It is a rare and the most sought after moment when you listen to a metal album that speaks directly to your heart and you know you will heed its calling again and again in the future. It's also even more special when the band that produces that feeling isn't an obvious one at that, not being a famous, well recognized one, or even a band whose qualities are impressive and shiningly evident on the surface level. Such a band is Ifing. After listening to their debut album for the first couple of times I thought it was just (ok-ish) good in a charming way, like "oh, here's a promising new band that mixes influences from some of my most favorite bands". But "Against this Weald" kept calling me to return, each time becoming better and better, until after numerous listens I am still in awe of how vibrant and inspired some of its parts are and how much of an accomplishment consists its wholeness.
This debut of this duet of Fritz Petersen and Tim Wicklund from the US really came out the blue. Checking out the band on metal archives shows they've only took part in a melodic death metal demo release prior to Ifing (Through the Mist), which is not typical of musicians that eventually release a much-more-than-decent album. You will usually find there a big list of previous mediocre releases, old bands that failed, pointless side-projects and so on. These guys are not youngsters, so I'm led to believe that this is indicative of a character that I believe I feel through the music itself. It is a thing of maturity and strength to stand firm towards the passing of time and not rush things, projecting unfinished, mediocre stuff to the world just to use as a stepping stone. I wouldn't judge too negatively those that choose this path, but I am certainly impressed but those that don't. "Against the Weald" sounds like something that came after a bunch of other albums were scrapped. This aura of depth, confidence, cohesion simply cannot come in the beginning of it all.
For one, it wouldn't be too difficult to describe this album. Just to mention three bands would be enough for a general but concise idea; Moonsorrow, Wolves in the Throne Room, Agalloch. So, here goes the basic reason on why Ifing isn't that impressive on well, first impressions. It's not the most original band in the planet, inasmuch as you can pretty much easily trace their influences in the above bands. Their atmospheric, droning interludes and some of the guitar leads owe much to Wittr, the epic, sprawling style of their compositions to Moonsorrow and a lot of their acoustic, melodic stuff to Agalloch. This could be considered as a lack of character and so it might put off some listeners (moreso as an idea rather as an effect, I believe), yet, in Ifing, it shows the glorious potential that honest influence has. To use an analogy, I could describe it like this. You can build a tower using the most extravagant, multi-colored, irregularly shaped building materials and designs that no one else has ever thought of using. Or you can take a bunch of familiar, simple materials and use them in the way that is the most efficient, that shows you have a deep knowledge about what they can do. Ifing show this knowledge by crafting an album that seems like every note, from the first to the last, matters.
The first thing that calls for attention is probably not in the riffs themselves, but in the excellent overall sound and I don't mean the sterilized, standardized version of the pro-tools "perfect" wall of sound by that, but how meticulously performed and mixed is every element, in order to create an open, atmospheric experience that evokes the impression of a real place, as in "ambient", the actual meaning of the word. The musical themes are mostly simple (the second reason on why your jaw won't drop right away, but after some time spent), passionate guitar melodies based on chords either strummed on the acoustic guitar, played on the keys, sung in multiple clean voices or even aided by a flute that sometimes appears. That's quite a variety, isn't it? Herein lies one of the secrets of this album, meaning in orchestration. But again, it's not about the building blocks themselves, but about where and how they're placed. Ifing mostly make their musical point by adding harmonies and consecutively growing their material in a pace that is just excellent for the course of the song.
If one pays a closer look, will notice that the mix is definitely not as simple as it seems, because of its not-in-your-face, not-very-shiny character. Levels change and instruments move in the stereo image, in subtle and unnoticed ways. There is a slight (again because it's really subtle) cinematic effect where everything is placed for maximum emotional effect. The result is creating a musical scenery that is brimming with life, drama, where one feels is inside the very heart of nature itself; amongst the forests of the north, emanating un unyielding life-force, the total affirmation to man of life never-ending. The sounds of sea and ships with men travelling through it, human ambition, exploration, civilization, violence, excellence in the brink of hybris and self-destruction. A special mention bust be given to the mixing engineer Roy Wallace for this excellent work.
The album begins with the instrumental "The Sires Beyond Await", that sounds like a soundtrack from a 70's cult film with its delightfully lo-fi, ambient horns and strings, mixed with the sounds of wind, sea and croaking wood. Droning, sad, epic, simply brilliant, a far cry from the typically mediocre conception of the "heavy metal intro". "The Stream", the first of the only two long (mostly) metal tracks of the album follows. While it is certainly good, it is actually in "Realms Forged", the second track, where the strength of the band is fully manifested and condensed. Simply, it's one the best songs in the genre of epic, folkloric black metal ever. Period. It's one of the songs that you'd like to go to its youtube video and write comments in the style of "the part from 0:00 from 18:33 is really excellent". In this majestic journey of 18 minutes, Ifing stand shoulder to shoulder with their influences (and I'll be damned if I heard a song that good in the last albums of either of them three that I mentioned, by the way).
But what does "Against the Weald" really wants to say? What are some of the ideas behind the sound? Weald is an archaic form of "forest" and the complete phrase, uttered in "The Stream" is "Against this Weald, we shall stand no more". The band is themed after Norse mythology and "Ifing" is the river that separates the land of the Gods and the Giants (I believe, mortals and gods is being implied here conceptually). "Open flows the mighty flood, nor shall ice arrest its course, while the wheel of ages rolls" say Ifing of this boundary, between mortality and eternity. This means that the only constancy is of the world is in its natural laws, these that ensure the eternal passing of time. As the band mentioned in their interview for the Metal Invader mag, "The Stream" is about the passing of a warrior through death and the "afterlife". All in all, it's the old pagan attitude, that assigns metaphysical value to the understanding and acceptance of life's inevitable fate, that eventually should end by death, so that other life will sprang out in its place. The wisdom that transcends the primordial egoistic nature (interesting contradiction that, eh?) of the death-denying man. Accepting truth, reality, nature. No more against this weald. Maybe there is something there that bears a direct resonance to eternity, even if I feel it might not be humanity's last word on the subject. But for sure, this chiseled-in-ages view has brought courage and strength in the face of hardship and tragedy for ages. And it is in this view that the timelessness of Ifing's music owes itself to.
"Against this Weald" may not be a perfect record, as there are some riffs and melodies, especially in "The Stream" that are too simplistic and familiar with their chord progressions for my taste. Yet, it actually feels like a perfect record. Like you couldn't take any part out of it, because it is an organic creation where everything matters in conjunction with one another. No "wow, look at how fast they can play" or "oh my god! that riff!" moments were needed here, because its the whole vision that's powerful. Instead of writing one super awesome riff, write a record where all the riffs are good and meaningful, one after another. Can't? Thought so. That being said, if Ifing do progress towards the more complex and expressive as it is natural in musicians as the years pass, while retaining the sense of unyielding artistic integrity, perfection and detail that the debut sports, one can reasonably expect for masterpieces to come. Of course, this is a painstakingly hard and time consuming thing to achieve, so I definitely don't expect them to rush the second album. Do not be afraid of time, aim deep, aim high; these are the things that "Against this Weald" has shown to me.