December 03, 2009
There are many weird success stories in America, but Trans-Siberian Orchestra has to be one of the weirdest.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra has released five albums in the last thirteen years—three of which comprise the band’s Christmas trilogy: Christmas Eve and Other Stories (1996), The Christmas Attic (1998), and The Lost Christmas Eve (2004). Each has earned platinum status. The band’s latest release, 2009’s Night Castle (albeit, not a Christmas concept album) peaked at number 5 on the Billboard 200 chart. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra has become so popular there are two touring factions in America, covering each of the coasts: TSO East and TSO West.
On paper, the music of Trans-Siberian Orchestra sounds like a very bad idea. TSO combines symphonic power metal with traditional Christmas standards. There is no noticeable star presence in the group. Much of the group’s success can be credited to the live show. It’s pure spectacle—dry ice, lasers, and pyrotechnics create a surreal parallel universe where Nevermind never happened and Christmas rock reigns o’er us all. It seems like the sort of musical project that should have died on the vine.
But exactly the opposite has happened. Over the past decade, Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s popularity has grown steadily. According to the band’s website, Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO, for short) has entertained 5 million-plus people in over 80 cities. They’ve sold $230 million in tickets alone. And that’s not including mugs, T-shirts, and officially licensed Christmas ornaments. The show is slowly becoming an accepted holiday tradition, alongside advent calendars and the Nutcracker ballet.
Why write about the Trans-Siberian Orchestra? There are at least a few reasons. I’ve seen the promotional spots on TV every December since I was a teenager. I find the mass appeal perplexing. Also, I like metal and I like Christmas songs. Particularly, when both are penned by mournful Jewish guys.
Founder and main composer Paul O’ Neill (no relation to the retired baseball player) explains the artistic mission of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra per the band’s website: “We always try to write melodies so they’re so infectious they don’t need lyrics and lyrics so poetic and cutting they’ll stand up in poetry books.”
What O’Neill and Trans-Siberian Orchestra specializes in are concept albums. The storyline for 2000’s Beethoven’s Last Night is comically bizarre. On what will be his last night on earth, Beethoven is visited by Mephistopheles, who wants the composer’s soul. If Beethoven wants to live he will have to agree to erase all his works from mankind forever. Mephistopheles offers Beethoven an hour to think it over.
Meanwhile, Beethoven is visited by two spirits: the beautiful enchantress Fate and her “deformed dwarf son” Twist (Get it? Twist of fate). The remainder of the slightly confusing tale involves time travel, Mozart’s ghost, and a ridiculous contractual loophole regarding Beethoven’s name.
Concept records have a notorious history of inconsistency. More or less, the concept of the concept album involves a sequence of songs imbued with meaning and story. Some have a specific storyline. The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come For Free is an example of a successful concept record. The song sequence documents a couple months in the life of someone who may or may not be Mike Skinner. There’s a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Some concept records lack a definite storyline and thereby depend on sonic spectacle. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness are two examples of this. These albums are generally considered failures as concept records because there is no concrete story present.
But the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s work is mostly instrumental. How does one visualize the story of a concept album if there are hardly any words? And what if the few words present have little to do with the actual storyline? This presents a bit of a problem for the listener.
A look at the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas trilogy might help clear up some of the confusion. (Paul O’ Neill offers fans the storylines of each album on the TSO website.)
The storyline of 1996’s Christmas Eve and Other Stories begins naturally on Christmas Eve in an unnamed big city. A young man sits alone in a seedy bar getting drunk. An old man asks to join him and tells him a story about God sending his youngest Angel down to earth to “bring back to me the one thing that best represents everything good that has been done in the name of this day.”
The Angel follows a prayer from a sad father to his urchin daughter, who is standing on a street corner, with no means of getting home. The Angel then transforms into an androgynous child—or makes one appear?—and said child walks into a nearby bar and inspires the miserly bartender to give the urchin most of the money in his cash register. The bartender hails a taxi and tells the driver to take the urchin girl to the JFK Airport.
It’s important to note that O’Neill never explicitly states that the story takes place in New York City. He writes that the urchin girl “was standing on a corner, in a quiet snowfall, looking very small in a very large city.” If, for example, the listener of Christmas Eve and Other Stories were living in Seattle he might picture Seattle as that very large city. I’m not sure even all the loose cash in a bar could cover the cab fare from Seattle to JFK Airport.
The old man’s story ends with the androgynous child disappearing into thin air, much to the surprise of the bartender. The bartender, in what might be seen as a negligent business decision, then lets everyone in the bar drink for free. And that’s the end of the old man’s story. He bids the young man adieu and vanishes into thin air. The young man walks home and has a gripping dream about Christmas.
In the final installment of the trilogy, The Lost Christmas, God instructs his youngest Angel to “return to the world of mankind and to bring Him the name of the person that best continued the work of his Son on Earth.” Again, the Angel is sent down to complete a vaguely metaphorical task and a ghost child—as deus ex machina—nudges the protagonist toward epiphany. Trans-Siberian Orchestra is kind of like Touched By An Angel meets Dream Theater.
TSO may very well be the acme of Christian rock. The band only tours during the Christmas season. Their concept records include direct references to God and angels, and involve cynical adults rediscovering the true meaning of Christmas. Plus, Trans-Siberian Orchestra rocks harder than Stryper and Switchfoot combined.
Admittedly, there is a degree of obfuscation present in the art of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Paul O’Neill buries his message under creeping fog, zipping lasers, and great balls of fire. But Trans-Siberian Orchestra is the best kind of Christian rock because it’s unassuming. The Lord, as it were, is in the details. The message is there if you want it. And if you don’t want it all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the light show and the white-hot licks.