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Now, classical music combining with metal isn't a bad thing. It can actually produce some satisfactory results. Trans Siberian Orchestra, despite the legions of people that actually hate them, have actually produced some excellent stuff, crafting albums centered around Christmas and making them a staple for every holiday season (if only they could get past that godawful "Sleigh Ride" song!). They've released the album, "Night Castle" in 2009 which doesn't seem to revolve around their theme of Christmas or Beethoven. It suffers one major drawback; it's cheesy to the point of being so pretentious, it actually gives the haters a point for their arguments.
Don't get me wrong, every album by TSO is going to have at least some amount of pretentious cheese on it, but "Night Castle" really takes the cake, a cake that nobody should ever take a piece of. For one thing, there's "Childhood Dreams". A soft Broadway-like song that tries way to hard to appeal to both the metal crowd and the classical music crowd. It ultimately fails, since after the second chorus, there's the singer, a relatively unknown dude named Jay Pierce, sings the word "childhood" repeatedly faster and faster to make it sound like an operatic number. Apart from that, the guy's got a good voice, but when trying to come up with a more operatic song, repeating the word "childhood" doesn't really do much. It just makes it sound a little overdone. The lyrics are so silly, that when combined with the operatic melodies, you'd think they came straight out of a Disney movie (believe me, I'm just waiting for somebody to belt out the "Let it Go" song!). "Father, Son and Holy Ghost", for example contains this unintentionally hilarious verse; "and Christ and Confucius, all their words useless, we quote them in fractions, but not in our actions". Such lyrics would be perfect in a thrash metal song about religious corruption, but not in a song from TSO.
Then there are songs that sound completely out of place of a TSO album. "Another Way You Can Die" is a song about modern warfare in the jungles of an undisclosed nation (Vietnam, perhaps?). The march-like tempo and the aggressive guitars, not to mention the lack of an orchestra, sound more appropriate as a Sabaton song more than anything else. The vocal delivery would totally sound like something Joakim Broden would sing, too. Come to think of it, I think it's a Sabaton song that somehow sneaked its way onto a TSO album. Yes, we get the bridge with a somewhat operatic melody in both the guitars and the vocals, but that doesn't change the fact that it's totally not something you'd expect to come from TSO. I mentioned before that we lack an orchestra, and the only thing close to that is the piano. If the band is called Trans-Siberian Orchestra, you'd have to expect an actual orchestra in there, right? At least Electric Light Orchestra had real orchestral instruments in it, but TSO advertising itself with that name and having only a piano doesn't really do much. If you're gonna put a song out like that, you might as well just call yourselves "Trans-Siberian Sabaton Wannabe Tribute Band".
Come to think of it, throughout the album, we only get pianos and string instruments, like violins, to make up the "orchestra". Normally, a professional orchestra would consist of more than just strings, and would have more brass instruments, like trumpets, but we don't get those here. Instead, we get keyboards imitating the sounds of said brass instruments. One of the very worst examples of this is the song "The Lion's Roar", the intro of which is basically ripped off from the Scottish folk song, "Minstrel Boy". Speaking of the intro, the keyboards are clearly trying to emulate the sound of a trumpet solemnly playing that song, but I'm really not convinced in the slightest. We also get "Bach Lullaby", which is even stupider, since it's the keyboards emulating a child's music box that is obviously playing a Bach piece. Look, we get it, you love classical music. How many times do you have to hammer it in?! TSO isn't just ripping off older songs, they're also re-branding them as something completely different and adding guitars. Not only does that make them cheesy, but also quite horrendous. It's like what would happen if DragonForce took the melody from the "Star Wars" theme and put it into a song about fighting zombies. Nice try guys, you're not fooling us.
I have finally found a two-disc album bad enough to compete with the abomination that is the collaboration of Metallica and Lou Reed. "Night Castle" is just two discs of cheese so moldy, it's totally inedible. Should you scarf that putrid hunk of cheddar down, however, you're going to need a trip to the emergency room just to clean that sucker out before you get completely sick. Despite containing such talents as Jeff Scott Soto, Jon Oliva, Chris Caffery, and, get this, Alex Skolnick of Testament fame, "Night Castle" still doesn't seem to be a castle worth exploring. The only thing that would make this album even worse would be if Jon Oliva would try a lousy Alice Cooper impression with a glockenspiel like on Avantasia's "Death is Just a Feeling", which he sang in. It's really that bad, people. Don't waste your time or your money.
Now I know there have got to be a passel of metalheads out there who HATE Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and probably hated their predecessor Savatage, too. Me, I have to admit to having a fond spot in my heart for TSO's glorious cheesiness. But this album may cross the line just a bit. Two discs of classical quotations, goofy lyrics, and almost Disney-esque style can cause even a fan of TSO to suffer a little musical sugar shock.
Just in case you hadn't figured out that Paul O'Neill likes classical music, Night Castle starts right out with an English language slightly metalized version of the "Dies Irae" from Verdi's Requiem. Now, I've sung the Verdi Requiem several times, and the actual experience of doing it with an orchestra is considerably more exciting than TSO's somewhat tepid rendition. For one thing, it's simply too heavy on the synths. They probably could have hired a real orchestra to beef up the sound, but they chose the easy way out, and replaced most of the orchestra parts with keyboards. Weak.
To skip to the second disc for a second, I do enjoy hearing TSO do their own take on Orff''s Carmina Burana. I've also sung that piece several times (doing it again this weekend), and I had long wondered when TSO would tackle that one. It's way more successful than their weak Verdi track. Carmina lends itself to guitars quite well, and the chorus on the track sounds pretty huge for what I'm sure is a dozen or so singers, at most.
Back on disc one, the title track "Night Castle" is a pretty typical opera-style number, and to be honest, this is the type of thing TSO does really well. There's a nice balance between the chugging rhythms of the guitars, the keyboard orchestral figures, and the somewhat rough musical theatre sound of the vocals. Yes , it's cornball in the extreme, but most TSO fans are going to have a ball with it.
The track "Mozart and Memories" is a typical example of O'Neill's fascination with the classical composers, but listening to it, I think it's got a lot more to do with Jim Steinman (of Bat out of Hell fame) than it has to do with Mozart. In fact, if I were Steinman, I may be having a chat with my lawyers about the piano intro to this song. It's extremely "reminiscent," let's say of a couple of Steinman's Air Supply tunes. We do get a little actual Mozart music towards the middle (one of his symphonies). Once again, too heavy on the keyboards, but the guitars and drums do come in eventually to rescue the piece from being a waste of time.
I'm not going to go into all the other tracks--chances are, if you like TSO, you'll like most of what's on this album. The biggest problems with Night Castle are: (1) it repeats almost exactly the same style and content of their earlier albums and (2) there's just too much music. From what I understand, the same is true of most of TSO's stage shows. Even fans can be overwhelmed by the length of their shows, half of which consist of their Christmas music, and other half of which is everything else they like to play with. I think Trans-Siberian Orchestra is better in slightly smaller doses.