The War on Christmas continues: TSO assails senses, good taste

by Ryan Snyder

Suggestively-clad nubiles. Huge, self-indulgent guitar solos. Flame throwers. If these things combined don’t engender the Christmas spirit, well, then just wait until you see the sweet strobe lights. With all the subtlety of a studded-leather S&M suit, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra steamrolled into the Greensboro Coliseum last Wednesday to serve as a reminder that the traditional holiday entertainment values of A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story would be better conveyed if they starred someone from Savatage. After 13 years of constant innovation to their show, the truth is, however, that a TSO extravaganza has become just as much a part of your holiday programming as any of those classic broadcasts.

Among the praise overheard in the crowd before the 18-piece heavy metal orchestra took the stage was that they are (plausibly) a feast for the eyes and ears, a virtuosic display of artistry and even a near-religious experience. There are arguments to be made for and against the first two points, while the latter is simply an overstatement of the worst kind. It is a fun seasonal diversion capable of eliciting plenty of “ooohs” and “ahhhs” thanks to the masterful synchronization of its impossibly extravagant visual display and collection of expert performers. Despite its enormous and obvious superficial appeal, however, the show itself possesses all the artistic depth of Vietnamese orphans waving colored paper in front of your face while picking your pocket.

The band’s eastern touring company played an afternoon and an evening show last Wednesday, as they’ve done with nearly every city on their current stint, each split into two distinct sets. There’s apparently a holiday-themed narrative persisting throughout the first set, though the details of which are nearly impossible to ascertain by those unfamiliar with their album Christmas Eve and Other Stories. Lost among the blinding visual psychedelia and ostentatious prog-rock posturing is a rather derivative and convoluted, if well-meaning story-within-a-story of angels sent to earth to find the best representations of the Christmas spirit. Part of the problem lies in narrator Jay Pierce’s lopsided articulation, as his attempts to overdramatize the cadence of his speech is detrimental to the audience’s understanding of the story and Steve Broderick’s marble-mouthed portrayal of the homeless drunk in the story further added to the confusion. The rest of the issue is that the exposition is muddled in between extended blitzkriegs of light and sound, enabling a good deal of cue-dependent forgetting to occur and leaving the viewer with little more than the show’s ample artifice to entertain.

The band itself is clearly comprised of musicians ranging from well-seasoned pros to prodigy-level performers, though the tight constraints of the TSO format don’t allow for the kind of unhinged shredding of which many are capable. Drummer John Reilly did give a rather uninspired solo during the second set on a kit that made Terry Bozzio look like the Little Drummer Boy, while James Lewis’ operatic metal tenor most resembled Jack Black’s overstated wails. Problem is, Black is being ironic when he does it. The castings of backup vocalists also lent pause, as the four young women in that role were almost too beautiful, giving the same aura of sleaziness that the Solid Gold Dancers did to Bill Murray’s production of “A Christmas Carol” in Scrooged.

Guitarists Alex Skolnick and Chris Caffery have both shown themselves to be capable of prolific acrobatics when given the opportunity, but the limited amount of rope they were given seemed to only allow for brief bouts of frettapping and abbreviated arpeggio.

The guitar heroes surprisingly restricted involvement didn’t deter some of the more obtuse fans in the rear from entrenching themselves in the aisles up front to hold up enormous signs in praise or shoot photos and videos of the duo, much to the chagrin of everyone around them. It’s generally poor form for one to go out of their way to obstruct the view of others, but obviously YouTube authorship requires an innate disregard of other’s space. The occasional tackiness wasn’t limited to the crowd, however, as band introductions by Caffery gave hearty intros to the regulars, though the local orchestral players involved were simply glossed over as a unit.

The holiday theme was abandoned in the second half, as the band’s new album Night Castle took the fore. The visual spectacle was ramped up even further to match the flamboyant nature of the subject matter, often to a level where it was so garish that it detracted from the viewing experience. The wall of flames that blanketed the stage during their version of the tired Carl Orff piece “O Fortuna” was the height of tackiness, particularly after the pseudo-religious themes permeating the first set.

Was the show entertaining? Very much so for a time before it became apparent that the creative values of the music itself had imposed a very low ceiling in that regard. The best light shows never seek to obstruct the music and should certainly never inflict harm on the viewer, but it became apparent through TSO’s overdependence on the pretty lights that very little lies underneath.

String master Anna Phoebe is lifted above the audience during a Trans-Siberian Orchestra performance. (photo by Ryan Snyder)