WANT TO SCORE A QUICK FIVE-SPOT? SIMPLY WAGER A FELLOW muso to name the last double-disc rock opera that cracked the top five of Billboard’s album charts, then after dismissing guesses of the Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia or the cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar as being decades off, coolly note that as of the week ending November 1, 2009, Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s epic Night Castle [Atlantic] earned that honor. Then claim your Lincoln.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra was formed as a progressive-rock studio side-project in 1996 by composer and producer Paul O’Neill (Aerosmith, Savatage, Badlands), along with Savatage guitarist Al Pitrelli, Savatage vocalist Jon Oliva, and producer/ arranger/keyboardist Robert Kinkel. The first TSO single, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)”—an amped-up reworking of “Carol of the Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” with a story line set in war-torn Sarajevo—became an unexpected hit, and the ensuing rock opera Christmas Eve and Other Stories went double platinum. O’Neil and his core team of Kinkel, Oliva, and Pitrelli (who has also logged time with Megadeth, Asia, Alice Cooper, Widowmaker, and Blue Oyster Cult) followed with several other Christmas and/or fantasy themed rock operas and a touring Christmas show that’s ambitious mix of heavy metal might, harmonic-minor shredding, Broadway theatrics, and classical music-inspired melodicism has even earned the respect of some of classic rock’s elite. Jon Anderson, Roger Daltrey, Tommy Shaw, Steven Tyler, and Greg Lake have all guested with TSO either onstage or on record.
Currently TSO has more than two-dozen members and splits into two touring factions, each featuring dual guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards augmented with violins and multiple singers, and loosely known as TSO East and TSO West. Pitrelli is the music director of TSO West and is joined on stage by ex- Kitaro guitarist Angus Clarke. Testament’s Alex Sklonick and former Savatage guitarist Chris Caffery handle the 6-string gymnastics for TSO East. O’Neill and Oliva focus solely on management and creative aspects.
What was your main contribution to Night Castle?
I co-wrote three or four songs, played a majority of the guitar parts, and helped out with arranging. Because the live show is so much a part of the whole TSO vibe, Paul is very into songs that he can choreograph a light show to. That’s actually something I first learned from Dee Snider when I played in Widowmaker. He said that when he wrote songs with a lot of cuts and changes in dynamics, like “Under the Blade,” he had the light show in mind.
Aside from its already formidable lineup, TSO is augmented on Night Castle by a string section and choir. How did you find a place in the mix for your guitar?
I actually layered six rhythm tracks using different guitars and amps, which sounds like a lot, but the tracks are identical musically and just EQ-ed slightly differently. I have to leave space for everything else, so often I’ll just play big whole-note power chords behind the vocalists, which is tougher than it sounds because you have to get the intonation of all six guitars just right. If you’re playing some ripping solo you can double it and everything goes by so fast you don’t really notice slight intonation discrepancies. But when you’re laying down big block chords, there’s nowhere to hide. As far as I’m concerned, the real hard job in any rock band is playing rhythm guitar in tune and in time.
What was your signal chain for recording Night Castle?
My main axe is still my mid-’60s cherry sunburst Gibson Les Paul that I bought in eighth grade because I wanted to be Dickie Betts. I own several other Les Pauls, but that’s the only one Paul lets me record with because there’s just something special about the way it sounds. I also got my hands on an old Gibson EDS-1275 double-neck and tuned the 12-string side to an open Am9 chord [E, A, C, A, B, C, low to high] for the song “Tracers.” I generally plugged straight into a Marshall TSL head miked with a pair of Shure SM57s and a Neumann U87 and combined the signals. I use a relatively clean rhythm sound because when you’re layering that many guitars, too much distortion is going to create a nightmare of overtones when mixing, and the tracks will actually sound less heavy because of the loss of definition.
So you equate heaviness to approach not tone?
Exactly. A lot of people think a guitar has to be distorted to be heavy. But Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and AC/DC’s “Back in Black” are two of the heaviest riffs on the planet and they both have fairly clean Marshall Plexi sounds. It’s the attack and space between the notes that makes them heavy. Dave Mustaine taught me a lot about rhythm guitar while I was playing in Megadeth. He’s all about the pure articulation of the downbeat of the chords. No gratuitous pick slides or squeals, just crisply articulated chords with space in between. Also, most guitarists hold their pick at an angle to the strings to get less resistance, whereas Dave holds his flat— pretty much parallel to the string—so he can attack the string full on.
One interesting texture is on songs like “Another Way You Can Die,” where the low palmmuted guitar is doubled in unison on piano.
That’s one of Paul’s tricks going back to our days with Savatage that he calls the “power piano.” Jon Oliva is also an accomplished piano player, and on demos he’d often track the bass part on piano. Then when we went to record the tracks without the piano something was missing because the piano gives the riffs a nice articulation. Also, one of the tracks in the rhythm guitar cluster is Paul’s old Telecaster doubling the piano with a clean tone. You have to listen really carefully to hear it because there’s no sustain, just the attack of the note.
Are you still using the rack-mounted Line 6 POD Pros live?
We used them on the first tours because when you’ve got string players, singers, and the whole choreographed show you can’t really have blaring guitars on stage. As we’ve moved into arenas, I’ve gone old school again. On this tour I’m using Marshall JVM410H heads through two Randall Isolation Cabinets loaded with Celestion G12T75s that are located under the stage. I also run into my old Megadeth rig: a Rocktron Prophesy preamp into a 100-watt Marshall power amp driving another pair of Randall cabs.
The Night Castle storyline closes with an acoustic guitar instrumental called “Embers” that reminds me of Led Zeppelin’s “That’s The Way.” Is that you playing?
Yes, I’m playing in an open-G tuning [D, G, D, G, B, D, low to high], but it’s a song Paul wrote for his daughter Ireland. I use a hybrid technique with a pick for the three lowest strings and my fingers for the three highest. I’m not much of a fingerpicker, so for me it was a real challenge to nail all the dynamics without having any string squeaks. Or as Paul calls them, “mice.”