by Alan Sculley and Mike Corrigan

When it comes to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, one gets the feeling that to the group's founder, Paul O'Neill, nothing is worth doing if it can't be done on a grand scale.

When it came time to release the third TSO holiday album, The Lost Christmas Eve, O'Neill wasn't satisfied with typical packaging. He and his collaborators created a 50-page booklet, complete with the story behind the album in prose, poems that set up every song, the actual song lyrics and illustrations by Greg Hildebrandt, who worked on the Lord of the Rings movies.

"When we first did it, Atlantic [Records] kept trying to put it into the jewel box and it kept cracking the jewel box," O'Neill says, noting that special packaging was required to accommodate the booklet.

Musically, the project has all the bombast and sweep of the most ambitious of progressive rock groups -- although the Trans-Siberian Orchestra also employs a full orchestra and choir on some songs.

For The Lost Christmas Eve, O'Neill brought in 100 musicians to bring his visions for the songs to life, including four separate choirs, a string band and multiple guitarists, bassists, drummers and keyboardists.

"One of the rules of Trans-Siberian Orchestra as a band is that we were going to break all the rules of being a band," O'Neill says. "We would do to anything to make the music have more emotional impact."

At least for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, it seems that nothing succeeds like excess.

This year's Christmas tour includes more than 70 dates, with two separate editions of the orchestra crisscrossing the country to do the shows -- one led by keyboardist/musical director Robert Kinkel, and the other by Al Pitrelli, who is perhaps best known as a guitarist for the art metal band Savatage and later on Megadeth. The tour is expected to draw between 600,000 and 700,000 fans. It hits the Spokane Arena on Monday. Naturally, the stage production is bigger than ever.

"Every year we try to push it," O'Neill says. "First of all, we take all the profits from the year before and we pour them into the next year's show. So every year the show becomes larger and larger. This year we added two tractor-trailers of lights, special effects and pyro."

That big rock production is a major element of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra sound makes sense given the background of its principal songwriters -- O'Neill, Kinkel and Jon Oliva.

Oliva is the lead singer of Savatage, and he met O'Neill when the composer/producer was brought in to produce and serve as a songwriting collaborator on that band's 1987 album, Hall of the Mountain King. Kinkel also participated on that album, playing keyboards and doing orchestrations.

O'Neill founded the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in 1996 around the idea of combining a rock band and symphony to perform, for the most part, rock operas. The cast of musicians of singers would change to suit the needs of each composition. O'Neill recruited Kinkel and Oliva to serve as his songwriting collaborators for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

O'Neill found a niche by centering the rock operas around Christmas themes. The first Trans-Siberian Orchestra release was Christmas Eve and Other Stories in 1996, and that was followed by The Christmas Attic two years later. Both CDs have gone platinum with sales topping one million.

O'Neill, Kinkel and Oliva stepped away from the holiday theme in 2003 to release Beethoven's Last Night, a rock opera based around the dramatic events that framed the late composer's final days.

The Lost Christmas Eve, which shipped 500,000 copies upon its release, completes the trilogy of TSO holiday discs.

The story behind The Lost Christmas Eve is -- no surprise here -- an epic tale of loss and redemption centering around a greedy businessman who had given up a newborn child years ago, and how a chance meeting with a mysterious little girl forced him to remember his lost child anew and rediscover the kindness he had abandoned along with his son.

The scope of the story is meant to complement the sheer mass of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the full-bodied -- critics might say overblown -- nature of the music.

"Trans-Siberian Orchestra is the closest combination of a full orchestra and a full rock band and a full chorus/choir and multiple lead singers," says O'Neill. "We tended to need stories that are larger than life."

It's worth noting that the success of Trans-Siberian Orchestra flies in the face of conventional rock music marketing theories. For most acts, the goal is to have a strong, recognizable band member -- usually the singer -- who gives fans a human connection to the music and an identity with which to market the act. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra, on the other hand, is a faceless entity. Press materials for The Lost Christmas Eve make no mention even of the primary vocalists on the album (there are eight of them). The success of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, O'Neill says, illustrates the power of music over image.

"We decided the bottom line thing would be to make great music. Instead of being personality-driven, it would be musically driven, and music just has an ability to cross every divide, be it generational or nations."

The epic stories used by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, combined with the poetry, lyrics and music, are meant to create an experience that affects listeners on the deepest of emotional levels.

"When we start out, we try to elicit an emotional response in the listener," says O'Neill, "and then when it comes to emotion, some emotions are easier to trigger than others. It's like the easiest one is anger. Sympathy, compassion, laughter, those are hard things to trigger, but they also resonate deeper. Hopefully the lyrics are so cogent that they hook into the brain, but the melody, if it's done right and the gods are good and the stars line up, will slip into the soul."

Burns Like Christmas -- Are you already anticipating the inevitable holiday burnout that comes from spending just one too many hours with surly family members at Christmas time? Looking to avoid the souring of your Yuletide cheer like so many quarts of rapidly curdling eggnog? Well then have we got an escape plan for you. Or rather, Burns Like Hellfire does. This fine local rock band is thoughtfully providing Spokane live music lovers with a most excellent out this Christmas (Saturday) night -- a show, in fact, at the B-Side featuring none other than Burns Like Hellfire, the Dee Farmin Army and Gorilla & amp; Rabbit. So before the mood wherever you celebrate turns from joyous to uncomfortably awkward, climb into your evacuation pod, hit the "jettison" button and set a course for the B-Side Xmas show. The holidays never rocked so hard -- or so weird.

Headliner Burns Like Hellfire serves up a potent sonic tonic that's two parts punk, one part country roots and just a splash of metal. What was initially a great band featuring some of the most devoted players on the local indie rock scene (guitarist Brian Young, bassist Bill Barrington and drummer Cameron Norton) became a full magnitude stronger awhile back with the addition of Makers guitarist Jamie Nebel (a.k.a. Jamie Maker, a.k.a. Jamie Frost) on lead. The band is currently in top form and gearing up for the January release of its new album, One for the Losers, a 13-track project recorded here in town at Black Coffee studios.

Also on the bill are the revamped Dee Farmin Army (with a sterling new drummer) and the always disturbing Gorilla & amp; Rabbit, who are back in town after a highly successful 10-city tour of children's hospitals and rehab clinics. (I still see them in my nightmares.)

So pull yourself out of that comfy chair this Saturday night, split with the kin and get down to where the wild things roam. And God bless us every one. -- Mike Corrigan

Publication date: 12/23/04

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