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Concept Album Corner - 'Christmas Eve and Other Stories' by The Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Happy Holidays to everybody as we close the year of 2012. Speaking personally, I’ve always found the December Holiday time to be one of the most enjoyable times even in the worst of years. Even if one grows older and more cynical with time, there’s at least the joy of receiving gifts from people who care about you and giving in return (for the most part, at least, assuming that Christmas isn’t so commercialized as to be totally devoid of a soul). Outside of that, however, there are many aspects of the wintertime that warms my heart: the simplicity and solitude, the snow, the time spent with loved ones, and especially the music.
Be it good or bad, Christmas music is something I will always listen to once the appropriate time comes around. Generally speaking, Christmas music is rather simplistic and easy to listen to, musically and lyrically; probably the perfect formula to create pop songs, of which many have been made around Christmas times. Artists sometimes devote entire albums to memorable Christmas tunes that are covered, invented, and sung over and over again on just about every radio station you’ll find, and I still love (almost) every single one. Some personal favorites are ‘Winter Wonderland’, ‘Silent Night’, and ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’. However, while I’ll listen to just about any Christmas tune with a smile on my face, there are a couple of rotten eggs that show up in just those few cartons each year. Even worse, that carton or two sometimes has more rotten eggs than good ones. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra seems to be one of the major producers of these kinds of egg cartons.
Despite the title, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a New York Prog Rock group founded in 1993 by producer/composer Paul O’Neill, two members of the heavy metal band Savatage, and keyboardist/co-producer Robert Kinkel. The core idea behind the music of The Trans-Siberian Orchestra, as one might imagine, is to mix elements of symphonic music with hard rock. An odd mixture, certainly, but not a complete failure. The group has sold at least eight million album copies with this interesting mix, practically made to create nothing but rock operas mostly revolving around classical music, fittingly enough. They have sold over nine million tickets alone for folks to go see their concerts, all of which have the highest degree of love, passion, and effort put in by the perfectionist performers. With a sprawling group of four composers, twenty vocalists, five guitarists, two drummers, three violinists, three bassists, and four keyboardists, they are the largest ‘band’ to hit any form of major popularity. One of their most well known creations, however, is their Christmas trilogy, started off by their debut album Christmas Eve and Other Stories.
The overarching story, I suppose, focuses on the goal of an angel sent to Earth on Christmas Eve to seek out at least one act of genuine kindness, following the lives of many odd characters throughout, all accompanied by their own hard-rock symphonic suite. Herein lies the major gleaming problem with The Trans-Siberian Orchestra. While hard rock and orchestral music are both wonderful styles of music in their own rite, that’s what keeps them wonderful: they are both their own thing. Mixing the two doesn’t work because both are so vastly different from the other. To quote from legendary rock icon Pete Townshend, “As the son of…the prototypical British Swing band, I had been nourished by my love for that music, a love I would betray for a new passion: rock n’ roll, the music that came to destroy it.”
To further explain, orchestral and symphonic music is typically meant to set mood without words but with sound, to be introspective and thought-provoking only by the high-pitched lull of a string section, by the boom of a brass section, the fluttering air of a woodwind sections, and the rattling of percussion. And as music evolved over time, hard-rock is generally meant to demolish that idea, the rough and gruff wailing of guitars and the pounding stomp of drums not introspective, but mostly simplistic and intimidating, rebellious against the very idea of classical music. Granted, that is a very broad generalization of both forms of music. Hard-rock can be meditative on an instrumental level and classical music can be equally simplistic and basic. Both styles could certainly be meshed, but not in the way it is done here.
The orchestra would either have to go one side or the other, not try to meet it halfway. Most if not all of the tracks are horribly disjointed by these two musical genres, like watching a machine malfunction. Or, as a better analogy, it’s the audio equivalent of being in the mind of a person with Multiple Personality Disorder, both sides working efficiently on their own, but clashing so violently as to set the entire music off. On a few occasions, the music works fine, but only because they are picking a definite style, even if they are mixing rock and symphony. A couple of instrumentals include only the strumming of acoustic guitar to well-loved Christmas songs like ‘The First Noel’ and such. One of their songs, probably one of their most popular, is the tune ‘Christmas/Sarajevo 12/24’, an epic, rock-oriented version of ‘Carol of the Bells’ made all the more booming and menacing by the roar of strings and the chiming of bells.
But for the rest of the album, the choice to blend rock and orchestra is jarring and done awfully, the worst example being ‘A Mad Russian’s Christmas’, the TSO take on a part of The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky. The grinding of rock guitars are almost comedic when coupled with the ominous opening and the lighthearted dance tone of the rest of the piece. Even the vocals seem completely out of place, the narrator from the beginning and ending pieces sounding like a cross between The Phantom of the Opera and Jack Skellington. Granted, it’s more fitting than hardcore rock, though.
Since it is Christmas, it would be rather Scrooge-like of me to leave this review without anything positive, so I give TSO this: they put their all into it. For all of its corniness and poor decisions, The Trans-Siberian Orchestra still puts all of their effort into everything they do to near perfectionist degrees. That’s nothing to speak of their live shows, some of which are put off schedule (as some are apt to do), just to perfect them. Alice Cooper once said that great music came from having cake (content) and icing (style), not one over the other. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra may be completely icing over cake, but they certainly do the best they can to make the icing fantastic.
Christopher Nolan once said something to the affect of “Even if I see a film that I think is terrible, I can at least enjoy it a little bit more if the people making it believed they were making something great, that they were putting their all into it.” Never before have I felt that way quite like I do now. By no means would I recommend this album, even as Christmas music. If anything, I think it’s probably the worst thing I’ve had to listen to while doing this blog so far. But failing is always that much more acceptable if there was an attempt to try. And, if you’ll allow me to reach unprecedented levels of sappiness, I believe that’s part of what makes Christmas so wonderful.