There was a time not so long ago I would have argued for Excalion being one of the best Euro-power acts out there. 2007s Waterlines was and is one of my most played albums in the genre, and 2010s High Time followup was more polished but no less striking and addictive. It seemed as if the band was on the verge of breaking into the next level and giving Sonata Arctica and Stratovarious some serious competition. Then the guns fell silent and Excalion disappeared. I wrote them off as another promising act that died before reaching their full potential and moved on. Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised to see their name floating in our promo bay and I hoped they could pick up where they left off nearly a decade ago. Dream Alive sees the Finnish power metallers returning from limbo with a new singer and guitarist, but their songwriting prowess remains as potent as ever. That means the top dogs of Euro-power should be very nervous and looking over their frilly shoulder pads.
As soon as opener “Divergent Falling” gets rolling, the classic Excalion sound returns in all its keyboard-drenched glory. They borrow a good deal from vintage Stratovarious, but with the addition of new singer Marcus Lang (Force Majeure), they sound a lot like fellow Finns Tarot, as Lang is a dead ringer for Marco Hietala. The song is loaded with catchy vocal lines, keyboard fills and a chorus that’s part metal, part Broadway spectacle. It’s something Stratovarius could have written in their prime and it’s pure crack for power metal aficionados. Followup “Centenarian” is even better and an album high point, wih a sound mixing and matching Symphony X, Conception and early Kamelot for a rip-roaring power metal tune I can’t stop spinning. The whip snapping riff-work teams perfectly with the keyboards and Lang lays down the goods with a huge vocal performance culminating in a slobberknocker of a chorus.
The goods keep falling off the turnip truck with power ditties “Marching Masquerade” and “Release the Time” reviving the golden age of Finnish power. “Deadwater Bay” is a big, overwrought pirate yarn with a huge Tarot influence and it’s more fun than a bouncy houses with beer taps. “Man Alive” and “Living Daylights” are just pure power metal saccharine and cheddar and all the better for it. When I saw the album ended with an 11-minute epic, I was worried it could damage the fun ride Dream Alive was turning out to be. Turns out I worried for nothing as “Portrait on the Wall” is just as good as the rest of the album and manages to avoid the pitfalls many power metal bands fall into with long compositions. They take the best tricks and treats from Sonata Arctica and Tarot and weave an entertaining and surprisingly emotional tale that keeps the listener wired in by using recurring refrains and themes. They even work in a moody, depressive segment straight from the Evergrey playbook. It’s definitely one of the catchier long pieces I’ve ever heard and I’m duly impressed they pulled it off.
There isn’t a bad song to be found on Dream Alive, and even though it clocks in just shy of an hour, it doesn’t feel long at all. Quite the opposite actually. Every song is hook-laden, memorable and most importantly, fun. The energy level is almost always high and there’s an infectious urgency to it that keeps me coming back for more. The sound is above-average with a nice balance between guitar, keys and vocals and it thankfully lacks that brickwalled crush much recent power metal suffers from.
I was initially disappointed that original vocalist Jarmo Pääkkönen was out of the band, as I loved vocal-work on their previous albums as well as his commitment to umlauts. It didn’t take long for Lang to win me over though. He’s a more polished, versatile singer with a less prominent accent and fewer struggles with English, though he lacks Jarmo’s wild upper-range. Lang cleaves very close to Marco Heitala for much of Dream Alive, but as I always loved his work with Tarot and Nightwish, that’s not an issue. Aleksi Hirvonen uses a slightly heavier than expected guitar tone that makes the material sound less foofy and he excels at crafting driving, memorable leads and harmonies. The core of the band remains intact and most importantly, so does the top-notch, slick song writing. This is such an easy, infectious spin, it takes me back to when I was falling in love with the genre for the first time with the early Helloween albums.
Excalion has successfully shrugged off a 6-plus year absence and somehow picked up exactly where they left off. In doing so they’ve given me another reason to argue for their genre ascendancy and to recommend them enthusiastically. This could be the power metal Album o’ the Year, so if you haven’t heard Excalion yet, check this out as well as their last 2 albums. Fans of Euro-power will be very glad they did.