Review Summary: Paul O'Neill once again showcases his mastery as not only a composer, but a storyteller. The instrumentation and vocals are all magnificent, and while these songs could show up on any other TSO release, the music is nevertheless captivating.In this room where shadows live
And ghosts that failed learn time forgives
Welcome, friends, please stay awhile
Our story starts with one small child
Who spends this night in an attic dark
Where dreams are stored like sleeping hearts...
Thus begins the tale of Trans-Siberian Orchestra's The Christmas Attic
, on the back of the album, above the tracklisting. This passage, too, begins this album - with the soothing vocals of what's to be assumed a choir of angels - and the tale being read by a male voice to the accompaniment of soft, brooding piano.
The magic of holiday music, especially when it's arranged by Paul O'Neill of Savatage fame and performed by Trans-Siberian Orchestra, is that's captivating and makes you feel a number of emotions. Feelings of nostalgia and the past, predictions of the future, and thoughts of the present encompass the spirit of the Christmas holiday in the music. While the album opens as if the listener is ready to be told a story similar to The Night Before Christmas
, the next track shocks you awake with a crunching instrumental that's heavy on distortion and heavier on technical beauty. The lead guitar parts throughout the album are spectacular, which is to be expected from an outfit of TSO's caliber.
Introspection, a time where one can sit and reflect on his or her life in solitude, is a vital step to improving emotional health. This album is therapy for the holidays, assisting anyone who needs music to sit and reflect on his or her life, not unlike what the Virgin Mary did after Gabriel told her that she would bear a son, and she would call him Jesus. Of course, the listener should beware of the thunderous sections of this album, along with the soothing elements.
What this album does do is tell that Christmas story. This is achieved in three distinct ways: first and foremost, through the various vocal offerings in the album; second, through the triumphant, bombastic sections of the album; and finally, through the slower, softer passages.
The most animated, heavier portions of this album, such as in Boughs of Holly
, are technically proficient and brilliant. The mixing of traditional Christmas tracks, such as "'Tis the Season" and "Joy to the World," into tracks blessed with the trademark O'Neill touch, is solid. O'Neill does not hesitate to include any and all instruments into his music, especially in terms of strings and percussion. While violin bows furiously and figuratively dance in your head, the crystal-clear ring of church bells and glockenspiels add a significant added layer to the album. Even brass sections, such as in The World That She Sees
, showcase the embouchures of fantastic trumpeters. However, O'Neill's obvious Savatage origins come to a head throughout the album most of all, especially in terms of guitar. The electric guitar is arguably the most dominant instrument throughout the entire TSO discography, and it's certainly the case here, whether it's palm-muted such as in March of the Kings - Hark the Herald Angel
or with heavily-distorted lead parts, such as in Appalachian Snowfall
The softer sections of this album also tell a substantial aspect of the story. The most accessible Trans-Siberian Orchestra song, Christmas Canon
, is found on this album, featuring a remarkable children's chorus. The softer sections of this album, without a doubt, invoke feelings of somber self-reflection or remembrance, from the somber piano to the beautiful orchestral passages to the voices of the children's chorus. The way O'Neill works with the children, layering the different vocal sections, and producing an end result that is absolutely mesmerizing only scratches the surface of O'Neill's brilliance. Working with children is not an easy task, but O'Neill makes these children sound absolutely stunning, making this track an absolute highlight to the album. Another terrific track is the parody The Three Kings and I (What Really Happened)
, which details how baby Jesus avoided the execution of Herod in The Bible
, is an incredibly funky, groovy, bass guitar and piano-heavy track with a predominantly male vocal with a female chorus in support - the syncopation throughout this track is impeccable. The ending brings a smile to one's face as well.
The album best shines when the elements of heavy and soft are combined. This is best exemplified in The World That He Sees
, which is the second half of a two-part song featuring a man and a woman sharing their views on the world. A male vocal and piano opens the track, giving way to a rocking crescendo and a deep, bassy vocal: "And he dreamed of another world, in another time, and another place, where no man has to wear a sign saying where he's from, saying what's his race, and he wants us to believe this world that he sees."
The different vocalists, both male and female, are wonderful for the most part, although there are a couple weaker performances that drag the album, especially when they are soloing or performing with only one or two instruments, and not the full orchestra. There are some superb lead vocal performances, though, such as the female vocals in An Angel's Share
. Nevertheless, it's not the sung vocals that make this album wonderful to listen to during the holidays.
Rather, the most ingenious aspect of this Christmas album is how the story of the little girl and the Christmas attic is told: through the readings. On stage, after the instrumental songs, the male reader shares the story of that girl in the attic. Starting with her sneaking up to the attic, O'Neill shows the innocence of children in the holiday season. He continues to build his protagonist as innocent, curious, and loving, especially with her interaction with the music box and wondering if the candle she has lit could be seen by another as a star. This curiosity and obvious antithesis of egocentrism not only accurately depicts a child, it's done in such a true, unrivaled manner, which makes this album excellent. O'Neill's terrific implementation of symbols in his story, such as the music box (heard in The Music Box
and Music Box Blues
) and the candle, is absolutely stunning.
The one glaring problem with this album is that it sounds like the music is a carbon copy of TSO's 1996 release, Christmas Eve and Other Stories
. That album was one-of-a-kind, shocking the progressive world with instrumental and vocal brilliance while confining itself to the Christmas season. On this album, it seems like O'Neill and TSO are trying to emulate the previous album, and not attempting to do anything beyond it. Oftentimes, it can sound like a song from this album could go on the 1996 release, or vice versa. Some arrangements are weak, especially in the vocal department, as a result. However, despite these criticisms, it is impossible to overlook the instrumental beauty and brilliance, the children's chorus, and marveling at the mastermind that is Paul O'Neill: not only as an arranger, but as a storyteller.
... and the most magical thing
About this night we will now reiterate
That no matter where you are in life
It never is too late
The World That He Sees
Find Our Way Home
The Three Kings and I (What Really Happened)