Through The Past Darkly I: The Elder
Art or arrogance? Love it or hate it, Music From "The Elder" has been the most divisive album issued by KISS... uh, that is until they release "Carnival Of Souls" in October 1997. Whereas "Unmasked" was villified in most quarters, "The Elder" was simply ignored, doomed to sink into obscurity. Perhaps this was a result of fan shock at reading some favourable reviews by critics, though let us not mislead ourselves, many did accuse the album of being full of pretentious twaddle. Music From "The Elder", bears the rather sorrid distinction of being the only studio album by the band to have not have attained at least Gold certification by the RIAA. It has, of course, obtained Gold awards in other countries where the cetrification requirements are substantially less than the 500,000 units sold required in the States. It was the album that KISS delayed re-releasing on CD for some time after the summer 1987 release in the States - it finally came out in mid-1989. But was it a bad album? Possibly not, though without doubt it was the wrong album at the wrong time. The fact that the members of KISS have ignored it, almost to the point of denying its existence, has not made the album disappear, but has give in a certain amount of cult status within sectors of the KISS Army. In fact, when KISS embarked on the Konvention tour of 1995, playing an assortment of unusual songs specially rehersed to fit in with fan requests, some of the most vocally demanded material was that from "The Elder". KISS finally had to give in and though they failed to make much of their attempts at performing "Just A Boy" or "The Oath" they did manage to do "A World Without Heroes", a song which was later featured on their MTV Unplugged performance and album. A Definate oddity. The Elder is an obscure album built on an obscure premise, yet recorded with great attention to detail and skill. While it may only make a mediocre "KISS" album, there is little doubt that the music is a masterpiece.
Asked by Ken Sharp what he felt about "The Elder", Paul replied: "I go on record saying it's not a great KISS record but I think it's a really great record. It's a really good album but I don't think it's a really good KISS album." When KISS started work on their studio follow-up to Unmasked they set out with the object of recapturing the power (and glory) of their most successful album, 1976's Destroyer. With 1979's Dynasty and the following years Unmasked albums KISS had had an extended period of experimentation, quite a long period when you consider that 1977's Love Gun (and the studio side of Alive II) was the last KISS album with a KISS identity that the fans could identify with. What then followed was a deviation from the normal girls 'n rock 'n roll songs which had initially made KISS famous. Cashing in on the disco craze KISS did Dynasty to prove to themselves that they could pen that sort of music. And they did so very well with that album being a smash, but then the ideas dried up. Unmasked was a parody, a dilution of the style of Dynasty. The songs weren't particularly bad or weak, they just didn't come across well in the highly polished finished product. KISS Army fans were going AWOL. They were growing tired of putting up with the artistic experimentation of a band which had clearly lost direction and was suffering an identity crisis. KISS had gone schziophrenic! By the time pre-production of the Elder came around, KISS had realised that they had to get back on track if they were ever going to make any inroads into the 1980s.
During the European Tour of 1980, when KISS had already given up on Unmasked as a mistake and lost cause, KISS had "promised the media that their next record would be the heaviest album they had ever done". Sure, and they always promoted their new albums as being "the best we've ever done". With that in mind they recorded "Deadly Weapons" in early 1981. This is notable only in the fact that it is the first appearance of Eric Carr on a KISS tune. The song itself definately comes across as being an "Unmasked" cutoff. Their are striking similarities in the song which while being 'heavier' would have been right at home on that album with watered-down production. Interestingly, this song never surfaces on any album and is eventually reworked by Gene for inclusion on 1985's Asylum. The song demonstrates that the band were moving in the right direction while they were working on an album tentatively titled "Rockin' With The Boys". Other early songs such as "Nowhere To Run" and "Partners In Crime" were recorded at Ace Frehley's "Ace In The Hole" Studios in Conneticut (though Ace's involvement is unclear because he was often absent from sessions at his own home!), and showed themselves to be class rockers. Now this is the sort of music that KISS was about. In May 1981 work stepped up and Bob Ezrin was chosen to produce the next effort while the band relocated to IRS Studios in New York to continue working on the album. Bob had had extreme success in the late 70's with some smash hits, including Pink Floyd's The Wall, which made his selection a good choice for the exposure his name would bring. Another reason for his selection was that he had been responsible for the success of 1976's Destroyer, an album and success story which KISS were hoping to emulate, and an album which seemed to really benefit from the input of Ezrin. It is probable that the choice of Ezrin was down to Paul and Gene, but there was certainly pressure from other quarters. Ace was also probably still smarting from being replaced during the Destroyer sessions by Dick Wagner, and Eric, as a hired member of the band in the employ of the band, had no say. But the record company was also keen to see Ezrin as producer. Not only would his appointment be newsworthy, but in PolyGram's view, it would be a "surprise to everyone, [as] no one in the industry expects Ezrin to produce another KISS album". PolyGram also thought that the inclusion of Ezrin would automatically result in a successful album (naieve or what!), plus he had the support of several influencial figures at PolyGram including David Braun and the A&R; department. At a KISS meeting in 1981 Ezrin was "pushed" as geing the genius producer whose "reputation for turning out hits" would give KISS the exposure they desperately needed. Further more, that meeting recognized the need to bring in outside song-writers to assist the band. Obstentiously, this was to bring in an objectivity and new perspective to the song-writing process, because "the band has been writing their own material for such a long time, they know their own style as well as each other's [and as a result] cannot be as objective as an outside source, or introduce fresh ideas to the material". Quite simply, the whole period around the recording of the Elder was about change. KISS was attempting to redefine themselves in a major way. While Paul had suggested getting rid of the makeup, it was decided that it would stay for the time being while "not neccessarily hiding from cameras off stage when not wearing it". The band also wanted to develop the members personalities by adding "dimensions to themselves and characters like actors on and off stage by not always hiding their faces". The band also planned to scale down tours in an attempt to get back to basics, and of course to help cut the costs which were proving a major problem with PolyGram. Other decisions made at the same time were about image, mainly to drop the platform boots, shorten their hair, and get less outrageous, more streamlined costumes.
Why the studio ablum became the concept it was is unclear, time may have affected some of the stories. Some sources suggest that Ezrin was the main focus for this idea insisting that the band ignore the work that they had already done. Others site Gene Simmons as the source, mainly from his comments about a proposed film idea that he had been working on. Regardless, towards the late-70's concept albums had found a massive popularity. Not only was the Ezrin produced "The Wall" a cult film and smash record in 1979, but other artists including Yes and Rush had built solid reputations making obscure concept albums. Perhaps Gene and Paul saw the idea as fesible, and liked the idea of making an Heavy Metal concept. One thing is clear - Ace was not happy with the idea, and he also certainly had misgivings about Ezrin's involvement. Eric too, while only being an employee, thought that it was a mistake also, believing that the band needed to get back to its' roots to survive. Eric went as far as to complain most vocally about his misgivings about the project, but he was told in no uncertain terms that the band (Gene & Paul) knew what they were doing. Thus his first appearance on vinyl was to be a strange and rather odd experience. For years KISS had been lambasted by critics, or worse ignored completely, for their rather simplistic approach to good time rock 'n roll, now they were going to prove these critics wrong by creating a master piece, while alienating most of their remaining fan base.
Any KISS fan must have been somethat bemused to open up "The Elder" and read, "When the earth was young, they were already old..." Or shocked, wondering what the band was doing now. According to Ezrin "The Elder" was the first part of what was to be a three album saga. Paul himself commented that the second album, which he wanted to call Elder II: War Of The Gods, was to be the heavy metal masterpiece - the conflict between good and evil in the mystical world of Morpheus and Mr Blackwell. Robert Conte, on the Remaster packaging sums the Elder up as being about "the story of a young boy's destiny to become a warrior battling evil that was threatening to destroy the universe". The plan to release The Elder in a double album format was scrapped due to cost, which PolyGram was not willing to invest. In the meantime KISS set about recording. "Eskimo Sun", an ancient track by Gene was dredged up and reworked. It was turned into the equisite "Only You", it was according to Gene ,"about a place where they make love at nighttime, which is six months out of the year. It's just a concept piece and that became "Only You." If you pick at the chords of "Only You" that is "Eskimo Sun." (Goldmine 417). "A World Without Heroes" was created with lyrical assistance from Lou Reed, another performer Ezrin had assisted in the 1970's. Originally called "Every Little Bit Of Your Heart", KISS had been working on this song before Ezrin was brought in. According to Paul, they "changed the title once Bob Ezrin thought we should do a concept album. The music worked but lyrically it didn't fall in. It became kind of a group project. By group, I mean, Lou Reed, Ezrin, Gene..." Other early versions of the song exist often appearing on bootlegs labeled "I Want You Only". Lou Reed was also appropriately involved in the darker songs on the album including "Mr Blackwell", and he managed to get a credit on Ace's track "Dark Light" during it's transition from "Don't Run". Eric Carr made his first signifigant contribution to the band co-writing "Under The Rose" with Gene. He also managed to get a credit on the instrumental piece "Escape From The Island", but sadly these were some of the few songs by or with Eric's input to ever make it onto a KISS album. At some point during the recording the band again relocated to Ezrin's farm to continue and finish the recording. At this time it is unlikely that Ace followed the band, electing to stay home and refrain from contributing anything substantial for the album, the decision to employ Bob was probably the final straw for an already frustrated Frehley who only input one vocal track and the instrumental for the album.
Once in Bob's domain polishing and final work on the album continued for several months. Paul and Ezrin came up with the odd "Fanfare", a medieval sounding horn piece. On the Remaster an alternative version of this is included with several appearances of chimes (more noticable than on the original version) and with the piece culminating with the chanting of monks. "Nowhere To Run" and "Just A Boy" were recorded at this time, as noted by the mixed together versions available on several bootlegs. KISS also elected to do Tony Power's "Odyssey", a powerful ballard-styled piece which fitted in nicely with the story line. Powers also made other contributions to the album. Two short spoken narrative pieces were also recorded featuring Chrisopher Makepeace, detailling the boy's progress. And the heavy metal "The Oath" and "I" finished off the album. "I" certainly reflects Gene's annoyance with Ace with the inclusion of lyrical digs at Ace's known lifestyle. But these more chastise Ace than attack him. By September the recording was done and orchestration and choral vocals were added. What was left was for Bob to piece the album together into a cognative story. This appears to have been rather more complex than originally considered with Conte commenting that the number of varying master mixes for "The Elder" far exceed those available for other albums, suggesting that there are several versions of the album in the vaults. This is a point which Ace would agree with. He would suggest that one of those tapes include his uncut solos, another nail in the coffin of his KISS career, which were editted out arbitarily by Ezrin. Paul and Gene naturally defend this, suggesting that additional over-playing by all members was editted out of the final mix. And there is also the question of how much Frehley can actually remember from the time. According to Conte, the track listing sequence was also changed to "emphasize 'The Oath' and 'A World Without Heroes' as potential singles". The restored sequence which appears on the Japanese release and the Remasters certainly works better as a story line for the concept than the rather disjointed version that appeared on the released album. Eric pointed to other probelms during the recording of the Elder which didn't help matters, "The producer wouldn't show.. He would just leave notes telling us what he wanted us to do". That sort of thing is far from helpful, and Eric didn't remember the recording sessions being that enjoyable.
In October, "press kits and advance copies of The Elder were made available to PolyGram Records.. and radio stations. Reactions were mostly negative and unsupportive" (Conte). While much of the music on the album was straightforward, the story was confusing to most listeners. As was KISS' new image. Gone was the long hair to be replaced with cropped cuts and hairbands. A definate continuation of the identity crisis of the past few years. On November 21 The Elder was released to the general public fronted by the single, "A World Without Heroes", for which they also made a video, in some countries, and "I" in others (a video of sorts exists for this too). Both the album and single failed to make any inroads and the album stalled at #75 in the Ameican charts (while the single only reached #56), the worst performance of a KISS album in 7 years. The band was disappointed and cancelled their tour plans in support of the album. They must have been extremely disappointed to see the culmination of their years work come to nothing, and by this time the response to the album and the problems in the studio had pretty much helped Ace make up his mind in deciding whether or not to stay in the band - he decided to leave. There has always been the famous story about Ace's reaction to hearing the final mix of the album, resulting in him smashing it against a wall. But Ace no longer felt any afinity with the band. Not only was his personal life out of control, but in the band his views were always ignored and with Peter gone he had no chance of winning any of the democratic votes against Paul and Gene. On the trail of promotion for the album the band agreed to appear on Solid Gold, an lip-synched appearance taped on December 7th. The following month they appeared on ABC's Fridays syndicated television program, where they preformed "The Oath", "A World Without Heroes" and "I" live. This performance of Elder material has become very popular in collector circles being the only live performance of Elder material from the period. In a final promotional appearance, in February 1982, KISS appeared live lip-synching "I" from Studio 54 via satellite to the San Remo Music Festival where they we due to recieve an award. Surprisingly, KISS appeared as a trio as Ace had gone AWOL, and couldn't be bothered to show up, though at the time Paul used the standard excuse that Ace was sick. By this time also several countries were planning on issuing second singles off the album. Japan released "The Oath" on January 25, while Holland and England released "A World Without Heroes" in early February with Australia and Germany planning to do so when "I" finally disappeared off the charts. The promotional appearances did little to help the sales either - not only did they fail to get widespread attention in the States, but overseas sales were suffering also with "The Elder" shifting less than 100,000 copies in Japan and Australia in its' first 3 months on release.
While "Unmasked" and "Dynasty" harmed KISS' image with the fans and public, "The Elder" nearly destroyed the band. Not only did it cause some of the final problems to cause the departure of Ace Frehley from the band, but the reaction of the public in the States, the home market, showed that people were willing to ignore the album as other bands took up the gauntlet. But neither was "The Elder" a bad album, simply it was the wrong album at the wrong time - had Paul and Gene listened to Eric and Ace's opinions then matters might have been somewhat different. KISS now finaly realized that they had to to what they had intended to do a year earlier.