Ask little me, and my excitable self would have have given the honor to “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" with nary a second thought. These days, however, this song is my favorite from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra catalog, a distillation of everything they do right.

Christmas Eve And Other Stories
Trans-Siberian Orchestra
“Good King Joy”

I was a week shy of six years old when their debut album came out, but it was either that 1996 holiday season, or perhaps the year after, that it promptly became a staple of the mix of music for putting up and decorating the Christmas tree. Now, I was hardly aware of the wider world around that time, but it was evident even then that the Trans-Siberian Orchestra was an immediate sensation.

It must have been such a fresh breath of air when they first came out, especially in the context of what the rest of the Christmas music canon had been. At first, everyone seemed to chalk it up to the novelty of being “that Christmas metal group,” but though that is indeed technically true, such a description does not really get across the true magnitude of what they brought to the table. Rock bands had already been making Christmas songs for decades, after all, but they never significantly changed the landscape for what a Christmas song could be.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra in their genesis, however, were the absolute rarest of things in the world of holiday music: Something completely, genuinely different.

Nobody else was doing anything remotely close to what they were pulling off, and it went well beyond adding power chords and gnarly electric guitar riffs to holiday standards. Their approach was far more precisely targeted than that, and perfectly fitting for their prior progressive rock roots. They weren’t all about just any Christmas songs; no, whatever they’d perform, it had to come out as the most earnest, most downright reverent strain of Christmas song possible. The Silent Nights. The Joy to the Worlds.

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Basically, Trans-Siberian Orchestra were in the business of making modern-day hymnals. All of the rock touches added into the mix, in turn, were in the service of adding gravitas, beauty, and sheer power to their hymns. In other words, they’re a bunch of real histrionic motherfuckers! That amplified melodrama, as applied to the most charged of all holidays, specifically a very particularly Christian interpretation of said holiday—love it or hate it—is an essential part of TSO’s identity. Nobody else, before or since then, has come remotely close to going as whole-hog for Christmas as they do.

The other thing that defines TSO—something that I happen to appreciate more from them as a music group—is that they are a masterful mash-up band. At their best, they can combine different Christmas songs together in ways that make it seem like they were always meant to be together. The metal Carol of the Bells of “Christmas Eve”, for example, would not have been nearly as impactful without God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen playing counterpoint to it. And when they apply that even farther to interpolating pieces of Christmas classics together into original material, things can get downright magical.

Which finally brings us to “Good King Joy”, a singular representation of all that TSO does best. For starters, that is a mash-up title to its core, namely of “Good King Wenceslas” and “Joy to the World”, and the song in turn alternates between using pieces of each tune. Using that as its basis, TSO essentially builds out a “Bohemian Rhapsody” of their own: An entire multi-movement mini-symphony packed into a mere six and a half minutes.

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And man oh man, a lot goes on in that span of time. Atmospheric guitar and piano arpeggios soundtrack the first two lines of “Joy to the World”, which leads into a stomp that interpolates a “Good King Wenceslas” melody. That then gives way to an instrumental “Joy to the World” total blowout. It’s an epic sequence. But it’s only the beginning; not only does that only go up to the halfway point of the song, but everything thus far has only been the intro.

Because starting with the sound of four piano notes, this is when the real meat of “Good King Joy” finally comes in, a TSO-written original part that interpolates “Good King Wenceslas” with grace. I often do not like their overwrought vocals, but they fit what they’re doing here—some fun house-mirror reflection of a gospel tune—fantastically. They keep the intensity at a slow burn for an admirably long time, leading to maximum impact when the guitar riffs finally bleed out to signal that the whole rock band is now joining in.

Everything then ends in the only logically possible way, reprising the “Joy to the World” rave-up, but now with the guitars going even more into overdrive than the first time. It indeed sounds as ridiculous as that suggests. But perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also incredible. Trans-Siberian Orchestra haven’t been able to top this tour de force since then.

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RedStripe Loved Trax—originally from days of Tumblr past—is usually a series about the music Justin adores, with special emphasis on songs from (or introduced by) video games and anime. This week, however, running from Sunday December 3 to Saturday December 9, is a daily rundown of favorite songs related to the holiday season.