Trans-Siberian Orchestra is either awesomely ridiculous or ridiculously awesome.
But regardless of your feelings toward the group’s bloated bravado, the hair metal underpinnings, the head-spinning spectacle that is presented with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, you can’t deny the TSO allure.
Even those who might have been dragged to Philips Arena Friday night for the Christmas show masquerading as a rock opera had to be impressed by the sheer magnitude of a TSO performance, clichéd as it might be.
And kudos to creator Paul O’Neill for upgrading his musical theater each year with more lights, more pyro and new songs, but retaining the uniqueness of TSO. The tour is in its 13th season, still romping through multiple shows in many markets, still wooing repeat customers and still capturing new fans through word of mouth (Philips was about three-fourths full). So apparently he’s doing something to appeal to the masses.
At Friday’s Marathon of Bombast, the crew of seven core musicians, a cast of backup singers who rotated through spotlight songs and a string section featuring musicians from various local symphonies, kicked off the 2 ½-hour performance with the new song “Who I Am.”
As longtime TSO fans know, “Christmas Eve & Other Stories” unfolds for the first half of the performance, with molasses-voiced narrator Bryan Hicks reminding the audience that “we are all pursuing magic.”
It’s a sappy-in-that-holiday-way story told in dramatic snippets between songs. But as longtime TSO fans also know, the main event at these shows is the stage.
This year’s creation is a stunner – a series of hydraulic pieces that twist and curl from the ceiling like a futuristic beast (which, actually, it became later in the show – a fire-breathing one at that!), festooned with video screens and enough lights to make downtown Las Vegas envious.
It’s the perfect backdrop for the TSO team, which includes Atlantan Erika Jerry as the gutsy vocalist on “Prince of Peace” and Savannah native Lucy Butler on keyboards, and the group clearly has a ball barreling through this sensory assault.
Frankly, the band is at its best when the histrionics are showcased – the flying-V guitars, the flailing of the Sebastian Bach hair, the skillful fretwork reminiscent of classic Van Halen and Steve Vai. And TSO is masterful at creating an atmosphere, evidenced in the sparse (appropriate for Atlanta) flakes that fell from the ceiling during the melodic instrumental “First Snow.”
For “Christmas in Sarajevo” – their masterpiece if you will – TSO pulled everything out of its bag of tricks….fog, lasers, fog-laden lasers, flickering video screens, apoplexy-inducing lights, spurts of pyro.
Yes, as a matter of fact, it can become exhausting to watch.
But TSO has its quiet side, too, best showcased on the centerpiece of the story, “Old City Bar.” Singer Ronny Munroe, clad purposely in shabby clothes and a knit cap, the stage backdrop a Lite-Brite cityscape flickering behind him, delivered the song with poignancy and appropriate drama.
While part one of the concert revolves around Christmas, goodwill and holiday warm-and-fuzzies, act two is a straight-up, head-banging, gloriously excessive display of operatic rock – which sometimes too closely resemble a Whitesnake video.
A stage ramp lowered from the rafters over the audience for the opening “Mozart and Memories,” allowing bassist David Z (possibly remembered from the cool 2008-9 series, “Z Rock”) and flamboyant violinist Roddy Chong to romp around.
But the highlight of the show arrived with “The Mountain,” an epic slice of candy-coated metal performed as the hydraulic lighting rigs above the stage dipped and rose in the shape of an animal’s jaws, complete with puffs of fire inside its “mouth.”
Kind of made the melodious “Christmas Canon Rock” and power ballad “Back to a Reason, Part II,” seem like normal rock songs by comparison.
But that’s what makes TSO such a generational success. Their tempo-shifting production is bound to please most musical preferences at some point. That said, always wear earplugs.