Dual Review: KISS (Music From The Elder–1981) & Black Sabbath (Born Again–1983)

I know what you’re thinking.

How in the WORLD could the Black Wax Review team possibly choose these two albums for a Dual Review? What on earth could they possibly have in common?

Answer: they’re both one-of-a-kind.

The Elder… KISS’ attempt to be “taken seriously.” Panned by the critics. Looked on with disdain by the band members themselves. Probably regretted, even.

Born Again… Sabbath’s ‘one-off’ with Ian Gillan. Folklore has it that during the recording/mixdown of this album, various band members would sneak into the control room after hours to adjust the mix to their liking. Looked upon with disdain by the band and related parties themselves. Probably regretted, even.

Both albums: masterworks of genius for those of us of a certain age.

The Music Window

Here at Black Wax Reviews, our highly-trained Professional Listening Staff adhere to the Code of the Music Window. Actually much more a philosophy or a way of life than a simple code of ethics, the Code of the Music Window guides us on the continued quest for excellent music. The Code states that during a certain, critical period of time (consisting of 1,000 days between the ages of 14 and 17), a person’s heart opens temporarily, during which whatever music she or he falls in love with becomes indelibly imprinted upon one’s heart, mind, and psyche.

Case in point: according to Historical Documents, Scott Ian (Anthrax) has heralded KISS’ Unmasked (1980) as being their best album. Born in 1963, he first saw KISS in 1977 at Madison Square Garden, when he fell in love with the band. That means he was 17 when Unmasked came out. (He was a late bloomer, obviously.)

As one Black Wax Reviewer so succinctly put it, “Scott Ian’s Unmasked was our Elder.” Though Elder came out in ’81, certain members of the Black Wax Review team discovered it in late 1982/early 1983… meaning that for them, it was brand new. The window was open. The heart/mind/psyche was laid vulnerable. So it is that albums such as Elder and Born Again, though considered in some circles as miserable failures, are deeply loved by the Black Wax Reviews team, as well as legions of others around the world.


It’s so easy to take pot shots at The Elder… Teaming up with Lou Reed was a big mistake… Ace hated the whole concept and only went along under duress… the lyrics so painfully idealistic that they cause the listener to blush with embarrassment (check out Dark Light… “LOOK OUT for the death of love… there will be no more love… WATCH OUT, it’s yourself that you are fooling… Who do you think you’re fooling?“)… the lousy production value (substandard tracking and mixdown — guitar sounds are muddled together and indistinct; the whole album is just slightly “out of focus” and blurry, compared to the clean, crisp recordings by other bands during the same era, such as AC/DC – For Those About to Rock; Black Sabbath – The Mob Rules; Blue Öyster Cult – Fire of Unknown Origin; Alice Cooper – Special Forces; Iron Maiden – Killers; Judas Priest – Point of Entry; Mötley Crüe – Too Fast For Love; and Ozzy Osbourne – Diary Of A Madman)… and since we’re on a roll, the guys cut their hair, had drastically streamlined costumes… the list of complaints could go on and on.

And as if things weren’t bad enough, at the end of the day KISS had to actually sue their own record company to avoid going bankrupt after Elder. It’s no wonder that everyone involved in the creation of this album might prefer to sweep it under the rug and look the other way. Pretend it never happened. Like parachute pants.

Still, in light of all that, the Black Wax Reviews team LOVES this album. The stars were aligned. The window was open. And we’re still on this Odyssey.

The Oath. Heavy power chords, from the moment the needle hits the wax. Tuned down 1/2 step to Eflat, in case you’d like to play along. Nothing particularly difficult, yet, at the same time, flashy and exciting, nonetheless. I read/heard somewhere that Eric Carr couldn’t quite cut it on every track, but the rest of the guys appreciated his humility and readiness to step aside and let Anton take the throne for those duties he couldn’t handle yet. Some technical parts in The Oath and Dark Light that are pretty sweet, despite the crappy production value of the tracking. (*Full disclosure: our team is using an original vinyl pressing for this review. As of press time, a ‘remastered’ version has been released, but not yet enjoyed by our team. Give us ‘remixed’, not ‘remastered’.)

Fanfare. WTF? It’s okay… makes me think that they might actually have written a movie for which this is the soundtrack. Which, of course, they haven’t. But adds to my suspension of disbelief nonetheless.

Just A Boy. Formage. (But certain kinds of cheese are simply irresistible.) Opening acoustic guitar part is absolutely gorgeous. Triangle/chime part is still pretty indistinct… wish it were cleaned up a bit. Again, I’m waiting with baited breath for a remix. Probably ’til my dying day, I realize. Nonetheless…

Dark Light. In the day, it sounded like Ace was really into it. Thirty years later, knowing some of the back story, it’s pretty obvious that he didn’t really want to be doing it. In addition to his vocal delivery (something unconvincing about the contrast between the medieval language and Ace’s enunciation; think Robin Hood with a Brooklyn accent), Ace’s solo gives this away pretty blatantly… he relies on tired blues scale motifs. The closing phrase of the solo, where he repeats the same descending pull-off for no fewer than six bars, changing only the phrasing, serves as clear evidence. And yet I love it nonetheless.

Only You. When Gene writes a song, you can bet that it’s going to be about one of two things: having sex, or being powerful (leading to sex). This is one of the latter…  joining the ranks of earlier works like “Calling Doctor Love” and “God of Thunder”, as well as later stuff like “Charisma” and “War Machine”.

Under The Rose. Sigh. Gene again. With Eric. Melodramatic, as ever. Ace’s solo is kick ass. It took me years to realize that he’s using a delay pedal. (Kicks in about 1/3 of the way… everything after that moment is seriously simple; dry in the right channel, wet in the left channel. Just focus on the right and you can play along just fine.) Why do I love this so much? Can’t really say, but this song, like all the rest, play key roles in this entire album. Lofty though their goals may have been, they really did choose to go for broke. Is it earnestness? Sincerity? Or is it my own rose-colored glasses that I’m looking through as I gaze back across the decades, hoping to find some scrap of the youth I was all those years ago? Aw, what the hell. Let’s flip the album and take a look at Side Two.

A World Without Heroes. So overplayed back in the day that I still skip this song. Gene’s tear running down his cheek at the end of the video stopped me dead in my tracks back in the day. Now… well… Let’s move on, shall we?

Mr. Blackwell. Gene redeems himself on this one. God of Thunder, once again. But this time it’s not so much “I’m so cool” as “You’re cold and mean, and in between, you’re rotten to the core…” Nice main guitar lick. Sweet guitar solo. (Ace refused to join the band for tracking; laid down his own stuff at his home studio–“Ace In The Hole Studios”– and mailed it in to Gene and Paul. Nice. Here we are, with 15 and 16 year-old kids’ psyches hanging in the balance, and the guys in the band are arguing about money, power, and contractual obligations. Didn’t they REALIZE that it was the music that mattered? But I digress…)

Odyssey. Paul being Paul. Sadly, I could never understand about 70% of the lyrics on this album, thanks to the sub-standard tracking/mixdown quality. This song was one of the most guilty of the unintelligible. But still, the melody lines soar through my heart to this day. Nice piano.

I. Yep. I bought it, hook, line, and sinker, back in the day. Today I can play along with it and I realize that it’s not that challenging. Hand-claps… maybe not so much. (By the way, the opening and closing tracks, “The Oath” and “I”, respectively, serve as bookends in that they’re basically the same chord progression, with minor variations.) But despite all of my cynicism (bank bailouts in 2008, unthinkable crimes committed against humanity, aging parents, etc.) I DID drop nearly $40 for this album. And I’d do it again. Because Music From The Elder represents more than a struggling band at the edge of a precipice in 1981. It’s a snapshot of a time forgotten… when someone on the verge of transformation was uncertain of what path to take. Laugh all you want. For better or worse, it’s a snapshot of you at your most vulnerable. The biggest question is, do you get it?

Music From The Elder: NINE STARS


Like The Elder, Born Again, upon first listen, is a bit of a mess. Crappy production value. In desperate need of a remix. Give us some bottom end, for the love of all things unholy.

But there’s more going on, beneath the surface. If you’re willing to give it a chance.

Trashed: First off, excellent lyrics. “Ooh, Mr. Miracle, you saved me from some pain. I thank you, Mr. Miracle, I won’t get trashed again…” Then, toward the end of the song, “And as we got trashed, we were laughing still, well bless my soul…” It simply doesn’t get any better than this snapshot of the human condition. Also, Ian Gillan’s screams are blood-curdling. We get to hear them for the first time in bar 11 of the first song, and he simply does not let up from that moment until the closing of Keep It Warm.

Transported back in time, as I held the record jacket in my hands while listening to the album in 1983, I could not get over the picture of the hirsute caveman doing the blood-curdling, spine-chilling screaming. A master, no doubt. So strange, decades later, to see Mr. Gillan The Gentleman on the youtubes, ever the polite and diplomatic, backstage with Yngwie, holding a banana to his ear, pretending to answer a telephone. That’s no telephone, you silly man! That’s a banana! Oh, I see what you did there! What a gas! You’re so British!

Stonehenge: Geezer bought some cool pedals to use with his bass. Kinda warbley… is it a chorus? Maybe some delay? Sounds spooky.

Disturbing The Priest: 100% cool points for the contrasting scream/laugh against the spooky/calm/subdued vibe of Stonehenge a moment earlier. The first five seconds of this song ALONE are reason enough for this album to receive a full Eleven Stars.

The Dark. Geezer’s pedals again. Sets the stage beautifully for…

Zero The Hero. No need to go into the whole Guns N Roses ripoff. We’re all adults here. Slow and plodding… heavy. Ever playing on the tri-tone thing, the plot of soil where Sabbath staked their flag on the first album. (Randy tipped his hat in respect with the opening notes of his solo for “Over The Mountain”.)

SIDE TWO (One of the most solid “sides” in metal)

Digital Bitch: Fast and crazy, this song would sound a lot better with some added low end and subtracted mid-range. Our team has used AC/DC’s “Fly On The Wall” as the perfect example of how NOT to mix down an album (mid-range headache); Digital Bitch is another great example. Just too much mid. Makes me lift the needle so I can skip to…

Born Again: A masterpiece. Awesome lyrics. Sonically puts me in a quagmire of maple syrup… or quicksand… I’m stuck, and I’ll never, ever escape. But with lyrics that intrigue and remain fresh to this day… “As you look through my window, Deep into my room… At the tapestries all faded… Their vague and distant glories concealed in the gloom… The icy fingers of forgotten passions, softly brushing my lips… At the tips of my primitive soul…”  Timeless. Relevant to anyone with a heartbeat. And Ian punctuates it all with his trademark scream. A master. Forever. Nothing but respect here.

Hotline: An up-tempo rocker that truly serves as a springboard for the final track.

Keep It Warm: Mid-tempo, solid, awesome progression, questionable lyrics–or should I say, awesome lyrics about a soul with questionable ethics… (“It’s not true, well maybe half-and-half… you know I love you but I still like a laugh…”). The perfect close to an almost perfect album.

BORN AGAIN: TEN STARS (If it were remixed to bring in some warm bottom end, it would easily score a perfect Eleven Stars. Tony, are you listening?)

Makes me want to start a tribute band that plays nothing but these two albums. My window was clearly open in ’82-’83, when these records found their way into my life and heart.


KISS solo albums (1978)

A special 4-album review, since all four were simultaneously released on September 18, 1978.

In third grade, at a Catholic school in Iowa, we were allowed to bring records from home and listen to them with the headphones on if we had finished our school work. The nuns were so proud of my good grades and my polite behavior… so delighted by my enthusiasm for music. I can’t be certain that they would have shared my deep appreciation for my ’45 of KISS’ Shock Me / Strutter ’78. While the other kids were trying to finish up their reading assignment, I was in the back of the room, sitting on the big cinnamon-bun shaped area rug, trying to figure out what Ace meant when he sang, “Shock me, put on your black leather… Shock me, we can come together…”

Speaking of Ace, let’s start there. He covered New York Groove, written by Russ Ballard and first recorded by Hello in 1975. Even today, when I see someone driving by and I hear anything off of Ace’s solo album coming out of the speakers, I know without looking that it’s probably going to be a guy about my age driving that car.

Down to business. The needle hits the wax, we hear the crack of the snare, and “Rip It Out” kicks in, hard and fast. Not gonna lie; hooks abound throughout the album, and this was the perfect choice for the opening track. Next up is “Speeding Back To My Baby”, with some really sweet blues soloing (and a couple little backwards guitar parts thrown in for good measure). “Snowblind”… slower, and heavier. It would be years before I’d figure out what the term “snowblind” was referring to. “Ozone” — also nice and heavy, with lots of slow bends, double-stops, and blues scale soloing. Basic. But deliciously so. “What’s On Your Mind”… the first weak track of the album. Although I’d jump around my bedroom pretending to play guitar throughout the whole album, this song is where I’d take a break to go get a snack.

Side Two. The New York Groove I mentioned above. Catchy as hell. Not necessarily as heavy as the rest of the album, but maybe that’s why it made the charts. The whole song rests on the “Bo Diddley” rhythm, so it’s a nice tribute to the blues. “I’m In Need Of Love” is Ace at his drunk/high/spaciest. The sparse guitar parts and heavy delay really do give the feeling of walking on the moon at near-zero gravity. Kind of freaked me out, as a kid, because I didn’t understand exactly HOW he was making me feel so light-headed/heavy-hearted. But he did a great job of it.

“Wiped Out”–not a cover of the 1963 tune by the Safaris, though the opening drum part pays direct homage. Heavy juxtaposition between the verses (where the vocals and rhythm guitar work together to create a sense of frenzy that is just on the brink of spinning out of control)  and the chorus (slow, bluesy, thick-as-molasses, as if to say I’ve fallen down and I can barely drag myself across the floor to that chair). The theme of getting drunk / high / out of control runs through the album as a common thread. “Fractured Mirror”, the album’s final cut, was one of the most beautiful instrumentals I’d ever heard in my life, as a kid. I thought it was magic, and I never thought I’d ever understand how he wove such sonic beauty. Today I see that open D major shape sliding around the fretboard. The mystery is gone, but the beauty and magic still live on in my heart. (He milked it for everything he was worth with Fractured, Too and Fractured Quantum. Neither is as beautiful as the original, though.)

Ace’s solo album scores a solid 8.

Compare KISS' "Shandi" (1980) with Joe Walsh's "Tomorrow" (1978); identical chord progression, painfully similar melody lines, a carbon copy right down to the opening guitar fill. Only the words have been changed. Mere coincidence? Love to hear what Gene and Paul have to say about it... ("statute of limitations", I imagine.)

Next up: Gene.

Side One starts with some sort of creepy, evil, sinister “mad scientist in a laboratory” kind of sounds, and some chanting comes in. Gene is playing up his “scary monster” mystique to the fullest with this intro to “Radioactive”. (Think of “Radioactive” as “Calling Dr. Love”, part 2. Fade-in with creepy intro, build to climax, then hard-hitting power chords. A standard KISS formula.) And as a ten year-old kid, I bought it hook, line, and sinker. Apparently, I wasn’t alone; “Radioactive” broke the charts. (According to Historical Documents, the album reached #22 on the US Billboard album chart, making it the highest placing of all the four “Kiss” solos of 1978. But this does not change my review one bit.) This crescendos and vomits us right into “Radioactive” proper. One of our expert reviewers here at Black Wax Reviews has said that by starting his song with the lyrics, “You’re my food…”, Gene locks himself firmly in the pantheon of disposable rock. Like a rubber Richard Nixon mask, Gene makes it really, really difficult to take him seriously. But again, I was ten years old. Gene could have even put Cher talking on the phone on his album, and I would have loved every second of it. (Oh, that’s right. He did. And I did.)

But one of the reasons that we LOVE Gene is because he’s pure Gene. He doesn’t TRY to be Gene. And he certainly doesn’t try NOT to be Gene. He’s simply pure Gene, through and through. In fact, he’s pretty much as Gene as it gets. Not to stray TOO far from the subject at hand, but let’s take just a moment to explore what exactly it is that makes Gene so unbelievably Gene…

“When I go though her, it’s just like a hot knife through butter”

“She keeps her eggs in one basket, but I threw her a bone… she was dealt a full deck but she likes to live alone”

“Love ’em, leave ’em. Love ’em, leave ’em. Love ’em, leave ’em. Love ’em; leave ’em. Yeah!”

“Well it’s out of the frying pan, into the fire. So bend over baby, and let me be the driver.”

The only thing we’re missing here is wooden nickels and spitting into the wind. But that’s Gene. No one does Gene quite like Gene. And he’s SO Gene that he’s a millionaire as a result of it. I could pretend to be Gene, but at the end of the day, my conscience would get the best of me, and I’d have to apologize.

Back to the album. Track two is “Burning Up With Fever”, and it’s a pretty heavy rocker. It was a great idea to have the first two songs really hit hard. Then comes “See You Tonite”. Acoustic guitars. Gentle little pop song. Completely innocuous. Trying to widen the fan base to include more than ten year old boys. Like me. “Tunnel Of Love”… (“I’ve got to visit your tunnel of love…” *sigh*).

You know, as embarrassing as it is for me to admit this, I finally DID figure out what Gene and Paul must have been thinking when they started out. Initially (as legend has it), they wanted to name their band F*CK. But then backed off and named themselves KISS, instead. It’s no big leap to realize that almost all of their songs are about sex. They made themselves synonymous with songs about sex. (Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” — “When I woke up, mom and dad were rolling on the couch… rolling numbers, rock and rolling, got my KISS records out…”). But WHY? That was always the question on my naive mind. Then it hit me… what do 100% of human beings all have in common? We’re all (or mostly all) genetically disposed to carrying on the species through procreation. We all want to have sex. We all have a sex drive. Write about what the greatest percentage of humans has in common, and you stand to make that majority your fan base. (Conversely, if I only write about the organic chemistry experiment in my lab at work, I’m narrowing my potential fan base.) So EVEN THEN, Gene was being one shrewd cat. He wasn’t trying to change the world. Wasn’t trying to cure cancer. Wasn’t trying to become some spiritual leader. He was aiming directly for the crotch. Yep. That’s our Gene. By the way, “True Confessions” just sucks.

Side Two: “Living In Sin”. Mid-tempo rocker starring Cher. “I’m living in sin at the Holiday Inn, yeah.” Need I say more? “Always Near You/Nowhere to Hide”–slower, and actually pretty hooky. Stuck in my head a lot, as a kid. And hey, Gene had an impressive vocal range… listen to those closing notes. Almost sounds like Paul’s falsetto on “I Was Made For Loving You”. Which I always aspired to, but never could quite hit. “Man of 1,000 Faces”… it’s cool to listen to the instrumentation he used… some orchestral stuff. But in the words of some wise man, “you can’t polish a turd.” No substance. “See You In Your Dreams” is a re-recording of the same track that was on Rock And Roll Over. An okay song, but not worth redoing, in my opinion. And then, as only Gene could do, he wraps the album with “When You Wish Upon A Star”. Yep. THAT one. The one you heard from the good folks at Disney. Oh, man. Just like Van Halen doing “Happy Trails” accapella, this is one of those magical novelty songs that went on EVERY mix tape for my non-KISS friends. Earned me cool points every time.

Gene’s solo album: A conditional 7 stars. Would have been a 5, but the album cover and included poster (which interlocked with the other band members’ posters, and were all done by the same artist) gives this album extra cool points. Gene inspired a generation of rockers with his image and attitude. The Melvins are just one example.

Peter’s Solo Album

Full disclosure: Peter was my favorite member of KISS back then, and his solo album was the first of the four that I bought. I was a pretty fragile kid, probably 85 lbs dripping wet, and the late 70’s were a very strange time in my life. I related to Peter as someone who would probably be pretty cool in real life; nice, but still cool enough to be a superhero. So, regardless of how lame some of his songs may have been, I cut him the most slack. Actually, I simply worshipped him; there was no cutting him slack required.

So when I dropped the needle on Side One for the first time, I was already prepared to LOVE whatever I heard. And I did. From the very first bass note that slides down and crashes into “I’m Gonna Love You”, I was hooked. Track two, “You Matter To Me” was the end-all-be-all for me. I listened to that song so much that I can’t believe I didn’t get sick of it. I wore grooves into my brain with that song, until I could listen to every nuance from memory. While avoiding bullies on the school bus. While sitting in math class. While walking home in the snow. I can still hear it now.

“Tossin’ and Turnin’– (Yes, THAT one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tossin%27_and_Turnin%27). I had no idea who Bobby Lewis was, and I don’t ever remember hearing the original before this. I thought it was pretty good… but since it was Peter Criss, of course, it was awesome to me. “Don’t You Let Me Down” was slower, and seemed like a really good song to me back then. Nice bass line. “That’s the Kind of Sugar Papa Likes”… a little more upbeat. Still, pretty tame.

Side Two: “Easy Thing”… “Love’s such an easy thing… such an easy thing… such an easy thing to looooooooooose… yeah!” Well, okay. Peter’s voice reminded me of Rod Stewart’s. And that was a good thing. (I wore out my copy of Blondes Have More Fun.) “Kiss The Girl Goodbye”… again with the heartbreak. Okay, Peter. I get it. “Hooked On Rock And Roll” “I was vaccinated with a Victrola needle, and I’m hooked on rock and roll.” Yeah. Now we’re talking. “I Can’t Stop The Rain”… more strings, more tears falling down like rain… which was what I felt like I could relate to, at the time.

Does it stand the test of time? No. Not really. It’s a cool album to HAVE. But seriously, it’s not going to get played very often. Not like Ace’s will. If you’re looking for records to PLAY, then get Dynasty, instead. Peter makes up for lost time on that one.

Pete, I love you, Man… and it breaks my heart, but it just can’t be helped. 4 stars.

Paul’s solo album.

Dammit. I was thinking about how funny it would be to simply write, “Paul’s album sucked. The end.” And leave it at that.

But I can’t. Because, in all actuality, Paul’s album probably stands the test of time better than any of the others. Ace’s comes in a close second. Gene’s and Peter’s tie for last place.

I’m talking about the strength of the songwriting. Intro. Verse. Chorus. The chord progressions. the dynamics. Like it or not, Paul nails it. And just to be clear, Paul was never my favorite. But man, he can write a song.

The album kicks off with clean acoustic (layers of it) and bass. Then vocals. He goes from IV to V to vi… then IV to V to iii… Lets the acoustic ring out on iii… and then heavily distorted crunch comes in on a vi chord. It still gives me chills the way the electric cuts through after all the pretty stuff. Whereas Ace opens his album by hitting us across the face with a 2×4; Gene does the “special effects” lead-in; and Peter does the honky-tonk thing (ouch), Paul hooks us with the pretty stuff… genuinely pretty (even 33 years later!) and actually uses a harmonic progression that makes sense musically.

Then, just when we’re lulled into a false sense of security, just when we least expect it, the sledgehammer comes down. And we’re left stumbling around, wondering where the ‘heavy’ came from. “Wait a minute… I thought it was “just Paul”… I thought it was gonna be just sappy love songs…” “Where the hell did THIS come from?” (But trust me, it’s a GOOD wondering.)

“Move On” is an uptempo rocker that is pretty powerful, despite the whole “when I was just a baby momma sat me on her knee” thing. “Ain’t Quite Right”… it’s just okay. “Wouldn’t You Like To Know Me”… also a bit weaker than the opening track. “Take Me Away (Together As One)” has a nice acoustic intro, and some nice electric (something with humbuckers… for KISS, it was always humbuckers… Neither Ace nor Paul would be caught dead with a Strat). The chorus is heavy. I mean, I love this chorus. As much as I hate to love it, I can’t help it. This is good. Really good. Some sweet electric work in there, too.

Side Two: “It’s Alright” is a high-energy rocker that kicks off the side beautifully. (Man, am I really praising Paul’s solo so highly? I was really looking forward to tearing it apart. Not to beat a dead horse, but the songwriting is strong here. Paul clearly doesn’t mess around.) “Hold Me, Touch Me (Think Of Me When We’re Apart)”… okay, enough already with the long titles. Another love song. (Starchild. Write me another love song. Awk!) “Love In Chains”… another really strong one, and it leads right into “Goodbye”, which might sound, by the title, like it’s going to be some sort of lame, lukewarm pap. But no. The last two tracks on Side Two pretty much lock it up. Paul is the Man here… he knows how to finesse the pretty stuff… how to contrast it with the heavy stuff, and how to walk that fine line between the two, creating the perfect balance. Dammit, even the purple lighting on his hair looks cool. I SO wanted to hate this album. But I simply cannot.

Paul, I salute you. You get 9 stars.