If thoughts of Santa with his sleigh zooming around the world in one night get your heart racing, stand back when the Trans-Siberian Orchestra rolls through. In an extravaganza of lights, lasers, and pyrotechnics, where fist-pumping rock 'n' roll and stinging heavy metal collides with an orchestral string section head-on, TSO crushes any notion of silent night.
"It's not a heavy metal concert," TSO co-founder Al Pitrelli clarifies. "There are elements of that in it, but it is a non-genre-specific musical event. There's choral music, symphonic, blues, jazz, classical. It's basically nailing everything we all grew up with and rolling it into this one behemoth called the Trans-Siberian Orchestra."
That behemoth is loaded with crunchy guitars and lightning fills, tinkling keyboards, and a propulsive string section that drives the sleigh but doesn't mute the bells. A vocal choir adds plenty of heavenly lift, though the male lead singer's powerful shouts and billowing vocals add a sense of forceful determination that classic holiday songs shouldn't be limited to frosty porches or firesides but rather should remain fully open to interpretation and imagination.
"The thing about TSO is the believability factor," Pitrelli says. "There is no formula, [but] if we didn't do something that seemed natural, it would reek to high heaven."
The brilliance comes from TSO co-founder Paul O'Neill's innate sense to take classical and traditional themes and infuse them with countless riffs and musical platitudes while putting a very clever twist on things familiar.
"The familiarity lets people recognize things, but then there are some original themes written around that one familiar piece," Pitrelli says. "Then [we put] our own stamp on it."
Trans-Siberian Orchestra formed quite by accident in 1996 when O'Neill invited Pitrelli to play guitar on Savatage's Dead Winter Dead album. When Pitrelli heard O'Neill's initial composition of what is now TSO's signature hit, "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)," it was like he was offered an early Christmas present.
"As soon as I heard it I thought, 'I get exactly what you mean.' The power of that story, I immediately got it," Pitrelli recalls. "Then Paul suggested we write a record around this track. Without even thinking I said, 'Count me in,' because it's the record I've always wanted to make. The other half of me was like why not? No one's going to buy it, but we'll have a hell of a time making it."
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Quite possibly. In 1996, grunge was in full swing and boy bands and pop divas still topped the charts. The idea of merging holiday songs with orchestra and hard rock was pretty far-fetched. But clearly, the concept has worked well enough that TSO has sold over 10 million albums and now operates as two bands touring the country at once to keep up with the demand.
"Everyone thought we were out of our minds . . . For a heavy metal/symphonic record to do anything, it was a one in a million shot," Pitrelli says. "[But] we knew that if we were given the opportunity to do what we wanted to do, we wouldn't let it slip through our hands."
Now, for many, catching a TSO concert is a holiday tradition on par with baking cookies or caroling around the neighborhood.
"This is a Frank Capra-esque kind of story that embraces everything good about the holidays," Pitrelli adds. "What we're doing is not so much about Christmas, but the holiday season. [It's an] appreciation of the people around you and refocusing on things in your life. That's more what this is about."