Kiss – The Elder

Kiss - The ElderKissThe Elder (Casablanca)

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.

From that list, a few Kiss albums stand out: Destroyer and Rock And Roll Over. If Kiss does get any kudos, it usually involves one of those two albums. Maybe Alive. Sometimes Love Gun.

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

20 thoughts on “Kiss – The Elder”

  1. WTF!

    I just typed a 5,000 word diatribe against this….

    only to come to my senses and erase it before hitting the post button.

    Nice article.

  2. This is bringing back some real dark ghosts for me man. Back in junior high my cousin Rikki Lixx and I broke up our band after an intense argument over this album.

  3. The main problem with the Elder album was a matter of timing. A major portion of the Kiss audience was essentially teen to university aged males with too much testosterone who had never had enough sex to just sit back and appreciate something that didn’t have peer-approved appellation.

    For someone who came to the album with a Kiss background AND a deep appreciation for prog-rock such as Yes, King Crimson, Rush, Pink Floyd, etc. this album seemed a stroke of genius to me. It took a proper proportion of key Kiss sound elements and added the story line, deeper thinking and more intricate musicianship of a progressive rock album and made something that I thought was an amazing soundtrack for reading any Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, et.al. book on a long summer’s night.

    I dismiss the frat-boy snobbery against this album because I have never heard a critique of this album from people I consider well-read AND with a deep appreciation of a wide spectrum of music. I only hear criticisms from people who drive vehicles older than five years old and were still in their parent’s basements deep into their twenties that thought Poison was an awesome band as well.

    I sometimes wonder what the band’s sound would have been like if they had decided to be less commercial and go with pure creativity. They would have been a twentieth as popular but twenty times more interesting to that 1/20th of an audience.

  4. Was this review satirical? if it was, than it was john cleese-styled comic genius… especially the part about ace and lou reed know they had just taken part in a masterpiece(lol) and also the part about ‘the wall’ being written by chimps! Klassic!

  5. Cheers — lovely piece! I agree totally. Any rock fan (KISS-centric or otherwise) who gives “The Elder” album an honest, open-minded listen will be forced to admit that “The Oath,” “Dark Light” and “Escape from the Island” are great hard rock tunes, and that “A World Without Hereoes” and “Odyssey” are beautiful ballads. It’s just a damn good album, that’s it and that’s all.

    Before you make fun of it, LISTEN to it. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.

    And let’s face facts: the only reason Gene and Paul disparage “The Elder” is because it didn’t $ELL!

  6. It is certainly true that Satan would sing mind numbingly banal lyrics to horrifyingly cheese ball music. HE would also addingly “ly” to lots of HIS sentencesly. Thats because it forces the readers mind to say LIE out loud!

    And sadingly the depth of my comments surpass the depths of the album. YES I LISTENED TO IT! Only four quarts of Boones Farm could make it an enjoyable experience. Then puke. So go aheadingly and listen to it- and get sickingly just like the Devil wantinglies you to.

  7. It may be some kind of joke…

    (this, for example makes me go “what?”)

    “Reed, an acknowledged lyrical genius, has distanced himself from the album because he felt it was his best work since the Velvet Underground.”

    BUT…

    It sounds very plausable that “the Matrix” was based on “the Elder.”

    So, as a FAN of this MOST EXCELLENT ALBUM, I really DO wanna know if its true!

    What do Larry and Andy Wachowski have to say about this?

    What was the boy’s name in “the Elder”? Neo? I mean, that would cinch it!

    Does anybody know?

    This would be SO COOL, if true!

  8. You sir, article writer, are a first class knob. The Elder is not fit to be mentioned in the same breath as the wall. You have absolutely no clue about music and your idiotic review is too obviously based on your love of the album.

  9. Couple of sugar cubes in the old days and I guaranteed this album was well listened to many nights. To me as a fan of Progressive Rock starting with Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and King Crimson, and Kaipa, and Rush and Alan Parsons Project, and Pink Floyd, I thought this album to be very adventurious of an undertaking for Kiss and personally I Believe they nailed it perfectly. The Story and Music evolve from the beginning to a driving intensity near the very end. I have the international version vs the American version as it was purchased overseas at the time when I was in the US Navy. And Yes we use to party on ship when we did not have duty. Many a night with headphones on in the lower compartment sitting at a desk with my feet propped up rockin’. This will go down as one of my favorite albums of all time always!!

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