Four calling birds. Three French hens. Two turtledoves. And a metalhead playing a Gibson Flying V.
It’s not the most traditional telling of the last third of the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” but after 10 million albums sold, more than $280 million in ticket sales and the most bombastic, pyrotechnic-infused holiday touring extravaganza ever, Paul O’Neill and his hard-charging Trans-Siberian Orchestra could easily oust the pear tree’s partridge in terms of seasonal prominence.
Yes, it reads like an odd pairing. Festival lights and Fender licks. Santa Claus and carolers aside swirling percussion. The birth of Jesus Christ retold – on “The Three Kings And I (What Really Happened)” – by dudes whose careers have been molded by a steady diet of Black Sabbath and Scorpions. It all seems like a sketch dreamed up by the cast of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” but ask anyone headed to one of the progressive rock collective’s two shows on Dec. 30 inside First Niagara Center and they’ll not only extol the laser-accented virtues of TSO’s rock-opera spectacle; they’ll readily trade you two birds for an extra pair of tickets.
Ask the band’s architect and composer O’Neill and he’ll express a similar head-scratching disbelief. It’s not that he didn’t think his original idea of having a progressive rock band that would push the boundaries of the genre further than any group before would work. He just never thought they would be the type of act that could draw millions of fans – to one show.
“It’s a little bit mind-boggling. I never could have imagined it would’ve gone on and gotten this big,” said O’Neill during a teleconference earlier this fall. “This year’s just been particularly magical, just because we kicked it off (on) New Year’s Day in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate. They said it was between 900,000 and a million, and right before we hit the stage, a German stage manager came over and goes, ‘Paul, I think we just crossed 2 million.’ ”
O’Neill’s original concept for the band wasn’t one that pushed the boundaries of Christmas. It was one steered by his love of the operatic performance elements utilized by bands like the Who and Queen, and also the orgiastic light shows employed by Pink Floyd.
However, when the band’s debut album (a rock opera titled “Romanov”) was temporarily shelved, it made way for its first release to instead be “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” the first of its epic Christmas trilogy (with “The Lost Christmas Eve” and “The Christmas Attic”), and featuring the thumping electric shred of “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo.” The album went on to be certified double platinum. From there, the band joined candy canes and Bing Crosby as holiday staples, and became the preferred soundtrack for holiday light shows.
“When you go to Disneyworld or MGM, all the lights are all going off to Trans-Siberian Orchestra music,” said O’Neill. “I think we’re No. 1 for fireworks displays, and a friend of mine just got back from Disneyland Hong Kong, and he said he was in this part of the park, and all (the lights were) going off to ‘Night Castle.’ It’s just weird. Again, I never would’ve predicted it.”
And there’s probably a few fans who, after waiting for years, never thought they would see O’Neill and Company roll out arrangements from “The Christmas Attic,” the only part of the aforementioned trilogy that’s never been performed live. That ends this year, as the thunderous stomp of “The March Of The Kings/Hark The Herald Angels” and angelic symphony of radio regular “Christmas Canon” will finally make their way to the Buffalo stage, both woven into the original narrative vision O’Neill conceived when the band started over 16 years ago.
“It’s about a kid who goes into an attic where people have been throwing things for decades, if not centuries, and anyone who has been in an old house with an attic knows it’s filled with all kinds of treasures,” said O’Neill. “She discovers a trunk where she reads all these letters from the past, distant glimpses of how the holidays affected people decades and centuries ago, and a glimpse into the future. Of all the rock operas I’ve written, it’s probably the lightest.”
But how light can a rock opera be when it’s employing guitarists like Al Pitrelli and Joel Hofstra, whose resumes include work with Alice Cooper, Whitesnake and Megadeath? How tame can a performance be when it teams a deluge of snare hits with industrial smoke machines, and how sedate can a holiday show be when it involves two stages, pyrotechnic projection screens and enough high-octane lasers to make Roger Waters jealous?
Maybe that’s just a humble assessment from a composer and producer used to leaving crowds nothing less than thunderstruck. But regardless of the weight of this year’s tour, it’s another highly anticipated spectacle from the season’s most prominent heavy metal-leaning holiday collective – and plans to be the same inspirational brand of hot-licked, happy fun Trans-Siberian Orchestra shows have become for music fans of all ages.
“In all our rock operas, people run into problems in life,” said O’Neill. “But at the end, there is that happy ending, so if we do our job right, when you leave that arena, you won’t think you’re going to beat any of the problems you bump into in life; you’ll know it.”
Uncovering the treasures in ‘The Christmas Attic’
Unfamiliar with “The Christmas Attic”? Here are five songs to look out for during TSO’s long-awaited performance of its Christmas trilogy classic:
“The Ghosts of Christmas”
The album’s opener sets up the show’s narrative of a child’s discoveries in the darkness of an attic on Christmas Eve. It’s a gentle entry song, but simply a setup for the triumphant instrumental thunder of …
“Boughs of Holly”
Hypnotic guitar solos, rising synths and metal ballad-esque drumming under this traditional Christmas classic? It happens, as will the air guitar work from overzealous fans surrounding your First Niagara Center seat.
The child carolers at the song’s open are a departure from TSO’s signature hail of Gibson strings, and the composition’s hymnal qualities will ring familiar to anyone who has listened to a Christmas-themed radio station since 1998.
This instrumental showcase would be better served by the name “Appalachian Avalanche,” as a light tinkling of intro keys opens up to a steady free-fall of guitars, strings and percussion over a four-minute span.
“Christmas in the Air”
Once again, TSO draws the listener in with a soft, piano-led Christmas tune before launching into a Fender-spun symphony, one that sounds like a holiday version of Styx’s “Come Sail Away” – albeit with references to God and children’s gifts replacing Dennis DeYoung’s angels and virgin sea.