Tim Sommer checks in from the Viking rockers’ recent two-night stand at Webster Hall
Heilung, the neo-primitive/neo-Viking act from Scandinavia and Germany, are a lot of things: They are KISS if they had been created by Game of Thrones fans; they are Stomp plus the Blue Man Group multiplied by Wicker Man divided by Midsomar; they are that picture you drew on your notebook in 10th grade of “Eddie” from Iron Maiden beheading your Math teacher; they are the nightmare you once had about Santa Claus going off his meds, slaughtering his reindeer, and ho-ho-ho’ing in your living room while dangling Blixen’s severed, flaming antlers and listening to Gary Glitter’s “Rock’n’Roll Part 2” played at 16 RPM.
Actually, that last one probably comes the closest to describing the Heilung experience. Sounds pretty goddamn good, yeh?
In any event, you must see Heilung, who are one of the most fascinating live experiences out there. In my staggeringly long life as a concert goer, I can only think of a few times I would tell anyone a band were a “must” see: oh, The Fall in 1980/81, Hanoi Rocks circa ’83, and Birthday Party when they first tumbled, groaning, wretched, and ecstatic on to our shores (all three bands, oddly, bare some considerable spiritual resemblance to Heilung). But Heilung, honestly, fall into this rare category: You simply have to see them.
Try to do it soon, too, because I strongly suspect that in a year’s time they’ll either be playing the Garden or doing what they really ought to be doing, which is setting up in a medium-sized Broadway or off-Broadway house for an extended run. That kind of environment may be where they can best showcase their utterly riveting, vastly entertaining and very theatrical blend of fire, ice, carefully choreographed ritual, thumping and droning, droning thumps, and, uh, flaming antlers.
Flaming antlers? Uh-huh, flaming antlers.
For those unfamiliar with the act (who have released two studio albums and one live LP since 2015), Heilung very dramatically present a form of ritualistic, spectacularly theatrical neo-Viking music, featuring drums (make that BIG drums, thumping away like “Iko Iko” played by Odin and his pals on the eve of Ragnarok), animal horns (imagine the Shofar played by Glenn Branca and John Cale), bone-based rhythmic instruments, one-string droning violins, and lots of chanting and ceremonial incantation. This is all wrapped up in a fairly choreographed performance by a 12-person ensemble, clad in all sorts of neo-primitive robes, cloaks, and fabric, slathered with pots of make-up, and topped with antlers, horns, masks, and oh, don’t forget the spears and shields (lots and lots of spears and shields; a plethora of spears and shields).
VIDEO: Heilung LIFA (full show)
Visualize some CGI-enhanced Netflix soap opera about Vikings preparing for battle on the Hibernal equinox, then imagine the music you hear in your head while conjuring such an exhibition, and you’re pretty much there (or, on the other hand, imagine Rob Zombie directing an Asterix movie, with music by Adam Ant and Sigur Rós). But here’s one of the great things about Heilung: Unlike so very, very much dark metal, they actually deliver on the furious, howling, thumping, panoramic sound their imagery promises. Haven’t you always wanted black metal bands to actually sound like their logos?
(Note to reader: It is impossible to write about Heilung without repeated use of the words “thumping” and “stomping.” More than anything, Heilung thump and stomp.)
There’s a lot to watch during a Heilung show. It’s virtually operatic in its’ marching, dancing, twirling evocation of death/rebirth, dawn/dusk, ice/fire; there’s even a sacrifice of a bare-breasted maiden — we note this will offend some — but she is brought back to life, in some vague but powerful statement about the feminine spirit triumphant.
But do not let these theatrics overshadow the power of the music, this Bronze Age Glitter-via-Winterfell-via-Kate Bush thingy that really is the reason the whole thing works. Heilung access dark metal’s urgency and lock-jaw intensity without a single guitar in sight. At the same time, the elaborate and constantly arresting live choreography and the near-constant, hysteria-inducing rhythms and chants are accompanied by an elegance and beauty that conjures clear, peat-smoke filled northern nights under a horizon-wide spray of stars. Everyone on stage is contributing to the (surprisingly organized) din, which is open and clean enough that you can easily distinguish percussion instruments no larger than a finger, and harmonic subtleties of the neo-ancient drone fiddles. Most of the heavy lifting (both on stage and in the studio) appears to be done by Christopher Juul, Kai Uwe Faust, and the spectacular Maria Franz.
I would guess that Juul is the music director of the ensemble: on stage he seemed to be doing a lot of Eno-esque live treatments and filtering of all the instrumental ice-gumbo on stage, and I gathered that the exotic and crisp quality of the sound was his responsibility. Juul and Kai Uwe Faust (a tattoo artist of some note who, I believe, is the founder of the project) also contribute a lot of effective chanting that combines throat-singing techniques with the kind of eerie, guttural rhythmic grunt you hear on Impaled Nazarene records. Maria Franz, an acrobatic vocalist of great grace and skill, is the primary melodic vocalist in the group. Clearly influenced by Eivør Pálsdóttir (Bjork’s Bjork, let’s put it that way) and likely by Kate Bush (and there’s some Elizabeth Fraser in there, too), Franz’ voice soars with an emotive, siren-like quality above, around, and through the proceedings (for those who want to hear her in a somewhat more traditional setting, please check our her wonderful work with the Danish folktronic group, Euzen). In some ways, Franz’s presence in this band is decidedly odd: imagine a singular voice like Kate Bush fighting for space amidst the thrush and tumult of, say, Sister Ray-era Velvet Underground. But it works, and Franz brings a real dream-like beauty to this faux-ancient space ritual.
Heilung works (both live and in the studio, but especially live) because the heart and genitals of rock ‘n’ roll has always been the thump, drone, and pelvic thrust that have been in our genes since we built the pyramids (well, since some of us built the pyramids).
The very best of our music – the Juba-wobble of Bo Diddley, the Zulu parade drums of Louis Armstrong or Little Richard, the stage-snapping Sun Studio slap of the Hamburg Beatles, the Raiders, or the Fall – all reference that ancient beat in our DNA that knows no name except Hum hum hum Mane Padme Stomp Thump Stomp. Heilung access this place in a very public and very successful fashion, making the adoration of the ancient walla-walla the centerpiece of their art.
True, on record (do we still freaking call them records?) Heilung may not be the best neo-primitive/neo-Viking act. The thumping Ragnarok krautrock of Danheim is more fist-pumping and hysteria inducing, and Nytt Land’s dark, funeral folk is more precise and beautiful (imagine Renaissance stranded in an arctic airport with no power and all the strings on their instruments de-tuned). But Heilung, landing first on our shores and with a stage production that could step into a Broadway house tomorrow, are clearly the leaders of this invasion of glorious, comic book neo-primitives: They are, I am happy to announce, the Dave Clark Five in Hell.
There is a terrific theory (which I happily advocate) which posits that The Flintstones is actually the sequel to The Jetsons (!). In other words, the Flintstones takes place in a post-apocalyptic hellscape where greed, war, disaster, and scarcity of resources has reduced the earth to a neo-stone age where former luxuries and appliances are imitated, but built out of available, primitive materials (ah, this perfectly explains why the Flintstones have Christmas, something which has greatly puzzled me since I was a child). If this is true, than Heilung are the soundtrack: They allude to what we know about rock’n’roll, they certainly contain the true spirit of rock’n’roll, but like the bird record player or the elephant washing the dishes, they use bone, antler, and animal skin to reproduce the modernity of a lost era.
And I leave you with this thought: The Flintstones washed their dishes in elephant snot. And that, too, is Heilung.
AUDIO: Heilung Futha (full album)