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Christmas Kitsch 

Former Savatage guitarist Paul O'Neill lays on the schlock with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra: Jingle-bell metal for complacent listeners.
  • Trans-Siberian Orchestra: Jingle-bell metal for complacent listeners.

A collection of musicians specializing in holiday-themed product, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is extraordinarily good at spreading its bloated words and music, purveying a pastiche of classical themes, kitschy bombast, and metalloid, guitar-god posturing. The New York-based group has been a smash since 1996, when Christmas Eve and Other Stories signaled its arrival on the theatrical circuit. Submitting to the pomp, affectation, and cultural dumbing-down of TSO may well be a critical obligation, but it's a mixed pleasure, at best. And even though Trans-Siberian Orchestra has been praised by some critics, the music it offers is, for the most part, remarkably banal.

By March, TSO will release its first non-holiday-based work, Beethoven's Last Night, a smorgasbord of Beethoven, Mozart, the rants of minor Romantics, and group leader Paul O'Neill. On March 26, 2000, the group is scheduled to perform the Beethoven extravaganza: a bizarre, metalloid blend of chestnuts that, in addition to the 9th Symphony, includes "Flight of the Bumblebee" (Yngwie Malmsteen, please come home!) and Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. March 26 just happens to be the anniversary of Beethoven's death -- no one said TSO doesn't know how to market.

"Beethoven's such a larger-than-life figure," O'Neill says in a telephone interview from his New York home. "The entire thing is set in the spring of 1827 in Vienna, on the night Beethoven dies. That night was one of the largest lightning storms in European history, so you have this vision of Beethoven sitting in his parlor in his townhouse, and every time the lightning goes off, the shadows move a little closer to Beethoven."

Pointedly pitched to the family audience, TSO panders to the would-be highbrow, much like blind hunk Andrea Bocelli (of the beautiful tenor voice) and aging sylph Sarah Brightman (whose contralto, too, is a splendid instrument). What TSO, Bocelli, and Brightman share is a predilection for material so mediocre, it's sure to please people apprehensive of striking out on their own for more original stuff -- including the bases of TSO material: Christmas carols, Tchaikovsky (a middle-of-the-roader who likely would have written for the TSO, had he been around in these millennial times), Beethoven, and Mozart.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra has other relatives, too: Mannheim Steamroller, Andrew Lloyd Webber, the well-meaning and execrable Michael Bolton, and, of course, Meat Loaf. While TSO has no such star as Meat Loaf (or his original foil, the equally histrionic Karla DeVito), it has polish, adequate soloists, and plenty of marketing muscle.

O'Neill formerly produced Savatage, which partially explains TSO's propensity for the big guitar gesture. Savatage hails from the days when heavy metal ruled. Shrill and polished, it resembled such other Atlantic acts as Ratt, Pantera, and Twisted Sister (perhaps not coincidentally, Atlantic is TSO's label, too). O'Neill, who runs TSO with keyboardists Robert Kinkel and Jon Oliva, also has worked with such other Milquetoast icons as perpetual Opera Phantom Michael Crawford and multimedia darling Jewel, and was involved in the Japanese tours of such megastars as Madonna, Sting, and Foreigner. He also directed TSO's big, saccharine video hit, last winter's "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24," a work reportedly inspired by the true story of a cellist who continued to perform while his city was under siege. Perhaps just as important: O'Neill is managed by David Krebs, formerly of Leber-Krebs, Aerosmith's original management company. TSO publicity materials quote Krebs saying, "Paul is the most talented lyricist I have ever worked with," which must tick off Aerosmith's Steven Tyler -- in case he reads it. Savatage members in TSO include one of O'Neill's chief collaborators, keyboardist Jon Oliva; guitarists Chris Caffrey and Al Pitrelli; bassist John Middleton; and drummer Jeff Plate.

Savatage was a second-tier metal band, but TSO sells out the majority of the shows it puts on every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, including three shows this week in Cleveland. So what explains TSO's popularity? Its appeal to all ages and demographics, O'Neill suggests. When "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo" started garnering airplay, it got Top 5 requests at adult contemporary radio, pop, some country, some Christian, even some metal stations, he says.

"No matter what kind of music you're into, between the ages of 6 and 12, we all grew up on the same Christmas melodies." Since 30 percent of TSO's holiday rock operas is based on these melodies, "we have this touchstone . . . which gives us this huge advantage."

Most of the material for the Cleveland shows will likely be culled from TSO's first two albums -- Christmas Eve and Other Stories (1996) and The Christmas Attic (1998). They're thematic, of course, because what good is recycling without a new story? The first, in a nutshell, posits a world in which an angel can bring happiness to a bartender. The second, in a far more tortuous plot, teaches that Christmas touches adults and children equally. The music is a tale unto itself, however. Even though many of the melodies are memorable (that may be why they're called Christmas carols), O'Neill and his crew never fail to exaggerate them, inevitably transforming delicate tunes such as "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" into fanfares. The original tunes, too, are, above all, big. The music of Trans-Siberian Orchestra ultimately bullies the listener into sentimentality, provoking a kind of cultural road rage.

There is nothing wrong with evoking feelings, particularly during a holiday. But there's a difference between genuine feeling and sentimentality, a quality more akin to marketing. What Trans-Siberian Orchestra traffics in is the latter. One wonders what it will do when it runs out of holidays and heroic figures.

"I don't think you'll ever run out of heroic figures," O'Neill maintains, suggesting TSO will pursue storylines similar to that of the Beethoven-themed disc. "There are so many people who go out on a limb and do great things. It's just a matter of finding them."

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