Amongst most people to whom I’ve posited the idea, “Buddhist Metal” seems an oxymoron. The common perception of Buddhism as a philosophy of peace and happiness espoused by gentle smiling Buddhas seems incongruous with the spirit of metal. However the Portuguese band “The Firstborn” have over the last few years been very diligently and seriously been creating just such a genre of music. Their music oscillates between pummeling riffs, blast beats, psychedelic sitar sections, and mellow interludes while their lyrics espouse Buddhism and Buddhist themes. The only real comparison I can make is to the Singaporean band Rudra, who create what they call “Vedic metal.” Just like Rudra, The Firstborn creates informed and sincere expressions of their respective spiritual tradition, accompanied by intricately designed album booklets with revealing footnotes and explanations. The Noble Search is The Firstborn’s third full length album, and their second Buddhist one.
The first song is “Illumination of the Five Realms.” This introduction to the album starts off with some standard riffs and some interesting, descending drumming before the vocals start in offering praise and homage to the Buddha, a standard preface to every Buddhist text. This song describes the very context for the Buddhist path, a universe where all sentient beings are stuck in states of suffering driven by their own karma. This song is the most conventional on the album, and its sitar sections at 2:23 and 3:55 foreshadow the psychedelic aspects of the remainder of the album.
This next song, “Water Transformation,” starts off very slowly and smoothly before launching into some bizarre abstract songwriting. This song’s theme is purification, glossed as “transformation” throughout the song’s lyrics. There is a strong psychedelic influence in this song, starting with the riffing at 1:36. At 2:00 tribal chanting leads up to a particularly brutally delivered chorus, a standout in the album as a whole:
“transformed — through mudra,
transformed — through mantra,
transformed — through samadhi,
united with the dharmakaya.”
These vocals are amongst the most extreme on the album, highlighting the apparent dissonance between the subject matter and the style of music. Pummeling drumming follows and whispered vocals follow that before leading into more traditional vocals at 2:59. Another brutal chorus follows, followed by another punishing chorus. Sitar notes and a guitar solo follow and lead into an extremely psychedelic outro.
The third song, “Flesh to the Crows,” focuses on another fundamental aspect of Buddhism: non-attachment to the physical body. Awareness of the body’s arising factors and its eventual demise is foundational in Buddhism, and the song’s lyrics repeatedly exhort the listener to do just that. Drumming and a psychedelic start lead into this very fast song. Tribal drumming sets in at 1:18 amidst the super speed segments. A sitar section starts at 1:55 which leads into a mellow section leading into a slower and more deliberate “Impermanent in Sati” section.
The next song Sunyata (The Wisdom of Emptiness), enjoys a slow and mellow start with interesting percussion and calming vocals. This song is about a foundational part of Mahayana philosophy: the Perfection of Wisdom, a deep and nonconceptual understanding of the emptiness (sunyata) of all phenomena, which frees oneself from the shackles of all extreme views and reference points. The calm and mellow atmosphere shifts abruptly at 1:48 with my favorite chorus from the album, what I call the “Bodhisattva” chorus for its a pummeling cry of BODHISATTVA! Soon afterwards we have a very slow buildup in which the vocalist slowly recites “empty, in the past, in the present, in the future” for two minutes straight. This leads us into some guitar riffing and another Bodhisattva chorus. A dissonant section starts at 5:18 leading into a mellow outro.
The fifth song, “The Noble Search,” is a very dissonant song on a dissonant album. This song is a distillation of the Buddhist path in general, with the exhortation to search and take refuge in the three jewels (Buddha, dharma, sangha) The chorus: “Go for refuge in the Buddha, Go for refuge in the dharma, Go for refuge in the sangha” is sung in a low, barely distinguishable groan. This exhortation is almost completely buried within the music, and dissonant guitar riffs and blast beats continue until an interesting percussive section starts at 3:24 leads into another buried “Go for refuge section” and more dissonance.
Chugging guitars and blast beats start off the next song “In Praise of Reality.” Reality is here praised as the “dharmadhatu,” translated in the footnotes as “sphere of reality.” Not quite meaning “essence,” the dharmadhatu is the inner truth eternally present. A great chorus at 0:55
“For it is not produced,
It never ceases,
It is stainless,
In the beginning, middle, and end”
The ineffable but knowable dharmadhatu is what ultimately confers enlightenment, and it is present within all of us. While teachers may help to show us the path, our ultimate refuge is to the Buddha within ourselves, primordially present. This song also highlights the talents of the vocalist, and his range of singing is particularly evident from 1:51 until 2:15. A slow psychedelic interlude with sitars starts at 3:10, leading into more vocals praising reality.
The next sonic offering, “Bliss,” is a consistently brutal track, also probably the most esoteric song on the album. There’s a preponderance of screamed vocals, with some very interesting clean bits interspersed throughout. This song is concerned with Tantric Buddhism, with what is perhaps Tantra’s catchphrase “That which shackles the ignorant liberates the wise,” being brutally screamed at 1:04 (This is a teaching that runs through both Buddhist and Hindu Tantra). The footnotes given on this song’s page in the CD booklet demonstrate the erudition of this band. The footnotes briefly discuss the late first millennium tantric adepts called siddhas, as well as the dohas (songs) they would write. This reference is crucial as the lyrics mirror many of the ideas espoused in these songs; I invite readers to consult this book in parallel with this song’s lyrics to see for themselves. This song and its footnotes make it clear that this band should be taken very seriously, even if one doesn’t particularly appreciate the music.
Guitars and Sitars start off the last song, “Ocean of the One Vehicle.” Very slow vocals start soon afterwards and dominate the song throughout. This song describes the “One Vehicle,” none other than the path of the Buddhas, tirelessly slogged through by Bodhisattvas. This song has another favorite chorus of mine, starting at 2:31 and 4:08:
“We who were like streams, we became as one with the Ocean
We who were like streams, we became as one in the Ocean”
The streams referred to here are sentient beings who strive towards enlightenment, and who have broken through to enlightenment through their reliance on Great Compassion and Perfect Virtue. This is a song celebrating victory at the attainment of the goal, the end of the Noble Search. At this point the goal has been reached, and the defilements of our own evil has been transformed into an ocean of virtue, and we rise above like a beautiful lotus. The song ends with an extended torture session, a very dissonant piece of music that extends for a full minute before tapering off, ending the album.
While I listen to a great deal of dissonant music, I find The Firstborn’s music to be uniquely oppressive. For some perspective my two favorite bands are Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega, neither of whom have a reputation for easy listening. I have to admit that I struggle with this band and its music. For me I understand the dissonance of this album to invoke the oppressive feel of samsara itself as a vehicle for delivering harsh truths, an overall package not particularly palatable for those seeking to lose themselves in hedonistic abandon. This album is very much “tough love” in its approach, but has much to offer if given the chance. This is an intricately constructed album, and not just a sophomoric attempt at pointless noise. Every element is precisely placed, and its lyrics are so perfectly Buddhist that this album functions like the performance of a sutra or sadhana text more than anything else. In addition the footnotes are written in excellent and illuminating scholarly prose, showing how well informed the band is about the subject and the nuances and debates surrounding it. Overall this is a very well constructed album, and while one can question whether its presentation is the most skillful, one cannot question the sincerity, labor, and love that went into it.
Label: Major Label Industries
Avantgenre: Buddhist Psychedelic Avantgarde Metal
Official site: None
Review online since: 24.03.2013 / 12:28:07
01 – Illumination Of The Five Realms
02 – Water Transformation
03 – Flesh To The Crows
04 – Sunyata (The Wisdom Of Emptiness)
05 – The Noble Search
06 – In Praise Of Reality
07 – Bliss
08 – Ocean Of The One Vehicle