When it comes to great bands, most acknowledged music experts don’t consider the merits of Kiss. When they do, it’s usually in tandem with the band’s marketing ability and the influence their music had on young kids. It’s true, ask a large sample of rock bands that achieved success during the past twenty years and a large percentage of the responses would probably name a few Kiss albums as the first rock album they ever purchased.
There’s one album that is regularly overlooked in Kisstory and it is ridiculed in certain rock circles as their major misstep. But the reality of this album’s greatness is very apparent the moment you listen to it with a fresh set of open ears. When you do, you’ll see that Kiss’ The Elder is not only one of the best albums in the band’s catalog, it’s one of the greatest albums in rock history.
With The Elder, the band was finally able to match their image with the most realized story concept ever put to music. It began when Bob Ezrin, fresh off his work on Pink Floyd‘s The Wall, was hired to not only repeat his prior success with the band (Destroyer), but to help bring a newfound artistic vision and critical credibility to the band.
He succeeded in spades.
The Elder is the story of a boy who is recruited by the Council of Elders to help fight evil. The young boy is trained an old man named Morpheus and, by the end of the album, he is ready to face the evil in the world. The album features lyrics that focus on the boy’s journey as he grows into a strong man. Although uncredited, the story of The Elder was the basis of the screenplay of The Matrix with Laurence Fishburne playing the part of Gene Simmons.
Part of the reason that the lyrics work so well is because three of the songs were co-written by Lou Reed. Reed, an acknowledged lyrical genius, has distanced himself from the album because he felt it was his best work since the Velvet Underground.
Musically, The Elder features some of Kiss’ most challenging moments. From the charismatic falsetto vocals of Paul Stanley, to the brilliant incorporation of St. Robert’s Choir, to the symphonic majesty of the American Symphony Orchestra, The Elder may be as close as rock music has gotten to the epic grandeur of a classic opera. Noted critic Robert Christgau has compared The Elder as the closest thing that American rock music has gotten to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. That’s why they call him The Professor of Rock Critics.
Simmons and Stanley still fail to acknowledge The Elder for what it is: the best concept album ever created. People mistakenly put Tommy, The Wall or Operation: Mindcrime on their shortlist of great concept albums, but one listen to The Elder and you understand that those albums could have been penned by dim-witted chimps while The Elder was clearly created from the brilliant minds of Kiss, Bob Ezrin, and Lou Reed.
Although the promotional push for The Elder was minimal, the band did make a handful of appearances to promote it. They changed their traditional character garb for more modern costumes, some of which included shorter hair and the use of colorful accessories. The end result was one of the most influential fashion styles in the late twentieth century. Although it has been woefully under-reported, the new costumes the band introduced for The Elder prompted Yõhji Yamamoto to start his own groundbreaking designs, which made their debut in Paris back in 1981, the same year the album was released.
Sensing that an album of this intellectual brilliance would only hinder catalog sales of the band known for dumb rock songs, Polygram records immediately began a campaign of sabotaging the record in order to diminish its success. The idea was that the label could then force the band to return back into the studio and begin work on a more stereotypical Kiss album. Guitarist Ace Frehley, knowing that he had just been a part of one of the greatest albums in rock history, became so incensed at the label’s subterfuge that he began missing appearances in protest. At one of them, a via satellite performance at Studio 54, the band performed as a trio because Ace Frehley had drunk himself into a stupor, upset that the band was performing at the disco landmark when he felt The Elder material was better suited for the historic stage of Carnegie Hall. By the end of the year, Frehley was gone, upset that Gene and Paul had allowed the record company to ruin their masterpiece.
Highbrow critics and smug musicologists often ignore The Elder, and most of the criticism seems to suggest that they’re right simply because it was the first Kiss album that failed to go gold. While it may not have matched the band’s prior sales figures, it merely means that the band’s fans had gotten more selective. It was also the first album not to feature the band on the cover, so many potential buyers saw the mysterious cover art and assumed it must be the new Roxy Music album.
The sad truth is that most of the album’s largest distracters seem to be the ones that have really sat down with it and listened to its remarkable beauty and unheralded brilliance. It’s a modern masterpiece, occasionally outshining more recognized classics. And with proper attention, people will start putting it next to Blonde On Blonde, Abbey Road and Psycho Circus.
Video: KISS – Elder-era interview