TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA was the unlikeliest commercial breakthrough when it was first founded by SAVATAGE's Jon Oliva and Al Pitrelli. SAVATAGE's "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" became a Christmastime classic as a radio staple under the TSO banner and its revered live extravaganza. A gazillion players have performed in both of TSO's two touring ensembles over the years, which naturally left the door open for an offshoot.
Since 2010, a cotillion of former TSO players has carried on the holiday rock-opera tradition under the moniker THE WIZARDS OF WINTER. Naturally, it's a spinoff in name of the former's "Wizards in Winter", TSO's second biggest single due to its scoring of Miller Lite's well-known twinkling lights ad. We should rather say THE WIZARDS OF WINTER is competing against TSO, who released the well-received "Letters From the Labyrinth" in November, 2015. Considering THE WIZARDS OF WINTER's 2.5 hour shows are stuffed with TSO covers, well, call it an economical night out, or call it a rip, however you view it. To their credit, THE WIZARDS OF WINTER have played their holiday wares for benefits and food drives—in keeping with the situation, of course.
THE WIZARDS OF WINTER's roster is comprised of Scott Kelly (musical director/keyboards), Steve Ratchen (bass), Sharon Kelly (flute/vocals), Fred Gorhau (guitars), Mary McIntyre (keyboards, vocals), Tommy Ference (drums), TW Durfy (guitar), Natalia Niarezka (violin) and Guy LeMonnier (vocals), Vinny Jiovino (vocals) and narrator Tony Gaynor. Ted Nugent bassist Greg Smith played with the band's 2015 tour.
While ringing Tannenbaum as a competent ensemble, THE WIZARDS OF WINTER's new album, "The Magic of Winter", is simply that: Competent. If you can't get enough TSO or MANNHEIM STEAMROLLER in your life, then by all means, "The Magic of Winter" will give you some extra seasonal cheer, if nothing else.
They toast "The Little Drummer Boy" inside the frolicking opening number, "Flight of the Snow Angels". They drop subtle dots of "Deck the Halls" into the uber-chummy "Waken to the Sound". "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Gloria" are reworked as medleys on the decorative if dawdling "With One Voice". The key word here is dawdling, as "The Magic of Winter" moves as if Santa's reindeer had secretly gorged on twenty pizza pies.
"Winter Magic" is a dreamy if tame number at best, slowly rolling with adorable vocals. It's swirling piano line builds up to an eruptive guitar solo, which seems remiss due to the slow pace and the plainness of the chord structures. The appositely masculine lead vocals on "The Spirit of Christmas" build momentum for a tune that's well-arranged and filled with hefty choruses, even if the verses fall flat. It's a bipolar tune that seeks to be both cute and heavy and only works half the time.
The neoclassical spires peppered into "Season's Lament" are derivative of Yngwie Malmsteen with buckets of ahhing keyboards and bit-blasts of shredding until assuming a more focused course. The guitars are splendid on the toasty if sluggish "Christmas Cotillion", the same compliment to be paid upon the siren vocals on the likewise scuttled "I Am Here". While perfectly charming, these songs do little to drive some urgency into "The Magic of Winter", which it needs desperately in order to contend with THE WIZARDS OF WINTER's alma mater.
"Ebeneezer" is pushed as a 6:16 mini epic, and is one of the better-crafted songs on the album, even if it suffers the same tedious fate as most of the other tunes. In the end, "The Magic of Winter" has understated charisma, but it could've used a lot more prodding and enchantment. Any intent of tribute to TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA unfortunately rings not like a carol of the bells, but a pale-shade sleigh ride.