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Headbanger's Holiday

A Christmas behemoth's underground metal roots.

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Each year, as the holiday season gears up shortly before Thanksgiving, the shift plays out on television: The basic cable spectrum seems like a marathon of A Christmas Story, old Peanuts next to awkwardly updated installments, lots of scary claymation that should have been retired years ago, and a battery of commercials advertising this season's visit from Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Admittedly, the first time these advertisements caught my attention it took the form of a the-world-is-losing-its-mind moment as I processed the hair windmills, the snippets of Christmas carols getting a thrash/power-metal treatment, the apparent army of metal guitarists, and the utter bombast of the whole affair. This was at least five years ago. My initial cynicism pegged it as a sort of XFL of heavy metal — a final resting place for guys who long ago retired their thrash- or power-metal meal tickets.

But on further inspection, I discovered that the core of Trans-Siberian Orchestra is essentially the living members of the legendary Savatage, an underrecognized Floridian power/thrash-metal band responsible for three albums that stand up to anything by better-known '80s contemporaries Metallica, Iron Maiden, or King Diamond. But despite never reaching the crossover heights of those bands, Savatage commands a deserved degree of respect among underground metal's fans and musicians.

Classic rock industry vet Paul O'Neil began working with Savatage in the producer/co-songwriter capacity for 1987's Hall of the Mountain King. This album was a return to creativity over commercial compromise while still initiating a road to relative mainstream success with two videos that got high rotation on MTV's Headbanger's Ball and increased live draws. Savatage became a more or less card-carrying member of the "progressive metal" genre. Sadly, tragedy temporarily derailed Savatage when guitarist Chris Olivia was killed by a drunk driver in 1993.

It also derailed the then nameless but finished recording that had resulted from Atlantic Records awarding O'Neil with his own contract in 1993, for which he had enlisted the members of Savatage along with a number of other symphonic musicians. But they delivered a finished album to Atlantic. When the label needed a name for this band, O'Neil came up with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

The Christmas concept was first planned for only three albums, featuring stand-alone themes. Trans-Siberian Orchestra stuck to this plan, wrapping up a trilogy of Christmas albums with 2004's The Lost Christmas Eve — actually, their fourth album after deviating from the theme for the Beethoven's Last Night album in 2000. Album number five (Night Castle) arrived in 2009, and a sixth was officially announced just over a year ago and previewed through a free download exclusive to fans who purchased tickets for this holiday season of touring.

The decision to keep Christmas the theme of only three albums might seem like a flirtation with commercial suicide considering the success of their 1993 debut, Christmas Eve and Other Stories: It had sold approximately 3.2 million copies before the start of this year's holiday season, has since shipped another million to retailers, and is the ninth most popular Christmas album of the last two decades. But 2009's Night Castle entered the Billboard charts at #5 and was certified gold two weeks later. Those needing a proper example of "commercial suicide" within the realm of metal, look no further than the recently released Lou Reed/Metallica head-scratcher.

But the live show is what Trans-Siberian Orchestra became best known for. Music journalists have not been kind to the idea of wall-to-wall pyrotechnics, several-hours running time, and general aesthetic of symphonic prog-metal. They've routinely poked fun at an essentially honest venture that knows exactly what it is and gives millions of people a positive intermission of entertainment during the roughest time of the year.

Oddly, considering their touring success, Trans-Siberian Orchestra spent the first six years of its existence as a studio-only band before testing the live waters with a handful of dates in 1999. A resounding success, the production featured two touring groups for the 2000 season, drastically improving coverage with a TSO East and TSO West. The group then sheds a few of its touring members and fuses back into one studio incarnation for the remainder of the year. Like the vast majority of moves made by O'Neil behind his bombastic brainchild, this process was a home run. The live aspect of TSO is an $8 million production that has been enjoyed by 7 million people in more than 80 cities (translating to more than $300 million in ticket sales) in just over 10 years. On the proper-album/studio-entity front, Trans-Siberian Orchestra will easily reach the 10-million-units-sold mark in no time.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra
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