As holiday guitar rock juggernaut Trans-Siberian Orchestra prepares to begin their two-month blitz of America for their “Ghosts of Christmas Eve” holiday tour, the band has sweetened the pot a bit with the release of their sixth studio album “Letters from the Labyrinth.” The album will come free as a digital download with every ticket purchased to the 2015 tour or is available for purchase at all major outlets on Nov. 13th if Trans-Siberian Orchestra isn’t coming to your town. Surprisingly, given the album’s release date, “Letters from the Labyrinth” isn’t another collection of rocked up Christmas songs but the third non-holiday album in the band’s collection.
But like the mythical Greek structure it is named for, there are more twists and turns in “Letters from the Labyrinth” than just the fact that it isn’t a Christmas album. It is also the first Trans-Siberian Orchestra album not to contain a fully formed story arc. While the album does have a framework concept connected to their last non-holiday album, 2009’s “Night Castle”, the story of a dialogue between a child and an old friend of his grandfather is loose enough to let Trans-Siberian Orchestra explore numerous subjects on “Letters from the Labyrinth” without having to figure out a way to force feed it into the narrative.
Anyone who has seen Trans-Siberian Orchestra in concert knows this is a very good thing. While their holiday shows are sold on the narrated theatrical story arc, the true magic of Trans-Siberian Orchestra comes in their show’s second half, when the band gets to cut loose and jam. The looser formatting of “Letters from the Labyrinth” gives the album the same feel as those freeform second half concerts.
In all other ways, “Letters from the Labyrinth” is everything a Trans-Siberian Orchestra fan loves about the band. As always, primary lyricist Paul O’Neill retains his title of rock opera’s most bombastic composer. Every subject on “Letters from the Labyrinth”, from weighty subjects like the fall of the Berlin Wall on “Prometheus” and world banking controversies on “Not Dead Yet” to more personal subjects like bullying, on album standout track “Not the Same”, O’Neill attacks with a Wagnerian fury.
Instrumentally, O’Neill’s boom is well matched by long time collaborator Jon Oliva and musical director Al Pitrelli, as well as touring keyboardist Vitalij Kuprij, who gets a co-writing credit on the instrumental track “King Rurick.” As two of the forces behind progressive rockers Savatage, Oliva and Pitrelli know a thing or two about going big and the band’s stated goals of letting the songs’ stories “emerge from combined journeys” should pay off as everything on “Letters from the Labyrinth” begs for its time on a huge stage full of lights and pyrotechnics.
Vocally, “Letters from the Labyrinth” sticks mostly to Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s tradition of substance over style, preferring virtually unknown session musicians, musical theater performers, and journeyman rock vocalists over flashy attention grabbing names. Former Talisman and Yngwie Malmsteen vocalist Jeff Scott Soto has been bringing down the house at Trans-Siberian Orchestra concerts for years and he nails “Prometheus”. Symphony X and Adrenaline Mob vocalist Russell Allen also shines on “Not Dead Yet.” But it is another long-time Trans-Siberian Orchestra vocalist, Jennifer Cella, who delivers the strongest vocals on the album on “Past Tomorrow.” Even here, though, “Letters from the Labyrinth” contains one more twist in its narrative in a rare star turn by Halestorm vocalist Lzzy Hale on the album closer “Forget About the Blame.”
For people who never got into Trans-Siberian Orchestra over the nearly two decades they’ve been delivering their unique style, nothing on “Letters from the Labyrinth” is going to change their minds. But for the fans lining up in the cold for Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Ghosts of Christmas Eve” tour, it is likely to be a happy early Christmas gift.