Artist Spotlight: Trans-Siberian Orchestra

It’s hard for me to start conversations about the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

On the most basic level, I know that I like them, and lots of other people don’t. Therefore, when I see them being discussed — not often in a positive light — I tend to want to jump in and defend them. The problem is… what do I actually say? What’s my thesis? It’s certainly not that they’re underrated, or that they don’t deserve the reputation they’ve obtained. I do agree with that second statement in a roundabout way, but I’m hardly going to try and claim that they’re musical geniuses. It’s also not that they have any sort of hidden depth, because they honestly are pretty shallow.

The closest thing I have to a go-to ‘defense’ of TSO is to say that they’re misunderstood. And yet even that statement isn’t quite right. The average person’s TSO exposure levels are just not high enough, or broad enough, to make an accurate assessment of the band. So in a way, they aren’t even misunderstood; they’re just… not understood in the first place.

Let me be clear right now. TSO is a corny-ass band. I have absolutely no desire to argue against that. However, the source of their corniness is the polar opposite of what you might expect if you only hear their most famous songs. The fact is, this is not a group who adds screaming electric guitars and Wall Of Sound orchestration to otherwise perfectly cromulent Christmas classics because they find the original versions lame or insufficiently edgy. Oh, no. In reality, TSO is one of the most sentimental, painfully sincere musical combinations you will ever encounter. While they would rather die than pass up on a bitchin’ pyrotechnic display, they also recognize that true beauty exists only in the smiles and hearts of children. The only thing they believe in more than face-melting rock-and-roll is the transcendental power of love and forgiveness. Layering an over-the-top guitar solo onto an up-tempo orchestral version of “Deck the Halls” is not an incongruous and empty showcase of technical skill, but rather the only sufficiently bombastic way for these men and women to express the vast outpourings of emotion that threaten to overtake them seemingly at all times.

I kinda sorta love them for it.


PART 1: THE HISTORY

If we’re being reductive, there’s a real argument to be made that the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is just the heavy metal band Savatage, having taken on a new name, some extra vocalists, and a string section. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that… which is good, because it’s basically true. Every member of Savatage at the time of TSO’s founding made the jump to the new group, and that same lineup continues to record and tour with the group today. Creatively speaking, TSO is very clearly the brainchild of one man: Paul O’Neill. Not only did he conceive of the group in the first place, he produced every one of their albums, and at least co-wrote all of their original music. Most importantly, O’Neill is the sole possessor of the “Story and lyrics by” credit in every TSO production.

That’s right… I said ‘Story by.’

One thing about TSO that likely escapes the notice of many is the fact that five of the six LPs they have released as a group are, in fact, concept albums; each one of these features a clearly defined, if not always easily discernible, narrative.

The record that succeeds most completely at this is, without a doubt, the group’s debut, 1996’s Christmas Eve and Other Stories. The additional material found in the album’s liner notes does help to flesh out the story — in which an angel is sent to Earth on Christmas Eve night with the task of finding something indicative of mankind’s goodness — but everything you NEED to know about the “plot” can be found in the lyrics of five different songs: one right at the beginning, and four more near the end. The rest of the tracks are essentially a montage, representing the angel’s globe-trotting search.

I have to say right off the bat: if you can buy into the core premise of this one, it is a really solid album all around. There’s only one true lowlight, and the whole thing is perfectly structured to give you your fill of both the amped-up holiday rock that made the group famous, as well as more traditional fare, with neither one really dominating the record’s overall sound. The ‘narration’ in the liner notes takes the form of a poem, and while there are no shortage of clunkers and forced rhymes in there, it does occasionally succeed at being charming.1 Most crucially, this narration doesn’t overstay its welcome; squeezing in every last line will require you to pause the record two or three times, but for the most part, if you start reading during the outro of one song, you’ll be done with the relevant stanzas before the next track’s intro finishes. This allows the album and the narration to work together quite nicely, each one elevating the other.

In my opinion, Other Stories is kitschy Christmas goodness in its most concentrated form. If you’re into that sort of thing, you should give it a shot — it just might win you over. Regardless of whether or not it works for you personally, it is, most likely, the band’s crowning achievement.

Did I mention they made five more records after this?


Two years after making a name for themselves with their first smash hit, TSO doubled down on their pursuit of high-octane Christmas cheer with The Christmas Attic. This album is, in a word, unremarkable; a lesser version of the original product made by a group who were clearly far too eager to replicate their initial success. Like most any album, it has its peaks and valleys (or at least hills and valleys), as well as one song that somehow manages to be both, depending on how you look at it. All in all, the lows are lower, and the highs are… also lower. The Christmas-Eve-set story — in which the same angel from before spends the night with a little girl as she waits up for Santa — is much subtler as well. If it weren’t for the liner notes, you might completely miss that this is a concept album, though you would likely wonder what exactly some of the songs were all about. The narration itself lacks the genuine care and artistry of the one in Other Stories, and I would even go so far as to say that it’s downright lazy in spots. Rhymes are forced more often, and it has a hard time sticking to its established meter; many couplets differ in length by up to five syllables. All that said, The Christmas Attic does work well enough on a purely musical level to be a standard, middle-of-the-road Christmas album with that unmistakeable TSO sound. Just… don’t pay too much attention to the words.


In 2000, the group stepped out of their holiday-themed wheelhouse to produce a secular LP, focusing on the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. The only other real contender for the title of “Best TSO Album,” Beethoven’s Last Night engages in a bit of good old-fashioned mythmaking to tell a tale of the legendary composer being visited by a host of otherworldly beings on the eve of completing his Tenth Symphony… which also happens to be the eve of his death. It’s a little bit Christmas Carol, a little bit It’s a Wonderful Life, and a little bit Faust. (If I’m being honest, it’s also my personal favorite.)

As a concept album, it works significantly better than The Christmas Attic, though it lacks the elegant simplicity of Christmas Eve and Other Stories. The narrative permeates the music far more thoroughly than any other TSO album before or since, and the experience of listening to it is not unlike listening to the Original Cast Recording of a Broadway show. It’s clearly evident that the songs are part of a story, and that they are being sung by characters within that story; you just need the added context of the dialogue scenes — or in this case, the liner notes — to piece them all together. Making this much more tolerable: the narration has given up on trying to rhyme and is instead presented as simple, if occasionally flowery, prose. A 2012 reissue of the album includes the narration being read aloud between tracks.


2004 brought about the conclusion of TSO’s Christmas (Eve) trilogy with the release of The Lost Christmas Eve, the record of theirs that I have the most complicated relationship with. While I do have to admit that it’s home to at least a few of the band’s musical highlights, it also sees them indulging in all of their worst impulses as both musicians and storytellers.

If The Christmas Attic is an anthology album that sort of tells a story if you squint, and Beethoven’s Last Night offers a deeper, more complex narrative that is inextricable from the record’s overall structure, The Lost Christmas Eve synthesizes the worst parts of both approaches. Not only does it consist of a monstrous 23 tracks, it comes with a narration — in verse once again — that bends over backwards to place each one of those tracks in an exhaustively thorough context. To give an example, Track 7, “Christmas Concerto,” is a 43-second instrumental piece that the narration spends twenty-nine lines setting up. The following song, also an instrumental, is preceded by an additional sixty-two lines.2 Perhaps unsurprisingly, the quality of the narration itself has taken another substantial dip; it’s purple and full of tangents, with a meter so rough that I hesitate to even call it poetry anymore.

The single biggest strike against this album, though, is the story itself. It’s so convoluted and intricate that it couldn’t possibly be told through song alone, and Paul O’Neill –perhaps realizing this — seemingly opted out of even trying. Those who do choose to brave the liner notes will discover that our angel friend is back for one final adventure, in which, on an assignment to find the person on Earth the most like Jesus, he reunites a grinchy businessman with his severely mentally impaired son, who was abandoned at birth decades earlier after a series of complications resulted in the baby’s impairment as well as the death of the businessman’s beloved and saintly wife. Also, this reunion happens in the neonatal withdrawal ward of a New York hospital, where the son spends every night rocking crack-addicted babies to sleep, and at one point the businessman meets the ghost of his dead wife as a child. The best part? Not one word of this can be gleaned from any of the lyrics to any of the album’s 23 songs. The disconnect between intent and content is so massive that it’s honestly astounding.

And yet, as I said… there are things to like about The Lost Christmas Eve. The sheer audacity of the concept is something I can’t help appreciating, if only ironically. Its bloated, anything-goes structure results in some truly, deeply unnecessary tracks, but it also allows for some fun rock arrangements of decidedly non-Christmas songs, like “Queen of the Night” and “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.” And I’ll even go to bat for two tracks in which the inner monologue of the businessman actually is permitted to manifest itself lyrically. While they aren’t necessarily good rock ‘n’ roll, uh, music, the latter in particular is very close to the platonic ideal of a TSO song.


Following The Lost Christmas Eve, the group never again returned to the Christmas well, instead embracing their Savatage roots with two more pure rock albums: Night Castle in 2009, and Letters From the Labyrinth in 2015. Night Castle has similar strengths to its predecessor, but also suffers from almost all the same problems — the booklet containing the narration is 60 pages long… and that’s all I’ll say about that. I have not listened to Letters From the Labyrinth, though I am told that it is the first LP in the group’s history not intended as a rock opera.

While the group continues on as a touring act (TWO touring acts, in fact), Paul O’Neill’s death in 2017 means there is a very real chance that we have witnessed the definitive end of TSO’s discography.


PART 2: THE MUSIC

Okay, if you’ve stuck around this long, I suppose it’s only fair that we actually start listening to some of their music, no? For simplicity’s sake — and given the season — I’m going to stick to their Christmas albums, but I will once again recommend Beethoven’s Last Night as actually being quite a lot of fun.3

Before we begin, let me reiterate: this music is kitschy as HELL. If you can’t get past that initial hurdle, you’re gonna have a bad time. You have been warned.

Anyway, let’s start with the…

Instrumentals

Sarajevo 12/24

This is the quintessential TSO song. If you’ve heard anything by the group, you’ve heard this. Helping to make my point about their lineup, this track is notable for also being — note for note — a Savatage song, first heard on their own concept album Dead Winter Dead before appearing as Track 8 of Christmas Eve and Other Stories. In both instances, the song is meant to represent Christmas on a battleground during the Bosnian War.

“Carol of the Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” are two of my favorite Christmas songs, so I’m a sucker for this one, overplayed as it is. As for you, you don’t have to listen to it again if you don’t want to.

O’ Come All Ye Faithful/O’ Holy Night

The second track off Other Stories is mostly there to set the mood, representing the angel’s descent to, and arrival on, Earth. It’s also a pretty good indicator of what you can expect from a TSO instrumental: thudding drums, a string section playing in perfect unison, and an electric guitar lead to give it that bigger (in this case, soaring and epic) feel.

First Snow

An original instrumental that captures the feeling and sound of snowfall… whatever it is that snowfall sounds like. It’s actually become a tradition of mine to drop everything and listen to this one the first time I see snowflakes out my window. Yeah. If it’s not already clear, I am all in on this band.

The Silent Nutcracker/A Mad Russian’s Christmas

I’m cheating by combining these two, but they both borrow from The Nutcracker, and they do come back-to-back on the album itself. Mostly I wanted to make sure some of their more low-key stuff made the cut.

Boughs of Holly

I had to include SOMETHING from The Christmas Attic.

Just Add Lyrics

A Star to Follow

This one is a great example of the group’s ability to switch from bombast to mawkish sentimentality and back again. The ridiculous number of overlapping vocals near the end is classic TSO.

Good King Joy

I just like this one.

Ornament

When I said at the top of this write-up that TSO uses excess as a means of expressing emotion, this is the first song I thought of. Acting as the moment when Other Stories’ plot finally kicks into high gear, “Ornament” takes the form of a father’s desperate prayer to be reunited with his runaway daughter, and the guitar solo coming out of the bridge is the beating heart of the entire album. It conveys the character’s pain and regret in ways that you can tell he never could with words alone.

This Christmas Day

… And here we see the happy ending of that story. Again, the second half of the song, where the wailing guitars intertwine with a full Gospel choir (and all the group’s regular instrumentation besides) creates a feeling of pure euphoria. It might be ‘too much’ for some of you, but damn if they don’t achieve what they’re aiming for here.

The Snow Came Down

Again, I had to include SOMETHING from The Christmas Attic.

No, That’s Too Dank

Old City Bar

I hesitated to include this one, because it definitely needs to be heard in context to have any chance of working. Then I remembered that you basically have heard it in context — it’s sandwiched right in between “Ornament” and “This Christmas Day,” filling in the missing piece of that narrative and ultimately serving as the centerpiece song of Christmas Eve and Other Stories.

Heard on its own, I have to concede that the best comparison is probably “The Christmas Shoes.”4 Unlike that song, though, this one at least has loftier intentions and isn’t just trying to make you cry. Or rather, it does want you to cry, but it’s aiming for happy tears, not sad ones. The point is, if you don’t cry — and to be fair, you probably won’t — that doesn’t render the whole song a failure.

If you see TSO in concert (which I have, once), this song is performed by a vocalist who is trying his hardest to look and sound visibly drunk. It’s… rough.

The Three Kings and I (What Really Happened)

I’ve been listening to TSO for a decade now, and I’m still not sure if I hate this song or not. It’s definitely bad, I just don’t know if it crosses over into so-bad-it’s-good. I think it might? It’s kinda right on the line. Judge for yourself! You’ve made it this far!

What Is Christmas?

Our introduction to The Lost Christmas Eve’s grouchy businessman is definitely just plain bad, possibly the worst song the group has ever written. I only included it as proof that even I have to draw the line somewhere, and will not begrudge anyone who skips it.

Back To A Reason (Part II)5What Child is This?

The other two songs from the businessman’s perspective, which I called out earlier, are at least gloriously cheesy. In the first, we hear his thoughts turning to his wife and child for the first time in what may well be years. In the second, he finds himself face-to-face with the son he swore to never see again.

I already called both of these tracks gloriously cheesy, and earlier I noted that “What Child is This” is the platonic ideal of a TSO song. I don’t know what else I could really hope to add to that. So I suppose I’ll let the businessman (as sung by Robert Evan) have the last word.

To those who are still here, thanks for reading!

 

See Troubled By Nouns’ TSO Spotlight for more.