Shifting Focus

44212-letters-from-the-labyrinthTrans-Siberian Orchestra is one of the most unique and interesting bands out there, blending rock and classical styles into one big, grand ball of awesomeness.  Typically, their albums take the form of rock operas, with the songs as a companion to a story told in the liner notes.  Fans familiar with their Christmas Trilogy (Christmas Eve and Other Stories, The Christmas Attic, and The Lost Christmas Eve) will remember that style well.  Their previous album, Night Castle, got away from the Christmas theme but was a rock opera.  For Letters from the Labyrinth, TSO largely abandoned this format, instead featuring several standalone stories that go with songs or groups of songs.

I largely like this approach, as it keeps the album from being unwieldy and requiring lots of reading in order to understand the story behind it, as I felt that was one of the weaknesses of Night Castle.   The stories also have profound themes for the most part, like “Time & Distance (the Dash),” which talks about how the importance of someone’s life lies not in the beginning or ending dates written on their headstone, but rather what one does in “the dash” between the years.  I’m actually glad the story was included in the liner notes, because the song’s somewhat ambiguous lyrics (a TSO trademark) don’t make that message immediately clear.  For “King Rurik,” the album includes a comic whose main character is the namesake former king of Kievan Rus (which would become Russia).  His spirit leaves his grave to find a world controlled by hate and fear, which he helps drive away.  That message seems all too relevant these days, with things like the Orlando shootings and Donald Trump’s racist comments being front and center in our national zeitgeist.

King Rurik cutting the strings of Hate, personified as a manipulative puppeteer.
King Rurik cutting the strings of Hate, personified as a manipulative puppeteer (click to enlarge).

While Letters is similar to TSO’s past albums in that way, there are several ways in which it diverges.  For instance, there aren’t as many adaptations of classical pieces on this album, and the ones that are there aren’t very well-known.  The only one I recognized right away was “Mountain Labyrinth,” which adapts “Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky.  The main reason for that is because the youth orchestra that I played in during high school performed that piece; I doubt casual classical fans would know it well.  Some other songs on the album incorporate the styles of Borodin, Beethoven, Bach, and Rimsky-Korsakoff, but it’s not always immediately apparent.

This deemphasizing of classical adaptations is also echoed in the album’s musical style, which features more straight-ahead rock songs that have little or no orchestral elements, such as “The Night Conceives” and “Stay.”  The standout among these is “Forget About the Blame,” which seems the most out of place on a TSO album.  This could be because the song was written 20 years ago by someone not directly involved with the band.  “Forget About the Blame” has no orchestral elements, doesn’t discuss grand & universal topics, and has straightforward lyrics.  Despite this, it’s probably the best-executed song on the album.  TSO doubles down by including two versions of it, one with a male vocalist (Robin Borneman) and one with a female vocalist (Lzzy Hale, whom you may remember from Lindsey Stirling’s latest album… oh yeah, and she has a band of her own).  They performed the song with a male vocalist at the show I saw last December, and I liked that better than the studio version.

All in all, I probably liked this album a little more than Night Castle, but there are some elements in that album that I wish were just a little more present in this one.  That said, I like that TSO was willing to push the boundaries of their established style, and I think they do so successfully.  If you’re a TSO fan, I think you’ll enjoy it if you listen to it with an open mind and don’t come in with preconceived notions of how their albums should sound.  It’s also probably their most accessible album to mainstream fans that may have thought their previous albums were too esoteric or were bothered by the symphonic metal motif.  I’ll give it a borrow it rating, as I feel it’s just short of the highest rating, but still worth a listen.

Track picks:

“Forget About the Blame” (Moon Version, ft. Lzzy Hale)

“Mountain Labyrinth”

“Not Dead Yet”

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