After the instrumental “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” from Savatage’s rock opera “Dead Winter Dead” was received surprisingly well by radio across the country during the holidays following its 1995 release, Savatage was approached to release a Christmas album. But instead, Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO), the creation of Paul O’Neill, Jon Oliva, and Bob Kinkel was formed.
“With Trans-Siberian Orchestra, we write the songs and then we find the best people to perform it and to do the vocals…It is so much freedom musically to be able to do that and I love it. It is going to be hard for me to go back to anything else,” O’Neill explained. He also said that it was a great advantage to build upon holiday classics, because there is “something magical about them,” however, he admits that it was very intimidating to match these melodies with new music.
Their first album, entitled “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” was released on Atlantic in 1996, and their second album “The Christmas Attic” was released in 1998. O’Neill said that each of these albums has an underlying theme, and though the stories behind the albums are about believing and faith, they try not to “get too preachy about it because preachy is boring.”
The first album shows how Christmas has a universal effect on everybody around the world. “Everyone tends to give the other guy a break, everyone tends to go a little bit out of their way to help their neighbor on that day of the year in particular,” said O’Neill.
This theme continues as “The Christmas Attic” illustrates how the effect of Christmas can go back and forth through time…”it a very powerful idea,” said O’Neill.
For those of you not familiar with Paul O’Neill, he has been writing/producing Savatage albums for more than a decade. He became familiar with the music industry at Krebs Communications Corporation, one of the biggest rock management companies in the world. He said working for Krebs “was like being paid at a musical university,” and explained that David Krebs had suggested that instead of promoting shows, he should be writing. Though his work with Savatage and TSO doesn’t leave him much free time, he has written and sold the Broadway musical “Romanov.”
On Tour for the Holidays
Right before Christmas, TSO took on their first tour. They played seven shows in five cities, and sold out three shows in Cleveland alone. Due to time limitation and start up costs, they were not able to bring an orchestra or a children’s choir on the road with them. But they did bring a well-respected violinist, Mark Wood, who traveled with the band and rehearsed local orchestras prior to each performance.
On the road, Savatage members Chris Caffery (guitar), John Middleton (bass), Al Pitrelli (guitar), and Jeff Plate (drums) were also joined by actor Tony Gaynor as the narrator, and several lead and background vocalists, including Guy LeMonnier, Tommy Farese, Katrina Chester, Rosie Lanziero, John Margolis, and Daryl Pediford.
In addition, co-producer/arranger and long-time Savatage keyboardist, Bob Kinkel, and John Margolis shared the keyboard duties, and Paul O’Neill came out from behind the scenes to play acoustic guitar as Katrina Chester sang the emotional “Music Box” from “The Christmas Attic” album.
Due to the overwhelming response to their recent tour and Christmas special on the Fox Family Channel, they will definitely be on the road again next year, trying to fit as many shows as they can between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is even possible that they many be on the road sooner, in support of their upcoming release “Beethoven’s Last Night.”
From Christmas to Classical
Their next album, which is scheduled to be released at the end of February, is their first departure from Christmas music. According to TSO/Savatage guitarist Chris Caffery, the band’s confidence has enabled them to take things a step further with this album.
The story of “Beethoven’s Last Night” is set in Vienna in 1827 on the night that Beethoven dies. O’Neill explained that on this night, Beethoven, who is surrounded by ghosts and spirits of his past, becomes horrified when visited by Mephistopheles. And when the Devil makes him an offer to exchange his music for his soul, Beethoven is torn between the two choices even though he fears eternal damnation…
O’Neill says that there are lots of twists and turns and that “it has an ending that no one is going to expect.” Caffery says there will be “a lot more intense instrumentals on this” next album, and according to O’Neill, Savatage vocalist Zak Stevens, who has only contributed background vocals to the previous TSO releases, will have a vocal solo on the album. O’Neill said “he has a great voice…his schedule freed up and we grabbed him.”
What’s Next for Savatage?
Between TSO and Savatage, they have pretty much been working constantly, putting out two albums a year. Caffery explained that” Savatage is a huge priority. But, we can’t move Christmas.” He expects that Savatage will be playing at some festivals in Europe late this spring, since the band “exploded” in Europe after their 1998 release “The Wake of Magellan.” In fact, they may even be doing some dates with the re-united Iron Maiden.
We can also expect a US tour in 2000, since the next Savatage album “Poets and Madmen” will be released this summer (possibly in June) on the Nuclear Blast label in the United States. According to Caffery, the new Savatage material is “way more old Savatage.” He describes the songs that they have already written for “Poets and Madmen” as a cross between “Chance” and “Beyond the Doors of the Dark.” And he said that we can expect to hear an intense album with a lot of signature guitar riffs, a lot of orchestrated instrumentals, and even some vocal duets between Zak Stevens and Jon Oliva.
Their reasoning behind the label change was mainly due to Nuclear Blast’s eagerness to promote the band. With both Savatage and TSO competing for attention from Atlantic, Caffery said that the band decided to “get the right kind of attention for Savatage right now from a different label.” When they met with Nuclear Blast, O’Neill said that there was a room full of people that knew every word to every Savatage song that was ever written, and according to Caffery, they have really prioritized Savatage on the label. “We are like their #1 signing.”
O’Neill explained that Savatage has been very pleased with Atlantic’s support, and that they have agreed to let TSO release an additional album on the label to fulfill Savatage’s commitment. He said, “They financed all of these albums and they are not cheap albums…They have done a great job with us, but sometimes it is time to leave the nest. “In reality, we haven’t really left them because TSO is still there,” he continued.
Caffery summed things up by saying “We are very, very excited for the next Savatage record to come out and I think that between “Beethoven” and “Poets and Madmen” that they guys in Savatage are going to finally get some of the respect that we deserve….We are just looking forward to what the future is going to bring.”