Heilung brings “amplified history” to life at L’Olympia - January 26, 2020

Even a glance at the lineup snaking around the block outside L’Olympia on a Sunday evening was enough to signal that something out of the ordinary was happening. Attendees waiting in anticipation of experimental folk band, Heilung. Fans arrived to the venue in full Norse-influenced historical attire – standing in the queue. I watched a parade of pelts, face paint, and bones march around me. A pair of show-goers close to me carried a massive pair of moose antlers. Clearly, this was not going to be just a concert, but an event.

Of German, Danish and Norwegian roots, Heilung has won a large and feverishly dedicated fan following for their unique sonic and aesthetic style – they’ve coined a new term for their unique brand of Nordic revival music, calling it “amplified history”. Their work uses traditional hide drums, bone horns, clay rattles, and antique spiritual items. They sing lyrics in a blend of ancient languages, sometimes quoting old Norse runic poetry. The name Heilung (German for “healing”) speaks to the ideals of the group. The listener should be left in a state of meditative relaxation, lulled by purposefully repetitive chants. 

This is Heilung’s first-ever North American tour, and it is a long-awaited one. The group began selling out dates as soon as they were announced. They performed songs from  their latest musical offering, 2019’s Futha. Heilung’s live shows bear a reputation for being much more than just concerts. In fact, they are referred to as “rituals”, and feature all the theatricality that title suggests.

A reverent, almost spiritual, energy pervaded the space even before the show began (half an hour late, to accommodate the massive lines outside). The stage, draped in smoke, featured an arrangement of percussion, bones, and bare branches, with a large hide drum hung from a wooden frame as the centrepiece. The crowd, already buzzing, howled like wolves as a hooded figure appeared on stage. Silence fell as the figure wafted incense across the room to signal the beginning of the ritual. The members of Heilung – German vocalist Kai Uwe Faust, Danish producer Christopher Juul, and Norwegian folk singer Maria Franz, and others – filed out onto the stage, dressed in hides and antlers, sombre and mysterious. They began the show with their trademark call-and-answer group invocation, and the crowd shouted the words back at them wholeheartedly.

And then the symbolic drum glowed red, and the ritual began. 

I have not seen a crowd with so few cell phones visible in recent years, nor have I stood in an audience so raptly transfixed. It was difficult to do much besides stand and witness as Heilung led the crowd into their Bronze Age fantasy. The night was filled with pounding drums, smoke and even flame at one point. Faust’s hypnotic throat singing, blended with Franz’s powerful howls and delicate falsetto, cast a trance-like spell. The stage was invaded at points with warriors sporting shields and spears, and everything from a mock ritual sacrifice to a fire dance with flaming antlers was summoned forth by the horned performers. True to their reputation, Heilung delivered a show that was both sonically and aesthetically unforgettable. (Even if it did seem to lack direction at points – but then again, perhaps this is intentional, as the group does not wish to emulate any particular religious or political affiliation). 

By the time the light behind the ritual drum faded and the ritual was closed with incense once more, the audience had been taken on a 90-minute journey to a completely different time and place. Unfortunately, the popularity of the group meant that the crowd was jolted back into reality by an incredible bottleneck leaving the venue (definitely the biggest and most frustrating negative point of the evening). But, even with the logistical nightmare of leaving the theatre, the mood amongst show-goers was largely positive and reverential. “I feel like I just witnessed something really special,” said the woman standing next to me in the crowd as we left. It’s true that I had never seen anything quite like it. Heilung had succeeded at amplifying history for us for the evening, and the reverberations of their ritual lasted well beyond the set length.

Renita Bangert is the host of 5 Songs With…, the talk show that’s part music history, part trivia, and part play-along mystery. Tune in each week to listen to 5 different songs and explore the unexpected ways they connect. Tuesdays at 3PM EST, on CJLO 1690AM!