Artist Spotlight: The Mystery of Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Now that December is upon us, it’s time to break out the usual accoutrements of the holiday season. Reindeer. Snowmen. Gingerbread houses. Nativity scenes. And, of course, blistering prog-rock solos played on Gibson Flying V guitars while laser light shows and pyrotechnic effects melt your face off.

I’m talking about Trans-Siberian Orchestra, an act that, frankly, defies logical explanation. And you know, I don’t say that lightly. When it comes to music, I’ve seen some weird shit. We all have. Whether it’s Iggy Pop flashing his dick, Wesley Willis’ lyrics, Katy Perry strapping whipped cream cans to her breasts, Axl Rose swimming with dolphins … the list goes on. But still, what the fuck is Trans-Siberian Orchestra?

Here’s the obligatory background. The band was formed in 1996 by Paul O’Neill, a music management/promoter/producer type who worked closely with progressive metal acts like Savatage. Yeah, I never heard of them either. Anyway, in the ’90s he decided to recruit several other dudes from Savatage and create … well, a spectacle is the only way to put it.

“The best description of a T.S.O. show I ever saw came from a reporter who said the only way to describe T.S.O. is ‘the Who meets ‘Phantom of the Opera’ with Pink Floyd’s light show,’ ” Mr. O’Neill told The Tampa Bay Times in 2012. “I would take any one of those alone as a compliment.”

So basically, the band plays Christmas-themed progressive rock opera, and their live shows are overwhelming productions filled with laser shows, hundreds of flashing video screens, fog machines, fire and spark shower effects, children’s choirs, and who knows what else.

Did I mention they’re one of the biggest live acts in America? Because they are.

These live shows are TSO’s bread and butter. They’ve sold tons of records, too, but the shows are what they’re known for and what they’re about. They have two touring acts, like their erstwhile competitor Mannheim Steamroller, so that they can cram twice as many shows into the holiday season.

Look, I don’t care if there is a prog-rock Christmas act floating around out there, even if the music sounds like Yngwie Malmsteen assembling a candy cane factory. Why the hell not? I’ve heard Fela Kuti-Beatles mashups and Hasidic reggae and kawaii speed metal. I saw Snoop Dogg rap with a hologram. There are no rules.

But what I find so baffling is why this shit is so popular. This band is huge! According to Pollstar, their 2009 tour was bigger than reliable arena-fillers like the Eagles, Toby Keith, The Dead, Beyoncé, Paul McCartney, and Phish. Billboard lists them as one of the 25 top touring acts of the 2000s. Several of Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s records have gone platinum. And, I might add, the band’s work goes beyond covers of traditional holiday songs on steroids (another similarity with Mannheim Steamroller). The majority of TSO’s works are original compositions, sprinkled liberally with motifs lifted from familiar holiday tunes. So you can’t explain away their success by simply saying people like Christmas music.

I guess I don’t understand it because none of the things that this band is about are big things. Prog rock is not a big thing. Rock opera is not a big thing. Laser shows are not big things. Christmas music composed after 1994 (the year Mariah Carey released “All I Want For Christmas Is You”) is not a big thing.

I’ve got a hypothesis about TSO’s wild and improbable success. Maybe they’re lapping up all the prog-rock/pyrotechnic spectacular fandom that’s left in the world. There are still plenty of progressive metal bands, but it’s a small niche and the fans are spread out across a bunch of small acts. Let’s say, however, that the one thing all these fans can agree on is TSO. They’re the one act that everyone who likes this music will go see. And, because it’s “Christmas music,” and an eye-popping spectacle, your mom will go see them, too — the same way people who don’t give a shit about circuses or acrobatics will stand in line for Cirque du Soleil when they go to Vegas, or how people who know nothing about Broadway will spend $200 per ticket to see Jersey Boys.

Maybe that’s it. I don’t know. They remain a mystery to me. Band founder O’Neill died earlier this year from a drug overdose. But like Mannheim Steamroller, the anonymity of Trans-Siberian Orchestra has helped it become a juggernaut, and O’Neill’s death won’t stop this train. No death could, because TSO isn’t a band composed of people. It’s an aesthetic, a combination of music and instrumentation and thundering visual effects, and the people inside that aesthetic are as replaceable as the dancers in a Taylor Swift video.

The other odd thing is that for an act focused so exclusively on Christmas, TSO incorporates virtually no traditional holiday trappings into their exhaustively visual performances. The lasers and pinlights are in every color, with a preponderance of blue and purple, not red and green. The projections on screen range from castles to dragons, with nary a snowflake or reindeer to be seen. No one wears a santa hat or carries a belt of jingle bells. Everyone on stage dresses in black. While TSO’s album covers and half-assed music videos rely on imagery of young children in pajamas, waiting for Santa Claus near Christmas trees and toasty fireplaces, their live shows feature stark mechanical devices and faceless performers beneath a punishing array of lights and pyro. Not exactly the Hallmark version of the holiday.

Maybe I shouldn’t be confused by Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s success. There are multiple touring acts out of Japan that consist of a projected hologram of an anime character who sings with a synthesized voice, and they sell thousands of tickets. B.o.B has multiple No. 1 singles and albums and he believes the Earth is flat. Negativland sold their last album with plastic bags attached that contained their dead lead singer’s cremated ashes.

So if a million midwesterners want to watch coked-up guitarists play “Christmastime, Fuck Yeah!” while CGI gargoyles glare across their flaming stagecraft, that’s not the weirdest thing in American popular music. It’s not even the weirdest thing I’ve heard today. You do you, rock violinists, head-banging choirs, wide-collar singers, arpeggiating pianists, and overworked roadies. You do you.