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"Labyrinth" presents a new path for Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Since he launched Trans-Siberian Orchestra 19 years ago, Paul O'Neill has been an unabashed and unapologetic purveyor of rock operas and concept albums.
"I like artistic works that tell a story, that you can immerse yourself in," the composer, producer and musician explains from his home in New York City.
O'Neill still feels that way. But it's a different kind of story for TSO's new album "Letters From the Labyrinth."
The collective's sixth full-length album is its first that's not a rock opera but rather a collection of individual songs -- a "normal" rock album, as O'Neill acknowledges. It comes at a time when TSO has a number of other conceptual and theatrical works in progress, but O'Neill says that taking this route seemed like the right thing to do at this juncture.
"It's a major change from the way TSO creates new works," he says. But O'Neill adds that "Letters," with its socio-political lyrics about the lessons of history ("Time & Distance"), bullying ("Not The Same"), world banking controversies ("Not Dead Yet") and the fall of the Berlin Wall has greater agenda than most conventional albums.
"Basically, 'Letters From the Labyrinth' is a hybrid," explains O'Neill, 59, who was a Broadway pit musician and worked with Savatage, Aerosmith and others before starting TSO. "In some ways it's a straightahead album, and in some ways it`s not. It's blatantly out of the box more music-driven as opposed to story- and music-driven. But the world is a mess right now, so 'Letters From the Labyrinth' examines some of the problems we're facing now. You can enjoy them as songs, but they're there to make you think."
"Letters" is also designed to be an "open-ended album," according to O'Neill. Each song will be accompanied by short stories posted gradually online to embellish and build on the themes they cover. "We're experimenting," O'Neill says. "The stories will emerge from their combined journeys. Like our own lives, the story will develop and evolve. We're not really sure what's going to happen tomorrow, let alone next year.
"And in this day and age, with the technology that's available to us, we can address those changes as they happen. The album can grow with the passage of time."
Another surprise on "Letters" is a guest appearance by Grammy Award-winning hard rocker Lzzy Hale, who duets with TSO vocalist Robin Borneman on a reprise of the song "Forget About the Blame." Hale is a big enough fan that she still has the jeans some of the TSO members autographed after she saw them at Hershey, Pa., when she was 17 years old, and she says joining the TSO universe is one of her career highlights.
"It was such a great experience," Hale says, " 'cause it wasn't just about me going into the studio to do a song, which I've done a million times before with a lot of different people. This was different. I walked in and we spent the entire day and really only spent maybe an hour on the song, but we spent the entire day working stuff out and jamming, and (O'Neill) was showing me some new songs and talking to me about future plans and we were talking about growing up in the music business. He was very interested in my backstory.
"What a kind, kind soul, y'know, one of those dudes that you never really forget."
O'Neill was just as stoked by the encounter. "I needed someone to bring out the female side of it, so we decided we would have two singers sing that song for a different perspective," O'Neill says. "Lzzy Hale has a great voice. She's a great rocker, a lot of emotion. Robin and Lzzy, in my opinion, knocked it out of the ballpark."
With "Letters" out and TSO on the road with its annual North American holiday tour, O'Neill is back in his creative cocoon -- Florida's historic Morrisound Recording studio that O'Neill and his partners now own. TSO is in various stages of completing two more rock operas -- "Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper" about the 1917 Russian Revolution; "The Path of the Fairytale Moon" -- and is planning a live concert adaptation of TSO's 2009 album "The Night Castle." The troupe has also expanded successfully into Europe, including a unique co--headline performance at this year's Wakken Festival, and O'Neill plans to bring the TSO experience to Broadway at some point.
"My biggest problem is simply time," O'Neill says with a laugh. "I need to get one of those magical stopwatches where time freezes and I can play catchup. Until that happens, we'll just keep working on things and being creative and find new stories to tell and new messages to deliver and new ways to entertain people.
"I just want to blow your mind, every time. That hasn't changed from the day I started making music."
Trans-Siberian Orchestra: "The Ghosts of Christmas Eve"
3 and 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 29.
The Palace of Auburn Hills, Lapeer Road at I-75.
Tickets are $36.50-$75.50.
Call 248-377-0100 or visit palacenet.com.
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