Sound — 7
Here in the USA, we are in the midst of our holiday season. For most people that means hot chocolate, ice skating, lit up houses, and a bunch of holiday traditions. For many musicians though, Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) has become a tradition. Each holiday season, they go on tour with two show troupes and awe audiences with their music, a riveting mix of rock and classical. Some would argue that their stage show, which features the best light show in the world, is the real attraction.
Under the direction of producer/composer Paul O'Neill, Trans-Siberian Orchestra has released five albums of semi-original music since 1996. Most of the albums have achieved multi-platinum status in the United States. "Letters From the Labyrinth" is the band's first album not to follow the traditional rock opera format. Instead it is a collection of random songs, like most albums. Eight of the album's fourteen songs are fully original (not based off Bach, Beethoven, etc.) and five of them are instrumentals. The last song is actually a repeat of a previous song on the album. However, whereas the first version of the song is sung by a male vocalist, the second one is done by a special female vocalist, Lzzy Hale, who is the lead vocalist for the hard rock band Halestorm.
My first impression of the album is that it stays consistent with TSO's other work. There are two guitars, one on each side, that play the same thing. The bass blends in with the songs at all times, never taking time to deviate and make a name for itself. The drums fill the space that they need to, but I don't think anyone would say that the drumming is a highlight of the album. The piano and strings trade center stage with the guitars when it is appropriate, usually during the more classical songs. For example, the piano seems to be the more important on "Prometheus," a song that borrows heavily from Beethoven, while the guitars are far more prominent on "The Night Conceives," a more traditional rock song. "The Night Conceives" is also unique in that it has a guitar solo, something I had hoped this album would have more of.
So if this album is typical TSO fare, then that begs the question what is typical TSO fare and why is it so popular?
To start with, TSO actually fits one genre perfectly: classical (not classic) rock. The band directly combines classical and rock with little room in between. Despite their use of guitar techniques common in metal like tapping, pinch harmonics, and whammy dive bombs, the actual music rarely if ever strays from classical or rock. This has made their music more amenable to a mainstream audience because rock is already mainstream and the classical works they choose are popular enough that most people know them already anyway. TSO excels at using rock to make classical compositions more accessible to people not raised with it. Yet for people who are fans of classical music, TSO's deviations are small enough that the feel of the original work is still very much intact.
A second mainstay of TSO's work is precise musicianship. Whereas some musicians have become famous due to a unique playing style not found in textbooks, TSO's hired professionals follow the textbook exactly. It always feels with TSO like there is a composer writing music meant for others, that the musicians themselves are disconnected from the writing process. The downside to this approach is that the playing can sometimes sound cold, but on the other hand it is precise and well thought out. This stylistic motif fits the idea of classical music while at the same time it attracts mainstream listeners in how the parts all sound as they would expect to.
Lyrics — 8
Oddly enough, the vocalists embody this idea the most. While the vocals are not necessarily operatic in style, they are written like opera vocals in that they can be done the same by anyone with the same vocal range. As with TSO's past albums, "Letters From the Labyrinth" is littered with lead vocalists; no two songs have the same one. And of course, this is all in addition to songs like "Time & Distance" that are mostly choir-like harmonies. The singers all seem to put just the right amount of emotion into their voices to fit their songs. Yet as a TSO fan, there is this feeling that the singers are hired professionals, just like the musicians, so the emotion can't really be sincere. Of course, this isn't an indictment of their actual singing. It is as close to perfect as you can get. Something just seems wrong about that (and I'm not talking about auto-tune).
I was pretty impressed with the lyrics from this album. There weren't any groundbreaking revelations about life, or anything like that. But the diversity of song topics was impressive. There was a song about history, one about the glory of nighttime, the typical relationship ballad song, a Christian song, one about discovering your identity, and more. It seemed like the lyrics were most interesting on the less common topics; there's only so many ways to write a break up/make up song. Interestingly enough, there were not any Christmas songs.
Below are lyrical examples from "Prometheus" and "The Night Conceives":
"Einstein, Edison, Tesla, Eddington
Prometheus was the one that first showed us
How far minds could see
Nothing has to be, if we wish it"
"The sun goes down, the light it leaves
The mind can't imagine what the night conceives...
She's the chambered round in the magazine
She's the first one out but the exit's clean
When she first walks by you feel drained and bled
With those Arctic eyes, as she looked at me and said"
Overall Impression — 7
It's nice to see TSO releasing a new album. Given their formula, it would be hard for them to mess up and they certainly didn't disappoint with this album. Oftentimes, one looks for growth from a band: something new in the songwriting or performance. TSO is one of those bands that aren't really expected to do that because what they've got going is pretty great. As always, I recommend checking out TSO's live tour if they come to your area. They run two shows per day; if you get tickets to the afternoon show, it's usually empty enough that you can get up to the front regardless of where your ticket is.
The album itself is pretty good. Nothing special, but if you're a fan of TSO I definitely recommend checking it out. It's not the masterpiece that was "The Lost Christmas Eve" but it is certainly a good mix of old and new songs that will get you through the holiday season.