KISS were a band at the peak of their creative and mercantile powers in the mid to late 70s. Powered by power chord slabs and striking aesthetics, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons’ humble beginnings as Wicked Lester seemed a distant memory in the cocaine haze. Capitalising on a hitherto unploughed money pit, Kiss sold both (commercially and kiddy friendly) hard rock and merchandise, including lunchboxes, comics and, yes, even a movie. Believe you me, Kiss Meets the Phantom in the Park’s day is coming.
The point is they were unstoppable; by 1977, they were voted the most popular band in America in a Gallup poll. Dangerous enough to make your parents blush, yet harmless enough to dance to, Kiss were a perfectly moulded commercial vehicle with a fair few killer riffs to boot.
At the turn of the 80s, however, Kiss found themselves in something of a creative and commercial slump. They’d overstretched themselves; their aggressive marketing campaigns were beginning to turn against them, with fans clamoring for more, you know, music. In an attempt to recapture this elusive beast, Stanley pitched a concept album. Obviously. The band recruited producer Bob Ezrin, the man at the desk of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, to sort them out and guide them through. Perhaps a concept album seemed like a fast-forward button into the critics’ good books; either way, the album was one of the band’s greatest blunders.
Commercially and critically, that is. Music from the Elder’s reputation as one of the worst albums ever made precedes it, but the music on show is, surprisingly, quite alright. The central concept is complete naff, of course, chronicling a faceless, nameless chap on the sort of hero’s journey you could make up in your sleep. There’s some bloke named Mr. Blackwell who pops up to talk about “crummy lives” on the song of the same name – I suppose he’s the antagonist? “We’ll drink a toast to the inhuman race,” Stanley intones, in a track that betrays Kiss’ roots the most, filled with vampy schlock riffs and a scuttling bassline. ‘The Oath’ similarly features some monster riffage, with scratchy chugs and yelled vocals.
‘Escape from the Island’ is a rollicking instrumental that gallops with real propulsion, as if it were trying to get away from the evident influences of Alex Lifeson. Kiss once toured with Rush, and it’s not hard to see where much of the musical (and maybe even conceptual) similarities with 2112 comes from. The chord changes, hilarious sincerity and guitar tone all scream Rush; ‘I’ sounds like Kiss doing a cover version of ‘Fly By Night’ or ‘Bastille Day’.
As strong as these tracks are, others like ‘Odyssey’, a painfully earnest piano ballad with cod-orchestral flourishes and dancing oceans, sound absurd with Stanley’s thick Manhattan brogue, floundering under the weight of their own importance. ‘A World Without Heroes’ features Jon Lord-esque keyboard – like ‘Child in Time’ with even more navel-gazing – and award-winning lines like, “A world without heroes / is like a never ending race / Is like time without a place / A pointless thing devoid of grace”. It reads and sounds like a 12 year-old’s first attempt at poetry having read snapshots of The Iliad. Surprising (but is it really?) to find, then, that Lou Reed receives a writing credit.
‘Just a Boy’ is a lilting, wafting bout of madrigal nonsense, with Stanley attempting a bizarre falsetto amidst triumphant stabs and acoustic guitars. ‘Under the Rose’ is much the same, but manages to keep the lid on its insubstantiality with some heavy riffing that’s unfortunately undercut by wooden synth. There’s also some hilarious choir during the chorus, belching out fantastical platitudes with as much conviction as a contracted hernia.
Met with confusion by their fans and derision by their critics, Music from the Elder represents a band attempting to carve a new notch in their careers. Though misguided, the album is nowhere near as bad as its lofty reputation would suggest; it’s more baffling than bad, really. Soon after, Kiss shed their masks and arrived on MTV with bare faces and imitative rubbish like ‘Crazy Crazy Nights’, descending further and further into mediocrity as each year passed. Music from the Elder, mixed as it is, at least tries something different. For better or worse, that should be admired.