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!)
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!