Photo of Heilung by Jen Ruff
The Nordic folk collective Heilung is a difficult act to categorize. Although there are many other musicians that have built their careers on interpreting Scandinavian folk traditions, Heilung’s music leans much more heavily towards atmospheric and ambient soundscapes than it does towards traditional folk music. The group’s studio recordings are much more akin to the sort of “Viking ambient” you’re accustomed to hearing as the soundtrack for a film or video game—lots of chanting, kettledrums, rattling, etc.—than the sort of guitar and woodwind-centric folk music you might expect to hear on a Tenhi album, for example. Fittingly, Heilung’s music has been included in many soundtracks, including film (The Northman), television (Game of Thrones, Vikings) and video games (Senua’s Saga), demonstrating how successfully they have cornered this particular niche of “ambient ritual music.”
Beyond their multimedia exposure, however, the most crucial component of Heilung’s appeal has been on the strength of their highly elaborate and choreographed live performances. While the group’s three core members (Christopher Juul, Kai Uwe Faust, and Maria Franz) are primarily responsible for their recorded music, their live performances include a cast of performers that numbers in the dozens. Seeing Heilung perform is much more like seeing a performance art troupe than a “band,” in the conventional sense: think of it as something like the Viking equivalent of Cirque du Soleil.
Heilung’s marketing always refers to their live performances as “rituals,” emphasizing not only the uniqueness of their performances compared to a typical concert, but also the sincerity with which they emulate and interpret Scandinavian pagan traditions. This spiritual component is a strong part of Heilung’s appeal, with the group (whose name means “healing” in German) billing their performances as a therapeutic experience for their audience: an opportunity to unplug from the pressures of the modern world and the fractured way in which we communicate, finding community by partaking in something ancient and eternal. Of course, even for those who are skeptical about the ritualistic elements of their performances, for many, the inarguable fact that “Vikings are badass” remains a core part of Heilung’s massive appeal.
On November 1st, Heilung brought their traveling “ritual” to the Factory in Chesterfield, marking the group’s first foray in St. Louis. If it wasn’t a sold-out performance, it was certainly very close to it—the venue was about as crowded as I’ve ever seen it, likely speaking volumes about the many subcultures Heilung appeals to. The most attention-getting members of the audience, of course, were those who decided to dress in their finest Viking attire: horned headdresses, tunics, corsets, and cloaks were aplenty, not to mention the many people donning face paint. (“Cosplay” has always been strongly encouraged by the group, whose members originally met in the Copenhagen Viking reenactment community.) Likewise, despite Heilung definitely not being a metal act, there were many people wearing battle vests and heavy metal t-shirts, indicating the significant fanbase overlap between neofolk and Scandinavian black metal (despite Heilung not being a metal act, they are signed to a predominantly metal-oriented label, Season of Mist). Of course, there were also more conventionally dressed attendees, and a surprisingly older audience at that, suggesting the group’s appeal to both history buffs and fans of their significant soundtrack work.
Even before the performance began, it was clear that this was not going to be a typical concert experience. The stage was littered with trees and large drums stationed on platforms throughout, with a massive vertical drum hung from an arch in the back. As the house lights dimmed, the cheers of the crowd began to die down, eventually giving way to recordings of bird songs. There was a moment of pin-drop silence as Kai Uwe Faust, dressed in robes and wearing a headdress that looked like fern leaves, walked across the stage, smudging it with sage. He was eventually joined by Juul, Franz, and the rest of the cast, who joined hands as they recited the same prayer that precedes every Heilung performance:
“Remember that we all are brothers. All people, and beasts, and trees, and stone, and wind. We all descend from the one great being, that was always there. Before people lived and named it, before the first seeds sprouted.”
What followed for the next two hours was as much a choreographed art performance set to music as it was a concert. Material from each of Heilung’s three studio albums to date—Ofnir (2015), Futha (2019), and Drif (2022)—was represented during the performance, although I found myself viewing each piece as a “scene” within the production as a whole, rather than a distinct song one would point out on a setlist.
Heilung likes to describe their music as “amplified history,” reflecting their decision to perform using traditional acoustic instruments, amplified through the use of microphones and modern soundsystem technology. The primary instrument throughout the evening, undoubtedly, was the human voice—the throbbing hum of chanting was nearly constant throughout each piece, with Faust and Franz often leading the rest of the cast in a call-and-response, with lyrics that appeared to be in a variety of languages (although rarely in English).
Lulling one further into the trancelike rhythm of the performance was the ever-present percussion, reverberating so loudly that you could feel it throughout the body. Drummers were stationed throughout the stage, beating a constant rhythm that drifted between trancelike and soothing to warlike and aggressive. Although the chanting and percussion were the two major constants, there were also many other instruments on display: stringed instruments that, from a distance, resembled lyres and harps, as well as decidedly more unconventional ones, including bones and a strip of metal (possibly a sword) that were rhythmically struck. Heilung prides themselves in the authenticity of their instrumentation—although Christopher Juul did use a mixing board during the performance to loop vocals at certain points, and accompanied some pieces on a synthesizer, all of the sound in the show seemed to be created completely acoustically, without the use of any pre-recorded audio.
This was certainly as visual an experience as it was an auditory one: an extended cast of bare-chested men and women, their faces and bodies smeared in paint and grime, rotated in and out between pieces. Sometimes they danced in unison across the stage, and other times they marched in place with spears and shields. In one particularly arresting piece, Faust, wearing a cloak with glowing runes on the back, turned his back to the audience as a group of performers with runes painted on their chests shifted positions across the stage, seemingly spelling out a message to the crowd. In another, Faust bound a spear behind the back of one of the performers before “strangling” them, with Franz later returning to “revive” them. There is surely a deeper mythological context to these scenes, but even if I was oblivious to it, the effect was mesmerizing all the same.
A crucial element to the uniqueness of Heilung’s performances is the audience participation, with many in the crowd clearly taking the “ritual” aspect of the performance to heart. The crowd joined in the group’s chanting, with some raising their hands and bowing their heads in prayer. Amusingly, instead of applause, the end of each piece was greeted with a choir of howls. The enthusiasm reached a crescendo during the final piece, “Hamrer Hippyer,” as some of the performers took to the edge of the stage and dove into the crowd, which eagerly gathered to carry them throughout the venue. As the chanting and dancing reached its climax, Faust suddenly paused and bid the audience “Thank you!”—the only words spoken directly to the audience during the entire performance.
Without a doubt, Heilung offer something utterly unique in their live performances, and I would wholeheartedly recommend that anyone with a passing interest in Nordic folk music, Scandinavian culture, or even performing arts in general experience it for themselves. Skol! | David Von Nordheim