Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Paul O'Neill opens up about new Night Castle album

Somewhere between the worlds of arena rock and Broadway musicals lies Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The New York-based symphonic rock collective has become a holiday institution with its treatments of Christmas standards and well-known classical pieces as a part of a rock opera trilogy.

TSO first introduced itself to fans with 1996's now classic Christmas Eve and Other Stories, which has sold more than two million copies. 1998's The Christmas Attic and 2004's The Lost Christmas Eve continued the yuletide spirit.

In concert, every TSO performance includes a Pink Floyd-on-steroids laser show, towering bursts of pyrotechnic flames and imitation snowflakes drifting down on the audience as up to 24 tuxedo-and-evening gown clad rock musicians perform with an orchestral octet.

The band's spectacular success has led to two touring companies criss-crossing the country every winter. Composer/lyricist Paul O'Neill typically splits his time touring with both the East Coast and West Coast ensembles.

He often can be seen taking the stage in sunglasses and a leather jacket during intermission to thank the audience for their continued support.

"If it weren't for [the fans], I'd have to get a real job and I'd be in trouble," O'Neill quips during a phone call from New York. The hirsute visionary has also been known to strap on a guitar to perform TSO's enduring hit single "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo/1224)" in concert.

Now a new tale from O'Neill's pen entitled Night Castle has emerged —- and it's not exactly holly or jolly.

The double-disc Night Castle collection tells of a chance encounter between a young girl and an old soldier with a magical tale. It is only the group's second non-holiday album, following 2000's Beethoven's Last Night —- a Faustian fictionalization of the legendary composer's demise.

At the crux of Night Castle are the redemptive actions of a Khmer Rouge general who breaks rank with his murderous ideology to help a dying American soldier.

"I think it was [philosopher Edmund] Burke who said, 'Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.' If you see a mugging across the street, would you go over and help that person? You would certainly want them to help you." O'Neill says in explaining the moral questions pondered on Night Castle. "Civilization is not an accident. It takes eternal vigilance and it's at its most dangerous when it has been [safe] for a while…Evil is unbelievably patient."

Night Castle was originally due in July 2005, but the album only arrived late last month. Back in 2005, TSO composer/lyricist Paul O'Neill and his main collaborators, pianist Robert Kinkel and songwriter Jon Oliva, envisioned Night Castle as a straightforward rock album sans weighty themes.

But Night Castle's intricate storyline came to O'Neill in a flash of inspiration, much like all of Trans-Siberian's other narrative-rich material.

"Originally it was going to be just 10 songs, a regular record, but then Jon said, 'Now Paul, Trans-Siberian fans expect the stories,' and I knew [he] was right," O'Neill recalls, "so it went from being a 10-song regular album to a 26-song double album." A 68-page CD booklet that accompanies Night Castle features illustrations by famed artist Greg Hildebrandt.

The album's familiar blend of rocked-out classical music and hard-driving originals will certainly appeal to longtime fans.

"Tocatta - Carpimus Noctem" is a reprise of Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor, conjuring up images of Halloween with doom-laden organ and heavy metal riffs. "Moonlight & Madness" opens with the frenzied final movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" before morphing into a fiery instrumental display of six-string fretwork and pounding percussion.

"Sparks" and "Dreams We Conceive," meanwhile, advance Night Castle's narrative with passionate vocals that owe as much to the theatrical bombast of Broadway as to the uplifting anthems of arena rock.

The collection's first single, "Nutrocker," is a nod to the group's holiday heritage. It features a guest appearance by bassist Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, who first introduced the Tchaikovsky-inspired instrumental into their repertoire in 1970.

O'Neill says Lake's involvement in re-recording the track came after the latter joined TSO onstage one night during their 2007 holiday tour. The two men bonded over a mutual love of progressive rock.

"With any other form of music, when you go into jazz and you do some kind of [different] music, it's no longer jazz. With blues, you go a certain direction, it's no longer blues. Reggae you do something [else,] it's no longer reggae," O'Neill recalls being told by Lake. "But progressive rock has no limits. It's always trying to push the envelope and try something different. You can do classical, you can do a waltz, you can do reggae, you do anything and that kind of artistic freedom is just great."

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Queensrÿche frontman discusses American Soldier

When Queensrÿche undertook the recording of their latest album, American Soldier, it was an unprecedented move even for a band with such a richly experimental history in the studio.

American Soldier uses a wealth of sound clips—collected from dozens of audio and video interviews that singer Geoff Tate conducted with soldiers over the course of two years—to tell the universal story of U.S. military personnel.

"This was really a record that everybody in the band seemed to get into quite a bit," Tate reveals. "We liked the cinematic aspect of writing to the tapes, watching those and getting a feel for what the tone and the mood was like."

The result is an album bristling with powerful lyrics and equally powerful music that explores the nuances of a soldier's experience—from boot camp to battle, from separation anxiety while serving overseas to the challenges of returning to civilian life.

In all, Tate spoke to those who served during every American conflict from World War II to the present. What struck him most were the unifying themes that spanned generations and bridged experiences.

"I thought [with] all the different generations of [military personnel] I talked to they would be very different, but what I found was the soldiers' experiences were really rather similar," he says. "They're concerned about managing their fear, the loss of colleagues and friends and being separated from their families. These kinds of subjects were predominant in the conversations."

"Sliver," the disc's first track, opens with the barking of a drill sergeant and serves as an aural boot camp to indoctrinate the listener into military life. "Man Down!" employs breakneck-paced guitars and bludgeoning drums to explore post-traumatic stress disorder. "Home Again," by contrast, moves along at a gentle acoustic shuffle, with lyrics that create a narrative inspired by the letters of a deployed soldier and his young daughter at home.

"At 30,000 Ft," meanwhile, is one of the most gripping tracks. It details a pilot's emotional detachment from the act of bombing a city far below.

The band manages to distill the moral dilemma about inflicting so much damage while being separate from the experience with lyrics such as "I'll send the 'Pigs' away / the tortured painful cries / will never fall upon my ears / and never stain my elder years / my heartbeat is all I'll feel." The song alternates between a melancholy minor key melody to suggest the pilot's anguished mind and blitzkrieg power chords to recreate the chaotic sounds of an aerial strike.

It is this kind of attention to realistic emotional detail that makes American Soldier such a riveting listen and one of the band's most exciting albums in recent years.

Formed in 1981, Queensrÿche developed a signature sound by blending the aggression of New Wave of British Heavy Metal acts like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest with the artistic prowess of progressive rock acts such as Pink Floyd and King Crimson.

It was Operation: Mindcrime that first introduced Queensrÿche's fascination with themed concept albums. The 1988 opus told a complete narrative with a set cast of characters rather than being a collection of unrelated songs. The storyline was revisited for 2006's Operation: Mindcrime II.

1990's Empire further solidified the group's reputation as the thinking man's heavy metal band, selling more than three million copies and yielding their highest-charting single, "Silent Lucidity."

The band -- also featuring original members guitarist Michael Wilton, bassist Ed Jackson and drummer Scott Rockenfield, plus newly added second guitarist Parker Lundgren -- will play suites of music from American Soldier, Empire and 1986's Rage for Order during their current tour.

Also joining Queensrÿche on the road will be Lita Ford. The '80s metal songstress will use Tate & Co. as her backing band and together they will reprise her hits including "Close My Eyes Forever."

"We thought it would be fun instead of having a standard opening act kind of thing to have her come on stage with us and play some songs," Tate says.