Hidden treasures: The Music from the Elder by Kiss

After the first silence the small man said to the other: ‘Where does a wise man hide a pebble?’ And the tall man answered in a low voice: ‘On the beach.’ The small man nodded, and after a short silence said: ‘Where does a wise man hide a leaf?’ And the other answered: ‘In the forest.’

Sometimes greatness is hidden in clear sight.

Between 1974 and 1980 grease paint masked American hard rockers Kiss released twelve studio albums (including four solo albums) and two live double albums (the first one, Alive! (1975), is best), with twenty-odd million records sold. Between late 75 and the simultaneous release of the four solo albums in 78 they were the biggest band in the world. And then in 1981 they released the album The Music from the Elder.

Disco had wrong-footed Kiss. It has to be said that they always had one eye on revenue and the success of Saturday Night Fever, Donna Summer, Earth, Wind & Fire and the rest had taken the wind out of their sails (sic). Rather than pushing against the tide, they went with it and produced two softer albums Dynasty (1979) and Unmasked (1980). Unmasked had seen the departure of original drummer Peter Criss, not to mention several thousand members of the Kiss Army. The band were at a crossroads. Lead guitarist Ace Frehley wanted a back to basics rock album – an idea they would take up, minus Frehley, in the wake of The Elder’s failure to sell and the continued desertions from the Kiss Army which had begun with Dynasty by releasing The Creatures of the Night in 1982 with perhaps the fattest drums ever recorded.

But before Creatures of the Night there was The Music from the Elder. Even the band have distanced themselves from the album. It wasn’t toured and few of the songs have been revisited in their live set (‘A world without heroes’ made an appearance on their MTV Unplugged session back in the nineties). Lou Reed was grafted onto the project to give it gravitas that it never managed to achieve – an unsuccessful collaboration with hard rockers which has continued with his appalling effort with Metallica a few years ago.

The album as an experimental format reached its peak at some point in the 1970s. Like everything else – including the internet and hover boots – it’s invention has been put down to The Beatles, even though the concept behind Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) had run out of steam by the second song. As far back as 1968 The Small Faces were already extracting the juice out of the idea with Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake and its stoner’s brain fart of a story line about the disappearing moon. Where at, man, he thoucus? The concept behind The Music from the Elder is no better. The story is tosh, obviously – some kid has been chosen by a group of super-brained Elders to go up against the force of evil. But wasn’t the story behind all concept albums spaff? SF Sorrow by The Pretty Things, makes no sense at all. And what the fuck is Tommy about? And things didn’t get any better after these ground-breaking efforts, reaching its muddy conclusion with some mid-seventies, pre-punk album by Yes dealing with the Dwarf Wars on the planet Tharg. Maybe during some multi-coloured mental blizzard cooked up by booze and LSD it perhaps all made perfect sense. Syd Barrett might have dug it.

Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies, Schools Out etc and Pink Floyd’s The Wall) who had helmed the knobs and dials on the band’s very successful 1976 Destroyer was drafted in for The Elder. The band recorded in secrecy with rumours that this would be the spiritual follow up to Destroyer. It wasn’t and the sessions seem claustrophobic and fractious. Ace Frehley was especially unhappy. For a start Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley and Ezrin were steering the album away from the hard rocker that had originally been touted into something more complex and fragile. Frehley’s problems with Ezrin dated back to the Destroyer recording sessions of 1976, with the Space Ace too far in orbit to function and his solos being replaced like some Renaissance master peddling out his work to studio flunkeys. During The Elder recordings Ezrin would again cut out much of Frehley’s guitar work. Delays in the release of the record were compounded by Bob Ezrin’s cocaine intake which may have had a knock on effect the grandiose nature of what he eventually knocked out. And when it finally did ship to the shops, the fans were bemused. What the hell was this…?

The cover artwork is especially uninspiring (even with the debate as to whether the hand is that of lead singer Paul Stanley or Elizabeth Taylor). And any album that tries to carry a narrative means that a lot of the lyrics feel forced, which seems to undermine the songs. The Elder is no different. Expectations about narrative arc are low. However, it would be easy to dismiss the album out of hand. There are some good tunes and the quality of the sound is superb. Especially the multi-layered operatic sound of Paul Stanley’s voice. The guitar work on the album is in sharp contrast to their previous work, even discounting the disco flavour of their two previous releases. There is a use of semi tones which would herald the introduction of true modern heavy metal – as opposed to the loud, distorted blues rock which they and other bands (Led Zeppelin, The Who, Humble Pie, Aerosmith etc) had reheated from half-forgotten blues records of the 1950s into stadium rumbling monsters.

‘Just a boy’, ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Only You’ are the stand out tracks. The Elder may not be my favourite Kiss album (Rock n’ Roll Over or Alive! perhaps gets that accolade), but it has an element of greatness about it that’s perhaps been nurtured by its lack of success and the way even the band themselves have dismissed it. Have a listen, take a journey, pledge the oath. Enjoy.