They’ve shifted over 10 million albums and played to over 12 million people worldwide since their 1996 debut album Christmas Eve And Other Stories. No doubt about it – Trans-Siberian Orchestra are a certified rock phenomena.
Marrying populist classical music to the strains of 80s hair metal and 90s power metal has been a winning recipe; throw in underpinning concepts/narratives and an OTT live spectacle, and you’ve got a franchise success that creators Paul O’Neill, and Savatage’s Jon Oliva and Al Pitrelli couldn’t possibly have imagined in their wildest dreams.
Where previous albums have almost exclusively been built around consistent (if sometimes convoluted) conceptual “stories”, Letters From The Labyrinth is a collection of tracks that are related only to a tenuous “dialogue between the wisdom of the past and the hopes for the future”. The first six of 15 tracks are mostly instrumental, classical and bombastic. If you like a bit of heavied-up Beethoven, Mussorgsky or Borodin you’ll enjoy The Madness Of Men or Prince Igor. Of the big ensemble numbers here, opener Time And Distance (The Dash) and relatively concise Who I Am are the most immediate and typical TSO staples, delivered by a big rock band, orchestra and a multi-voice choir.
Despite TSO’s USP, the minimal tracks here are the most arresting.
The remainder of the album covers a variety of rock styles. The touted single from the album, Forget About The Blame is the sort of over-wrought power ballad that the Scorpions would have rejected for being too country rock. Symphony X’s Russell Allen pops up on Not Dead Yet doing a slightly bizarre rock rap/Captain Beefheart turn over a backing strangely reminiscent of Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion.
Despite the band’s USP being, mainly, unashamedly joyful pomposity with a dizzyingly large cast of musicians and vocalists, the most arresting tracks here are those that feature a lone singer and minimal instrumentation, specifically the three consecutive tracks Past Tomorrow with the fragile haunting tones of Jennifer Cella, Adrienne Warren’s breathy, slightly creepy Stay performance, and robustly sensual lament Not The Same, with Kayla Reeves (who also fronts mid-tempo rocker The Night Conceives) whose voice is a suitably rambunctious amalgam of Doro Pesch and Bonnie Tyler
Taken as a whole though, Letters seems just a little tired and directionless. While it has some real moments, and will doubtless be enlivened by TSO’s touring son et lumière, it isn’t The Christmas Attic or even Night Castle. The band’s formula probably still has legs and an exciting future but here, classical composers aside, their compositions and (brilliantly performed) arrangements do sound rather last century.