Heilung: Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow in the 10th Century
The Northern European folk-metal collective have made the first truly great album to emerge from the Neo-Primtive Movement
Can I swallow dirt and the aurora borealis at the same time? Can I chant Pee Pee Mow Mow in both a whisper and a scream while feeling the chill and the spike of the rocks of the Black Sand Beach?
Eureka! we shout, in a language we have not spoken since the time before we had language: Heilung have found the missing like between ASMR and Black Metal, in the process making one of the greatest art rock albums of recent memory.
Somewhere between Bo Diddley, Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the place where the anxious, mountainous magic of Anna von Hausswolf, Alvin Lucier and The Who join hands on the rocky shores of Vinland, you might find Heilung’s majestic and amazing new album, Drif.
A mix of the exotic, ambient, intimate, gigantic, ageless and immediate, it is likely the most adamant, artistic and complete statement of the neo primitive/dark folk/neo-Viking movement, and perhaps the first fully great album to emerge from this enthralling genre. Drif, the third studio album from these North European makers of “amplified history,” is full of magical dirt that stirs the soul-stirred mind and the mindless soul. Drif, a creature of starlight and studio night, is easily one of the year’s best releases, and possibly one of the highlights of the decade.
Now let’s talk about the Beatles. The Beatles made sense in an era where we believed in our future, when we honestly thought that the quirkiness and newness of electric, studio-affected pop was a totem of social and political progress in and of itself. To many of us the mere existence of the Beatles was a sign that we were on the right track; or if we went a little askew, the existence of awe-inspiring pop was a sign that things could be fixed. Electric, eccentric Pop was the flag of our freedoms. Again and again, we mistook artistic, technical and even social progress for an indicator of consistent (and we thought irreversible) political evolution; that is to say, neither Marcel Duchamp, the Beatles, Woodstock, indoor plumbing, the iPhone or even Dr. King somehow prevented us from arriving at this terrifying, if inevitable, moment in American history.
Why? Weren’t we paying attention? Again and again, we have confused convenience, the explosion of leisure options and the instancy and constancy of communication for freedom (I can touch this screen and speak to the world, that must be freedom, right?). I’m going to put it a different way: We confused the availability of Grateful Dead archive releases and Revolver remixes for freedom, we used our fucking mental and spiritual energy on the glory of music and the magic of instant accessibility instead of redirecting it towards the most essential modern convenience: the stability of our Republic.
There is a wonderful story about an Austrian-British photographer named Edith Tudor-Hart (1908 – 1973). She is reckoned to have been the person who recruited British intelligence head Kim Philby (and other members of the Cambridge 5) to sell their secrets and hearts to the Soviet Union; and it is believed that without Tudor-Hart’s work and Philby’s espionage, the Soviets might never have gotten The Bomb. Now, if the nuclear genie had remained the sole possession of the United States in the 1950s, the U.S. would likely have used atomic and nuclear weapons indiscriminately in North Korea, China, Eastern Europe, Soviet Russia and elsewhere, hastening the end of the world. Therefore (this fascinating theory goes), because of the espionage and so-called treachery of Tudor-Hart, Philby and the Cambridge 5, the world was saved.
I suggest that The Beatles were akin to the world without Russia getting the bomb. It is a world of certain arrogance and destruction. That’s because regarding electric pop as a religion and philosophy into and of itself is doom; we have been trained by the post-war entertainment industrial complex to consider variety of distraction the same as freedom, to consider it a means to happiness in and of itself. We believed in pop, we studied pop, we grew up in the shadow of pop’s inventions, and we believed this was the frame of freedom, not merely a small aspect of the picture inside the frame.
How many times have you run for City Council? Have you become involved in elections for the State Assembly, whose decisions impact so very much of the way you live, love, and vote? How many times have you seen Cheap Trick? And we thought, didn’t we, that seeing Cheap Trick SAID something IMPORTANT about who we were, and who we were in the world. We mistook the froth of history for history. The Beatles’ world – which is to say, Beatleism — was a world where we thought the quirky creativity and sugary inventions of the Beatles somehow insured brotherhood, largely because we lived in a world where such marvelous things could exist. The Beatles existed; how bad could things be? The Beatles were a charm against destruction employed by a generation that presumed charms were enough. We stand at the precipice of Fascism in America.
And you know what? Neither Woodstock, the Beatles, clever Todd Rundgren or the grinning ubiquity of Dave Grohl prevented us from reaching this moment. In fact, it is arguable that these circuses actively distracted us from meaningful action and misled us into confusing freedom of leisure choice with actual freedom, the kind of freedom that guards, insures and enables freedom of belief, worship, and love.
Which is to say:
Funniest sound I ever heard
But I can’t understand a single word
Is he serious or is he playing?
Papa-oom-mow-mow is all he’s saying
Papa oom mow mow Papa oom mow mow
The Rivingtons had it right, I think. When the absolutely emptiness of pop gets me down, when I think of the utterly foolish distraction pop has caused, when I consider the fact that at Woodstock in 1969 half a million young people, with the scimitar of Nixon and Vietnam hanging over their filthy, over-sunned teenage necks, chose to dumbly listen to Arlo Guthrie sing a song about his fucking drug dealer instead of marching on Albany or even Washington, I remember Papa Oom Mow Mow Papa Oom Mow Mow, and I recall that the greatest thing rock music can give us is a big fat Post-it Note reminding us of pop’s absolute and necessary connection to our ancestral DNA.
Rock is the sound of thirty centuries of the world’s disenfranchised made electric. And I love music that reminds me of this! While building pyramid and plantation, while slaving in the coal mines of West Virginia or the satanic mills of the northern England, we made rhythm, we hummed lullabies, we rocked babies to sleep, we sang in unison to break rocks; and this became rock’n’roll, the sound that rocked peat-roofed homes, grass covered huts, the mildewed green poplar of slave shacks. We have been thumping and humming for ten thousand years or more. “When Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances” (Judges 11:34). And almost without doubt, Jephthah’s daughter sang Papa Oom Mow Mow or Pee Pee Maw Maw or Hoy Hoy Hoy or something very like it…or something that sounded a lot like Heilung.
From Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street: “As a little kid in the street I used to hear older kids saying it. It’s one of the earliest memories of my life. Older kids playing in the street at night. I’d be on the stoop or watching from a window. Too little to play with the older kids. Summer nights on the street in New York. Very early memory. These kids chanting to each other. Pee-pee-maw-maw. I don’t think anybody knew what it meant or where it came from. Probably twelfth century England or the Vikings or the Moors. These kids chanting it on the street. Pee-pee-maw-maw. Pee-pee-maw-maw. Chants like that can be traced to the dawn of civilization.”
Heilung have just released an utterly wonderful – heck, I’m going to say essential – new album, Drif. I am quite goddamn sure Jephthah’s daughter would totally get it. It’s a different kind of vaudeville, rooted deep in the exploration and exploitation of the primitive unconscious and the magical sensation of sound and effect (the primitive unconscious is to Heilung what rockabilly was to the Cramps). Prior to Drif, Heilung dealt largely with spectacle, though they did a bloody terrific job doing so. In 2020, I described Heilung as “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 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.”
Now, all of that remains more or less true on Heilung’s new album, Drif, but the difference between Drif and Heilung’s two prior studio albums (there is a live album in there, too, one that virtually reproduces their first studio record) is the difference between The Who Sings My Generation and Quadrophenia, or perhaps more saliently, the difference between Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Ummagumma. Heilung have found grace and hushed magic in the spectacle and legend they were built upon, and on Drif they lead with that grace; they lead with the dust and sounds and seeds and stars implied by the millennia of noise and fury they source, and no longer with just the fury and fire and stomp (though that’s here, too).
Drif, Heilung’s first complete album in three years, is an enormous step forward. Drif finds Heilung less volcanic and feral and more adept at sourcing the dewy howls and whispers of the forest and the mysteries of starlight, showcasing the subtlety, beauty and misty magic inherent in their exploration of primitive forms. They achieve this without sacrificing any of their mission statement of chants, stomps, thumps, and conjuring of lost rites.
Drif is sometimes evocative of Floyd and Sigur Ros (and again and again I think of Alvin Lucier, if Lucier was a Viking wandering through a world of high-end studio equipment and, uh, fire); it’s a hard album not to fall in love with or fall under the spell of. As much as I always adored Heilung, I had previously though they lacked the pure mesmeric power of Danheim or the subtlety and beauty of Nytt Land (to note my two other favorite neo-primitive acts); but on Drif, Heilung find a way to not only equal but top these other groups, producing the kind of album that in a just world would get the kind of praise Radiohead have gotten. Whether you are a fan of Fairport Convention or Impaled Nazarene, Kate Bush or Dimmu Borgir, Clancy Brothers or Cradle of Filth, Gorecki or Sleep, or you will find something here, I promise. Drif achieves a nearly Floyd-ish/Porcupine Tree-ish blend of space and tension, but mixed with the kind of mega-grace and dream/nightmare melodies of, say, This Mortal Coil or Clannad; yet never far away is a visceral, grist-chewing energy that you would rarely find in music this delicate, nuanced, layered, and intense.
Frequently, Drif is virtually ASMR-like in its dramatic and profoundly effective use of ambience, distance, proximity, whispers, chimes, drones, nearly subconscious chants, and dustings of noise that dissolve into rhythms and melody, creating an extraordinary effect of intimacy and enormity (an excellent subtitle for Drif would be Intimacy and Enormity). Other times, an almost football-chant unity and intensity emerge out of the dawn fog.
It’s one hell of an album, and I haven’t been so swept up by the originality and intensity of a work since Sleep’s Dopesmoker or Scott Walker and Sunn O)))’s Soused (both of which have some spiritual compaitibility to Drif). Maybe Drif answers the question, “What would happen if Brian Eno produced a New Orleans Second Line Parade while explaining ASMR to the Goths sacking Rome Inside of Planetarium?” Oh yeah. Somehow, this extraordinary blend of darkness and light, dawn and night, forest and science adds up to one of the best goddamn albums I’ve heard in a long time. In a destabilized world, I welcome this extraordinary blend of artistic adventurism, exotic, hypnotic, mesmeric ambience, and a shameless, effective, and even sometimes subtle appeal to our ancestral DNA or lullabies and worksongs.
It is dark in America. All our original sins, all our celebrations of publicity and power over public service, have come home to roost. The older I become, the more I am simultaneously troubled by the destabilization of our world yet calmed by the certainty of passing time doing its’ job on me; and I find myself turning to music of tallow, grace, and age, music that reflects a world of candle-lit night, ether-less daylight, fire, utility, brilliance, invention, the dreams of cradle made obvious or elaborate: Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, Wagner’s Parsifal, Dempster’s Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel, Immersion’s Nanocluster Vol. I, anything by Moondog or Billy Childish, La Monte Young’s The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer…all these works where the primitive and the inventive collaborate on the playing field of the imagination.
I can’t really say it was Heilung’s intention with Drif to create something so deep, but I do think they meant to create something just as eternal, the dreams of the crib in the age of stone.
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