Album Review: Narnia – “Narnia”

You know, if someone had told me that there was a band out there called Narnia who basically wrote material based on The Chronicles of Narnia before this arrived in my inbox, I’d have thought you were joking. I don’t mean that as an insult to the band, but, as I have actually read the entire series myself quite a few times myself, I can honestly say that I would never have thought the series was really a series that would have suited a metal treatment before now (a folk-classical fusion a la The Lord of the Rings soundtrack, maybe), so I would not have believed anyone had actually done it.

Yet this did indeed arrive and it is indeed legit (the band have been around for about twenty years), so I can add “Narnia metal” to the list of things that I didn’t think existed that actually do, a list which has recently had to add metalhead MPs onto it…

Anyway, for those wondering who Narnia are, they’re a Swedish Christian power metal band (specifically, Christian neoclassical power metal, which has to be the longest description for a band which I have put in a review since I tried to describe Amaranthe’s sound as “melodic power pop core” back in my blogging days) that formed in 1996, disbanded in 2010 and reformed in 2014. So this is basically their comeback album, for all intents and purposes. The band’s previous discography is comprised of six studio albums, which are 1997’s Awakening, 1999’s Long Live the King, 2001’s Desert Land, 2003’s The Great Fall, 2006’s Enter the Gate and 2009’s Course of a Generation, as well as two splits, a live video/album, and a compilation record (which I’ll let interested people hunt out in their own time).

The members of the band probably won’t be familiar to most people, but I was quite surprised to learn that I should have recognised bassist Andreas Olssen and drummer Andreas Johansson, as they are both in Royal Hunt at the minute, and guitarist (among a bunch of other things which I am not listing because I’m too lazy to type another few words less than this acknowledgement of my laziness is) Carl-Johan Grimdark, as he was part of Beautiful Sin (although he didn’t actually play on their album, so I don’t think that’s an unreasonable thing to miss). The three of them also currently play with Rob Rock’s band, although I will admit right now that I am actually not familiar with Rob Rock’s discography at all, so this is more interesting trivia than interesting else. The two members I haven’t mentioned are vocalist Christian Rivel-Liljegren (who I wasn’t familiar with before this record crossed my path, but who I’ve learnt is currently also part of 7days, Audiovision, DivineFire and Golden Resurrection and runs the record label Liljegren Records, so he’s definitely a busy man!) and keyboardist Martin Harenstam (who I can only find previous information on with regards to his guest appearance on vocals on Oblivion’s 2002 album Renewal and his previous time in Forest of Shadows as a guitarist, so I’ll admit that I can’t find a huge amount about him).

So yeah, now that we know who Narnia are, let’s ask the important question here: is Narnia good? Well…yes and no. On the one hand, it is about as cliche as you can get when it comes to power metal and doesn’t really bring anything to the table which power metal fans haven’t heard done better before…but, on the other hand, there’s nothing technically BAD about this record either, as I’ve heard far worse records than this in the past and I can see why people would like this record.

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Musically speaking, this record is very much what you would expect to hear from a neoclassical power metal record: complex guitar solos, strong use of keyboards, song structures that are somewhat influenced by classical music without crossing into the usual progressive metal cliches, strong vocals and solid musicianship in general. Nothing wrong here, but nothing that really separates it from what anyone else is doing in the genre. I will be fair and point out that Narnia don’t sound like every other neoclassical power metal band out there, so they at least avoid sounding unoriginal, but their sound has definitely been done before and it is easy to lump them in with a lot of typical power metal bands because a lot of what they do can sound a lot like your typical power metal band on a casual listen, with the only real thing separating them from most typical power metal bands being the guitar solos, which sound more than a bit like what you’d expect to hear from Timo Tolkki. In fact, I would argue that Narnia are kind of like Stratovarius, only with less speed in general and less keyboards.

The band’s songwriting is actually not too bad, but I don’t think they pull off anything that really reaches the heights it needs to in order to convince people who aren’t necessarily fans to stick with them. Some songs definitely have their moments which work very well (I really like the chorus of “I Still Believe”, “Moving On” and “One Way to the Promised Land” have some great guitar work in their main guitar riffs and the guitar solos are always a joy to listen to), but the problem is that none of the songs really pull together to become truly great as a whole. After my first listen, I found that I was struggling to remember much of the record and that didn’t really change much as I listened to it more and more. To the band’s credit, the only song that I really felt I had to skip because I was so bored by it was “Thank You” (which calling a slow build is charitable because that implies the song actually builds up to something), but there’s a lot of the record where my overwhelming vibe was polite disinterest, waiting for it to actually do something particularly impressive and feeling a bit disappointed when that wasn’t actually happening.

I normally would break down the performance side of the record in general, but, as this is neoclassical power metal, I don’t think this is really all that necessary, as the performances are pretty solid on an overall level. There isn’t anything that would blow people away who are familiar with the best of the genre, but there’s no performances that are actually bad on this record. I do think Rivel-Liljegren sounds like the years have caught up with him a bit from the bits of the band’s debut that I checked out, as his voice has a slight bit of a quiver to it which makes him sound a bit older than he probably should do, but he still sounds recognisably like himself and his faintly Dio-esque voice works well enough with the band’s music that it’s hard to say that he has lost anything beyond a bit of range over the years (the latter of which happens to pretty much everyone, so it’s not really his fault that one has happened). Credit to the guy for keeping his voice in good shape over the years, at least!

The production on the record is acceptable, but I think it could have easily been better. The mix emphasises the guitars and drums, which isn’t a problem in and of itself, but the bass and keyboards end up being somewhat drowned out by them in this case, so I think the record could have done with turning them down a tiny bit and enhancing the presence of the bass and keyboards on the record. The sound of the record is…I can’t quite put my issue with it into words, but something about the sound of the record feels too “studio-ish”, if you pardon the odd way of putting it. It just has the usual digital production vibe to it without any real attempt to remove the slightly plastic feeling of it, which I don’t normally have a problem with, but it really bugged me here for some reason. Maybe it’s just that the end result feels like it lacks something to bring it to life, but I just find the sound of the record feels a bit too…well, “studio-ish”, as I put it earlier. With all that said, the actual mastering feels reasonably fine, so I can’t fault the mastering of it too much. It’s not a BAD production job at all, as I can hear the instruments fine and they’ve definitely been recorded properly, but it made a few decisions which I honestly can’t say I like much and which I think hamper it more than it should have done.

Ultimately, Narnia just feels like it would sit in the pile of “generic neoclassical power metal” records that most people wouldn’t take a second look into unless they were really huge fans of the genre. That said, I do recognise that it’s a competent record which isn’t anywhere near bad enough to be worthy of outright scorn and that there’s things which I can see people liking about this record. Speaking as someone who isn’t a previously established fan of Narnia, I can’t say this was good enough to make me want to check them out more, but I don’t think it’s a bad enough record to really encourage any real dislike of it. It’s just…meh. Diehard fans of neoclassical power metal should find this worth a look into, but I don’t think it’s strong enough to win over anyone else, unfortunately.

Narnia will be released on the 18th of September by Narnia Songs. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.

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