After four years since their last album Portuguese metalers The Firstborn returned this month with one of the most challenging but deeply rewarding releases heard in a quite a while. With a depth and intensity to its sound and creativity that most bands yearn for, Lions Among Men is an openly provoking and formidable release defined with a wealth of focused ideas and compulsive invention. We had the pleasure of showering vocalist and guitarist Bruno Fernandes about the album, the philosophy that themes it and the band itself.
Hello and welcome to The Ringmaster Review, many thanks for taking time to talk with us.
TFB – Hello, thank you for spreading the word and supporting our work!
Firstly may we open with an introduction to the members of The Firstborn?
TFB – Right now we have a stable line-up consisting of myself, Bruno Fernandes, on vocals and guitar, Nuno Gervásio on guitar, Filipe Lima on guitar, Hélder Malícia on bass, Rolando Barros on drums and we can also count on the precious collaboration of Luís Simões handling sitar, synths and sampling.
How and when did the band begin?
TFB – Like most bands, The Firstborn began when a group of bored teenage kids decided to form a band… we were then called Firstborn Evil and went through all the clichés of mid-90’s Black Metal – this was back in 1995 and I was then 16 years old, mind you, so it’s been a while. I’m the sole remaining member from the original line-up, but our bass player Hélder has been in the band since 1998.
What were the influences and inspirations that set you on a passion for music and still drive you on now?
TFB – Looking back, I was really influenced by early 90’s Black Metal, the likes of Samael, Rotting Christ, Mayhem and so forth. I still love those albums, but I wouldn’t consider them an influence to what we’re doing these days… but it was those bands that drove me into wanting to put a band together in the first place, so credit where it’s due. It was actually during a Samael show in 1994 that I found out I could sing this style of music, singing along to “Baphomet’s Throne” – still a great song in my book!
Coming from Portugal, a country with some great metal bands but not really a known scene outside of its borders, is there a frustration as a band you have to deal with which maybe UK or US artists for example do not have to face?
TFB – The main frustration for most Portuguese bands is not getting the kind of recognition foreign artists do here, which is fine when you compare a band like ourselves to a big name like Dimmu Borgir or something like that, but it gets hard to cope when some generic newcomer band on a big label gets more exposition than bands that have been actively working for fifteen years or more… we’ve gotten used to it by now, but it can be demoralising to the extreme for up and coming bands.
As you said, there are great bands around here and we’re quite well-known (by underground standards, obviously) these days, but it took getting some exposure abroad with good reviews to our latest albums and flying out to do some shows and festivals for people to actually take notice. Many bands don’t even get that chance, so they’re confined to borderline obscurity and that tends to take its toll on a musician’s already dwindling motivation.
You have just released your mighty and very impressive new album Lions Among Men, how has your sound and you as a band evolved from previous release The Noble Search of 2008?
TFB – Thank you, first of all, for the kind words. This turn we didn’t go for the massive leap forward, as I believe our previous albums ended up sounding like, and instead chose to refine our sound and aesthetics… the emphasis was, for once, on atmosphere – and that ended up redefining our whole soundscape, coming to think of it.
Also, as a band we’ve become a much more cohesive unit, most of the guys have been playing together for a good 7/8 years now and that starts to show, on all levels.
The album consumes the senses smothering them with a mighty intensity before the defined elements of your songwriting and creativity appears, is this a deliberate intent or something that has been instinctive from the beginning?
TFB – I would say a bit of both, I suppose… we’ve been refining these aesthetics for almost a decade now, so most of the songwriting comes on a very natural, subconscious level. Obviously there are elements that result of deliberation, but for the most part the writing is very natural and organic.
The only guidelines we have in terms of structure and arrangements are the lyrics and what they are trying to convey on a particular moment of the song, but even that has become a very instinctive way of working for us, given its our third album along these lines already.
Do you ever worry people will miss out on your ideas and words because of your wonderfully challenging sounds?
TFB – I wouldn’t call it a concern per se, but we are well aware that a large portion of the people who might adhere to the concept might be put off by the aesthetics of our music genre… we try not to compromise, anyway, since for us it makes perfect sense to combine these seemingly disparate universes.
Still, I’ve had quite a few people into Buddhism stumble upon the band and their reactions range from the intrigued to outright loving it! The good thing about most Buddhists is their inherent open-mindedness and that provides us with, at the very least, a good dose of respect in these communities.
Your albums from your second The Unclenching of Fists, do have a theme and deal with the ideas and beliefs of Buddhism, is this an interest you had as people before the band?
TFB – Speaking for myself, I was always allured by the Oriental world and the mysticism often found in the depictions of it… I fondly remember a trip to the then Portuguese territory of Macao as a child as one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life, although I was too young to fully enjoy it as I certainly would now. Still the colours, scents and flavours of the East stuck to my mind forever since, and it wasn’t difficult to find myself interested in these subjects later in life.
Has your interest in the subject impacted on your personal religion as strongly as well as on your musical thoughts?
TFB – I wouldn’t call it “personal religion”, but my outlook on life has indeed been changed / improved as a result of my research for the band… often have I found myself reading things that simply “click”, thoughts that were always there but hadn’t been fully organised into concepts. This is what Buddhist philosophy gave me – a method, albeit fluid, to organise and process my beliefs.
Are the albums as much an ongoing investigation into Buddhism, its philosophy, scriptures etc for you mentally as much as being strongly flavoured by the subject?
TFB – Absolutely, every album poses a different challenge on a conceptual level – we keep trying to push the envelope further, so as to keep it thought-provoking to the listener / reader. There is a vast range of literature on the subject, and I’m still scratching the surface in regards to the most basic readings.
Obviously there have to be boundaries in regards to the language used, our goal is not to have the concept sealed into itself, but to approach it in terms accessible enough for most people to, at least, understand what I’m going on about… on our first forays into the subject, I used all these wonderful, exotic terms and I believe the message just slipped by largely unnoticed as a result. As a compromise, on The Noble Search I simplified the language somewhat and provided some liner notes for context, but on this album I just tried to keep it to the bare minimum and provide texts people could actually relate to.
Your earlier releases to The Unclenching of Fists did not have the subsequent themes you brought in, what was the trigger to bringing in this new approach and thought process lyrically and musically?
TFB – As I said, I’ve been fond of Buddhism and Oriental philosophies in general for many years now, but I admit our first approach to the concept was purely based on a search for somewhat more “exotic” aesthetics… our sound was then progressing towards what you can hear on The Unclenching of Fists and I felt the need to find a concept that would fit this new musical direction.
Suffice to say that first very superficial approach quickly gave way to a profound concept that ended up having us rewrite most of the material in order to fit the lyrics, whereas the original plan was the exact opposite!
Was the move a unanimous decision or did some of the band need persuading?
TFB – Well, the good thing about being the guy in charge of the band’s destinies and direction for over a decade is that people tend to trust your vision – although often wrongly so! -, therefore it wasn’t hard to persuade them into embracing something new. They immediately saw how diverse and rich the possibilities were and we haven’t looked back since.
If you had not gone down this creative path do you think your evolution as musicians would have been very different or maybe even less advanced?
TFB – We most certainly wouldn’t have evolved so much in terms of arrangements, composition and an ear for the detail, of that I’m sure. It’s very challenging to try and bridge the gap between the aesthetics of Metal and our subject matter without compromising either.
Before The Unclenching of Fists we were already progressing towards a deeper, more meaningful concept, but very loosely so… but early on we already felt a need have a message that stood out, something other than the usual topics most bands deal with, which are absolutely fine, but simply not enough for us as artists.
How does the songwriting process work within the band musically and lyrically?
TFB – Contrary to what many might expect, in the simplest possible way – if it works with just an acoustic guitar and voice, then you’ll be hard pressed to ruin it when adding more instruments. So we start with the bare minimum and then keep adding more and more layers to it, so we have plenty of stuff to discard come recording time!
Do thought and ideas behind a songs premise drive its creation or does music generally come first?
TFB – We’ve tried both approaches on this album, and the thing is we definitely need, at the very least, a loose concept to build the song around in terms of atmosphere and direction. Whatever we end up writing without that background tends to end up in the bin or, at the very best, only partially used in the final songs… this process is so deeply ingrained in us as musicians that we feel very lost simply writing loose riffs and whatnot.
Your albums have had impressive guest musicians, is Lions Among Men the same and who has been involved?
TFB – This time we ended up not resorting to guests as much as in the past, simply because we felt very little need for outside contribution… from a certain point on in the writing process our vision of how the songs should sound like was so clearly defined that adding an unforeseen element to the equation wasn’t the most tempting of thoughts. Yes, we do have control issues.
Therefore, we found ourselves getting in touch with only two people whose contributions were already planned and accounted for in our songwriting, Luís Simões (Saturnia, Blasted Mechanism) playing Sitar and adding some very interesting synths and samples, and Hugo Santos (Process of Guilt) adding his deep, inimitable growls to some of the songs.
Did Lions Among Men come out of the recording as you envisaged it before entering the studio or did it evolve as you worked on it from your initial vision?
TFB – A tad of both, I suppose. As I said, we did have a very clear vision of how we wanted most of the things to sound like, but there is always an element of unpredictability to the recording process that you have to make the most of, instead of allowing it to restrain you. As such, I would say about 80% of the album came out as expected, and the remaining 20% we worked on throughout the recording sessions and the mixing, trying to incorporate it into our creation without compromising our pre-established goals.
The album has a rawness and honesty which adds to its quality and power, do you keep elaborate recording processes to the minimum generally?
TFB – We always try to keep the albums sounding as natural and organic as possible, if there is one thing I absolutely cannot stand in modern music is how plastic and overproduced it tends to sound. We prefer to have the listener hear what our true essence, and if it doesn’t come out as polished as you might come to expect from the industry these days, that’s not an issue for us.
Our goal is capture our energy as a band, not to emulate the standard sound most studios and labels prefer to put out these days… gladly, more and more people are beginning to appreciate bands who do exactly that, and I believe the days of the massively triggered drums and auto-tuned vocals are slowly but steadily getting behind us.
What is next for The Firstborn?
TFB – Who’s to tell? Right now we are focused on promoting Lions Among Men and preparing a special show or three to release it here in our native Portugal, but there is no long-term plan for the band… we’ll very likely start writing new material soon, so if it sounds interesting to us, there might be a new album in the coming future, but we tend to take our time writing so don’t hold your breath!
Are Europe and especially the UK able to see you live in the coming months?
TFB – We’d gladly play every corner of the globe if the promoters would have us, but given the way the industry has come crashing down over the last few years and how very odd we must sound to most people (also known as “general audience”), that’s unlikely.
We are always receptive to offers and playing mainland Europe and the UK is one of our goals for this album, but it’s a decision that doesn’t rest solely in our hands so, sadly, we can’t promise anything.
Once more thank you for taking time to talk with us.
TFB – Thank you for the opportunity to express myself in your pages!
Could you end with words or thoughts to send us away with something to think about?
TFB – Nothing is different, nothing is the same, all Reality is but Perception. We are all but cosmic dust and chance, all equal part of the same molecular pool that has been recycling itself for millennia… therefore, why cling to the Ego, when there clearly is none? You are Me, I am You, we are all One and None at once.
Read the Lions Among Men @ http://ringmasterreviewintroduces.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/the-firstborn-lions-among-men/
The RingMaster Review 21/03/2012
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