Joel Goldenberg: Kiss: Music From the Elder

New-style Kiss in 1981

Throughout music history, there are countless instances of artists and groups disavowing songs or albums they recorded that they don't like, or which were used to compete with their current material.

The Rolling Stones fall into the latter category. When they left Decca/London Records (their UK and U.S. labels) in 1970 and formed their own Rolling Stones Records, distributed by Atlantic Records, their former label continued to release albums and singles that competed with the band's new releases.

The situation was such that the Stones took out a full page ad pleading with fans not to buy the Decca/London compilations.

The former category, relating to quality, usually applies to an artist's or group's earliest recordings, when they were a)recording inferior songs b) recording well-produced songs in a completely different style than their more recent recordings. With the Beatles, it was their recordings done in Germany with Elvis Presley-soundalike Tony Sheridan (a and b), the first two albums of Alanis Morisette (b) or Hall and Oates (a).

But there is a third category — an album recorded as an ambitious experiment and to curry favour with music critics.

This week's featured album, Music From the Elder, was supposed to be a multimedia experience, meaning an LP and a movie. The band's previous two albums, Dynasty and Unmasked, veered into pure pop territory and were trashed by critics and some original Kiss fans.

According to the biographies of the various band members, Kiss — at this point Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and new drummer Eric Carr  — began recording more rock-oriented material, but the inspiration was missing.

Gene Simmons, a fan of fantasy-oriented comic books and movies, proposed a concept album about a boy with special powers, that could also be the soundtrack to the proposed movie. Ace, unhappy in the band at this point in time, objected strongly but ultimately went along to a limited extent.

There was so much drama attached to this album that there is an entire book on its creation. The main elements are these — some of the songs were harder rock, while others included medieval-sounding instruments, a choir, an orchestra and overblown vocals; producer Bob Ezrin, instrumental in the success of Kiss's Destroyer album, was hobbled by a strengthening cocaine habit; Ace recorded separately from the rest of the band, even when they were recording in his own Connecticut home studio (!), as well as in Toronto; the song order was changed for commercial reasons, to kick it off with a more Kiss-sounding song, and then changed back; and worst of all, Ace blamed the other guys for the death of his beloved dog during the sessions — when the dog, which was kept outside because Stanley was allegedly afraid of it, heard noises, it attempted to dig its way back into the house and choked to death in the process.

All of this adversity has caused the band to either dismiss the album altogether; or in a softer moment, say the album is not bad, but it's not a good Kiss album.

I disagree with the guys — it's in my top-three of favourite Kiss albums.

I first became aware of the album via a positive Rolling Stone Record Guide (second edition) three-star review of the album, which said it showed the band had depth and heart.

As it happened, Sam the Record Man had the album on sale for $3.99, and I was taken by the album art, which seemed to indicate a dark and heavy listening experience.

Instead, I enjoyed and still enjoy, the entire album, from top to bottom. Here's my song-by-song evaluation, via the originally conceived track order.

Fanfare: This was the original instrumental introduction to the proceedings, and must have shocked the record company officials who listened to a pre-release copy. It's a horn-based build up to what must have seemed like an upcoming 40 minutes of pomposity. I don't mind it.

Just A Boy: This was also much softer, in places, than Kiss's usual material, but in a good way, and kind of reminds me of the first tracks on the Who's rock opera Tommy. I quite enjoy this song, even Paul Stanley's falsetto vocals.

Odyssey: This seems to be Stanley's least favourite song on the album, and is a cover version of a Tony Powers original. Stanley calls his singing on this track "tragic." To me, it just fits in well with the concept, and passes by painlessly.

Only You: The first Gene Simmons-sung track on the album, and a vast improvement on his previous songs for the preceding Dynasty and Unmasked. In fact, Simmons' and Frehley's songs are the best on the album.

Under the Rose: Another Simmons song, beautifully melodic and the closest to the album's concept, which was his idea in the first place. Even the heavy-duty choir fits in well.

Dark Light — Just like Rocket Ride on the Alive II studio side, this Ace Frehley track is the "coolest" song on the album, although the singing has a somewhat sarcastic tone, reflecting Ace's dislike of the concept. Excellent hard rock.

A World Without Heroes- This was the "hit" single off the album, and its tender tone probably inspired the "heart" aspect of the Rolling Stone Record Guide. Notwithstanding the very '80s ballad sound, this track is not at all outdated.

The Oath-This more Kiss-sounding track was chosen to open the album, in the track listing revised by Polygram Records' suits. This Paul Stanley-sung track is one of my few earworms — I sing it to myself when having to walk a long distance quickly. I especially love Eric Carr's drums on this track.

Mr. Blackwell- I get a kick out of this supposedly heavy, demonic track suitably sung by Kiss's Demon, Gene Simmons, complete with devilish sound effects.

Escape from the Island- An excellent hard-rocking instrumental from Ace. As discontented as he may have been, he still came up with top-quality songs.

I- This was another single off the album, and is also quite Kiss sounding, especially the guitar riffs. It's also nice to hear Gene and Paul trading off vocals, in the style of mid-1970s Kiss.

The album then concludes with a testimonial from some older actors about the magical potential of the boy portrayed throughout the album.

Paul Stanley wrote in his autobiography that when he saw the album in a record store window on the day of its 1981 release, he had a panic attack of sorts.

For the radical departure of the concept that some parts of the album represent musically, and the anticipation of poor sales, I can perhaps understand. But on a song-by-song basis, I completely disagree.

I prefer this album to Destroyer.

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