Twenty-five years ago, they released an album with the most rocking holiday tunes ever.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra rocks Capital One Arena for an anniversary tour on Dec. 23.
“Little did we know at that time our lives would be forever changed,” Drummer Jeff Plate told WTOP. “Paul O’Neill’s vision, his words, his music, his story, everything just came together in that first CD and here we are 25 years later still celebrating it.”
Before TSO, O’Neill joined the band Savatage with Jon and Criss Oliva in 1986.
“Paul’s lyrics, vision and ability to wrap a concept around their records really set them apart and gave them an identity,” Plate said. “If you look back at the Savatage records in the late ’80s and ’90s … you can hear the hints of TSO. Paul was taking a heavy metal band into something more melodic, more orchestration, more theater and emotion.”
Plate joined Savatage in 1994 after Criss died in a car accident and Jon stepped down.
“The first studio record I did with Savatage was called ‘Dead Winter Dead,’ a concept by Paul about the war going on in Yugoslavia at the end,” Plate said. “He had this idea of inserting this instrumental Christmas song in this album. This was a true story, there was a man in Belgrade who would sit in the middle of all this rubble and played the cello.”
It became the smash hit “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24,” which opens with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on cello before erupting into a guitar-shredding “Carol of the Bells.”
“When that song was first released, it just took off in a completely different direction,” Plate said. “It became this hit song across all the radio formats all across the country. It was something different from Savatage, but it was something that gave Paul the opportunity to create this band that he’d been dreaming of, which was the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.”
Formed in 1996, TSO dropped its first platinum album “Christmas Eve and Other Stories.”
“We will play the first CD in its entirety,” Plate said. “‘An Angel Came Down,’ ‘An Angel Returned,’ ‘O Holy Night,’ ‘A Mad Russian’s Christmas,’ ‘First Snow,’ ‘Ornament,’ ‘Old City Bar,’ ‘This Christmas Day,’ ‘Prince of Peace,’ the whole thing in its entirety is just magic.”
Of course, its biggest hit was a revived version of “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24.”
“Everybody has done Christmas songs over the years … but when this song came out with this beautiful intro, you’ve got the guitar, you’ve got the cello, then all of a sudden, bam, the guitar and the drums hit you and it’s like, ‘Wow, where’d that come from?’ All of a sudden, this whole clique of people finally found it, and it took the airwaves by storm.”
They followed up with the double-platinum album “The Christmas Attic” (1998), including “Christmas Canon,” featuring a riff on Johann Pachelbel’s classical “Canon in D Major.”
“It’s beautiful,” Plate said. “The vocal arrangement is fantastic. It’s another one of those traditional holiday songs that kind of just puts you at peace. It’s a really cool melody that just sort of rolls along … you compare that to ‘Christmas Eve/Sarajevo,’ it’s two different things, but it covered that variety of emotion, music and sound that Paul wanted to cover.”
From there, it was off to the races with a live touring phenomenon.
“We ventured into non-holiday with ‘Beethoven’s Last Night’ and built from there, but not until we started touring in 1999 did Trans-Siberian Orchestra really began to build and start growing its audience that is still growing today,” Plate said. “We went from playing theaters in 1999 to within five years playing arenas to soon after that playing arenas twice a day.”
Indeed, TSO will play two shows in D.C. on Dec. 23 at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.
“We play close to a million people a year in these tours, we’ve sold millions of records, it’s just unbelievable what we’ve been able to do, but this all started with Paul’s vision,” Plate said. “Paul’s vision was something none of us quite understood at first, but once the whole thing really came together, we all got the big picture. It was like, ‘Hang on, here we go.'”
In 2017, O’Neill was found dead in his hotel room in Tampa, Florida, while bassist David Z was killed in a tractor-trailer accident that same year. Today, TSO continues their legacy.
“David Z was such a great guy, a great performer, a fan favorite, honestly one of the best musicians I’ve ever worked with, taken too young,” Plate said. “When you’re in a family, this is the stuff you go through. You lose people and go through tragedy. Paul for years said, ‘TSO will outlive us all. TSO will be passed on from generation to generation.'”
Now, it’s become an annual holiday tradition for families around the world.
“This became part of their Christmas together,” Plate said. “There’s a lot of people that this is what they do with their family at Christmas. Instead of the usual, ‘Let’s get together and watch football,’ or something like that, it’s, ‘Let’s get the family and go see TSO … this was by design … this is for everybody. We’ve got kids, grandparents, all walks of life.”