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Metal/Prog Metal CD Reviews

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Christmas Eve and Other Stories

Review by Rick Damigella

Christmas Eve and Other Stories is the first concept album from the now world-renowned Trans-Siberian Orchestra. What originally began as a trilogy of albums will likely grow to include a fourth next year from this collaboration of musicians born out of the prog-metal band Savatage. This Christmas rock opera, originally released in 1996, has achieved modern classic status, expanded on with the band’s subsequent releases and elaborate holiday concert tours.

I for one am often fascinated by the ability of rock musicians to take the gentle harmonies and melodies of Christmas music and transform it into something altogether more powerful with their distorted guitar power chords, pounding drums and blistering leads. It is hard to say if it is the ability of the musicians or the timeless nature of the compositions themselves or perhaps a little bit of both. Either way, TSO manages to weave a mix of Christmas classics with original pieces to create a masterpiece of modern holiday fare which will continue to attract new fans for years to come.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
An Angel Came Down
The story begins as an angel is sent on a mission to find the one thing that best represents a celebration of the Son of God. While flying over the Earth, the angel hears the sound of a beautiful Christmas carol which grabs his attention, much the way the band does as it sets the stage for the first half of the story with this gripping opening number. Whereas many rock operas tend to leave lots to the imagination of the listener, this song presents the story front and center. The mix of piano, guitar, synth and bells during the bridge portion of “Silent Night” is truly spectacular.
O Come All Ye Faithful/O Holy Night (Instrumental)
The trademark bombast and beauty of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra continues with this piece. Perhaps it is the hands of the guitar player or perhaps it is the magic of music itself that allows songs whose roots are in the traditional to explode with such power and majestic sound. The sound that the angel of the story hears is perfectly captured by six-string slinger Al Pitrelli.
A Star To Follow
A male voice choir sings competing refrains of this number against lyrics from “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” As the angel continues the flight round the Earth, he hears the voices of men, women and children singing about Christmas. It’s a great example of the ability of the human voice to carry a piece, allowing the musicians to paint the background.
First Snow (Instrumental)
Pure, vintage rock pomp and circumstance, guitar and synth blend nicely into a vocal duet which propels this number. The arrangement and synth lines are rooted in the 80’s rock scene but they hold up just fine because of this, rather than in spite of it. This doesn’t have the “Christmasy” feel that many of the songs on the album do, letting this instrumental play on your “shuffle” list just about any time of the year.
The Silent Nutcracker
This contains a funny part in the story from the liner notes. The angel of the story arrives in Russia seeking what the people desire at this time of year. A villager answers “peace on Earth of course, and a little Stoli.” The song itself combines “The Nutcracker” and “Silent Night” played on a lone acoustic guitar.
A Mad Russian's Christmas
This proves that Tchaikovsky was indeed a head banger. Intense electric guitar and piano start off this number, which gives way after a minute to a rock-orchestrated medley of Pyotr Ilyich’s Nutcracker ballet. One would hope the Russian composer would whole-heartedly approve of this modern arrangement of his classic.
The Prince of Peace
Here we are given a straightforward rendition of this hymn with female vocals and piano accentuated with bells. The number interpolates “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” midway through. This peaceful track gives way to one of the most intense and explosive Christmas rock songs ever set down by a band.
Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24
Originally appearing on Dead Winter Dead by Savatage, whose members make up parts of TSO, this is the centerpiece of this rock opera making it the classic that it has become. Combining elements of “Carol of the Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” the instrumental tells the true story of an old cello player from Sarajevo who, upon returning to his country after many years, finds his hometown in ruins from the raging civil war. Instead of taking shelter from the nightly shelling of his city, he instead played his instrument from atop a rubble pile in the center of town in an effort to show humanity still lived. As Christmas approached he would play carols as the battle raged around him. In this piece, the rock band represents one side while the orchestra the other, with the lone cello player caught in the middle. This is truly an incredible piece of music.
Good King Joy
The gives us a much more lighthearted sound following the previous number. This blending of “Joy to the World” and “Good King Wenceslas” features another splendid rock orchestra arrangement of these familiar holiday tunes in the first half. As the song progresses it morphs into a bluesy gospel tinged sound with some fantastic guitar riffing offsetting the vocals.
Ornament
At this point, the story changes direction as the angel finds a lost girl, lonely and far from home with no way to return there. This metaphorical “ornament” on the vast Christmas tree of earth becomes the focus of the story from here on out. This Steinmen-esque opera movement features a vocal solo reminiscent of Van Morrison at his guttural best.
The First Noel (Instrumental)
The short, solo acoustic guitar melody plucked out on this track is mellow and pleasing and segues directly into the next piece..
Old City Bar
The opera continues as the angel arrives at a local bar somewhere in the heart of New York City, where the lost girl has found here way, shivering in the cold outside. The angel convinces the bartender to help the girl as the lyrics progress. The song is played on the same solo acoustic as in the intro with the kind of vocals one would expect from a lone singer sitting in a smoke-filled gin joint.
Promises To Keep
A piano and children’s voice choir driven number, this trends far closer to a traditional carol than the rock and circumstance of the previous numbers.
This Christmas Day
The father of the back-story is featured in this section as he prepares for the arrival of his long lost daughter. The over the top arrangement mixes solo piano and the rockestra in full power chord glory. Is it a little pompous and grandiose? Perhaps, but that is what makes the album magical in its own way.
An Angel Returned
Like any good concept album or rock opera should, we find ourselves back where we came in. The arrangement is the same as track number one, only far more rocked up at a quicker pace. The angel has returned from his mission and we find our Christmas story at its end. I won’t spoil the ending in case you’ve not experienced this album, but I think its safe to say (no surprises) that it is a happy conclusion.
O Holy Night
As a postscript to the story (or perhaps a way to fill out the album with another pair of very pleasing to the ear instrumentals) two songs make up the end of the album. A finger picked electric guitar with an appropriate array of holiday-set effects pedals allow this number to stand out completely from the overall sound of the album.
God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen
Representing the counterpoint to the electric six-string of the previous number, a lone acoustic steel string plays a short, traditional arrangement of this holiday classic.
 
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