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Case in point: according to Historical Documents, Scott Ian (Anthrax) has heralded KISS’ Unmasked (1980) as being their best album.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.

KISS: MUSIC FROM THE ELDER (1981)

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

BLACK SABBATH: BORN AGAIN (1983)

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.

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