The rhapsodic return of excess all areas

Rock opera is back – and one bombastic band is leading the charge. Simon Hardeman fears the rebirth of a bloated monster
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The Independent Culture

It's enough to have old punks sobbing into their safety-pin collection.

Rock opera, that monster symbol of Seventies rock excess, is back, and, like Godzilla wading across the ocean, it is heading this way. It has been given new life by a musical Dr Frankenstein called Paul O'Neill, a guitarist, producer and promoter who has created a behemoth called Trans-Siberian Orchestra, made them one of the top five live attractions in the US, and recorded a clutch of platinum albums. Now they have their first UK release – Night Castle, a sprawling tale of orphaned children, gothic locations, love and death set to a patchwork of classical music, power balladeering and heavy-metal riffing that debuted at No 5 in the Billboard album chart – and their first-ever European dates are in the offing.

We can't say we haven't been warned. Every savvy act and promoter knows that live shows are where the money is made these days, and the bigger the live bang, the bigger the buck from the turnstile. To tap into this, acts, from U2 to The Flaming Lips, have had more and more elaborate live shows. To nail the point home, Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds has been on tour, bringing back memories of the worst excesses of the 1970s pre-punk pomposities that reached their apotheosis in such ridiculous spectacles as Rick Wakeman's The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table performed on ice.

The standard-bearers of the new rock opera aren't Trans, Siberian, or an orchestra, but they ARE Big. They have made their name over the last decade and a half in the US with stupefyingly elaborate Christmas shows – their first three albums were festive rock-operas, cranked-up versions of carols and classical tunes whose live variants proved so popular that at one point the band even split themselves in half, a TSO East touring the Atlantic wing of the US and TSO West doing the Pacific side. Guest vocalists have included Roger Daltrey, Jon Anderson and Michael Crawford and, in a nod to that Seventies symphonic-rock excess, ELP's Greg Lake has played bass. Seven million concert tickets and seven million albums have been shipped in the last ten years, their 2008 tour made them the second most popular live act in the US, and all their Christmas albums have gone platinum.

The whole thing is down to O'Neill, a musician and businessman who has managed and produced for hard-rock heavyweights Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Humble Pie and The Scorpions. In the Eighties he created the first pop festivals in Japan and promoted tours by Madonna, Sting and many other major acts.

I had a preview at New York's landmark Radio City Music Hall of TSO and the rock opera they will play in Europe – a cod-Faustian mix of diabolic temptation and borrowed music called Beethoven's Last Night. It's a kaleidoscope of size-is-everything stagecraft, performed by a band with a multitude of lead vocalists and big-haired guitarists, a narrator, ranks of backing singers and strings, a huge computerised backdrop featuring Californian-gothic scenes, and featuring reams of portentous narration. At one point I had to turn my eyes from the stage because the show was so dazzling it hurt (one spectator has described their live show as containing enough pyrotechnics to barbecue an entire school of blue whales).

Their next project is based on the Russian Revolution – "it's a subject larger than life – Rasputin, Beria, oh my God, these characters are too good to be true," they say. I remind them that the first explosion of rock opera ended in the proletarian uprising that was punk. I don't think they are bothered. If it happened again they would probably co-opt the best tunes, turn it into a rock opera, and sell it on.

'Night Castle' is released on 18 October. UK and European tour dates are at