Words and Photos by Masen Smith
Heilung is an enigma.
From the first time I caught word of the band’s first voyage to North American shores, I felt an inexplicable urge to experience … whatever it is they do on stage. You could call it a ritual of sorts, an ancient sermon, a call to connectedness with whatever Being old-world humans once worshipped.
From the outset, it was clear that this event was going to be far from the usual concert. No, this gathering felt like something more, even before the show began. There was a reverence in the air, a permeating calmness mixed with a much more subdued buzz of excitement than is typical. The sounds of birds and rustling leaves coupled with a blanket of fog created an ambiance akin to a damp, dark forest … a worthy setting to immerse in the ancient germanic spectacle that is Heilung.
The night began with incense, a sort of blessing onstage. As the smoke cleared, a chanted blessing was uttered once onstage and repeated with vigor by the audience.
There was a weight to this prelude, not just an act for theatre’s sake but a palpable air of … genuineness, of belief. The only sound that broke this transfixing exchange was an audience member’s admonition to her peers to put their phones down and be here. Be present.
As this prelude faded and the show began, it was clear just how elaborately constructed Heilung’s aesthetic is. Ornate, detailed costumes and instruments plucked from bronze-age northern Europe (human bones and animal skins among them) further added to the mystique.
The first song, “In Maidjan,” exploded into being, a hypnotic, continuous drum stroke over vocalist Kai-Uwe Faust’s rasping voice. English lyrics were extremely sparse, but that lack of intelligibility did nothing to hinder the undeniable impact of the Ritual. The music itself spoke without need for explicit understanding—heavy with old Norse symbolism and lore, the ensemble’s performance drove a captivated audience more in-depth into the lore of Germanic eons past.
Vocalist Maria Franz’s haunting, ethereal melodies are accentuated by intricate female harmonies, as Faust plus a dozen warriors’ thunderous roars rose to oppose them. The spectacle is a wonderfully cacophonous hymn to whatever Deity they spoke of.
Swords and shields, spears and sacrifice, consecration, and redemption all coming together to create something so much greater than the sum of its parts. All the while, the constant, pulsating percussion drones on; a heartbeat was pushing us forward. To where? I didn’t know. I still don’t know. But somewhere.
The narrative of the Ritual is still unclear to me, as is a lot of the performance, but I felt drawn to and connected with their music in an undeniably unique way. The rise and fall, the cadence of Heilung, is at once captivating and frightening. The primality of it all transfixes you, aggression and tenderness and mystique all wrapped in a package we simply don’t understand. At the same time, it taps into a part of the listener that feels buried—but what that means is unclear.
Whatever Heilung are, whatever they do, it’s powerful. It’s fascinating, thought-provoking, and provides no answers for itself. The mysteriousness lets us wonder, allows us to think, and explore, and ignore one’s own predispositions. To let Art exist as it is, without explanation.