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.

 

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JUSTIN BENTON has written for the Nervous Breakdown since 2009. He co-authored Board with Brad Listi, a literary collage released by TNB Books in 2012. He is now a father and is currently writing an ongoing pantoum poem you can find here.

19 responses to “The Subtle Spirituality of Trans-Siberian Orchestra”

  1. Wait, is it just me, or did you just write about Trans-Siberian Orchestra and their entire Christmas trilogy without once naming “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” which has to be one of the greatest Christmas songs ever. I love that song. I love it so much that, when I YouTubed up a hacked together version of an amateur trailer for the Macbeth movie I’ve had in my head for years, I used it as the soundtrack. Also, not that you’d know the answer to this, but I have to wonder aloud why I always thought the name of the song was “Christmas Eve, Sarajevo, 1914.” Surely my math isn’t that bad off that I just think around numbers already there? So strange.

    Seriously though, nice and informative piece. “Christmas Eve” whatever Sarajevo year they like got me into TSO, and I liked parts of Beethoven’s Last Night, but unfortunately they’ve never consistently held my attention for long. Which is odd, because I think most people who know me would think “Rock classical? You know I bet Will would love this!” But only in small doses. Maybe it’s the Christian aspect; without attention to the lyrics, I’ve never noticed that overt message of Jesus-as-Lord-and-Savior–I’ve always thought them more secular, X-masian, if you will.

    You know what’s awesome rock-classical, though? Brian Setzer’s Wolfgang’s Big Night Out. Which isn’t a concept album, really, but is still pretty damned good nonetheless.

    I feel like I should throw a goat now. Consider a goat thrown. Woo!

    • JB says:

      While we’re at recommendations, here’s one: King Diamond’s Abigail. That’s ghost children done the right way.

      Metal!

  2. jmb says:

    I saw these guys when I was in like 7th grade
    and thought they completly sucked
    and then again a few years back
    when I was a lot more
    “hey, whatever!”
    and completely enjoyed it for at least the first 45 minutes.
    Then I was bored.

    The best Christian Rock
    was Barren Cross’ Rock For The King
    unless you count Black Sabbath’s
    Master of Reality LP
    (which I do)
    or Shout at the Devil
    (again)
    It’s all gospel.

    I really like writing
    like this and keep meaning to
    do more music pieces.

    • JB says:

      So, James, how did you get suckered into going? I have a theory that grandmas buy their grandkids TSO tickets. That is the only plausible scenario.

      I always thought “Shout at the Devil” was nihilistic. Then I read The Dirt and Nikki Sixx wrote about dabbling in black magic and seeing knives fly through the air. So, I dunno. Lyrically, it’s absolutely open to debate.

      Thanks for the read and the kind words.

  3. jmb says:

    That may not
    have been purposeful
    but it was perfect for the piece
    Fate’s Twist indeed
    I could sing those lyrics to most of their songs.

  4. Twist of Fate?

    Genius. Sheer genius. I’m going to have to go and listen to some TSO now. If I suddenly fall in love with Christmas and wholesomeness, I’m blaming you, Benton.

  5. Richard Cox says:

    Didn’t someone take their version of “Carol of the Bells” and mash it up with the Burger King guy?

    Would you like an apple pie with that?
    Would you like an apple pie with that?

    Ding! Fries are done!

  6. Greg Olear says:

    Touched By An Angel meets Dream Theater

    Couldn’t have put it any better.

    Great piece — I love hearing your take on all this arcane stuff.

    G

  7. Justin – you and JMB should be the music subdivision of A&C – I loved this!!!

    I created a Pandora station of TSO, and the first song out of the gate was O Holy Night – and I’m all kinds of conflicted about this. Yes, it’s fun Christmas, but it’s still Christmas music. (NB: Wait – Mannheim Steamroller popped up next. Aaaaand, it’s off! Going back to my Velvet Underground station now.)

    And it’s a Christian Metal band comprised of moody Jews? (Trademark!) Conflicted… so conflicted.

    But I’ll definitely give that Beethoven/Mefisto album a try. I’m a big fan of concept albums, no matter how loose the concept (see: Aimee Mann)

  8. JB says:

    You know, I don’t know how many moody Jews are in TSO. It’s a good question.

    There’s a great article on The Guardian about how some of the greatest Christmas songs are mournful and have been written by Jewish men (Irving Berlin, for example).

    Have you heard Mastodon’s Crack the Skye? Rasputin makes an appearance. Metal.

  9. Mark Reep says:

    If you like TSO, check out their precursor, Savatage. One of the most underrated American metal bands of the 80’s and 90’s, they released their last cd Poets and Madmen in 2000. Poets, Dead Winter Dead, The Wake Of Magellan cds are among the most similar musically to TSO. Working back through their catalog, Handful Of Rain, Edge Of Thorns, Hall Of The Mountain King, Gutter Ballet are all good. Streets: A Rock Opera is their masterpiece, with Jon Oliva on vocals, the late Criss Oliva on guitar. Lotta lineup changes over the years, and the TSO cds and tours feature several Savatage members.

  10. […] of the Talking Heads, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and […]

  11. Becky says:

    I love Trans-Siberian orchestra.

    Well, that’s not really true.

    I love them around Christmastime, and my love of “them” extends to all of about 5 songs.

    Nevertheless, I’ve always kept this a secret, since I assumed it made me 65 years old. Thanks to you, Justin Benton, I am no longer afraid.

    I’m especially partial to their Nutcracker medley. “A Mad Russian’s Christmas,” I think it’s called.

  12. […] JUSTIN BENTON rocks out with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. […]

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  14. Jamie says:

    Having listened to Savatage, which is who they were before TSO, this style of music is not new to them. In the late 80’s and early 90’s when my hair was way to long and I was still rebelling they were a mainstay in my collection. I absolutely love what they’ve become. The mix of metal and orchestra is the best musical marriage ever. I have every album they have released and will continue to buy them as long as that sound remains.

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