Trans-Siberian strives to outdo itself

Last year, the guitarist and singer Greg Lake – of the pioneering prog-rock act Emerson Lake & Palmer – came out to see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s visually spectacular Christmas show.

Afterward, Lake had one simple question for TSO founder Paul O’Neill: “How are you going to beat this next year?”

O’Neill, in a late October interview, recalled his not-quite-Christmasy response: “Greg, I have no (expletive) idea.”

O’Neill is beginning to find out whether the 2007 edition of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra has topped last year’s model.

As in years past, two full touring companies of the combination rock band and orchestra have hit the road, bringing one of the world’s biggest collections of special effects, lighting and pyrotechnics along for the ride. (The tour stops in Milwaukee on Sunday at the Bradley Center.)

“We just keep building the band every year,’ O’Neill said, noting that several new musicians have been added to both of the touring ensembles. “More special effects, more lighting, more pyro – every year we try to do something no band has done before.”

But he also knows that each year, it gets harder to live up to his own standard.

“It’s getting harder and harder as time goes on to impress not just adults, but even kids,” O’Neill said.

“When I grew up, you had comic books and you had movies and you had black-and-white TV. Kids these days have ‘Halo’ and all these video games, digital TV. Not only kids, but adults demand so much more input per 60 seconds.”

The good news is that technology works in favor of TSO’s stage production, which now spans both a massive main stage and another at the back of the house. Last year, the rear stage rose up high off the arena floor for a pyrotechnics battle with the main stage, a spectacle that had never been done in any rock show before.

“A lot of the things we do now . . . in 1997 we could not have done,” O’Neill said.

“Technology is moving ahead so fast, it’s hard to keep up. And what was mind-blowing two or three years ago is now commonplace. But you’ve just got to keep thinking above and beyond.”

To help achieve that goal, O’Neill has launched a research and development division dedicated to dreaming up new visual effects for TSO.

“We hire these engineering kids right out of college and we say, ‘Look, see these offices? These are your offices and your computers. Your only job is to come up with something, a special effect for the stage show – the flight deck – and we’ll pay the money to develop it, design it, etc.’ And if only one in 20 or one in 10 make it to the stage, I still think we win.

“And they’re told, ‘Don’t think what would be cool a year from now or what would be cool two years from now,’ ” O’Neill said. ” ‘Think what would be cool 20 years from now, and then put it on the fast track so we can have it on the flight deck a year or two from now.’ ”

One thing that won’t be radically different this year is the musical program.

As in 2005 and ’06, the first half of the show will feature the music from the 1996 CD “Christmas Eve & Other Stories,” the first part of a holiday trilogy that also includes 1998’s “The Christmas Attic” and 2004’s “The Lost Christmas Eve.”

As in past years, TSO’s second set will be a full-on rock concert, featuring songs from those two holiday releases, as well as music from its non-holiday rock opera, 2003’s “Beethoven’s Last Night” and a long-delayed new CD, “The Nightcastle,” which O’Neill said he hopes to release this summer.

The programs aim to blend the new (the set, the pyrotechnics) with the band’s familiar Christmas music.

“They get the comfort of the familiar as they’re settling in,” O’Neill said. “Then for the second half of the rock opera, we go into the catalog and mix and match, and do different songs from the other albums.”

The TSO road show employs a crew of more than 150 and a traveling caravan that includes 32 trucks and 16 buses – not to mention the development cost of a set and special effects that have a two-month shelf life.

Still, the popularity of the TSO holiday tours, which date back to 1999, makes the numbers work.

Last year was the most successful tour yet, with more than a million tickets sold and gross earnings of more than $40 million for less than 80 dates.

Indeed, TSO was the top draw in tickets sold for the final six months of 2006 and had the highest number of sold-out shows, according to Billboard magazine.

Even though the group hadn’t had a new CD release since 2004’s “The Lost Christmas Eve,’ TSO still managed to sell nearly 900,000 copies of its four CDs.

“This year our guarantees are substantially large,” O’Neill said. “But the bottom line – and this is driving my accountant crazy – is that with the cost of building the set before we play show No. 1, our budget is millions higher than our guarantees.”

TSO grew out of O’Neill’s work as the longtime producer of the now-defunct progressive metal band Savatage. Since forming the act in 1996, he hasn’t skimped on anything related to TSO.

The recorded music – which many critics have ragged as grandiose and bombastic – can employ upward of 100 musicians.

The production is impeccable and aimed at achieving note-perfect performances throughout the CDs. And in a move that recalls the packaging of vinyl albums, TSO’s CDs have come with elaborate artwork, lyrics and background information to help listeners follow the story lines of each CD.

Whether live in an arena or coming out of your living-room speakers, the goal is to give the audience much more than their money’s worth.

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