You either get Trans-Siberian Orchestra or you don’t.
If you do, you understand that they’re an entertaining rock n’ roll Christmas spectacle. If you don’t, you probably think the whole thing is lame, and you’re wrong.
A friend of mine and I were once discussing TSO. We’re both, by our peer groups at least, “too cool” to like them, but we knew we did. “They’re like if Meatloaf did Christmas music,” he said, complimentary. And that’s exactly it.
Not only is TSO like if Meatloaf did Christmas music, they’re like if Jim Steinman, writer of Bat Out of Hell, was asked to write a Christmas play and accompanying songs. It doesn’t quite hit his high standard of art and bold subtlety, but it’s close.
Putting on the Style
Their show is as much about the spectacle as it is about the music, and again, that’s a compliment. The huge band (two practically metal electric guitars, multiple singers with at least 20 vocal ranges each, a full rock band with two keyboards, a violinist, a full-ish orchestra, a small choir, and more) fits the grandiose material and stage show.
You might know the story of the rock opera they performed from its inclusion in PBS telethons every December: a young runaway girl finds adventure in an abandoned theater before “coming home this Christmas Day.” Along the way there’s storybook narration, original hard rock material, and bits of about 1,000 of the best Christmas songs. Pretty stunning.
Even more stunning, though, is the stage show. Three large screens played visuals that went along with the songs, often in vivid 3D. The light show was fantastic and, of course, the fog machines were on full-blast, making a fitting backdrop for the band’s classic rock moves (windmill guitar, encouraging the crowd to clap along, etc.).
It’s in the Music
If the songs weren’t good it’d all be pomp, but the songs are good. “Christmas Canon” transforms the worlds most classic melody into epic hard rock, “This Christmas Day” is their best narrative track, and “Carol of the Bells” pastiche “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” is, at this point, a Christmas classic. Their version of “What Child is This” is TSO at their most creative, transforming the ancient track into a meaningful contemporary rock song. Lines like “in the dead of the night as his life slips away/as he reads by the light of a star far away/who could be this old/and have their life just begin?” are especially affecting if you’re a true believer.
The biggest part of the production was the encore. After lengthy workouts of their medley of the “Nutcracker Suite” and original instrumental standard “Wizards in Winter,” the stage show got even more elaborate. During “Tracers” (opening with a far-too-brief snippet of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”) multiple band members were lifted up on stages in the middle of the crowd. “Carmina Burana” followed, its dark, almost Satanic-tinged feel accompanied by requisite fire and brimstone pyrotechnics. It was a little different from the heartwarming Christmas songs, not to mention the God and troop thanking, but it added another cool dimension.
The show ended with an uplifting reprise of their signature “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24.” The crowd got what they expected – a huge rock show filled with familiar Christmas songs – and were duly appreciative. They may have a formula, and they may do it every year, but nobody does Christmas music as creatively as Trans-Siberian Orchestra.