Excalion – Once Upon a Time Review

I opened my review for Excalion’s 2019 opus, Emotions with the words “Once upon a time,” and here we are almost four years later with their sixth album, Once Upon a Time! Clearly, Steel has real clout in the power metal universe! I’ve been a fan of this Finnish power metal outfit since I stumbled upon their 2007 sophomore outing, Waterlines, which remains one of my favorite albums in the genre. Since then Excalion have proved to be reliable purveyors of punchy, catchy power with enough muscle and grit to satisfy those among us who do not own frilly pirate shirts. They even survived a 7-year layoff to come back with 2017s stunning Dream Alive. I wasn’t quite as enamored with their Emotions followup, but it was still a solid piece of Euro-power with killer moments. I hoped for a rebound to bigger things and now Once Upon a Time offers the band a chance to return to the upper tier of power rankings. Can they make like the fairy tale hero and climb the steep Mountain ov Power?

I’m happy to report that this is a feel good story. Once Upon a Time reminds me why I gravitated to Excalion and their songwriting chops sound revitalized. Opening mood piece, “Keitele” is almost Amorphis-like in its subdued grace and melancholic guitars. From there the power flows wild and free. Cuts like “Resolution” and “Soulbound” are classic Excalion, using every trick to get your power bar glowing. Marcus Lång continues to sound almost exactly like Marco Hietala (Tarot, Nightwish) which is both cool and uncanny, and his vocals are a big part of the attraction. Large choruses and oodles  of vocal hooks will be enjoyed, especially on the rowdy, rabble-rousing “Soulbound.” I can’t stop spinning this one and it may be one of my favorite Excalion tunes. It sounds a whole lot like a Tarot tune, but that’s fine by me. One of the selling points for Excalion is the relative heaviness they bring to the genre, with the guitars mean and meaty enough to carry the material without things ever feeling overly melodic or watered down. That’s the case here too, thankfully.

There are a collection of really entertaining, uber-catchy cuts here. “Words Cannot Heal” is an extra heavy crunch-fest with simmering power and just the right touch of melodic keyboards. Marcus Lång comes heavy and hard and sells the dramatic writing and you’ll buy it. This is Euro-power with balls and that’s a win in a genre predisposed toward sounding neutered and weak. “Amuse Me” sounds like an escapee from Once-era Nightwish with eerie carnival keyboards offset against crunchy guitars, and “I Am I” is straight-up Excalion in all its classic glory. The standout moment is “Radiant Halo,” which is easily one of the most addicting songs in the band’s catalog. It’s rocking and aggressive with a huge chorus and it sticks like fresh dog poo in the treads of a new hiking boot. The only song that falls short is oddball closer “Band of Brothers.” This one goes for a strange, overly-syncopated, proggy flair and ends up sounding awkward and irritating. At 57-plus minutes, Once Upon a Time doesn’t feel long and actually feels way shorter than it is. The mix provides plenty of heft to the guitar. giving it the necessary bite to keep things heavy even when the keyboards trill and sparkle.

Though I’ll always miss original frontman, Jarmo Pääkkönen, Marcus Lång has more than cemented his place in the band since joining in time for Dream Alive. I love his voice and he brings a raw intensity to the material that makes things darker and a touch meaner. He’s quite versatile too, capable of convincing on softer pieces like “When a Moment Turns into a Lifetime” and “Eternals” only to drop the hammer on you for the burners like “Soulbound.” Once again, Aleksi Hirvonen handles all the guitar work and does it very well. He’s adept at layering heavy riffs alongside fluid, beautiful soloing and he interfaces very well with Jarmo Myllyvirta’s keyboards, The songwriting is the real star here though. This a cracking dose of power metal with hooks lurking around every corner. Play this two times through and you’ll be a believer. When Excalion hit their groove, few bands can equal them for memorable tuneage and there’s enough of that stuff here to impress.

I hoped for a better release than we got on Emotions, and Excalion brought the thunder for Once Upon a Time. This will please pretty much any power metal fan and appeal to those outside that nerd herd as well. Consider this a fairy tale for the greasy metalhead set and you’re guaranteed a happy ending. No, not that kind, you freaks! Report to the Narnia review, because you all need Jesus.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 256 kbps mp3
Label: Scarlet Records
Websites: excalion.com | facebook.com/excalionband
Releases Worldwide: March 24th, 2023

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