TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA – Letters From The Labyrinth

Letters From The LabyrinthI love Trans-Siberian Orchestra! For me, it was love at first sight (listen) with them. Of course, it was through Savatage I got acquainted with them as in the beginning, TSO were Savatage with another name and a whole bunch of lead singers instead of one. Musically, the difference between the two wasn’t huge, but where Savatage were more metal, TSO operated more in the vein of operatic and musical arrangements, but the foundation, core and style are things that both projects have had in common. The first album I ever heard with TSO was their debut, Christmas Eve And Other Stories (1996) and it completely had me by hello – it is still a huge favorite record of mine and I’d give it 10/10 without any hesitation. In my home, this record is a must every year at the Christmas holidays and I play that album to death during that time of year – I get goosebumps every time I hear “An Angel Came Down”. Its follow-up Christmas Attic (1998) is almost as good and another 10/10 – in later years I have been playing that record as well during the holidays to keep things a bit more varied. I don’t know if it is the Christmas theme that has gotten TSO a huge touring act in the U.S. or if it is the combination of their grandiose music and their exceptional stage show – google the band and watch the live pics and tell me you’re not impressed – but the fact is, this is a big thing over there. Where Savatage were an obscure band touring clubs, TSO are a million dollar industry – it’s weird how things turn out, right? So, out of the ashes of Savatage, lead singer Jon Oliva and co-producer / song writer Paul O’Neill took things a bit further and created Trans-Siberian Orchestra with themselves, bass player Johnny Lee Middleton, drummer Jeff Plate, guitarists Al Pitrelli (Alice Cooper, Asia, Widowmaker, Savatage, Megadeth) and Chris Caffery – all of whom has been involved since the start. Joel Hoekstra (Night Ranger, Whitesnake) guests on this album as well – after all he has been part of the TSO touring band for a while.The lead vocals position isn’t a steady one and to this day, no less than 74 vocalists has been involved in the project. Add to the fact that there are a whole bunch of keyboard players, electric violinists and narrators involved, you can easily guess that TSO aren’t a cheap thing to bring out on the road – or in the studio either, for that matter. The new album is TSO’s first since Night Castle in 2009, an album I was a little disappointed in when it came out and it is also their first album that isn’t a rock opera per se. TSO has always been making rock operas§, mostly with a Christmas theme, but also one about Ludwig Van Beethoven , Beethoven’s Last Night (2000) and this one do sounds like a rock opera, but this time it isn’t one. The songs aren’t connected as one story, they’re separated lyrically and handles different topics.

Opener “Time And Distance (The Dash)” is an instrumental piece, very much TSO sounding, but there are also bits and pieces in the song that reminds me of Therion. It’s more opera sounding than musical sounding and it is a killer tune. “Madness Of Men” is an instrumental too, based on melodies by Ludwig Van Beethoven. The Beethoven connection is probably the thing that makes the song sound like something off Christmas Eve And Other Stories. Again, great stuff. “Prometheus” is also based on Beethoven and starts out as an instrumental, but the vocals – by Jeff Scott Soto, comes in later on. It’s a great song with a big Savatage feel – big, pompous, but not that long. I guess this one will be in their live set in the future. After that, we get a trilogy of instrumentals –  “Mountain Labyrinth” is a grandiose, but catchy and memorable, yet heavy and bombastic, “King Rurik” is very dramatic, a bit darker with a big melody, “Prince Igor” is a continuation of “King Rurik” but somehow it passes me by unnoticed. I dunno, maybe they’re too alike and feels like the same tune all over again. It’s not bad, but the whole thing feels a bit lazy. It’s nice that most of the instrumentals moves me, I have a tendency to lose interest if there are too many of them on an album. “The Night Conceives”, however, is a real toughie. It’s the hardest song on the record and the vocals of 23-year old Kayla Reeves are nothing short of amazing – what a set of pipes! The whole foundation of the song reminds me of Savatage, albeit with a chunk of Led Zeppelin thrown in, but the chorus is pretty plain – in a good way – hard rock and even sounds like the melodic rock that was huge in 1991. The mix of those melodies, plus the heaviness of Savatage and the stylish and significant TSO arrangement makes it a stand-out track. “Forget About The Blame (Sun Version)” is a power ballad. Sure, it’s done the TSO way – which makes it not sound like Warrant or Danger Danger – but still a power ballad – and more power to them for doing one. This one is a killer and the vocals by one Robin Borneman (never heard of him before, sorry…) are just stunning. “Not Dead Yet” is a brilliant Savatage Dead Winter Dead (1995) – actually THE album that laid ground for TSO in the first place – era, but has also the recognizable TSO arrangements. Also, the Led Zep influence is back for the ride here. Symphony X singer Russell Allen has a voice that fits this kind of music like a glove. The thing is, I really could see Allen singing in Savatage if they would reunite and Jon Oliva couldn’t do it. “Past Tomorrow” is a stripped and naked ballad, only with Jennifer Cella’s amazing vocals and a piano – a very emotional piece. “Stay” – a remake of a Savatage song that appeared as a U.S. bonus track (and on the re-issue) on their 1998 album The Wake Of Magellan – follows and the tune is, just like its predecessor, stripped and naked with only vocals and acoustic guitar. Actress and Broadway singer Adrienne Warren’s emotional and raw vocals sends shivers down my spine – man, I love her voice. Love it! They bring back Kayla Reeves for the dramatic ballad “Not The Same”, another piano and vocals only ballad. The arrangements and melodies sounds very much like the usual TSO musical stuff. It’s a great song and Reeves’ vocals are stunning here as well. “What I Am” is a dramatic rock musical song, very much in the vein of later Savatage and TSO’s Christmas albums. It has no lead vocals per se, only a choir chanting the few lyrics – great move. “Lullaby Night” is another instrumental – the title kinda gives that away – that has a nice melody, but it’s really just a bagatelle – like an intermission. As the last song – and, apparently, a bonus track, we get “Forget About The Blame (Moon Version)”, this time with Lzzy Hale (Halestorm) on lead vocals instead of Borneman’s  and I must say, she bettered it. I mean, the sun version is awesome, but Hale’s vocal skills are incredible and on this track, she just might have done her best vocal performance to date. Maybe the best performance on the whole record – wow!

As a whole, I think this album is really awesome, but there are a few things I need to address here. First, 15 tracks might be a lot on most records, but on a TSO album, 15 songs aren’t a lot, it’s a few. We have been spoiled with big, epic theme work from Messrs O’Neill and Oliva, but only 15 separate songs that aren’t connected, no theme and no story, isn’t what TSOis all about in my book and to be frank, it feels both a bit lazy and cheap – I just can’t figure out why they wouldn’t wanna make their usual overblown (in a good way) musical / opera stuff. I mean, it was six years since Night Castle came out. Second, all this bringing in famous rock voices for different tunes, isn’t TSO for me either. That’s the stuff we get from projects like Ayreon and Avantasia and even from Tom Galley’s Phenomena. I mean no disrespect to those projects, but they use a lot of the famous names to sell their projects (I need to say that I find both Ayreon and Avantasia awesome) and that wasn’t the way TSO started out. I want the TSO that did the Christmas and Beethoven albums back. Also, there are too many instrumentals here – seven songs out of fifteen!! But! There are no bad songs on here. Almost every song is actually a killer and I love to listen to this record. The way this album has been constructed will probably be under discussion in some TSO camps, but never mind the album’s negative sides, this IS a great album, the songs are magnificent, the production leaves nothing at all to be desired and the performances of everyone involved are amazing. I really can’t see any reason at all to not buy this album.

8/10

Tracklist:

1. Time & Distance (The Dash)
2. Madness Of Men
3. Prometheus
4. Mountain Labyrinth
5. King Rurik
6. Prince Igor
7. The Night Conceives
8. Forget About The Blame (Sun Version)
9. Not Dead Yet
10. Past Tomorrow
11. Stay
12. Not The Same
13. Who I Am
14. Lullaby Night
15. Forget About The Blame (Moon Version)

Advertisements