Conceptually speaking, it’s strange that this album even exists. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra are a Christmas themed prog-metal group whose member list since their conception in 1996, spans several pages of guitarists, violinists, and dozens of vocalists (the group currently has 15). They donate vast sums of money (supposedly over $10 million) to charity, and endeavour to make their tickets as cheap as possible. Their live shows are infamously bombastic, with Christmas stories told through rock operas, lasers shooting into the audience, and pyrotechnics going off on stage. To say the band is over-the-top is a huge understatement. The Yelp review page of their concert-goers show a clear split in reactions to the shows. There are many stories of people leaving the shows early, repulsed by the “cheesy” spectacle. However, there are just as many reviewers who with their peers would simply sit back and enjoy the show for the ridiculous fun they believe it to be. It’s at this point that one runs into the conundrum of a Trans-Siberian Orchestra album: what is this band when divorced from their live show?
Letters from the Labryninth is amusingly the first album from the band that is not a concept album, and it seems to have very little to explicitly do with Christmas. Instead it covers a wide array of very serious topics, from bullying to the Berlin Wall. The band seems to be actively trying to distance themselves from their own novelty value, and what a large portion of their fan base perceive as their strengths. Separating the band from their gimmick, as well as seeing them on record as opposed to live, draws attention to just how little substance their songs contain. 15 tracks with little-to-no variation in terms of volume and tone, each one as overblown and comically absurd as the last. This absurdity is delivered without a trace of irony, taking itself painfully seriously, and it makes the album’s 52 minutes feel much longer.
The one interesting detail on the album is the vocal performance from Lzzy Hale on the closing track Forget About the Blame. Whilst the lyrics are beyond saccharine- “it’s all about the loving / it’s not about the pain” – her voice has a tenderness and warmth missing from the rest of the album. The instrumentals (of which there are 4) are staid and bland, with little in the way of interesting progression throughout. They largely hit the same toothless orchestral metal notes as the actual songs, and it begs the question of their place on an already overstuffed record. Those songs are played and recorded in such a way that they’re rendered inert and lifeless. Each guitar strum has been compressed within an inch of its life, and there no dynamics to the volume at all. The piano lines and string sections have such precise timing and tone that they sound synthesised, and as such lends the album the feeling of a cheap demo, released before having been actually recorded properly.
Even if the album had better production, the songwriting is one-note to the point of monotony. Particularly during the instrumental sequences, the songs blur together and seem indistinguishable to the ear, their textures are so similar. The fact that the song Forget About the Blame is played twice (tracks 8 and 15, with different vocalists) demonstrates the way the album feels less like an album, and more like a long stage-show, robbed of the visuals that would have made it interesting.