Paul O'Neill & Greg Hildebrandt Bring Sequential Art to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra

The progressive rock / heavy metal band Trans-Siberian Orchestra is currently nearing the end of its 17th annual Winter Tour, traveling across America playing its usual mix of both Christmas and non-Christmas themed music for diverse audiences, ranging from older couples to families to traditional headbangers. The band's shows are typically divided into two parts, with the first half of the show consisting of the band performing a narrated version of one of their three Christmas-themed albums, and the second reserved for a looser, more traditional playlist. This year, however, is a bit of a departure for the group, as for the first time, the early half of their concert consists of the band performing "The Ghosts of Christmas Eve," a story based on the TV special of the same name that typically airs on PBS during the holiday season. The tour also commenced less than a week after the debut of the band's new album, a non-Christmas themed release titled "Letters from the Labyrinth," with some of the album's tracks being worked into the second half of the band's show.

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The new album itself is a departure for TSO, as the band is commonly known, as it is the first of the group's full releases not to focus around a central concept, although it still has a tangential connection to other TSO releases in what band founder Paul O'Neill refers to as a "hybrid album." According to the band's website, the new album "is based on correspondence between a child and an old friend of the child's grandfather," and "deals with subjects as broad as humanity's journey through the ages, and as specific as bullying and the fall of the Berlin Wall."

Like all of the band's releases since 2004, the album cover art is supplied by veteran fantasy and science fiction illustrator Greg Hildebrandt. Unlike past releases, the album also contains a new, eight-page sequential art story. "King Rurik," written by O'Neill and drawn by Hildebrandt and newcomer Angela Fernot, ties into the album's like-named instrumental track.

"The easy thing would have been to do just a regular album; ten songs, turn it in, and be done. But we didn't quite do that," O'Neill tells CBR News. "There are so many different things going on with this record; instead of coming with a booklet that you can read first, or read as you go along, you get the very first story ('Time and Distance / The Dash') and very last story ('Dreams of Fireflies') with the album; the rest will be written and published between now and the next album. These songs, or letters, will be finished off and put on the website and help us stay in touch with the fans, let us know what's concerning them the most, and include them as part of the creative process."

The "Dreams of Fireflies" concept is one O'Neill has used on previous TSO projects in different but loosely related ideas. In "Letters," said story is about the redemption of an inner city drug dealer and an old man who seeks to brighten up the once-friendly neighborhood he had grown up in. "We've already gotten back so many great letters on the story that we're thinking of making it into a movie," O'Neill said. "I would love to do that. That is now on the list of things to fall behind on; if we decide to turn 'Dreams of Fireflies' into a movie, Greg's going to have to storyboard it. And the single biggest problem Greg and I have is time. And at some point, I also want to release the fifty fairytales; they're pretty much all written, but what I need are more illustrations from Greg."

O'Neill was eager to discuss the "King Rurik" feature, one that has its genesis rooted in real world events that have directly impacted one of Trans-Siberian Orchestra's band members. "(Keyboardist Vitalij Kuprij) was born in Kiev when it was part of the Soviet Union, and he decided to go back home and see his family last year," O'Neill said, explaining Kuprij's trip to Kiev took place in the midst of the uprising in Ukraine, a few months after the Ukrainian revolution. "He ended up coming home a month early. He said, 'My big brother put me on the plane, saying any one of us can stay here and die. You can actually get out there and say something about what's going on.'"

Realizing that TSO had the power and recognition to send this message, O'Neill and Kuprij worked out the best way to do just that while avoiding having their message generate any ill will on either side and potentially worsen the conflict. "Vitalij wanted to do a 90-minute symphony, and I said we have to think this thing through; there aren't enough radio stations that are going to play a 90-minute symphony. What we need to do is a 3-minute symphony that people will listen to, and then I need to come up with a story to go with the piece. I needed an idea for a story, but I didn't want to pour gas on the fire. Then it hit me: King Rurik, the first king of Russia."

In the sixteen-page feature, the spirit of King Rurik is resurrected and brings peace between opposing forces in the Ukrainian conflict. "(Rurik's) family ruled Russia for centuries," O'Neill said. "The Russians can't get upset about it because he was the first king of Russia; he united and brought peace to the Slavic tribes. The Ukrainians can't say we're not supporting them, because in the story Rurik is basically saying that we're all Slavic; we're all human beings."

King Rurik is the story's hero, and O'Neill made sure none of the current real-life leaders involved in the conflict are its villains. Instead, the antagonist is an embodiment representing an evil force driving these leaders' actions. "(The villain) isn't any one individual; it's the whole concept of evil, hate, and jealousy. (In the story), King Rurik defeated it once before, in the 9th century. He's not scared of it. I don't think it's going to hurt the situation over there, because what's Russia's Vladimir Putin going to say? We're pro-hate? Pro-envy? Hopefully, it'll make some kind of a difference."

Once the King Rurik story was developed by O'Neill, Hildebrandt faced a number of challenges bringing the final illustrations to life. The story was not originally envisioned as a sequential art piece, and the art was originally slated to appear only in the tour program sold at the band's concerts, not as part of the booklet accompanying the "Letters from the Labyrinth" CD.

"The interior paintings originally planned for the program morphed into Paul suggesting doing the Rurik piece in sequential art form," Hildebrandt told CBR. "Paul gave a blow by blow description of how he saw it, and I laid it out as a mini movie/storyboard of the whole thing. From that conversation, there were close to 100 panels making up the story."

That proved to be problematic, according to Hildebrandt's wife/agent, Jean Scrocco. "Anticipating that Paul might also want the story produced for the booklet in the CD, I told Greg that fitting 95 panels into to CD booklet is going to be impossible. You'll have to restructure the story so you have 40 - 45 panels."

"The program typically features photographs from the prior year's show," Hildebrandt continued, referencing the involvement of Scrocco, who handles the production, design and content of the concert programs. "Condensing the number of panels that was required for the CD was also required for the program itself. Otherwise, the whole program would have been filled up with 'King Rurik.'"

O'Neill ultimately did indeed decide that the story should be included in the packaging with "Letters," and Scrocco explained the difficulties this posed for the feature's production. "Originally, I was allotted eight pages in the booklet. I redid all the type so that it would fit at that size, but then Paul said the art is too small. So we took sixteen pages, but what I had to do then was take each page of art apart, one panel at a time, to structure it to fit in sixteen pages, and then do the type again."

Before the production of the feature even became an issue, Hildebrandt and Scrocco were already pressed for time to get the feature completed in time for the album and tour program. "We determined that Greg could do the layouts and pencils, but wouldn't have time to do the inks," Scrocco admitted. "That's when we brought in Angela Fernot."

Fernot had not yet worked professionally in the comic medium, until hired by Scrocco to ink Hildebrandt as her first professional gig. "Angela is a graduate from the Joe Kubert School. She does pencilling, trading card design, and other freelance work. She does mainly graphic design for a living. When I told her I was going to hire her to ink Greg, the look on her face was sheer terror."

Scrocco ensured that Fernot was fully aware of the magnitude and importance of her first work in the world of sequential art. "You're going to be inking Greg Hildebrandt," Scrocco clearly stated to Fernot. "Understand that what Paul wants is Greg. It can't lose any of the essence of Greg's art. When this is done, and Paul looks at these spreads, he has to see Greg."

"Then," Scrocco continued, "I said to her, 'Paul owns all the original art. These four forty-inch boards are going to be beautifully framed so he can hang them. What that means is, you can't use any whiteout. You can't make a mistake.' But this woman is so talented. She did it."

Hildebrandt also supplies the cover art for the band's tour programs each year, and this year's program cover was actually designed in conjunction with the cover for the new album. "We've never done this before," Scrocco said. "The front cover of the program had to be developed in a way to be also used as a square cover for the CD. The problem was the timing, as the CD cover had to be done first. Greg had to establish the CD cover, paint it, and then design the rest afterwards. Then I did the production for the rest of the CD cover, while Greg went back to work on the rest of the painting for the program cover." Scrocco added that the original painting for the covers measures six feet wide.

Hildebrandt also had involvement in yet another element of the TSO's branding, namely designing a new logo for the band, one that's aligned with O'Neill's vision for Trans-Siberian Orchestra and reflects the recurring themes of rebirth and perspectives that are present in many of the band's songs. "The red and the blue phoenix are the yin and yang, where the red represents the sun and the male perspective, and the blue represents the moon and the female perspective," O'Neill explained. "Both sides understand each other; you have harmony, you have peace, and the world is in a state of happiness. It's also about looking at problems from the other person's point of view."

"Paul loves symbolism, all the connections that the phoenix and the yin yang symbol had (with his songs), and the whole concept of opposites," observed Hildebrandt, "So I worked all of that into a fire and ice concept, with the two opposites forming a circle." The circular design, though, presented an unexpected problem come the release of the new album.

"Paul wanted the logo printed on the actual CD itself. But with the hole in the center of the CD, both of the phoenix' heads were cut off," Scrocco explained. "So we had to move the heads around a bit in Photoshop."

O'Neill cites the new logo as representative of a new collaborative recording approach that the band has ushered in on "Letters." "We decided we would try and begin a new tradition, one that kind of died away in the '60s and '70s. When I was younger, it was very common for artists to collaborate in the studio. George Harrison's most famous song in the Beatles catalog is 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps,' but the guitarist playing the solo in the song is Eric Clapton. In turn, in Eric Clapton's famous song, 'Layla,' the guitarist playing the solo is Duane Allman. They didn't care about personal fame; all they cared about what was best for the song. Egos did not get involved. So we decided to try and collaborate, and at the end of the album, we would pick a single song, and if it had a male singer we'd find a woman to sing another version of it, or vice versa."

The track originally selected for a "sun" and "moon" version was "Not the Same," a song O'Neill had written about Amanda Todd, the 15-year-old British Columbian girl who took her own life in 2012 after enduring intensive bullying at school and over the Internet. However, O'Neill was so impressed with vocalist Kayla Reeves' work on the song, he felt there should not be another version with a different singer. As it turned out, another humanitarian situation overseas ended up having influence over the content that would make it onto the final version of "Letters."

"When we were over in Europe, we could see the situation in Syria getting worse and worse," O'Neill recalled. "We had already recorded a track sung by Robin Borneman called 'Forget About the Blame' (with lyrics written by Johnny Green), which can easily be seen as being about a guy and girl in a relationship." O'Neill then referenced the oft-seen news video of a boy whose lifeless body had washed ashore on a Turkish beach after the family's disastrous attempt to flee Syria by boat, and questions reportedly posed to the boy's family about who was to blame for the boy's death. "It doesn't matter who's to blame," O'Neill concluded. "We decided that would be the song to have the guest singer." O'Neill selected Halestorm frontwoman and longtime TSO fan Lzzy Hale as the vocalist on the song's "moon" version.

"I've always been fascinated by perspectives," O'Neill said. "That's something we tried to bring out on this album, trying to understand the other person's side. The story behind the song 'Madness of Men' asks the question, what are the greatest armies that ever existed? The answer is the NATO and Warsaw pact armies under John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. Those armies never went to war; that's what made them so great.

"Prior to that, throughout human history, civilizations would build up armies and kill countless people," O'Neill continued. "During the Cold War, the closest humanity ever came to total nuclear Armageddon was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cuba's Fidel Castro, who was there on the front lines, called for a nuclear strike against the United States. Khrushchev realized Castro was a naïve guy that didn't have a clue; he was willing to sacrifice everyone. Khrushchev and Kennedy, little by little, drew down the tension until they were able to bring the crisis to an end. A hundred years from now, I really believe those men are going to get their due. No man is a hero in his own time."

Should Hildebrandt provide any illustrations to accompany the above stories once they appear, they will be the latest in an ever-growing list of collaborations he and O'Neill have on their existing to-do list. Already on that list is ongoing work on the album "Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper," (which O'Neill reiterates is unrelated to "King Rurik," despite the actual historical connection), a future "Merry Christmas, Rabbi" graphic novel, and the still in-progress "Gutter Ballet" graphic novel that will tie into the eventual release of another album of the same name. "'Gutter Ballet' is more than alive and kicking," assured O'Neill. "What Greg has done is mind blowing. The only thing that's going to slow it up is that I'm thinking of rewriting some of the music."

"I've illustrated five songs for what will become 'Gutter Ballet,' Hildebrandt added. "And 'Merry Christmas, Rabbi' is waiting to be tackled at some point in the future."

"We established the way 'Merry Christmas, Rabbi' would look when Greg drew those first four pages in blackboard art," Scrocco added. "They're very detailed, and take a long time. There were originally 196 pages mapped out in the first pass of Paul's script. Once we get to it, he's going to have to condense it. But it's a beautiful, wonderful story."

In addition to his comics collaborations, logo design and program artwork, Hildebrandt also provides artistic elements that are key to the band's current show, providing what O'Neill describes as an almost immersive experience. "One of the key new videos in the first half of the show basically goes on as many videoscreens as we could wrap around the arena, and turn into a big theater. It works out great; you still get the story, and the narrator doesn't have to describe anything; it's all there visually. We're looking for ways to break down the wall around the audience."

Hildebrandt has long been working on an animated pencil feature for eventual use in TSO's concerts, but it does not appear in this year's show. "It'll probably be done in the next couple of years," Scrocco estimated. "The videoscreens a few years ago were just not sophisticated enough to show animation but I think the technology is there now. Because of that, at some point Paul will want to get this finished."

With a special appearance this past summer at the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany, the release of a new album, and a brand new show for this year's Winter Tour, 2015 has been an atypically eventful year for an already busy O'Neill, in addition to the band's self-imposed mission to constantly outdo themselves. "The easiest thing to do would be to keep doing the same thing over and over again," O'Neill admitted. "(Band manager) Adam Lind says TSO's worst night has to be better than any other band's best night. The band is in the most trouble when it's gone a long time without a bad review. It's getting scary, yet every year, we're pulling it together. But the more successful we are, the more I worry."

The 59-year-old O'Neill also acknowledged his own mortality, as well as that of the 76-year-old Hildebrandt. "Time is flying by; my big concern is to not waste a minute of Greg's time. But what I'm worried about right now is this year..

"And, maybe, getting some sleep."

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