Back in the Seventies K-Tel released an album named ‘Classical Rock’ that was basically a well chosen selection of rock songs (such as ‘Paint it Black’ or ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ ) that had been ‘classicalized’ by a symphony orchestra. It was not a new idea, the Moody Blues had already had gentle success with the ‘Days of Future Passed’ project, and by then we had all heard melodramatic orchestrated rock by The Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
But the ‘Classical Rock’ album sold well and a few years later we got ‘Hooked on Classics’ and other similar lighter, fluffier featherweight offerings that all made a quick buck for the orchestras concerned and were fond fodder for the TV marketers’ of the day and firm favourites of the catwalk-empires. Over the years they re-hash these same old winning formulas – celebrating the apparent fusion of classical music and rock. But they forget (perhaps) that both genres are living and breathing beasts. Both art forms are healthy, dynamic and energetic. They both draw huge, fanatical crowds of adoring
fans – without needing any ‘help’ from each other.
But, nevertheless, we now we have the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) whose claim is that all this is fresh and ‘real’ and that they are bringing classics back to the audience along with a much needed lightning bolt of shock rock. These travelling showmen are already terribly successful in the U.S. and have just completed a high profile European tour.This was their first U.K. outing. I was watching their new show ‘Beethoven’s Last Night’ at Hammersmith, London.
The narrative of the show (over-dramatically told) was that, while Beethoven was diligently working on his ‘Symphony X’ in the silence of the night, he was visited by three other-worldly characters: Mephistopheles, Fate and Twist.
And so began a Christmas-Carol type journey for poor Ludwig, who was taken back to his early years by the spirits, and forced to watch himself as a young man (missing out on lurve) and meeting Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on the way. He was then asked to negotiate a price for his soul in exchange for the valuable works of his life. This was the rather contrived excuse for the subsequent musical pieces upon which the show was flimsily patch worked together – including pastiches of classical ‘hits’ (the ones we all love,) mixed and matched with the elevator-quality soft rock vibes (the ones we all loathe.)
Bringing this to life on stage were a host of classical musicians together with a small herd of choristers (huddled together for safety, away from the shifty ones with the long hair.) Sharing the expansive stage was an over-exuberant violin playing crazyman (Roddy Chong), who danced around in fits and spurts, like a firecracker. And the handful of long-haired worthy looking guitar-men (of a certain age), were spread wide across the stage – along with a sunken drummer and a couple of keyboard wizards – to make it seem like a rock show.
The flamboyant laser and lighting effects certainly added value, and dramatic pizzazz to the production and the show was nicely paced and superbly produced. But I had this constant nauseous feeling, deep in the core of my glands and the pits of my tubes, that the whole darn thing was strangely … corpulent. It felt like a slightly sickening eighties style big-hair-cut act of conceit. For business-men to lap up. Along with their bitchy wives. It seemed ultimately pomped up and preened to artificial perfection. A pontificating pile of pretentious pap. But that’s just me. Several of the worthy and the good in the West London audience stood up to vigorously applaud the efforts of these noble rock-warriors who were (supposedly) blazing a trail for modern classical symphonic rock.
The female singers – especially Patti Russo- were solid, powerful, generous and gorgeous- full of warmth and passion. Their ‘arias’ reminded me very much of the Meat Loaf performances of the Nineties – you know the kind of thing- a sultry lady peering-back-over-her-shoulder in earnest – the burning unsaid passions beneath the slinky dresses -appassionato squared. But the male vocalists were less successful, straining to pull notes out of the ether, and over-egging several different puddings at once, in their efforts to come across as serious and commanding performers.
Instrumentation is the strong element of the TSO – but I even found this slightly less exciting than it should have been. The overall sound was often buzzy and cloudy. Individual elements and instruments were obscured by the bass notes and piles-and-piles of guitar chords. And where were the flourishes and virtuoso pieces? The keyboards were accomplished (without being scintillating or dramatic) the guitar work was robust and workaday (but not fiery or feisty.) And percussion was hum-drum and rhythmic (yet neither passionate nor creative.) This troupe does not come anywhere near to the magical virtuoso performances found in bands such as ‘Dream Theater’ or ‘Rush’. I still fondly remember Rick Wakeman playing the “Six Wives of Henry VIII” (1973) – lurking over the piano and wildly playing the keys like some kind of madly demonic dangerously possessed praying mantis – a whirl of hands, arms and blonde locks- in a confusion of colours and sound. There were none of these moments within the TSO show.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra creator Paul O’Neill (previously of ‘Savatage’) told us that he is influenced by the “British, British, British.” ‘E.L.P’, ‘Pink Floyd’, ‘Queen’ and even ‘The Who’ are cited. But lots of other bands have been blurring the lines of distinction between rock music and classical music, since those early prog-gold years. What about E.L.O.? Or the aforementioned ‘Moody Blues’ (still going strong?) And good classical music often turns into popular music – look at the football hits like Nessun Dorma etc. Classics don’t need to be re-hashed, re-tread, over-hyped and tinsel-treated to make them popular. And, perhaps more importantly for the rock community, we have some excellent rock/prog bands on the circuit right now who have laudable ‘classical’ aspirations- ‘Nightwish’ and ‘Within Temptation’ are two such bands that spring to mind. These bands make fresh symphonic rock and yet have mass-market youth based potential and global appeal. Even epic speed metal bands like homegrown ‘Dragonforce’ add a powerful punch of symphonic classic-sounding rock into their overall mix, and have huge followings. If the TSO were truly dedicated to their art they would, at the very least, have a band like ‘Dragonforce’ along with them as ‘supporting’ artists, to show off the youthful side of the genre.
Witnessing the TSO was like watching a bunch of earnest looking bankers playing a selection of TV advert backing tapes. It was like that bloody “Isa Isa baby” advert. It doesn’t make sense, but it gets into your head. It was like having the British Airways advert being played to you live by a group of news-readers in wigs. The hairies in the band looked like the kind of stereo-typical rockers that wouldn’t even rattle a blue-rinse Daily Mail waving Cheltenham-based lady-golfer. You know the kind of thing – long clean hair, chiselled looks, tanned skin, long elegant coat, shiny boots, and a silver chain.
The whole look was so fabricated and so dated you might think it was a joke. In fact it really would all be vastly amusing, if it were not for one thing … this was not meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek. It was serious music. It was in your face. It was not fun cabaret style nonsense like the Queen musical ‘We Will Rock You’.
It was just dreary.