Trans-Siberian Orchestra: A New Twist on a Traditional Style
I think most people will agree that after a couple months of Christmas music (WARNING: I use the word “Christmas” throughout this entire essay. If it offends you, leave!), it can get old an annoying. While in the military, a friend of mine introduced me to this crazy New Age group called Manheim Steamroller. I espically enjoyed M.S.’s cool music which combined a rock vibe with orchestra style instruments.
At some point in time (I think while listening to the Rush Limbaugh radio show), I came across a song or two that they had released, which was Christmas music done in the M.S. style. The leader, Chip Davis is a very gifted multi-instrumentalist and producer and in the liner notes, he often wrote about the history and/or traditions of the Christmas music being performed. Here at last, was traditional Christmas music that was enjoyable to listen to again.
Then one day it happened…While driving on Interstate 5 in the Seattle/Tacoma area, I had the radio tuned into the local classic rock station. There came this softly playing electric guitar, joined by a weeping cello and a haunting flute. Suddenly, this wall of metal guitar sound slammed into me: “Carol of the Bells” (one of my all-time favorite Christmas music pieces, instrumental only, please) on steroids! OH MY GOD WHAT IS THIS?! I had just been introduced to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the piece was called “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”.
The song has a screaming guitar accompanied by a frantically playing string orchestra and is beyond beautiful and angry at the same time. According to a story I read, the piece is inspired by a cellist who during the Bosnian Wars, would play his cello at night on piles of rubble, and while rockets and bombs were going off all over the place (more on the history of the song below), thus the soft intro showing the peace of nighttime and the Christmas season, suddenly blown to hell by Chris Caffery’s incredibly angry guitar work. Chip Davis, I love ya and all, but so long, I’ve just found my Christmas music for a lifetime.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra has its roots in an 80’s metal band called Savatage. This band was not one of the hair metal bands of the era, but a true metal band with talented musicians such as, Jon Oliva on keyboards and singing, his late brother Criss on guitars, Johnny Lee Middleton on bass, Jeff Plate on drums, along with the aforementioned Chris Caffery, Alex Skolnick and Al Pitrelli on guitars, amongst several other musicians.
Savatage had released several concept albums including, Hall of the Mountain King, The Wake of Magellan, Gutter Ballet and Dead Winter Dead. These albums would feature classical music with a heavy metal spine, which would blow your mind and soul away.
The album Dead Winter Dead, is a love story in which a Serbian boy falls in love with a Muslim girl, during the Bosnian Wars. One character in the story is a stone gargoyle who for the last millennium, has tried to understand the human emotions of laughter and sorrow. As the war escalates, we meet another man, an old man who is a cellist who climbs atop the rubble of an old fountain, night after night, and plays Beethoven and Mozart music while bombs and rockets are exploding all around him.
Then on Christmas Eve, the Serb boy is sitting in his bunker listening to the sounds of Christmas carols being played by the old cello player. The young Muslim girl is also listening on the other side of the battle field, when the snow stops falling, the clouds part to reveal a beautiful star filled sky, but the music has suddenly stopped playing. Both the boy and girl approach the ruined fountain and there sadly, the old man lies dead. His face covered in blood and his cello destroyed. A single drop of liquid falls out of the clear sky, onto the old man’s face, and looking up, the boy sees nothing but an old gargoyle on an ancient church. Seeing the horror of the old mans death, the boy decides he must leave the war and pouring out his heart, he persuades the young Muslim girl to go with him.*
This album is produced by Paul O’Neill and Jon Oliva and the music and lyrics are written by both. O’Neill along with another musician named Robert Kinkel had been wanting to start a band which would eventually become the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and many of the members of Savatage would join TSO as well. The piece “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo (12/24)” became a radio hit and would be featured on TSO’s debut concept album Christmas Eve and Other Stories. Thus, one of the greatest metal bands was born.
Other TSO Christmas albums are: The Christmas Attic, The Lost Christmas Eve, and the mini ep Dreams of Fireflies (On a Christmas Night). They also have three non-Christmas albums: Beethoven’s Last Night, Night Castle and the just released Letters from the Labyrinth which is a continuation of Night Castle.
My two personal favorite albums are, The Lost Christmas Eve and I especially have a great fondness Beethoven’s Last Night, the re-released narrated version. Beethoven’s Last Night is a fictional story about the night the great composer died. It is about how Mephistopheles comes to Beethoven to claim his soul, but offers to return his soul to him, if he would but let Mephistopheles wipe all of his music from the memory of mankind. As the story progresses, Beethoven is faced with the ghosts of his past; his painful childhood, his lost Immortal Beloved, and his deafness.
When Beethoven refuses to give his life’s musical work up, the Devil then makes a deal that if the Great One would give to him his 10th Symphony which none have heard, he would then let Beethoven have his soul. When Beethoven refuses again, the Devil makes one final offer. Showing the maestro a young child sleeping in the gutter across the street, Mephistopheles tells Beethoven of all the suffering this girl will have to endure in her short life, but if the composer gives the Devil his final Symphony, he will leave the child alone.
Beethoven knows that he cannot let the child suffer, so he gives his 10th Symphony and his soul to the Devil, in order to save the girls soul. It turns out that there was a son born to Beethoven’s parents named Ludwig van Beethoven who died in the first year. His parents named their second son Ludwig as well and Twist son of Fate has fooled the Devil into making a deal with the wrong Ludwig van Beethoven.**
This album has many beautiful pieces including the huge piece entitled “Requiem (The Fifth)”. It is a very moving album and to see it performed live is just amazing.
Other great musicians in the band are: Roddy Chong on violin, Andrew Ross, Bart Shatto, Dustin Brayley and Russel Allen, among others on male vocals. Jane Mangini, Vitalij Kuprij, and Derek Wieland on piano. John Reilly on drums, Georgia Napolitano, Kayla Reeves, Autumn Guzzardi and other female singers.
Past members have featured Mark Wood and Anna Phoebe on violin, Tommy Farese on vocals and many, many others.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a fun band to listen to and an incredible band to see live; even if it’s in the “nose bleed” section. The band has been filled with great musicians over the years and is a band that should not be missed. Even my mother who doesn’t care for metal music likes ‘em.