Soundtrack for a Missing Movie, Part 3 of 3

Part 1

Part 2

And so we arrive at the final chapter of our Music from “The Elder” retrospective. Our topic today is the most important element of any album: THE MUSIC! Near the bottom, inbetween my blather, you’ll find the three tracks that Kiss performed on the short-lived variety show Fridays. Apparently, this was the only time they ever played anything from the album live. In other words, if you like your obscure rock music, it’s historical footage!

In spite of the name, “Fanfare” starts things off quietly, with the soft tinkling of a wind chime. This is soon offset by woodwinds playing the five-note motif that will recur throughout the album. Then the soundscape swells on a rising tide of brass and drums. But at the crescendo, after little more than a minute, the noise dies down and peters out with a snatch of Gregorian chanting, long before that sort of thing was fashionable. This lack of bombast must have shocked some listeners in 1981, especially those expecting another “God of Thunder” or “Love Gun,” but it certainly sets the mystical mood.

“Just a Boy” is a pleasant ballad, sung partly in falsetto by Paul Stanley. The rhythm guitar provides background crunch when appropriate, while an acoustic guitar softens the all around mood. There’s also a brief, mellow guitar solo. (Famously, Ace Frehley was against the idea of a concept album from the get-go. He recorded all his guitar parts under duress in his Connecticut home studio and sent them to Bob Ezrin by mail! I’d like to give credit where credit is due, especially as the axemanship is superb throughout, but I honestly don’t always know when it’s Frehley and when it’s Stanley playing!)

From a lip-synched performance of "I" on Solid Gold.

Things get more grandiose with the piano-led “Odyssey,” yet another ballad but much larger in scale. For the first time, the American Symphony Orchestra really gets to shine, and the symphonic scope complements the band perfectly—the operative word here is “sumptuous.” Again, the guitar solo is ace (whether it’s Ace playing or not), and there’s even an extended, uplifting outro. Unfortunately, the high-flown lyrics of this cosmic love song won’t sit well with those of a cynical persuasion.

“Only You” has a touch of The Who, especially in the breaks. In fact, the affirmative theme and massed chorus make me think that this could easily have slotted onto rock opera Tommy without too much tinkering. Weird, huh? The fairly routine rock tricks of “Only You” segue into the album’s most commanding track, “Under the Rose.” A reasonably muted first verse leads to a thundering chorus, which is practically bellowed by a male choir: “Loneliness will haunt you, do you sacrifice? Do you take the oath, will you live your life … under the rose?” It took a while, but the song has gradually won me over. And do I really need to tell you that I like the guitar solo?

After the hefty salvo of “Under the Rose,” some listeners may be in need of respite. It’s time for “Dark Light,” the only Frehley co-composition and vocal on the album. His delivery is rather sarcastic (“You’re gonna be attacked, and you don’t know what it is!”), which could be interpreted as a veiled criticism of the project as a whole. But the demo, cut before the idea of a concept album even materialized, is equally snarky. (Visit Popdose to hear a whole bunch of interesting demos from this era in Kisstory.) At any rate, Frehley projects the vintage charm that made him such a fan favorite, the bridge breaks into an unexpected Latin beat, and the guitar solo is in danger of being gobbled up by its own frenetic sloppiness.

Although it isn’t his only lead vocal on the album, “A World Without Heroes” gives Gene Simmons a chance to really shine. Never the possessor of a great voice, he nonetheless delivers a sensitive performance. And whereas some of the other songs can’t quite reach the lofty heights to which they aspire, generally due to lyrical folly, this song succeeds by keeping it simple. The bass sounds like a heartbeat, the spare string arrangement adds an aura of desolation, and the words are genuinely evocative: “Where you don’t know what you’re after, or if something’s after you …” Some guy named “Lewis Reed” gets co-writer credit on this and two other tracks. Yes, it’s exactly who you think it is! Weird!

With Music from “The Elder” now in the home stretch, it’s time to pick up the pace. “The Oath” has a galloping rhythm guitar that’s reminiscent of “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.” Paul Stanley demonstrates his impressive vocal range, there’s a catchy countermelody, and the lyrics are gloriously over the top: “Like the blade of a sword I am forged in flames!” (I won’t post the link here, but there’s a clip on YouTube of Kiss valiantly trying to play it at a concert after more than 25 years. The crowd is game, but the band just gives up!)

With only three tracks to go, things take a turn for the bizarre, even by the standards of this curious album. “Mr. Blackwell” is insidious, coiling venom, complete with woolly bass, some strange percussive touches, and a spot of backwards chanting. This tune feels the most like something from a musical. It’s clearly there to drive the story along, and that type of narrative burden is often the undoing of a song. “Mr. Blackwell” is perfectly okay, but there’s a randomness to it that conjures up a feeling of the odd man out. And the penultimate track, “Escape from the Island,” is a tight but somewhat ordinary instrumental … until it becomes surprisingly jazzy in the middle. Eric Carr, who had replaced Peter Criss the previous year, does a commendable job on the drums.

That leaves us with the closing track, “I.” Lively and straightforward, I called it an ode to self-empowerment in part two. Stanley and Simmons trade lead vocals, and the chorus is the very epitome of stirring. Even the corny finger snaps, which are right out of West Side Story, somehow work. Only the windup falters—we hear footsteps on a heavy stairwell, and then a spectral voice asks Morpheus if the boy is worthy of his prophesied destiny. So far, so good, but when Morpheus answers, he sounds like a bad James Stewart impersonator, and that leaves Music from “The Elder” to go out on a bum note. But that’s my only major complaint.

And that’s it. Our musical odyssey is at an end. Who would have thought I’d end up writing my longest blog post about a Kiss album? Not only that, but a much maligned album at that! Well, anyway, I enjoyed writing about this neglected bit of Kisstory, and I hope I’ve inspired a few people to go out and track the album down. Let me tell you, for all of its bad reputation, you could do a whole lot worse than Music from “The Elder.” It’s brave, harebrained, majestic, subdued, catchy, turgid and very entertaining. I even have a theory about how this might be the most personal Kiss album of all. Themes of ambition, perseverance, self-assurance and overcoming obstacles? If you ask me, that’s the story of Kiss!


Soundtrack for a Missing Movie, Part 2 of 3

Part 1

Our Kiss odyssey carries on, as we continue to explore the brave but ultimately doomed experiment that was Music from “The Elder.” Today, our main concern is the album’s story, because every concept album needs, you know, a concept!

“When the earth was young, they were already old …”

So begin the liner notes. They go on to explain that the mystical Elder, benevolent beings from the dawn of time, have assumed mortal form in preparation for a looming battle. They’re making these preparations because of an equally old and powerful evil, and the Elder must now “find and train a warrior … a champion to conquer the evil.” Otherwise, this nameless menace will take over the world. There is some sort of journey, both in the physical world and of spiritual growth, and then the album tapers off. Morpheus, “the caretaker,” has pronounced that “the boy” is “ready for the sacred right of accession to the Order of the Rose,” and that’s pretty much it. Eleven songs take the listener to the threshold of what would be the second act of most other movies. So what happens across those eleven tracks? I’ll get to that in a minute—or two minutes, to be precise. First, here is an informative and funny little clip from around the time of the album’s release:

Music from “The Elder” opens with a short fanfare that segues into “Just a Boy.” Sung from the boy’s perspective, this song deals with his doubts and fears at the prospect of becoming a leader. “The Odyssey,” with its confident tone, seems to be a call to action and optimism from the Elder. Or maybe it’s more a description of ideal, godlike love—a well from which the boy can draw strength. Both interpretations are valid. In “Only You”, the boy is told that he is “the light and the way.” (It seems the Elder must work hard to convince the boy of his importance and latent power.) This song is followed by “Under the Rose,” in which the Elder council extorts the challenges and sacrifices of the task ahead.

Any movie with a bit of structural nous has a midpoint that gives renewed impetus to the story. And “Dark Light,” the sixth track, does just that. For the first time, the dark forces at work get some attention. The lyrics are mostly a loose assemblage of references to Sodom and Gomorrah, the Devil, “the malevolent order” and other vague threats, but we understand that the evil is mounting. “A World Without Heroes,” arguably the most well-known song on the album, emphasizes the importance of the brave and good among us. Here, heroes are mainly exalted as sources of inspiration, rather than as heroes in themselves. In the video, Gene Simmons, the demon, actually sheds a tear:

“The Oath,” the most rocking number of the bunch, is (probably) the boy’s pledge set to music. But is it an oath to the Elder, or the boy’s promise to himself? Whatever the explanation, it’s clear that the timid whelp of “Just a Boy” is now a memory. Song number nine, “Mr. Blackwell,” is possibly the most intriguing story clue. Here, at last, is a specific foe. However, the titular Mr. Blackwell is clearly human. Is he working with the dark, supernatural forces? Or is he merely a corrupter of his fellow men, preying on their weaknesses?  Alas, we don’t get to find out. The most interesting thing about “Escape from the Island,” another instrumental track, is its title. Clearly, someone escapes from, um, an island. And that just leaves the aforementioned “I,” a rousing ode to self-empowerment—sung, it’s reasonable to imagine, by the boy.

Through all of Music from “The Elder,” we perceive stages of the hero’s journey. It’s classic, very basic storytelling. Interestingly, the narrative, which was devised by Gene Simmons, combines Lovecraftian influences (the ancient gods) with the sword and sorcery genre that was at that moment gathering pace. Still, The Sword and the Sorcerer, The Beastmaster and Conan the Barbarian were a year away, which would indicate that Music from “The Elder” was some months ahead of its time. (Obviously, the genre itself had been established many years earlier.) Not that any of this made a lick of difference to the record buying public. The album sank without trace, and in their quest to regain lost ground, Kiss were forced to come up with yet another musical strategy. That new strategy was Creatures of the Night, an unapologetic, down-and-dirty dose of thunder released in 1982. By that time, Music from “The Elder” was probably already gathering dust in bargain bins the world over. Too bad, because the songs are all rather good, despite the occasional iffy lyric. And Bob Ezrin’s production is clean and grandiose, perfectly suited to the themes of heroism.

For a rundown on the songs, check back on Sunday!

Part 3

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