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."