Released: 10 November 1981
Track list (from original American release): The Oath; fanfare; Just a Boy; Dark Light; Only You; Under the Rose; A World Without Heroes; Mr. Blackwell; Escape from the Island; Odyssey; I
Best song: “The Oath”
Worst song: “Odyssey”
When I decided to start doing reviews, and decided to start with Kiss, I knew I’d have to do The Elder pretty early and get it off my chest. This album is … complicated. Look, Ace Frehley is my favorite member of Kiss. And The Elder is in ways one of my absolute favorite Kiss albums. But Ace himself has said he hates this album. Like I said, it’s complicated.
In short: Kiss teams up with Bob Ezrin (the producer of Destroyer) once again, along with Lou Reed and some other folks, to make a concept album, and a concept album about the mythical Hero’s Journey at that. Kiss Meets Joseph Campbell, as it were. Disaster ensues. Or does it?
I’ll spare you the full story of how this peculiar thing came to be; you can read it for yourself elsewhere. (If you read the review of Unmasked, you know that Kiss was looking for some seriously new direction.) Just accept, arguendo as it were, that Kiss is presenting the Hero’s Journey. Yes, I know, this hurts your brain. Just accept it and let’s see what we’ve got.
Only one song on the album really spends any meaningful time on love, and that song is absolute dreck; and none of the songs really deals with sex. That’s right, this is a sexless Kiss album. It’s probably the only one.
So the rest of this review assumes you’re comfortable with fantasy novels in your rock. It assumes you don’t insist that Kiss spend 100% of their time partying and womanizing. I take the album on its own merits as music and poetry, rather than as what I think Kiss is “supposed” to do. If you came to The Elder wanting “cock rock”, just save yourself the time: you will hate this album.
Note: The original American release has a track order which is somewhat scrambled from the Japanese release, and from the later release in the Kiss Remasters series. I’m going to tackle this the way an American Kiss fan like me originally heard it, although the remastered order might make for a more sensible story.
Right from the start things sound good. “The Oath”, for my money the best song on the album, is the hard-rocking introduction to the story (or so Americans thought in 1981), commencing with a galloping riff. Paul’s “wanna-be operatic” vocals have never been applied to a better task than this; this is rock opera! The mix does render the lyrics harder to decipher than most Kiss songs, though; and when you’re going from something like “I wanna rock ‘n’ roll all nite / and party every day” to “Now compelled by something that I cannot see / I go forth surrendering to history”, it’s quite a jump.
The short instrumental “fanfare” follows. (The title is in lowercase and in italics on every release I’ve seen; why? It’s a perfectly good English word, and furthermore deserves to be capitalized.) It introduces the five-note leitmotif we’ll come to know as The Boy’s Theme. Yes, I said leitmotif. This is a Kiss album with a leitmotif. I know your brain hurts. I warned you. It’s not a bad little piece of music in any way. It is a bit odd that it’s the only classical music piece on the album; that feels forced. Either the album should be pure rock, or classical should be a more integral part of it. So it’s good on its own but weak as part of the album. Oh well.
We go into “Just a Boy”, in which Our Hero introduces himself, with all his self-doubt and worry. This is a really pretty piece, actually. It’s not a rocker at all (but it does have a nice, expressive guitar solo). Lyrically, it’s not Tennyson, but you know, you can do a lot worse in rock concept albums than “While some eyes search for one to guide us / some are staring at me / But I’m no hero / though I wish I could be.” That’s actually rather touching stuff right there.
Now the Ace’s most overt contribution, in the form of “Dark Light”, sung by Frehley himself, who cowrote it with Lou Reed among others. Ace depicts the darkness Our Hero is facing pretty well. “Now look up, for the skies are black! / and they’re getting darker all the time.” “Look out for the death of love!” “The sun is turning cool”. “A dark light is shining at you!” This is fun.
“Only You” and “Under the Rose” really are a two-part song. We hear at last from Gene, telling The Boy in the first part that he is the destined one, the one who can stop the darkness, but warning him in the second part how “loneliness will haunt you” and challenging him to take the Oath. (Wait, didn’t we hear “The Oath” at the beginning of the album? Oh right, the American ordering is goofy.) “Only You” is actually kinda bland and unremarkable; it’s part of the story, but it doesn’t grab you. “Under the Rose”, however, has got a killer riff after the chorus, and Gene’s voice is alternately gentle in the verses and thundering in the chorus. It works nicely enough.
Flip to Side Two. “A World Without Heroes” is not the oddest song out on the album (that will unfortunately come later) but it is odd. It’s … what is it? It’s not a power ballad. It’s not a rocker. It’s kinda sui generis. And it’s pleasant. It was one of the “hits”, and I use the term loosely, on the album. It was played on the MTV Unplugged special. It was played on ABC’s Fridays (as was “The Oath”). It’s actually one of Gene’s finest moments, musically. The bass (part of Gene’s contribution that is sometimes overlooked for his singing and showmanship) is tasteful and restrained, but still carries the song. It doesn’t advance the story — we already know the stakes are high — but it says things more lyrically than we’ve had to this point. “Dark Light” is good; this is shorter and better.
Oh, “Mr. Blackwell”. I kinda hate this song, really. It seems to be the villain singing, and that has value in the story. But it’s just not great. “You’re not well / oh Mr. Blackwell / why don’t you go to hell?” Look, I appreciate Kiss for being straightforward, but this is just dumb. The music isn’t pleasant to listen to any more than the words are. Okay, it’s about the bad guy, but “Dark Light” and “A World Without Heroes” are about the bad guys and the possibility of their triumph, yet they’re enjoyable listens. I just don’t care for this one. Never have.
We go from “Blackwell” into “Escape from the Island”, an instrumental by Ace, Eric, and Ezrin. It’s got a good main riff, but it goes on a touch too long and, since it’s instrumental, it doesn’t advance the story except by its title. Presumably Blackwell has an island and The Boy has just escaped from it?
“Odyssey” is to The Elder what “Beth” is to Destroyer: it’s a sappy love song that doesn’t fit. Except I concede that I guess “Beth” is a serviceable ballad. “Odyssey” is terrible. It might be the worst song in the entire catalogue from Kiss through Creatures. Yes, “Goin’ Blind” from Hotter Than Hell is better than this. Yes, “Kissing Time” from Kiss, with its stupid city call-outs, is better than this. “From a far-off galaxy / I hear you calling me”. “On a mountain high somewhere / where only heroes dare / stand a stallion and a mare”. Holy god, has Kiss hired Jim fucking Steinman to write lyrics for them? Nope, this is by Tony Powers, who wrote some minor hits back in the day, and it is awful. If the music at least rocked … but no, that’s a bunch of piano and orchestra with nothing to be pompous about. Even the Overly Earnest Paul Vocals don’t really give it life.
At least we end on a much higher note with “I”, as in “I believe in me”. This is really the most “normal” Kiss song on the album: it’s anthemic in nature, includes the word “balls” in its metaphorical sense (utterly unlike the rest of the album’s lyrical tone; they used “guts” instead when they performed it on Fridays), and even has a little joke at the end where Gene seems to be singing the words “I wanna rock and roll all nite” under the last repetition of the chorus. “I” isn’t the best anthem Kiss ever did, but it’s upbeat in spirit, it rocks pretty well, and if nothing else, it pulls us out of the roller coaster of bad-meh-horrible that is “Blackwell/Escape/Odyssey”.
At the end of “I” is a little spoken-word sound-effect bit (mirroring in some sense the one at the beginning of Destroyer; Bob Ezrin starts and ends his Kiss career with storylines) in which The Elder hear from Morpheus (“the caretaker”, the liner notes tell us) about The Boy: “he’s got the light in his eyes and the look of a champion … a real champion.” Hooray! The world is safe!
It’s complicated, right? There’s a couple really good songs, a number of decent ones, and one truly awful one. On its own merits, I think this is definitely a better-than-average album. The problem is that Kiss fans don’t think it’s Kiss enough; progressive/art rock fans don’t think it’s progressive/artsy enough.
Let me make a comparison: A friend of mine applauds William Shatner as an artist. Sure, The Transformed Man is a bizarre album that is often laughable. Sure, the weird “Rocket Man” performance is … weird. Sure, he starred in a pretty bad entirely-Esperanto horror film. But you know what? He tries things like that. He takes risks as an artist. The world is cooler because artists try new things. If artists always stuck to what was “safe”, where would we be?
So in all, I applaud Kiss for making The Elder. It doesn’t always work as well as it should for me (as a progressive rock fan), and it certainly isn’t “a Kiss album”, but God love ’em, they tried, and it has its moments.