Did You Know Trans-Siberian Orchestra Used to Be a Damn Good Metal Group?
[Editor's Note: Fuck Guilty Pleasures celebrates the over-produced, commercial, artless, lowbrow music that we believe is genuinely worthwhile. Like, among the best music ever.]
Christmastime is brutal. Hearing stories about sacrificial babies. Making nice to family who ask why you wear so much black. Watching Jimmy Stewart contemplate suicide. That shit is hard core.
Most folks turn to carols to get them through this cold, dark time. Me, I turn to Savatage, the '80s-era metal band who got killed by Christmas. Well, Christmas didn't exactly kill them, but it did something worse: it turned them into the greedy, two-headed monster known as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a blasphemy against the gods of metal, an abominable spectacle of faux megachurch power rock with a full orchestra, dramatic recitations and enough laser lights to scorch your retinas. It exists as two separate entities, one of which travels the east side of the country and one of which travels the west, both spreading peace on earth, Christmas cheer, and botched histories of Beethoven. It's about as metal as "Jingle Bells".
On the other hand, Savatage, the four-piece (sometimes five-piece) band that birthed Trans-Siberian Orchestra, was completely metal. Founded in Florida in 1978 by brothers Criss and Jon Oliva, Savatage sidestepped most of the teased-out hair metal trends of the '80s. Instead, they composed elaborate concept albums with virtuosic musicianship and palpable passion.
Yes, in 1987 they created one of the worst metal videos of all time with "Hall of the Mountain King". But the song by itself was pretty epic. And sure, they freely admitted to having been influenced by Andrew Lloyd Webber on their 1989 album Gutter Ballet. But tracks like "Mentally Yours" and "Thorazine Shuffle" paved the way for Streets: A Rock Opera, their 1991 magnum opus and easily the band's strongest achievement. Its narrative depicted the streets-of-NYC demise and redemption of a character named DT Jesus. Gritty in theme and operatic in scope, Streets was metal in the best way.
Guitarist Criss died in a car accident in 1993, but Savatage survived long enough to record Dead Winter Dead in 1995, and that is the contemporary Christmas classic to which I deck the friggin' halls. Check out the cruel chorus from the title track: "I've lost my way...It all decays, it takes me down, down, down, like the minister said...dead winter dead." It's practically a precursor to death metal.
From there Savatage scored a surprise radio hit -- "Christmas Eve: Sarajevo 12/24", a metalized "Carol of the Bells." Sound familiar? That's because in 1996 the same recording appeared on the first album by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, formed by Savatage producer Paul O'Neill and vocalist Jon Oliva. Since that time, Trans-Siberian Orchestra has dominated radio airplay around Christmastime, while Savatage has been largely forgotten.
So, this holiday season, I would like to say: fuck you, Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Fuck you for making a commercial, profitable, family-friendly "event" out of a badass metal band. And fuck anyone who disses Savatage for the beast they've become, instead of praising the beauty they once were. Bah, humbug!
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.