I have been reading reviews on Facebook and elsewhere and opinions vary on this album. The common thread I am seeing from most folks is "underwhelmed" or "disappointed".
This was the first review I have seen from a news source (Omaha World-Herald), and what I think is a pretty fair review:
Rating: two stars (out of four)
* * *
For years, Trans-Siberian Orchestra has launched its tour right here.
The prog-rock band rehearse Christmas favorites for weeks at the Mid-America Center and then kick off their tour there, as they will Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. (Tickets available through Ticketmaster.)
But for the first time in years, the band has a new album. Though “Letters From the Labyrinth” is another prog-rock record, this one isn’t quite like the others.
It’s not a Christmas album, and it doesn’t have a unifying story that ties the entire album together. Instead, it’s a collection of disparate songs about banking, humanity, bullying and the Berlin Wall.
It’s a smattering of ideas that don’t really stick, but we came here for the orchestral heavy metal: complicated melodies, guitar solos and intertwining string arrangements.
It’s amazing and technical playing that’s sure to impress any fan of precise progressive rock. But it’s also a little tedious. All those ever-present solos and precise melodies kind of blend together song after song.
And I question why studio recordings would have so many synthesizers replicating strings and grand pianos when surely, with this band as successful as it is, they could have used real musicians. According to the liner notes, they did, but it’s hard to pick out the real players from the synthesized sections.
I’m most entertained by “Mountain Labyrinth,” which seems like perfect music to play during an action movie battle or as the background during a Dungeons & Dragons session.
“What the Night Conceives” at least has some aggressive playing, and vocalist Kayla Reeves delivers a solid performance.
The best performance on the record comes from Halestorm lead singer Lzzy Hale, who sings on a version of “Forget About the Blame.” Unfortunately, her talents are wasted on an extremely repetitive metal ballad.
Your enjoyment of this album will probably depend on your overall enjoyment of the band in general. If you dig their rock opera style and hair metal music, you’ll be into this. But don’t buy this looking for another Christmas favorite.
What say you?
I have to be honest, I thought the exact same thing that is being written in these reviews (and then some). And reason being was when I first listened to the free streamer online a little over a week ago... I was very underwhelmed myself. So much so I haven't even gone back to listen to it which is a very big first for me as a TSO fan. But it is growing on me a bit.
Just to give myself some background, I am an actor and a filmmaker by profession, but I am also a musician and a singer. Letters From the Labyrinth feels lazy. And when I say that, knowing how Paul O'Neill works and how hard he is at perfecting everything, this album feels like something he could've whipped together in less than a year. It could've been released the year after Night Castle. Beethoven's Last Night took two years after The Christmas Attic. It had 22 incredible tracks on it. NC took five years after The Lost Christmas Eve. A monstrous 26-track 2-disc CD. Both beyond worth it. LFTL... a measly 15, which feels like less and took close to seven years!
There's nothing extensive, nothing driving about the music. It has so little energy the album could end at any minute. King Rurik and Prince Igor both felt like the same song to me and those instrumentals were the ones I was looking forward to the most. This goes for Forget About The Blame as well, in which they literally ARE the same song just with different singers. I would've rather Robin Borneman's version been an acoustic re-composition instead of just the same track. But I'm not a fan of his vocals either. He overdoes it (which is an ironic thing to say about anything involving TSO
) but I would've much rather had Nathan James or even Jeff Scott Soto do the sun version.
Though I have to admit I was very pleased with the rest of the vocal songs. Time and Distance is my favorite and Forget About the Blame (Lzzy Hale's version) is an incredible step-up and out for TSO. Usually it's the instrumentals that take the spotlight and the vocal tracks take a backseat to the attention. But a difference in LFTL is that this feels more of a showcase to the great singers rather than the band itself. None of the instrumentals, which are so popular to TSO, had anything special to light the way in between the vocals.
All in all I would give it a three out of five stars. But I know Paul O'Neill and everyone in TSO can much MUCH better. Am I disappointed, though? Not in the slightest. Still beautiful music and I hope the best is yet to come in concert.
11-16-2015, 06:27 AM
(This post was last modified: 11-16-2015, 06:27 AM by MikeNY.)
It's an okay album. I saw a couple people go overboard on Facebook about it, but I think some fans are just so thrilled to have "something" that expectations are dropped.
I agree with the Omaha review - I do find much of it boring and repetitive. Not saying that there aren't spots where it's good, but so much of it sounds generic and average, and TSO music didn't used to sound like that. The remake that they got the Halestorm singer for is a good song, imho, but it does not sound like TSO at all to me. I think the two stars out of four is about right.
Perhaps Paul is steering the good ship TSO in a new direction. I wondered about this since Kayla Reeves was brought on board. Certainly talented, but, in my opinion, not a good fit with TSO of old.
I like Letters from the Labyrinth but I have not found the magical moment in it like I did with Beethoven and Night Castle. It is probably there waiting on my discovery!
I heard a pre-release stream and then since it came out listened to it a couple times again just to see if my initial idea was wrong. And, I'll say this ... for 4 years I blogged nearly daily album reviews with some 600 albums reviewed and probably another 600 I listened to but didn't write about. I live by a rule of thumb - I never judge an album until after the second listen. At first you have expectations that may or may not be met. At the second listen you start to put those aside. Having heard LETTERS 5 or 6 times .... I've not changed my initial view: Bland, imitative, boring, weak, listless and the musicians have gotten so comfortable they no longer are challenging themselves (no matter what the "amazing album" "best ever" PR says ..... considering its a rare day a musician PR's their new album by saying it's not that good).
The album is heavy on instrumentals that blend together, too many in a row, and they all sound like everything else TSO has done. But, super polished and lacking any guts. "Look at what we can!" But, without soul I'm not impressed by how many crescendos you have.
Imitative? Ever since Tommy (and Maxx) set the template for scratchy voices ..... well, how many vocal songs are there and how many feature scratchy smoky voices versus not? Heavy ratio. And, it's crazy and maybe just me, but I'll listen to Soto with TSO and enjoy his stuff, yet everywhere else I just can't get into his voice. Does he sing differently with TSO? I think so. I think he's a Tommy imitator now and I swear some of the songs (I don't have the album in front of me to cite which one) are written for Maxx, they have his phrasing down pat. (Just compare to his work with Seven).
The vocal songs are the best, but remove the vocals and the album is weak and if someone wants TSO I'm still recommending the Xmas albums first and foremost.
While, suddenly LETTERS appears, but what about all the other albums that are supposed to be in the works. Romanov? Gutter? Or, jeesh, as I've been saying for years - a live DVD? And, not a live album with all the audience noise removed, blah NIGHT CASTLE bonus tracks.
Album Review: “Letters From The Labyrinth” Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Posted on November 16, 2015 by Blair De Abreu
If you read me and/or listen to me whine endlessly, to which I offer no apology, about my ears smiling when I hear melody combined with pop sensible almost syrupy sweet production then you may have written my taste, or lack thereof, off. The big fella upstairs gave me two ears on this bag of skin I am in, however I have so many more and at this time of fear of Thanksgiving (both the recently passed Canadian one) and the upcoming USA one (thank you for a day of football!) I have many people to be thankful for. I have already spoken about the many styles of music I listened to via my parents growing up, thank you for all of them. I also had an Uncle who introduced me to good old country music, the only of this genre I really care for and to which has nothing to do with this article so hopefully you will read on. Another Uncle has indirectly led me to TSO. My Uncle John introduced me to classical music, and it hit with me immediately. Granted some of it just seemed to drone on and be far too pretentious and self-involved (hello all Hipsters perhaps give classical a try!). Anyway, I loved most of it. It truly hits emotional levels because it is pure music without vocals to sway our emotions. So when in 1997 I came upon a CD while wandering the aisles at the record store called Merry Axemas and the cover contained some great hard rock and metal guitar player names on stockings, well I bought and loved it. So what I am trying to say is I love a great metal guitar crunch! Next degree of integration was the releases from TSO around the same time: Christmas Eve and Other Stories, The Christmas Attic & Beethoven’s Last Night. Well, I was shocked at how well crunching metal guitar combined with classical music melded! Amazed! Smiling! That and one of my favorite metal bands has always been Savatage to which the brains & brawn behind TSO happens to be Jon Oliva & Paul O’Neill from said band.
So now you know, and knowing is half the battle. The other half can be many things and in this latest release it is whether I smile, the last couple releases from TSO have been much weaker than their initial three, containing just a couple good songs for my ears.
Sadly on Letters From The Labyrinth there is much droning. Within the first 6 tracks, only 2 contain vocals while the other 4 instrumentals contain nothing TSO like to me. Now I know I said I like classical because of the lack of vocals hitting on the emotional level yet here is where I say TSO takes it to the next level by combining great metal & rock sounds with classical instruments and arrangements, AND wild story telling lyrics sung by wonderful vocalists.
Happily on the 8th track we have a home run, a grand slam perhaps in “Forget About The Blame (Sun version)” which is so good both musically and lyrically (sung by a male vocalist) they end the release with a Moon version sung by Lzzy Hale of Halestorm and wow does it deserve 2 versions which if you listen to the lyrics makes complete sense.
Sadly tracks 9-13 in between these two versions of the same song, drone on.
Normally I would be disappointed however when a song that hits as hard as “Forget about the Blame” is the only gem. I will take it and look at it this way: I listen to so many releases in full and getTSO-home_tour_live no smile whatsoever.
Now all that being said, I have also taken the opportunity to see the live show and complete spectacle that TSO is live many times over and it never disappoints to someone like me who loves a production. Go see them live it is well worth it! The roster of musicians will have many familiar names, sadly it seems Alex Skolnick is no longer involved as of this writing now that Testament is active again, however, Chris Caffery and Al Pitrelli are amazing live! As a note for the uninitiated and perhaps confused by their tour date listings: TSO tours with two bands: a West Coast and an East Coast so they split the full complement of musicians. Very smart since they do most of their touring in a very short period of 2-3 months during Christmastime each year.
11-25-2015, 03:07 AM
(This post was last modified: 11-25-2015, 03:09 AM by danfromnj.)
Letters from the Labyrinth
4.5 out of 10
I always “hated” TSO because that was marked, more or less, the “end” of Savatage, which then were put in “hiatus” since the various members attempted either solo album releases that in some cases went well enough and in others were almost complete catastrophes and brought about also a trio of “offshoot” bands that again had varying degrees of success. Savatage did a “reunion” that according to an interview cost them an awful lot to do, while according to others must have brought them a small fortune, as the whole business-model of this “carol” playing show has…
As an atheist and a fan of the old Savatage, this whole business “pisses me off” as my “good buddy”, who can’t take a bad review would say. Oh and there’s another guy who thinks his poop don’t stink, because he was in a good band and now he’s a “soldier of fortune” in another… well whatever brings the bread in the table good sirs…
“Time and Distance” is more or less a “cover” of Mozart’s “Dies Irae” from his “Requiem” set to some prose sung by a choir. I’ve always found re-arranging classics or traditionals as lazy… especially if it’s done way too often. And boy does TSO do it an awful lot… especially as of late...
“Madness of Men” is a twirly and rather impressive overture of sorts, into the largely instrumental; “Prometheus”, which from fragile becomes somewhat muscular with what I believe is a JSS performance, one and a half minutes before the end, doesn’t really manage to really make a dint with. Oh yes and by the way, they’re both re-arranged “Beethoven” pieces…
“Mountain Labyrinth” is some nicely interpreted Modest Mussorgsky, from “Night on the Bald Mountain”, while “King Rurik” is an original piece that tries to mimic the splendor of the counterparts on the album, but largely fails to do so.
Borodin’s “Prince Igor” gets a rather 70s prog rock treatment while being reinterpreted, while “The Night Conceives” with Kayla Reeves, sounding like a meaner Joan Jett, is OK, but nothing too original or something that could “stand” on its own… it could have been imagined as part of something like “Streets” but it would have been a rather blunt – part.
“Forget About the Blame” is a cover of Johnny Green with Robert Borneman on vocals and it ain’t bad, probably one of the few interesting selections on the album, but still a cover.
“Not Dead Yet” features Russell Allen, who sounds so pseudo-macho that it’s sort of ridiculous. Again the metallized “music theater” style is an acquired taste but this number is more “talk” than actual singing and wasting a good singer like that is a bit silly. Its second part is also an instrumental bouillabaisse, the sort of “orchestral” piece that a lot of musicals tend to have in the middle to allow stage performers to catch their breath mid-way.
“Past Tomorrow” is another original, featuring a lady called Jennifer Cella, who’s rather good and manages to make her rather minimal piece sound way more impressive than it is, with her commanding yet fragile performance that ties in nicely enough with a remake of Savatage’s “Stay” that another lady by the name of Adrianne Warren manages to deliver, in an interesting, smokey, but really powerful way. She manages to tame her range and really deliver this rather appropriately.
Kayla Reeves returns for “Not the Same”, a somewhat more celebratory piano ballad… but this whole “idea of putting a lot of sentimental, slower pieces, sounds like a bad case of meatloaf… oops.
“Who I Am” sort of tries to dispel the sense of self-doubt with a choir piece that’s supposedly acts a bit like a summation of things, prior to a JS Bach’s in the form of “Lullaby Night” acting as an outro…
Last but not leas,t there’s a reprise of “Forget About the Blame” featuring Lzzy Hale from Halestrorm, which sounds slightly better to my ears… and is offered as a “bonus”.
A half-baked attempt at music theater by stitching together a lot of classical pieces and writing some rather uneventful in between parts to create a semblance of a plot… well… snoozey… I’d rather listen to the original classics.
And it's on the Billboard top ten. Likely because of all the people who bought/downloaded it, listened to it once, said WTF? and will never listen to it again.
I give that one a literary award for most convoluted sentences.
One might think "pisses me off" references Caffery, but not too sure.
"nothing too original"
"I’ve always found re-arranging classics or traditionals as lazy… especially if it’s done way too often. And boy does TSO do it an awful lot"
"wasting a good singer like that is a bit silly"
that pretty much summarizes it for me.
While a hit album on the chart only means that a lot of people bought, not that a lot of people like it. Creating anticipation is a great way to create a hit, as fans are will buy whatever is released. Unlike a Rick Wakeman who puts out so many albums a year fans just give up on buying them all and thus no hits. The real sign of a hit is in a year does the album THEN make the charts. The long after the fact sales, like Xmas Eve Sarajevo was, is the sign of real success.
Wasn't thrilled with Night Castle, but it was better. Fireflies I have in a box in the basement I listen to it "so much". This new one will end up in that same box underneath some books from my childhood I don't want to part with and some VHS tapes I keep for the day I buy a VHS player again. After awhile I just give a band so many chances before I lose enthusiasm.