Throughout the late 70s, it seemed KISS could do little wrong. In the US, their albums sold by the truckload and fans filled large stadiums to witness their face-painted theatrics. In 1979, nodding towards then current musical trends, KISS added disco elements to their brand of hard rock. This seemed to be a good move, as ‘Dynasty’ became another top seller and its single ‘I Was Made For Loving You’ became one of KISS’s best selling singles outside the US. Attempts at re-creating a similar formula for 1980’s ‘Unmasked’ were less successful, despite a couple of stand-out tracks. Drummer Peter Criss quit the band mid way through the albums sessions and things were generally not as rosy.
It was time for a re-think. Very much in favour after his work on Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, producer Bob Ezrin (who’d previously worked as producer on KISS’s 1976 fan favourite ‘Destroyer’) was bought on board to produce the next album – the overblown concept piece ‘Music From The Elder’.
‘Music From The Elder’ follows a half-baked story about a futuristic world and a battle between good and evil. It’s best to not concentrate too much on that and just take the songs at face value. The songs themselves, don’t always feel like traditional Kiss songs – Ezrin’s orchestral arrangements and slick production swamps the album, as if he is the fifth band member here; this is obvious right from the introductory fanfare. His influence becomes absolutely unavoidable as Paul Stanley croons his way through ‘Odyssey’, which is pure musical theatre and not in the usual fun KISS style. Ace Frehley is said to have become rather unhappy with the musical direction ‘The Elder’ was taking but despite that, his contribution ‘Dark Light’ is quite strong, while Paul’s ‘The Oath’ demonstrates a hard rock style KISS would further explore on their 80s albums. The only track here which comes anywhere near the band’s previous anthem style is closing number ‘I’.
Gene’s lament ‘A World Without Heroes’ (co-written with Paul Stanley and Bob Ezrin, with a contribution from Lou Reed) and the more aggressive ‘Mr Blackwell’ are the essential tracks (it’s not very often you’ll find me picking Gene’s songs as KISS album highlights).
Upon release, many fans felt indifferent towards the album; sales were down and it marked the first time KISS did not tour. Some reviews were positive, though: Rolling Stone called the album ‘better than anything the band has recorded in years’.
Time has been kind to ‘Music From The Elder’. Ezrin’s production still sounds superb and musically, KISS are in good shape. Eric Carr makes his debut and turns in a good performance, despite supposedly sharing Frehley’s uncertainties about the concept album. Granted, some of the songs aren’t as catchy as previous outings – the concept approach means that sing-along anthems aren’t so evident. That aside, it’s a decent album none the less and I’m never sure why it tops fans’ ‘worst album’ lists. Bloated and pompous it may be, but there’s nothing here anywhere near as embarrassing as ‘Burn Bitch Burn’ (Animalize, 1984), ‘Bang Bang You’ (Crazy Nights, 1988) or ‘Domino’ (Revenge, 1991), so surely it deserves to be treated just a little better?