Words + Photos by Bobby Talamine
Oh my god. Where to begin? On a cold Monday night, Heilung gave a spellbinding performance to a packed Riviera Theatre in Chicago.
My review of this show is going to be all over the map, with quotes and thoughts that still leave me in shock and awe, even 48 hours after the performance.
First off: Heilung's music. There is no genre or category to define it, except maybe to use the band’s own bio as “amplified history from early medieval northern Europe and should not be mistaken for a modern political or religious statement of any kind."
To go a bit further, to the uninitiated, principal player and founder Christopher Juul discussed the origins of Heilung’s unique music and aesthetic:
“[Our] sound [is] from the Northern European Iron Age and Viking period. We used everything from running water, human bones, reconstructed swords and shields up to ancient frame drums and bronze rings in the songs. The lyrics contain original texts from rune stones and preserved spear shafts, amulets and other artifacts. Furthermore, poems, which either deal with historical events and texts or are translations/ interpretations of the originals. Every attempt to link the music to modern political or religious points are pointless, since we in Heilung try to connect the listener to the time before Christianity and its political offsprings raped and burned itself into the Northern European mentality. Heilung means "healing" in German and describes the core of the sound. It is supposed to leave the listener eased and relaxed after a sometimes turbulent musical journey."
Even with that context from Juul, there's still more questions of wonderment and classification regarding Heilung.
How is it that only metal magazines have covered Heiling and not much else? Is it because of the imagery, or the once in a while front and center throat singing by Christopher Juul?
Some reviewers liken the band to the bombast of power metal and black metal, combining elements of both genres. However, those reviewers are missing the point.
The point of unclassification.
The sole intent of their live performances is clearly communal, which was the case on Monday night at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago. The community of Heilung actually started way, way before the doors even opened for the show.
Walking around the Riviera Theatre and surrounding blocks, I counted license plates from Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Not to say that all these cars are fans going to see Heilung, but I’d give them the benefit of the doubt.
What was the line like outside the Riviera on a chilly, Chicago day of 30 degrees? The line started to form at around 12:30pm, with doors not opening until 6pm. The costumes / state of dress of the first 40 people in line were dressed like members of Heilung to some extent.
Once in the venue, all the background music before the show was Mother Nature sounds. Birds chirping, insects sounds, running water, the gentleness of finding yourself in the middle of an old age forest, probably late afternoon into dusk. With ambient orange and yellow lighting hues, and projections of Heilung imagery that lit up the balcony.
The devoted Heilung fans on the main floor of the Riv, supplemented the sounds of Mother Nature with their own wolf howls. Wolf howls of all kinds, sometimes loud, sometimes soft, both male and female. Howling occurred all the way up to the actual performance.
And as far as their live show? Elaborate as all get out.
Sophistication abound, both in imagery and in lighting for striking effects, as well as amplified audio that wasn't taken for granted.
The three principal players of Heilung- Christopher Juul, Kai Ewe Faust and Maria Franz- all shared in the spirit of wonderment of a Heilung performance. Surrounded by backup singers, percussionists, and assorted Viking shield bearing soldiers, Heilung clearly knows how to make use of minimal staging and backdrops to full effect. The minimalism made for more impact and unforgettableness, allowing for striking and contrasting lighting. Focusing on the principal players, particularly Maria Franz, all the more evident, all the more beautiful.
The song selections themselves, 10 in all, told a story from beginning to end, with no English. But that didn't matter, because you can follow along to get the gist.
The ideas of "ceremony" and "ritual" revolving around Heilung, cannot be underestimated.
The opening ceremony, was a recitation of call and response, a communal prayer from performer to audience, which was magical to behold.
Everyone at the Riviera, front to back, recited back verbatim the words from Kai Faust. I had chills from the side of the stage, listening and taking it all in.
You cannot underestimate the power of thought in performance, not relying on the grandiose, but actually the exact opposite.
So it goes through the show with Heilung, up to the end, when Juul, Faust and Franz came to the front of the stage extension. Faust raised his staff to the devoted faithful, then lowered it with a boom to the floor, signifying the end of the show.
Magical, absolutely magical, this band Heilung.
As for the inevitable comparisons to bands such as Wardruna and Dead Can Dance? Can we give it a rest? All three are uniquely different.
I will say this in regards to Dead Can Dance in reference to Heilung, their album Spiritchaser has unique liner notes curated by Brendan Perry. In Spiritchaser, Perry uses quotes from Joscelyn Godwin’s 1987 book Harmonies of Heaven and Earth:
"In most musical instruments the resonator is made of wood while the actual sound generator is of animal origin. In cultures where music is still used as a magical force, the making of an instrument always involves the sacrifice of a living being. That being's soul then becomes part of the instrument, and in the tones that come forth, the singing "dead" who are ever present with us, make themselves heard."
Like Godwin’s quote used in Dead Can Dance’s album, Heilung amplified the “singing dead” of a pre-Christian, Northern Europe idenity with a meditative and tranquil trance.
Heilung left the audience spellbound and wanting the ritual and ceremonies to never end.