In 1993, a man named Paul O’Neill got a call from Atlantic Records. At the time, O’Neill was pretty well known among New York music labels. He worked at a major management firm and he was producing a minorly successful metal group called Savatage (a combo of the words “avatar” and “savage”). But Savatage’s last album hadn’t done well, and the Atlantic exec had a proposal: O’Neill should start his own group. “I said I’d love to do it,” O’Neill said later in an interview with Arte Concert. But he had a condition. “I said I want to do a progressive metal band that does mostly rock operas...I want four guitar players, two drummers, four keyboardists, a full symphony in the studio, but not a symphony on the road...and 24 lead singers.” He had another ask. The rock operas would, for the most part, all be about Christmas.
Thursday night, about 15,000 people crowded into the Nassau County Veterans Memorial Coliseum, to hear the fruits of O’Neill’s phone call: the progressive metal holiday-rock-opera-machine, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, or TSO.
It’s been 25 years since O’Neill first pitched his project, and 20 since the group first started touring, but TSO has spent almost all of that time, bewilderingly, as one of the biggest breadwinners in the music industry. The Christmas melody maker has put out four holiday rock operas, three non-holiday rock operas, a Christmas EP, and a Christmas compilation, four of which have debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard 200, four of which have gone platinum (two of them more than once), and all of which, collectively, have sold over 12 million records, grossing some $700 million in revenue. Since 1999, the band has played to over 15 million people, and many of them come back for more—in 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that repeat customers comprise 50 percent of the audience.
Their pool of fans is evergreen, but it also appears to be growing. Last year alone, TSO played for more than one million people, making it their highest attended tour in 20 years and prompting a question with no obvious answer: why? How, in a world where progressive metal is far from mainstream, can a group whose most popular music gets played only two months per year max, turn out larger crowds than, say, Adele, Drake or Kendrick Lamar?
Thursday, the audience came out for almost three hours of unadulterated spectacle. The show –– sponsored by Hallmark for the sixth year in a row –– followed the storyline of TSO’s made-for-TV movie, The Ghosts of Christmas Eve. As clips from the movie played in the background, ensemble members moved between full-color lasers, pyrotechnics, falling snow, and crane-operated platforms straight out of Spinal Tap. High-production values, a cornerstone of the TSO ethos, dated back to O’Neill’s original call.
The group didn’t come together after that one conversation. It took the producer three years to form his rock opera mega-band. The galvanizing energy wouldn’t come until 1996, after Savatage released a rock opera of their own. One of the singles, “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24,”—the amped-up blend of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and “Carol of the Bells” now endemic to holiday commercials—far outperformed the album as a whole, garnering mainstream radio play and debuting at no. 65 on the Billboard Hot 100. When O’Neill added a few more musicians and re-released the song under the band name Trans-Siberian Orchestra, it got more airtime and returned to the Billboard charts again, where it would appear annually for over two decades.
The following year, at the request of a booker, the group toured seven American cities, playing for packed crowds at massive coliseums—making them one of few touring acts to start off in stadiums, rather than work their way there via back rooms, bars, and clubs. The next year, TSO booked so many gigs that O’Neill split the ensemble in half, sending one group to play the West Coast, while the other took the East. Two decades later, the East and West tours have 50 members each, who put on two shows per day for six weeks straight. They have, according to their manager, never canceled a show, electing instead to keep a crew of understudies on call in the event of an emergency.
In many ways, TSO is an oxymoronic juggernaut. The group emerged out of Savatage’s remains (former Savatage founder Jon Oliva once claimed the only difference was the name), which had built its brand producing death metal, power metal and other variants of the catch-all category “extreme metal.” Though fairly commercial by the 1990s, the band had played with the harsh vocals, rapid guitar riffs, and theatrical anger the genre was known for. They had toured with a range of other metal heavy-hitters, including Metallica, Judas Priest, and Megadeth, and like other bands in their vein, demonstrated a preoccupation with pagan (read: pre-Christian) and enthusiastically “evil” imagery. For a band whose hits had once included titles like “Beyond the Doors of the Dark,” “Holocaust,” and “Rage,” the transition to polished, feel-good, semi-Christian rock anthems, might seem like a 180-degree shift.
But TSO owes its origins as much to progressive rock as it does to power metal. O’Neill often cited Emerson, Lake and Palmer (one of the genre’s founding bands) as inspiration, and TSO member-turned-music director Al Pitrelli once played in Asia—a supergroup formed by musicians from EL&P, Yes, and King Crimson, three bands that collectively amount to a kind of role-call of early prog rock staples. When prog emerged in the late ’60s and early 1970’s, fans hailed it as the future of rock music (“progressing” the sound). The genre distinguished itself by way of unconventional instruments, ambitious concept albums, arcane philosophical underpinnings, and over-the-top, production-driven performances. Within the expansive, theatrical parameters of prog, TSO’s nine-hour Christmas rock-opera trilogy seems like somewhat less of an outlier.
TSO’s roots in prog might also speak, in part, to one latent cause of their ongoing commercial appeal. In an essay on prog rock, New Yorker writer Kelefa Sanneh noted that the genre’s rise, which came primarily out of British parochial schools, mapped onto rising racial tensions in rock music. Early prog players oriented their sound around “European”—rather than “American,” or more pointedly, black—signifiers. In an interview, Lee Jackson, a member of proto-prog band Nice (which later fed into Emerson, Lake and Palmer), claims that the “basic policy of the group is that we’re a European group...We’re not American Negroes, so we can’t really improvise and feel the way they can.”
In that same vein, prog rock heavily incorporated elements of classical music rooted in the Western canon, and often littered its fantastical narratives with northern European cultural references. Though interested in the same kind of virtuosic musicianship as much of rock music, prog, Sanneh noted, emphasized composed solos over improvisation (a gesture indicating, in the view of some, a subtly racist effort to eschew the influence of jazz). When prog eventually crossed the Atlantic and found an audience among predominantly white, suburban listeners, writer Edward Macan theorized that the music afforded its fans “a kind of surrogate ethnic identity for its young white audience,” tapping into middle- and working-class white anxiety in the wake of the civil rights era.
Evidence of similar trends can certainly be found in the music of TSO, where flashy solos are also celebrated (on more than one occasion during the show, soloists descend from the ceiling on laser-lit platforms), but rehearsed down to every riff, and where the emphasis on Christian themes is derailed only for a few secular albums. (One of those operas, Beethoven’s Last, paints Beethoven as the “first heavy metal rocker”; another, Night Castle, includes appearances from historical figures like Renaissance-era philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam).
It’s also possible to see TSO’s unrelenting success in a simple analogy to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker (in truth, the Thursday show, which followed a young runaway’s dream-like journey to discover the meaning of Christmas, borrowed heavily from the perennial ballet). Like TSO, the Nutcracker was an unwitting success; critics panned the play when it first premiered in 1890’s Saint Petersburg. It remained a relatively obscure work until the 1960’s, when a single, extremely expensive production elevated the quaintly cheesy two-act ballet to a national holiday staple. (“If I do anything, said George Balanchine, the choreographer behind the revival, “it will be full-length and expensive”). Decades later, local productions of the Nutcracker are as synonymous with the holiday season as gingerbread, eggnog, or, among increasingly large audiences, progressive metal rock operas.
Near the end of Sanneh’s article, he suggests that the primary flaw of prog rock lay in its self-image, as something progressive, rather than circular. “Of course, prog rock was not the future—at least, not more than anything else was,” Sanneh wrote. “Nowadays, it seems clear that rock history is not linear but cyclical. There is no grand evolution, just an endless process of rediscovery and reappraisal.” That, in a sense, might have been the secret to TSO and the Nutcracker’s stubborn, surprising, and unremitting success. Christmastime might not last long, but it always comes back around.