Music » Rhythm Section: by Alison Fensterstock

Trans-Siberian Orchestra: The Gift of Metal

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Trans-Siberian Orchestra

7:30 p.m. Thu., Dec. 18

New Orleans Arena, 1501 Girod St.

Tickets $18-$45.50

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What flies around the world delivering holiday cheer to hundreds of thousands of good girls and boys each Christmas season? If your answer is a hair-metal arena extravaganza with lots of explosions, help yourself to a candy cane.

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra — a holiday tradition of sorts since 1996 — sets out each year on a Christmas juggernaut of a tour that begins when Halloween's cobwebs have barely been swept aside to make way for Thanksgiving turkey, and ends days after New Year's Eve's most pernicious hangovers have had plenty of time to heal. Like Santa, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra can be in more than one place at once. Each November, the group rolls two touring companies out of the workshop, each with full orchestra, massive choir, a laser-light spectacular and an extravagant pyrotechnic display.

In the late '70s, brothers Jon and Criss Oliva formed the prog-metal band Savatage, whose sound bridged the gap between the Tolkien-tinged fantasy metal of Black Sabbath and the squalling glam-metal yet to invade the charts in the '80s. After tours with monsters of metal like KISS and Metallica, Savatage finally put out a commercially successful release, 1987's Hall of the Mountain King, its first with producer Paul O'Neill. He encouraged the band's bent for sweeping symphonic elements à la Yes or ELO, and as time went on, Savatage skewed toward ever more elaborate production values. Each subsequent album was an epic, conceptual rock opera comprised of teetering towers of sound and complicated, vaguely supernatural storylines. O'Neill calls TSO "Phantom of the Opera meets the Who with Pink Floyd's light show." (A former Savatage member recently put out a rock opera based on The Da Vinci Code.)

It may have been the 1993 death of Criss Oliva that heralded the downward turn of Savatage. The primal, raw sound of grunge taking over the charts at the time also may have depleted the market for the band's opulent, virtuosic noodling. In any case, it was about the time when flannel shirts replaced vinyl pants as rock-wear that O'Neill and Jon Oliva turned to Christmas.

In December 2007, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's packed show at the New Orleans Arena featured very few Christmas classics. The production included Pink Floyd-caliber laser lights, billowing fog, lots of running around onstage with wireless instruments, a version of Carl Orff's seriously dramatic choral piece "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana and a gentle fall of illuminated snow upon the audience. It followed a complicated original Christmas storyline that involved orphans, angels and Bosnia.

The Bosnia element came from the album Dead Winter Dead, which Savatage, which were already floundering commercially, gave its record label (Atlantic) for free in 1995 in the hopes of securing better overseas bookings. The then-topical concept album, about the war in the former Yugoslavia, mostly drew confused looks. But when Christmas rolled around, Santa brought Savatage a highly desirable gift: one of the tracks on the record, "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)," was played on the influential New York station WPLJ. The track was an instrumental, and the DJ read from the liner notes — a heartfelt plea for peace in the Balkans — over the music. Other stations called Atlantic for copies of their own.

Paul O'Neill, recognizing the apparent market for dramatic Christmas metal, wrote the first Trans-Siberian Orchestra rock opera soon after. Christmas Eve and Other Stories elaborated on the holidays-in-wartime theme of the original song (which is included on the album) but with redemptive Christmastime twists and renditions of classic carols. It went double platinum. Jon Oliva and several other former Savatage members — the lineup had gone through multiple shifts — began to focus almost exclusively on the project. Since then, the band has released four albums (one a nonholiday departure, the gold-selling 2000 album Beethoven's Last Night), with a fifth, Nightcastle (also non-Christmas) in the works for summer 2009 release. Since 1996, the four albums and relentless seasonal touring have sold more than 5 million copies and dropped tens of millions of dollars in ticket sales into the band's stockings. A very metal Christmas to all.

Readers can contact Alison Fensterstock at gambit.sounds@gmail.com.

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra turns on its holiday lights.
  • The Trans-Siberian Orchestra turns on its holiday lights.

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