While I was searching my brain this week, trying to think of a suitable concept album to review, a curious bit of trivia surfaced without warning: I suddenly remembered that Kiss had released a concept album in the early ’80s, a critical and commercial failure that was tossed out during the twilight of their popular career. It would probably have been in my best interest to ignore the sudden compulsion to listen to this record, but I consider myself a bit of a masochist when it comes to media, always the first in line for a cheesy B-movie or terrible blockbuster (I’m still kicking myself that I haven’t seen Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles yet). I was determined to find some sort of redeeming quality in Music from “The Elder”, and write up a passable defense of its merits as a piece of schlocky entertainment, in an article littered with unnecessary adverbs and questionable grammar.
Well, I just couldn’t do it. Music from “The Elder” is a bad album, but that goes without saying; it’s the worst album released by the hard rock band Kiss, who at their best were never more than passable. But it’s the worst kind of bad album, a record so innocuous and bland that it can’t even be enjoyed as ironic entertainment. This tragedy is exacerbated by the fact that, glancing over the record’s history and development, it seems ripe to become one of the greatest comedy albums ever recorded.
As the 1980s began, Kiss had reached their peak, and were beginning a long fall back down. Their previous album Unmasked had sold quite poorly, and original drummer Peter Criss had departed from the band. They would have to do something drastic, or they would risk falling into obscurity. Singer Gene Simmons and guitarist Paul Stanley decided that a radical artistic statement was needed by the band, and that it was the only way to revive interest in their dated aesthetic. They teamed up with producer Bob Ezrin, who had previously worked on one of the most iconic concept albums of all time, Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
And so the stage was set, for tragedy and hilarity. They even got the notoriously inconsistent Lou Reed to help them pen a couple tracks. You would think that Gene Simmons’s massive ego would prevent him from taking the conservative route, crafting the most bloated, overindulgent mess he could. But somehow, the story and instrumentation here are reflections of each others’ sterile nature, making Kiss sound less like a desperate band on the edge of collapse and more like a tired band that has already accepted defeat.
First, the plot must be critiqued, considering it was the album’s main draw. It concerns an unnamed boy, who is chosen by a vague, benevolent organization called the Order of the Roses to combat evil forces. He is mentored by an elder named Morpheus, and much of the album’s lyrics fixate on the boy’s inner dialogue as he undergoes his studies and personal transformation. Yes, the entire lyrical content of the album is describing a narrative sequence, which would be relegated to a 30-second montage if it were part of a film (excluding ‘Finale’, that is). And, as a result, we don’t get to hear the kind of amusing blunders that should have been present if Kiss had of used their imagination a bit and expanded the scope of the story. Who knows what sort of zany plot twists those washed-up hard rockers could have come up with? Instead we get line after line of tiresome self-help slogans:
“A world without heroes/is like a never ending race/Is like a time without a place.”
“And the more you change, the more you stay the same.”
“They say I didn’t stand a chance/I wouldn’t win no way/But I got news for you/There’s nothing I can’t do.”
These are stupid lines, but they’re stupid in a common fashion, the kind of vacuous encouragements you’d see on a motivational poster. The fleeting moments of comedy come in Gene Simmons’s delivery of the lines. On ‘Just a Boy’ he adopts a number of vocal styles, seemingly trying to be dozens of prog rock frontmen at once. (The semi-falsetto following the first chorus is especially satisfying.) And it’s hard to forget Kiss’s attempt at a Beach Boys song: the bridge of ‘Odyssey’ features a two-part harmony, plucked acoustic guitars, and a lilting piano line, all instrumental tools of a Pet Sounds cut; the switch-up is so jarring that it would be funny, if it weren’t so poorly executed.
As a whole, the story has a way of holding back information, making the listener angrily thirst for more, even if clarity would make for an even more excruciating album. The aforementioned ‘Finale’ breaks the pattern of glam-rock Zen tracks, with the album’s lone spoken-word part. In it, the elder Morpheus deems the boy’s training to be complete (cue the cheesy trumpets), and now he’s worthy to join the Fellowship! And… that’s the end of the album. It’s hard to credit the album’s story, when the whole thing feels like one big prologue. Couldn’t they have tacked on some sort of conflict, or climax, or any sort of drama which would make this concept album feel more like the Grand Rock Opera Gene Simmons so obviously wanted it to be?
Now, it’s true that not every concept album is a ‘story’ necessarily. Blut Aus Nord’s The Work Which Transforms God is a mostly instrumental concept album that touches on various metaphysical issues. But from the opening notes ‘Just a Boy’, Kiss’s intentions are clear—this was supposed to be an epic of storytelling, on par with the greatest works of Twentieth-century literature. This might not make sense to rational humans, but I fully believe that Gene Simmons thought he could pull it off.
It turns out he couldn’t even put together gripping instrumentals, though, but not for lack of trying. Besides ‘Odyssey’, Kiss draw on a number of different styles, instruments, and bands here, and they’re all rendered totally mundane by the sheer laziness of the compositions. Strings are heaped on nearly every track; it’s almost like they were added long after the rest of the album was complete, in order to make it sound more ‘rock opera-like.’ ‘Only You’ finds the band ripping off themselves and their contemporaries, breezing through muted power chords like it’s still the mid-’70s. There’s no heft in these chords though, no forward momentum; instead of being a riotous party starter, the song fades into the background. Once they’ve had their fill of analog synths and cowbells they seem to give up, churning out ‘I’, a ridiculously prosaic hard rock number, it’s only noteworthy feature being the terrible backup vocals and cringe-worthy ending chant: “I/BELIEVE IN ME!!!!” They’ve truly hit rock bottom here.
The album’s production doesn’t help its case. Even in comparison to average mixing techniques in the 1980s, it’s horribly flat. Again, a flamboyantly botched job would have made the whole thing memorable (we’re still talking about Death Magnetic for a reason), but here every instrument evades the listener’s attention, making left-field additions (such as the trumpets and synths) feel commonplace. Another reason why the strange instruments feel familiar is that Kiss have created the cheesiest, most middle-of-the-road parts for them they can. The guitar solos wail and move in directionless shapes, the trumpets blast out high notes, the bass and drums groove on ‘Escape from the Island’ with cliched syncopation. The entire record is a black hole of unoriginality, a wasted effort by a band that really had nothing to lose at the time.
Despite the fact that I should have known better than to assume that Kiss could make entertaining music, I honestly feel a little duped by the whole thing. I trusted these guys to fall flat on their faces, to make a record so horrifyingly bad that it demanded my attention (in the same way that The Room demanded my attention), but they failed in that endeavor as well. I was hoping for something irresistibly fun, but I got a Kiss album instead.