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The Firstborn play 'avant garde black metal', apparently. Not a bad concept in and of itself, it's great when a band attempts to throw out the rulebook altogether and approach composition with a fresh outlook. Unfortunately a lot of bands in this style don't actually do anything like this, including The Firstborn. Let me explain.
'The Noble Search' reminds me of The Woods of Ypres and Ihsahn, that is to say, they attempt to be more unique or progressive by combining extreme metal with more conventional styles of music. I've never, ever understood the mentality behind this, but apparently combing the aesthetic of black metal with more popular, easy listening styles of music is a seen as a valid form of high artistic expression. It's one step forward, two steps back. Rather than taking black metal into new, unexplored territories and allowing the music to truly progress, most 'progressive' black metal bands go back and play 'normal' music mixed with black metal, their music having a lot of traits that I turned to black metal to escape from!
The music here is mostly here is mostly mid-paced and groovy, with lots of accesible riffs with a certain oriental flavour to them. Mixed in are the occasional atonal riffs and leads, the kind you find in Deathspell Omega type orthodox black metal, and both are sadly pretty generic. The vocals range from extreme metal growls and rasps and clean moaned vocals that aren't necessarily very distinctive. The drumming is capably played, sometimes playing faster rhythms over some slower riffs. I don't remember the bass doing anything particularly distinctive so I presume it merely holds the rhythm and nothing more. There is the occasional oriental instrument mixed in, although not playing anything particularly interesting, they sound authentic although they could be sampled. The dynamics of the songs don't really interest me very much, there's a bit of tempo change here, but the song usually comes back to it's standard recurring theme and doesn't really go anywhere particularly unusual or interesting.
There are some parts that are...I dunno...catchy I guess? But they sound forced and don't really come naturally, more annoyingly addictive than anything. Annoying is the wrong word, the music here isn't necessarily annoying and I can switch off why it's on, it just isn't remotely interesting at all. It's not bad music at all, and I expect that fans of bands like Opeth and the aforementioned Ihsahn would drool over this, maybe Mastodon fans aswell. I guess you could say the music is neither here nor there...it's not strange enough to intrigue me, but it's not memorable or catchy enough to compete with a lot of other 'conventional' bands. I do like certain parts, I think the band should have focused more on the faster, more fiercer black metal moments - the song 'Flesh to the Crows' is cool and an albums worth of similar material would have been good. Unfortunately the band spent most of their time in boringville and I really don't get much enjoyment out of this, even if it's not really a bad album. It does nothing to insult me, but nothing to interest me either. There's a crowd that will definitely enjoy this, but I'm not part of it.
It's not a very common sentence (the one in the title) to be found inside a metal c.d. case, but there it is, inside The Firstborn’s newest pearl - The Noble Search. With it, the Portuguese band manages to establish itself as one of the best and most refreshing groups to come out of this small country and why not say it: they are now in the same league as most well-known bands of this genre.
One of the things immediately strikes one who looks to the case and reads the lyrics is the theme: everything in The Noble Search is about Buddhism. If in their previous record (The Unclenching of Fists) they focused only on the Tibetan ‘Book Of The Dead’ (something like Bardo Thödol), they now broadened their views, spreading them towards the various angles one can choose to look into this philosophy. Like Nile does, they include a little text after every song, explaining the meaning of the lyrics, which makes for a very interesting listening experience.
The music itself is not far from what they’ve done in previous works, but more polished, complex and containing fewer samples, allowing the final product to flow better and seem more natural in one way and to be more dynamic in another.
The message starts to spread with full strength in the opener, Illumination of the Five Realms, whose starting minutes are of sheer power, highlighted by the brutal performance of their drummer, Rolando Barros. Nevertheless containing one of the most harsh vocal performances from Bruno Fernandes, the song is also very dynamic, containing those characteristic oscillations between heaviness and a somewhat more relaxed atmosphere with all those oriental ornaments being masterfully delivered by a special guest (here lays one of the reasons for the reduced use of samples) – Luís Simões from Saturnia (not the Finnish band), who plays an instrument called sitar.
From the first song on, Bruno is not alone in the vocals duty (although he sings the majority of the lines) as he’s joined by Process of Guilt (Portuguese Doom band) growler Hugo Santos, who has one of the most powerful, deep and yet defined roars I’ve ever listened to. The balance between Bruno’s clean vocals, his trademark harsh screams and the brutality in Hugo’s voice is one of the many reasons why this is a must listen to album, some of the others being that The Firstborn has accomplished to create a truly unique sound, being able to melt together extreme metal with oriental atmospheres like only a few can.
Some of the most shining examples are: 'sunyata (The Wisdom of Emptiness), which stands as one of the most experimental songs in this recording and where Bruno’s clean voice comes out in its full potential, culminating in that beautiful repetition of the whispered sentence “empty in the past, in the presence in the future”; there’s also the demolishing In Praise of Reality, featuring some brutal riffs that just make you want to bang your head; Flesh to the Crows has the most well-known guest, Proscriptor McGovern of Absu, and is also a hell of a song. Last and (definitely) not least is the ‘grand finale’ Ocean of the one Vehicle: what a finisher! Like a living and breathing entity, it develops slowly, taking it’s time in an almost sludgy way and finally entering that beautiful chorus (“we, who were like streams, we became as one with the ocean”) that can get printed in your brain for days.
Truth be told, every song has that something special that makes it worth to listen to so there are no fillers here. Probably, the best metal album to ever come out of Portugal and I’m not denying the quality of other bands, this is just an amazing piece of metal (and I’ve given it some months to see if it would get old, which it obviously didn’t). To finish, I would like to quote some fine lines that Bruno wrote/screamed during In Praise of Reality:
“Through knowing reality, there is liberation. Always abide in oneself.”