CONCERT REVIEW: HEILUNG Brings Ceremonial Healing To Texas (October 30th, 2023)

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To call Heilung a “band” is to cheat them because music is but a small part of what they’re all about. A multinational collective from Northern Europewhose sets are more ceremony than concert, Heilung redefines the very word “performance” by incorporating early medieval and pre-Christian dance and ritual into the whole of their sets. The music performed by no means takes a backseat, but is instead a conduit for the reenactments the collective interprets on stage. If their purpose is to amplify history, they’re succeeding.

The performance at Austin’s Moody Theater on Willie Nelson Blvd began in something rarely witnessed in live music: absolute silence from both audience and performer. A fully cloaked figure – possibly Kai Uwe Faust, though Heilung has been known to give this honor to First Nations folks –  emerged onto the stage, crested with a palm crown, to perform a smudging ceremony. Punctuating the silence with the occasional whisper or bird chirp, the figure very carefully and deliberately crossed each corner of the stage, fanning what was presumably sage smoke (I smelled nothing) first onto the set, and then into the audience. The power of such a seemingly simple act was palpable – an audience member behind me was so moved she began sobbing. Several other costumed figures brandishing deer antlers entered the stage as the lead figure bowed to the southwest, facing inwards from the edges of the large circular rug that occupied much of the stage.

From inside the circle, the lead figure anointed each Warrior as they outstretched their arms to receive his blessing. Once complete, the entire clan hoisted their antlers skyward, lowered them, and held them high once more before setting them down to crouch with hands joined.

The lead figure intones: “Remember that we all are brothers,” and the clan repeats. He continues: “All people, beasts, trees, and stone and wind,” and he pauses to allow his troupe to intone these words back to him. “We all descend from the One Great Being that was always there, before people lived and named it, before the first seed sprouted.

At this point, I nearly wept.

The clan then dispersed to their places as the ethereal white-clad siren Maria Franz retrieved a frame drum and a mallet while Faust stood motionless at downstage center, facing the audience, pointing a microphone downwards at a forty-five degree angle. Christopher Juul then approached, and blew a bukkehorn three times into that mic, signifying the end of the opening ceremony and the start of possibly the most memorable concert I’ve ever experienced.

What followed was nearly two hours of dance, reenactment, and a deliberately minimalist approach to music performance that relied on voice and percussion (goatskin drum heads, human ash rattles, human bones… you know, normal stuff) almost exclusively, though a ravanahatha was occasionally put to use. The male singers delivered a sizable chunk of their parts via throat singing, that husky technique primarily associated with Tuva and Mongolia, but apparently also found in the Sami cultures of northern Finland and Scandinavia, while Franz and a triad of female backup singers focused mostly on kulning, whispering, and even a scattered banshee wail that would chill Rob Halford‘s spine.

The Warriors who partook in the opening ceremony would frequently reappear to reenact myths and battles; one particularly chilling moment came during “Traust,” where Faust bound and, at least to my untrained gaze, symbolically executed a shirtless Warrioress, after which Ms Franz descended to console her in the underworld and liberate her from the shackles of damnation. Other routines involved three women unwinding thread from antlers mounted on a branch as Faust and Franz regard (and to my atheist eyes, pray to) a lamp set on downstage-center; the entire Warrior horde in formation on the stage hoisting runic flags; and a dancer gesticulating a flaming set of antlers.

This absolutely bewitching set concluded with Faust respectfully performing a dance befitting the First Nations of the New World, and is eventually joined by the entire horde. Throughout the set, only a handful of words I recognized as being English were uttered; the rest were in a variety of mostly Germanic languages, some dead or even extinct. The performance drew an array of reactions from a varied crowd of rennies, metalheads, hippies, and other bohemian types: whether the Heilung performance was a deeply transformative spiritual experience, or just a welcome respite from the grinds of modernity, I can safely wager that everyone in attendance could agree on one word to describe what they’d just experienced: it was moving. And on an unrelated note, it’s also the closest I’ll come to seeing Corvus Corax in the foreseeable future.

Part of what moves me about this collective involves a rather ugly incident during their pre-global shutdown tour of the United States in early 2020, when a black woman was needlessly harassed at one of their East Coast shows. The band responded with the following statement: “Apparently some people attended our ritual with the idea that Heilung is only for white people. This is not the case. Heilung is for ALL people… [w]e do not tolerate hate speech and racism… That includes but is certainly not limited to white supremacy. Heilung is none of it, and will have none of it.” I hadn’t even heard their music at that point, but I admired them already for being so willing to alienate the small but significant segment of their fanbase who, among many other offenses, so stupidly misinterpreted the “heil” in the collective’s name. Remember, this was in the United States in 2020 before so much shit got even weirder than it was already, and there they were, actual European “aryans,” unambiguously demonstrating that it is indeed possible – hell, even easy – to celebrate heritage without promoting hate.

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