Welcome to the musical meandering insights of Aaron Joy. Here you'll find 600 reviews of CDs & DVDs of rock & metal in all its variations, mainstream & indie. What they all share is that the album or band is unique in some way & not every submission was reviewed. Please share these reviews or link to them if you like what you read. Reviews are no longer being posted here but feel free to e-mail Aaron & post comments. (Formerly the Roman Midnight Music Blog)

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Kings Of Christmas ~ 365 Days A Year

(Click on heading to visit official website.)
Style: pop, soul, holiday, hard rock
Label: self-released
Year: 2011
Home: n/a

Members: Maxx Mann ~ vocals/keyboards/percussion
Tommy Farese, Tony Gaynor, Guy LeMonnier ~ vocals
Dave Silva ~ guitars/bass/b. vocals

Additional: Tommy Byrnes ~ guitars/keyboards
Paul Morris, Frank Gruden ~ keyboards
Wes Stout ~ guitar
Tommy Wynder ~ drums
Mark Woodyatt ~ violin


This is not the album I ever expected to be released by TKOC ... it's better! Being that five of the members are alumni of Trans-Siberian Orchestra (i.e. Maxx Mann, Tommy Farese, Guy LeMonnier, Tony Gaynor, and Paul Morris also of the reunited Rainbow), the band that essentially has broken & remade the template of hard rock Christmas music, I expected something that would be a shadow if not direct imitation. It would be blazing guitars & keyboard flourishes, lots of over-the-top vocals, in your face powerful music, probably a somber story & very much big stage rock but with a socially relevant heart warming attitude ... but this is actually quite the opposite. It might just be everything that TSO doesn't tend to be, given their current arena rock format - upbeat songs verging on slow dance music, unpretentious, fun, deep emotions side by side with light weight songs, a range of musical styles & most of all intimate & very personal. & there's not an instrumental nor modernized classical piece in sight. To even compare the two groups is a wasted effort because the differences are too polar. TKOC feels & sounds about as much TSO as the other legendary Christmas group Mannheim Steamroller. Except for the shared theme, the two are very distinct musical entities. I probably believed that this would be like TSO because I've fallen under the illusion, having heard too many uninteresting & imitatively boring Christmas albums, that there was nothing else that could be done with the Christmas theme that was interesting. TSO basically has the tightest hold on the theme, pushing it farther than anyone else, though even they felt some limits & repetition after three albums. TKOC has somehow found a new space to hypernate in for the winter. There's some electric guitars on a few songs but nothing to the hard rock scale of TSO & at times there's a bit of a heavy keyboard AM jazzy radio feel that's similiar to Mannheim Steamroller, but there's no light jazz instrumentals here. TKOC creates a Christmas experience that mixes together addictively groovy 70's R&B/funk complete with backing vocals (i.e. "Sleighride", "How Do You Feel"), hard rock (i.e. "Christmas Wreath", "Soldier's Wall (The Wall)", "Time Of Year") & even AM radio 70's-esque soft rock (i.e. "The Empty Chair", "Pages Of My Life"), acoustic ballads (i.e. "How's Your Life"), danceable worldbeat (i.e. "Letter To Santa", "New York Christmas"), traditional crooning (i.e. "Christmas On Long Island"), a touch of operatic metal (i.e. "Christmas Passed") & even a children's song (i.e. "Henry The Horse"). It's such a surprisingly refreshing mix that on repeated listens it really does seem to live up to the band's PR that they're taking back Christmas. For those looking for a TSO hard rock experience this is not it. Even with the rock numbers it generally feels like a smooth & upbeat easy listening experience great for an intimate dinner party. TSO has often been criticized by fans for its forced emotions & lack of irony. It's former members must have been listening. TKOC also isn't over-reaching for grand social commentary but keeps it all very personal, as Long Island crooner Tommy Farese, a member of TSO from their debut & bandmate of guitarist Al Pitrelli since their earliest days, sings in the opener "Christmas On Long Island": "In my mind I go back to Long Island/Holding tight to those sweeter memories/When we were all we had". At the same time, one will find in the highlight "Sleighride", with theater singer Guy LeMonnier on lead vocals, that its chorus of "Take a little trip/On a sleighride/Give a little kiss/To the one you love" is anything but personal with its 70's soul pop inspired sound that provides a nice contrast lyrically. Probably the weakest spot of the album is the big concept lacing the songs together. There is a story that runs through the linear notes, in the fashion of TSO, but like TSO is completely unnecessary to enjoy the album as a whole. Each song is about a different emotion, represented as a different ornament: yearning, desperation, commitment, uncertainty, abandonment, fulfillment, confirmation, sorrow, courage, elation, loneliness & anticipation. They're rather abstract emotions that feel like they were added after the fact to make this more than just a collection of Christmas songs. But, in the downloading age when linear notes are optional or when folks might be playing this for friends over dinner where linear notes aren't going to be passed along with the potatoes, it does end up being a collection of Christmas songs, but it's a strong collection that doesn't need help or a sub-text. As it is, the retro feeling of many of the songs give them a sub-text of music history. Also, on first listen, there's some feeling that each singer has been assigned a particular style that they're to exclusively sing in, such as Maxx Mann as the rocker while Guy LeMonnier takes the operatic moments, & that the singers don't get an equal number of solo songs, as most of the album is just solo songs with the others in backing roles versus duet or group arrangements. "Christmas Wreath" & "Soldier's Song (The Wall)" are the only two songs featuring more than one singer in the lead. But, though each singer might be stuck in a style it's the style that they do best, & it keeps the album strong, even when some of the songs might be a bit slow lyrically. Nobody is trying to sing in a way they can't or sound forced. While the four singers are so diverse, from rough Italian crooning to wild man hollaring to soft crooning to a bit of Broadway, it helps towards keeping the suprise level high as there's no predicting what might come next either lyrically, musically or vocally. But, surprises & not being able to predict was the theme of this project over 2011 as the band was formed & music created. Expectations, let alone curiosity, were high for this project. The surprise highlights might just be those songs that follow a classic sound such as the 60's R&B "Sleighride" & "How To You Feel" & the Neil Diamond-esque "The Empty Chair" & "How's Your Life". It'll be interesting to see where TKOC goes considering some of the members have left to pursue other projects ... such as Maxx Mann & members of the band are now in the hard rock group Seven with Seven (aka Alan Plotkin), former engineer on Public Enemy's Sounds Of A Black Planet ... leaving TKOC squarely the hands of Tommy Farese, Guy LeMonnier & Tony Gaynor for 2012. TKOC has its roots in the TSO tribute group 12/24, which at one point featured Maxx Mann fresh from TSO. Narrator Cornelius Goodwin of 12/24 even contributed some sax playing to TKOC but those tracks didn't make the final product. Maxx Mann left after a single season with the desire to create something that was Christmas themed but not TSO, something more intimate. Through a year of ups & downs & controversy he definetly did it & it's something Maxx & company can be proud of as they go their separate ways into new seasons with new emotions to write about.

(featured on the World Of Tran-Siberian Orchestra podcast: episode 60 "The Kings Of Christmas's '365 Days A Year'," January 2012, click here to listen)


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