. It would be a fantasy story using tried-and-true mythological tropes about a Chosen One (a young boy on the cusp of manhood) setting off on his heroic journey to do battle with The Forces of Evil in some such nebulous nonsense.
It’s all a whole lot of hooey that doesn’t make for much of a story, really, unless you had never seen a movie, read a book, watched TV, or played in the backyard with your childhood friends before.
Anyway they also freed themselves of the slick, easy-listening poppiness of the Vini Poncia era and were looking to get back into their hard rock/pseudo metal roots. No more dance tunes. No more disco. Oh sure there’d be ballads and different types of music and sounds incorporated into the album, but all of it to serve the basic narrative of the concept album. Whatever that was. I’m sure not even they knew.
The resulting LP has become one of Kiss’s biggest punchlines, something allegedly so horrible that even the band disowned it. Music From “The Elder” wasn’t just a disappointment; it was an out-and-out disaster. It was viewed by the music scene at large (with more than a smidge of schadenfreude) as a unbelievably laughable embarrassment from a washed-up, once-was relic of a band. The album didn’t even crack the US Top 50 (peaking at #75) and neither of the album singles got any traction whatsoever.
To be entirely honest with you, it’s not even that bad an album, really. Nor is it altogether that good. I don’t love Music From “The Elder”, but I don’t hate it either. It’s more of that extreme situation: the songs I like, I love, while the songs I dislike, I loathe. So it’s easily Kiss’s most bipolar album. There’s something that could have been consistently great here, if Ezrin wasn’t too busy snorting blow off of a hunting knife or whittling Ace’s solos down to nothingness.
Anyway… here’s my rundown of the album, track by track:
GREAT song. Period. Even Paul’s puzzling falsettos during the chorus sound cool, and that’s not easy to accomplish. This puppy’s got crunch and tempo and could easily be a track on, say, Destroyer or Creatures of the Night. My fictional ultimate KISS setlist opens up with this number.
Total and absolute orchestral filler. Nary worth a second mention.
Just A Boy
This song is entirely strange, but I love it. It’s strange in the sense that it makes no sense out of the context of the album, and features a bizarre segue from this prototypical Ren-faire minor-key indulgence to anthemic arena rock and back again. Yet it works — albeit only for a brief time, I think this song is what, two minutes long? With maybe six or seven lines of lyrics.
This was Ace’s last song with Kiss until 1998’s Into The Void. It also features some FANTASTIC fretwork from Ace. Too bad the song is forgettable.
This is a terrible song. Gene at his droning, self-indulgent worst…
Under the Rose
… and it gets even worse here. That booming multi-tracked-vocal chorus is just embarrassing, and the song is 37 shades of awful. Two turds in a row? The next song better knock it out of the park…
A World Without Heroes
… and it does. A World Without Heroes is Gene’s best ballad with KISS, ever. Period. With a little help from Lou Reed in the songwriting department, Gene wrote and sang one of his best performances on vinyl with this one. Paul’s solo (!) is one of the best he ever did with Kiss. A World Without Heroes has an effectively chilling vibe of despair and near-hopelessness that just really helps make the song so memorable.
Let me assure you, I used to hate this freakin’ song. I thought the lyrics were juvenile and the song so utterly misguided, it actively made me want to (say it with me now) kick a pigeon. However, a few years back I gave the song another chance and to be honest? It’s not bad. The riffing on the chorus is pretty sweet. I like it.
Escape From the Island
More instrumental filler, with more blistering fretwork from Ace. Even still, there’s no reason to ever listen to this again.
OK. Sit down for a second. Close your eyes. Clear your mind. I want you to think of every crappy song Kiss has ever recorded up to this point. I’m talking about the absolute bottom-of-the-barrel, disastrously awful, what-were-they-thinking,” OMG are you for real someone actually RECORDED this?” cuts from their albums. Think Kissin’ Time, Great Expectations, Then He Kissed Me, Any Way You Want It, the Peter Criss solo album… you get them. Now imagine all those cuts mashed together into a single track, all of it playing at the same time, while Gilbert Gottfried is dancing naked on top of a cake.
Odyssey makes that look like Black Diamond.
It’s the single worst thing Kiss has ever done. And I’m including the Kiss casket and the “Attack of the Phantoms” TV movie in that judgment call.
This song is all sorts of cheesy (Yes I believe in me!!! — ugh), all sorts of goofy, but it rocks enough to overcome its lame lyrics. I dig the chorus, the shared vocals, the riffing… cheeseball, but good stuff. Not great, but good.
So overall… Music From “The Elder” is a freaking mess. Not a total disaster, to be sure, with some good material mixed in with the bad. However the album lacks consistency of quality, which makes for a strangely jarring and mostly disjunctive listening experience. Yes, the whole “concept” of the “concept album” is an absolute dopey bust, but most concept albums are absolute dopey busts anyhow. As long as the music is good, who really cares, right? Alas, we’re left with three great tunes (“The Oath”, “World Without Heroes”, “Just A Boy”), two good tunes (“I”, “Mr. Blackwell”), and six forgettable-to-complete and total pieces of crap (“Dark Light”, “Fanfare”, “Escape From The Island”, “Only You”, “Under the Rose”, “Odyssey”). When it comes to Music From “The Elder”, you’ll find yourself continuously cherry-picking to discover worthwhile tracks to enjoy. Of which there are several. But the garbage mixed in between them is probably more responsible for the album’s deplorable reputation than the overall package deserves.