When it comes to Christmas music, there are two kinds of people in this world: the die-hards for Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the same for Mannheim Steamroller. Though I have always appreciated the sound of the former, I have been listening to the latter for much longer, and think that they have a better sounding, wider range of songs, and that there is some tradition behind what they do, given their playing and restoring of music from the Renaissance and Medieval Times that would have been all but forgotten otherwise. For 2011, they are back and better than ever, with their eleventh Christmas album alone, titled, Christmas Symphony. Though there are not any new songs on the album, each one has been completely re-orchestrated, led by the band’s founder and drummer Chip Davis, with some help from the Czech Republic Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Arnie Roth.
From the first moment the sound drifts out of your speakers, you will notice a considerable difference when compared to their previous albums. The new HD mix combined with better recording technology has led this to be a feast for the ears, which is ever-present when the famous boom of Davis’ drums echo outward and into your home or car. It does not matter what time of the year it is, it will be Christmas when you listen to this album, which includes “Deck the Halls”, “Gods Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (my personal favorite), and “Angels We Have Heard on High”, among 13 others.
Like their music or not, one has to admit that the concept behind the band’s founding in the 1970’s was groundbreaking. Following in the tradition of bands such as Electric Light Orchestra, Mannheim Steamroller set out to combine light rock and roll with a classical orchestra, and the result we have is more than 40 albums and 28 million of them sold worldwide. Having listened to them since I was a little kid (we knew it was Christmastime when “Joy to the World” first played in the car in early December), I was excited when I got a chance to see them live for the first time at the New Jersey State Theater in November of 2009. However, I was highly disappointed when the audience was informed that Chip Davis was not going to be there, and further annoyed when I soon found out that the band had split in two so they could do two tours at once; one on the east coast and one out west. In a way, I felt cheated because even though the music was the same and the replacement drummer for Davis was excellent, I felt I was not listening to the real Mannheim Steamroller. For the rest of that holiday season, I did not want to hear anything by them, because I was so disappointed, but now that enough time has passed, I am back to listening to them, and am more than happy with this finished product.
The music of Mannheim Steamroller may be an acquired taste for some, because it is probably unlike anything else you have ever heard. The drums and electric feel just scream “Rock ‘n Roll”, but as you sit and listen to the sound, you will realize that the dominance is mostly classical. As of right now, they may not be as popular as Trans-Siberian Orchestra (even though this album currently sits 69th overall in the US Billboard Top 200), but there was a time when they were the go-to band for unconventional Christmas music. If you have never heard anything by them, I highly suggest you check out some of the samples on YouTube, and if you are a big fan, go out and buy this album—you will not regret it!