It’s not all that often in the current musical landscape that you hear a band who can convincingly lay claim to having an original sound – yet since their formation in 1995, Portugese extreme metal quintet The Firstborn have expanded exponentially beyond the black metal roots of their conception. By using Buddhist spirituality and philosophy as the wellspring of their inspiration, and by incorporating exotic, Oriental instrumentation and influences into their expansive, progressive compositions, the band have flourished into an outfit whose albums stand as challenging, engrossing, and – I kid you not – thought-provoking pieces of work.
Sure, those black metal roots I alluded to can still be discerned in their sound – there are buffetting currents of blizzard-tossed tremolo-picking conjured by guitarists Nuno Gervásio and Filipe Lima during ‘Eight Flashing Lances’ that recall Enslaved at their most icily spiteful, while the nerve-jangling riff that opens ‘Vajra Eyes’ carries a langourous menace that could have been spawned by a drowsy Satyricon – however, the band’s Oriental and Buddhist influences carry them much further afield. In each of the seven lengthy compositions that make up Lions Among Men, equal amidst the traditional metallic instrumentation are the contributions of Luís Simões, who provides layers of sitar, percussion, sampling and synths which suffuse and support the dense, yet never overbearing arrangements. While the rhythm section of drummer Rolando Barros and bassist Hélder Malícia provide the requisite bottom-end heft and percussive bludgeon to ground The Firstborn’s extreme metal credentials (while also doing well to work within the detailed arrangements and provide intricate, interesting, yet never ostentatious parts – see the waterfalls of cymbal crashes and thunderous tom-thumping Barros delivers during ‘Nothing Attained, Nothing Spoken’s crescendos, for example), it’s a combination of Gervásio and Lima’s note choices and Simões’ exotic accoutrements that really sell The Firstborn‘s otherness.
All this is not to say that vocalist Bruno Fernandes doesn’t play his part, however – in fact, his gruff, hoarse-throated, yet perfectly legible delivery of the album’s lyrics anchors the listener when the swirling, intertwining melodic layers threaten to overwhelm. Fernandes’ mantra-like repetition of phrases such as “Wantless in all the world become” during ‘Wantless’ and “Tonight all weapons fall and turn to dust / rust devours iron as iron breeds rust” during ‘Eight Flashing Lances’ provide something akin to a meditative focal point – a steady through-line and a centering influence to proceedings.
What’s most remarkable about Lions Among Men is how complete and fully-realised an album it is. Every moment gives the impression that a great deal of time was spent refining and reworking these songs until they expressed exactly the thematic and philosophic concerns the band were shooting for. See ‘Wantless’, for example – a song whose structure seems, to these ears, to support its meaning. From the foundation of a cyclic, spare, palm-muted rhythm riff and Fernandes’ mantra-like repetition of the song’s key line, the music gradually builds in intensity – Barros’ drumming becoming ever more intricate and involved, the lead guitar increasing in volume and pitch, while Fernandes’ initially calm intonations become more tortured, as though fighting the distractions of the material world – until, with a pained scream, all is reduced to quiet, and Fernandes’ calm is restored – a moment of serenity borne painfully from self-abnegation.
Of course, I could well be reading way too much into it – but that in itself should stand as testament to Lions Among Men‘s worth. When was the last time you heard an album that had the potential to inspire that sort of reflection? Of course, as are all things in this world, Lions Among Men is imperfect – it’s by no means an immediate listen, retaining a pretty constant mid-tempo gait for most of its running time. This makes it a challenging, demanding listen – certainly not the kind of thing you put on to pump yourself up at the gym. For those willing to give themselves over to it, however, Lions Among Men is likely to prove to be an album that reveals more of itself the longer it’s considered.