Thursday, 26 March 2015
Bargain Bin Review #5: KISS - "Music From 'The Elder'"
Firstly a bit of disclosure. I didn't buy this in a bargain bin. I bought it second hand on vinyl. However, as the initial sales of this album were poor on first release, I imagine copies of this would have languished in bargain bins for a long time in the early 1980s.
At the end of the day, you either love or you hate Kiss. Even those who are in the former camp are divided over their 1981 concept album "Music From 'The Elder'". Paul Stanley himself even introduces a song on 1996's "MTV Unplugged" as "from an album that some people can't ever hear enough of and for some people, it's always too much". And in the context of the band's career trajectory, it really wouldn't matter when this album was released, the outcome would probably still have been the same.
In short, this was the wrong idea for the wrong band at the wrong time. The band were confused by their direction. Their record label thought they were a risk and the critics loved to sink the boot into them. The idea was to pull off a grand concept that would make the critics love them, sell loads of records for the company and and inflate KISS' collective egos even further by becoming "serious" musicians.
By 1981 the band's audience had changed from teenagers and young adults to kids and their parents, after the hit singles "I Was Made For Loving You" and "Shandii". They had sold their image by commercially branding every product that could be invented at that point (they still do, but it is now even more ridiculous). They had flooded the record buying market with product. They had released two albums a year between 1974 and 1977 inclusive and then in 1978 released 4 solo albums on the same day, 5 months after releasing a double LP best of album. Then, 7 months after the solo records comes "Dynasty". By the time of the softer sounding LP "Unmasked" in 1980, the pre-teens were well and truly lapping it up and the older fans were switching off, having grown up and moved on, having been over-saturated by the band's omnipresence, or just not wanting to attend gigs standing next to little kids and their parents.
"Unmasked" highlighted the problem. It was beloved by kids as young as 4 and it was bland and inoffensive enough to not outrage parents. The members of KISS may well have been aware of this trend and started to plot their next move. They were always slagged off by critics, but they were being written off as kiddies entertainers now. They needed to be serious artists once again.
They decided to enlist the services of Bob Ezrin once again, who had helmed production on one of the most successful records to date, "Destroyer". He was riding high with a massive selling concept record he'd produced for Pink Floyd called "The Wall". Gene Simmons had come up with this film script idea and Bob was keen to make an album of songs based around the central concept of the script.
It was supposed to be fantasy-styled good vs evil plot with Tolkien-esque overtones. The film had no chance of being made (despite a fair performance of their previous film "KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park") but a concept album seemed like a good idea at the time. And why not? Peers of their like Rush and Yes were turning out obscurely premised and yet successful albums, what was there to lose?
Well, everything, as it turns out. Lead guitarist Ace Frehley went missing for most of the sessions and ended up either leaving, or was fired depending on whose autobiography you believe. The record company pulled funding from the album, preventing it from becoming a double album, and the fans deserted them in droves when the album was released. Even Gene's hair disappeared, cutting most of it off for the ensuing tour (he looked more ridiculous in person than the action figurine bearing his likeness)
What we're left with is an album that is supposed to hang together around a concept, but tells no story and has no narrative. That's no big deal when you consider The Who's "Who's Next" album was supposed to be an album of songs from the abandoned "Lifehouse" project, but it doesn't depend on the listener having any context. "The Elder" is supposed to revolve around a story that no-one is ever told, either in the music or in the sleeve notes, and it leaves the listener with the impression that there supposed to be some other media element of object to accompany this for it to make sense, hence the "Music from..." in the title.
To make matters worse, the original release (excluding the altogether different Japanese release) has the songs sequenced in such a way that even if you wanted to piece together the rather weedy plot, you'd send yourself demented attempting it.
Narrative of concept aside for a moment, there is some surprisingly strong music here. Opening the original vinyl LP "The Oath" possesses some of the heaviest riffs on a KISS album to date, as does the album closer "I". The former sounds like a lyric that has some bearing to the plot, while the latter could be woven into the story but mostly spends its lyrics having a go at Ace and his drink'n'drugs lifestyle. Elsewhere on the album there are some widescreen cinematic excursions in the form of "The Odyssey", "Just A Boy" and "Under The Rose". Some melodramatic introspection in "A World Without Heroes", good old Ace Frehley rock in the form of "Dark Light" and the surging instrumental "Escape From The Island", and their strangely-odd and yet oddly compelling Lou Reed co-write "Mr Blackwell", who appears to be the villain of this misguided saga.
Maligned by critics and fans alike, it was the poorest selling record in the KISS catalog for many years and a hard album to find. It was also one of the last to be reissued in the 1997 reissue program and now the standard release follows the original mix issued in Japan, resequenced in the original order as the band and Bob Ezrin intended it to be. At the end of the day it still doesn't make any bloody sense as a narrative, but musically there is a lot of great music here to make it work listening to. For those who don't like KISS, at least there is something to be gained from the one KISS album that doesn't sound all that much like KISS.
Take a listen to the album below and see for yourself. Enjoy.