Trans-Siberian Orchestra,
Christmas Eve & Other Stories
(Atlantic, 1996)

Christmas songs on the radio each year range from the old chestnuts from Bing Crosby and Robert Goulet to modern fruitcakes such as "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer." But one tune which made it into the regular rotation a few years ago and has held firm ever since is the excellent (but awkwardly titled) "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Beginning with a soft statement of the "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman" theme, "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" is quickly transformed into a rock anthem based around "Carol of the Bells." Originally written for the stage production Dead Winter Dead, this tune is a riveting bit of instrumentation, bringing a symphony base together with screaming guitars and festive energy which won't quit.

Well, that single finally inspired me to buy the whole album. While it didn't leap to the top of my list of holiday favorites, I've quite enjoyed it.

Christmas Eve & Other Stories is a sort of rock opera, mixing new versions of old traditionals with some original work by orchestra leader Paul O'Neill. And if you don't mind your Christmas carols mixing electric guitars and keyboards with the jingle bells and children's choirs, this one is certainly worth a few spins. There's even a bit of a storyline to the album, based on an angel coming down to Earth one Christmas to measure humankind's worth.

"The Silent Nutcracker" is a gentle instrumental on acoustic guitar. It's followed by "A Mad Russian's Christmas," which combines Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" theme with original work from O'Neill and keyboardist Jon Oliva. The tune uses piano, synths and electric guitar to create a lively new twist on the theme. There's a delicate rendition of "O Holy Night" and a classical guitar interpretation of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," plus a modern take on "O Holy Night" combined with "O Come All Ye Faithful." A rockin' version of "Good King Joy" flows smoothly from bits of "Joy to the World" into snippets of "Good King Wenceslas" and back again before leading into an original song about the Wise Men, which sounds like it was written with the stage in mind.

While few of the songs are destined to become radio favorites, they are still quite good as a whole. There are stories being told here, like the bartender inspired to do a bit of good for someone in need in "Old City Bar" and the person far away in "Ornament." Several adult vocalists as well as a children's choir handle the vocals, and O'Neill (who is the producer, composer, lyricist and guitarist) balances the two enough so neither becomes too much. "A Star to Follow" is an excellent example, beginning as a round chant of adult males and then leading into the children's choir, then bringing the men back to add complementary layers overtop the young voices.

But, so far as singles go, I'm content to have "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" giving us welcome relief from the usual dreck which passes for holiday fare on the radio.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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