While the incorporation of ethnic musical influences and lyrical themes is nothing new to metal, its practice seems to have become more popular in the last five years or so and there appears to be a couple of ways this has been done. One way has been to simply toss some exotic instrumentation into the mix; add a few tribal hand-drum intros and outros, layer some sitar samples over your riffs, throw in a spoken or chanted interlude or two and there you go: instant eclecticism. Except that way sucks. It’s transparently superfluous, and devoid of soul and substance. The other way involves the thoughtful melding of cultural and spiritual symbolism into a heartfelt, honestly conceived brand of heavy metal that purveys a message or story to which the band clearly resonates. This is the path taken by the best bands of this style: Melechesh contemplate Middle and Near Eastern occultism via Mesopotamian metal; Rudra espouse Hindu philosophy through what they’ve termed Vedic metal; using what has been called Oriental/Middle Eastern metal, Orphaned Land ponder contrasts of good and evil as illustrated in the writings of the Abrahamic religions; and, of course, Nile virtually invented Egyptian/Middle Eastern death metal. Though outside of the Portugese metal underground most haven’t heard of The Firstborn, you can count them among the pantheon of outstanding ethnic metal bands or, if you bristle at the thought of a new subgenre, bands that artfully infuse ethnic influences into their metal. The Firstborn call what they do Buddhist metal, which at first seems an unlikely alliance of ideas but, with time, shows itself to be a most appropriate vehicle.
The Noble Search, or Ariyapariyesana, an autobiographical account of The Buddha upon which The Firstborn’s third album is based, makes much of the notion that enlightenment comes as the result of prolonged self-reflection and not as a singular moment of rhapsodic revelation. The Noble Search, the album, demanding no less from the listener, is a complex record with little thought to comfortable structure or familiar rhyme and meter. It runs the gamut from trancelike tribalisms nestled within ponderous, meandering guitar textures to thunderous modern death metal to tortuous, progressive black metal affectation, each element representing at once a singular moment in time and an integral, unavoidable next step in the journey to nirvana. The piquant contrast of thick, elephantine riffing with the esoteric twang of floating sitar melody on opener “Illumination of the Five Realms” sets the scene for what is to be an exploration of the dissonant realities of self and non-self, existence and non-existence, the very nature of being and non-being. “Water Transformation” ushers in the first stage of enlightenment with contemplative tribal undercurrents that slowly swell to abstract, torrential rhythmic swirls and finally to elegantly sanguine soloing symbolic of spiritual rebirth. And this is where things get really interesting, as the apparent dichotomy of Buddhist reticence and heavy metal recalcitrance is blasted to cosmic dust. It is well known, the image of a monk sitting in Lotus position, striving for ultimate awareness through quiet meditation. The Firstborn paint this picture a little differently as the third track unleashes a suffocating barrage of blastbeats hurling forth desperate blackened riffs while guest vocalist Proscriptor (awesome move, guys) screams triumphantly that he is Aware, his human body now but “Flesh to the Crows.” Apparently, awareness is no fucking joke.
Continuing along this path, The Noble Search illustrates the various stages of transformation into enlightenment, all the while burnishing the narrative with incredible displays of musicianship and outstanding songwriting. The percussion on The Noble Search is worthy of particular note, a special example of how each tiny piece of this record – every beat, note, and accent – seems to be meticulously designed and placed just so, to maximize its impact on the greater whole. Rolando Barros is, no doubt, a monstrous beast at the kit, absolutely relentless throughout the album’s eight tracks, but the true testament to his brilliance is that he is equally at home during the record’s more restrained, contemplative moments, of which there are many. And in another notable casting move, The Firstborn enlisted the talents of percussionist-savant Vorskaath, of Zemial, whose presence is felt throughout the experience in the many and varied tribal accoutrements. All of the extra instrumentation is played by real people, including the sitar, and although a moderately muted production job detracts a little from individual impact, the overall contribution of the ornamentation is compelling and authentic.
The Noble Search comes to its end at “The Ocean of the One Vehicle,” a down-tempo colossus of a coda that tells of the confluence of rivers (ordinary acts of people) at the sea of ignorance and its transformation into the great treasure-ocean, which comes about as The ice of self-afflicting blind Passion melts,/ And becomes the water of Virtues. So, this is heavy, heady stuff and, as such, the casual listener isn’t likely to get much out of this album. For those who fancy themselves a little more cerebral or even spiritual in their approach to heavy metal, or who simply enjoy an eclectic album that takes some time to digest, The Noble Search represents a rich, rewarding listening experience.