Having created one of the most transformative live experiences to hit festival goers last year, shamanic heathens Heilung are becoming a spiritual rallying cry
It began as the most distant of echoes. Self-released in 2015, the lack of fanfare with which Heilung’s debut album, Ofnir, greeted the world seemed appropriate somehow, as if to cross its threshold was to undergo an initiation. The ritualistic, pounding drums, wolf howls, incantations and call-and-response chants all orbited each other in an immersive, synapse-rewiring echo chamber, welded to a timeframe inaccessible by any mundane form of waking consciousness. From the rhythmically clanging swords, battle march stomps and pulsing drone of Krigsgaldr, heralded by goat horns and giving rise to a whispered mantra ricocheting across your consciousness, to the ambience-bourne throat chants of Fylgija Ear – Futhorck drilling down into deep residues of psychic strata, here was something both ancient and impervious. Your first encounter was akin to entering a sweat lodge, letting the heavy animal-hide flap fall behind you and finding yourself utterly removed from the world outside.
“When we started making Ofnir, we were basically making it for ourselves,” explains Danish producer Chistopher Juul. Christopher is one third of Heilung, which is completed by German vocalist Kai Uwe Faust and Norwegian vocalist – and Christopher’s bandmate in both gothic pop experimentalists Euzen and folk troupe Songleikr – Maria Franz. “We had no idea that anyone would listen to anything like this. Why would they? It’s a completely crazy project! We started releasing it ourselves, through Bandcamp, and we slowly got it out onto iTunes and then we made a book version last year, but we just let it spread naturally. We didn’t have any promotion company behind us at the time, but I think that by its nature it was important for this project that it began to spread naturally. People would listen to the album and they would tell their friends and so on, and everyone gets a personal experience from it that way.”
Ofnir’s hermetically sealed universe had a gravitational pull that felt like a private experience as much as it connected to a greater whole. But the word of mouth that followed in its wake became a mouth-agape, communal phenomenon last year when Heilung performed live for the first time at Castlefest in the Netherlands and Borre, Norway’s Midgardsblot, set amongst the ancient Viking burial grounds and reconstructed great hall. If Ofnir transported you into vast interior space, here was a mindbending, psychedelic experience, the trio expanded into an entourage of shamanic mediums, bedecked in beaded, eye-covering headdresses, jawbone and leather masks and antlers as if Guillermo del Toro was having a particularly vivid ayahuasca vision while hanging out with Westerosi wildlings. If the elaborate stage set bedecked with bound sticks holding up hide drums, bells and more both marked out a fully-fledged world and instilled a co-ordinate-banishing sense of disassociation, what followed for the next 75 minutes became the kind of life-changing, spirit-hijacking experiences – complete with an accompaniment of blacksmeared warriors onstage brandishing shield and spears – that only their fellow Pagan alchemists Wardruna could possibly achieve. Obviously, putting a show like this together takes a bit more dedication than ordering up a bunch of pyro tanks.
“Just a little bit, heh heh heh!” laughs Kai. “In the beginning, we weren’t planning to do much. The thing was that we had a couple of festivals asking us to play from day one, and we were like, ‘No’, every time, because for us we didn’t want to bring Heilung live as a regular band, and go, ‘Here is the next song, it’s about Odin, please like our Facebook page and buy the CD.’ And actually, during the first talks discussing about how a concert should be, we were asking ourselves, should it be on a stage? Should it be on the ground with people in a circle in a more ritualistic manner? But the goal was not to have a typical ‘concert’, it was to have more a binding experience between the people performing onstage and the audience.”
The band spent the best part of the year conceiving and constructing the live apparatus, gathering shamanic drummers from around the world, getting willing locals to become part of the warrior
“WE PAINTED OUR DRUMS WITH OUR OWN BLOOD”
KAI UWE FAUST LIBERATES MORE THAN THE SPIRIT
“I ’ VE BEEN DOING SHAMANIC RITUALS IN THE FOREST SINCE THE 90S”
THIS ISN’T AN ACT FOR KAI UWE FAUST – IT’S A WAY OF LIFE
choir (“One of the guys,” recalls Maria, “said,
‘It does something to your brain when you meet in the basement with seven other half-naked guys, it empowers you’, and I could relate to that.”), creating the drums by hand and putting themselves into the process on a somewhat literal level.
“It was amazing to see it becoming real,” says Kai, “and we did everything from scratch. When we built the drums, we had the rawhide here, we were cutting it ourselves and painting it with our own blood, and it comes to the point where the whole thing starts becoming alive.”
“We call what we do ‘Amplified history’,” adds Christopher, “we go out there and we perform an Iron Age-style European ritual. Human blood and animal blood is part of it, and of course nowadays there are laws, so when we were painting the drums we had a nurse here who took our blood in a professional way. No one was forced and there were no knives, but at least to still have it there, to go through it, to have that brush filled with blood that you put in a carving of Odin’s eye, that is what makes it feel real. It’s as close as we can get it. We all met for the first time at a Viking market that’s held in Borre, and that’s also the approach of the high-quality re-enactment; it’s always to come as close as you can get. Of course it will never be a perfect recreation, and that is not what it’s about. What it is about is to touch something that the ancients touched, and to have
the possibility to go through that door, with everything that belongs there.”
lifa, the professionally shot live video of the full Castlefest show – and the metamorphosis of unsuspecting hordes into a singular, delirious pack of heathen ravers – has, at the time of writing, racked up over a million views (the excerpt for Krigsgaldr has hit 3.6million), and reams of comments expressing awe and gratitude, as if some long-dormant emotional undercurrent had just been divined.
“People from all different places tell us they feel connected to it, that it makes them feel rooted,” says Maria. “They’re trying to describe something that’s indescribable in so many ways.”
“Someone who was at the shows said, ‘Thank you for that hour of mental hygiene’,” laughs Kai. “I liked that very much”
For the band themselves, finally performing the music as live ritual also became a consciousness-altering act. “I’ve played at Castlefest before with different bands,” says Maria, “but I’ve never had that experience of going onstage and losing myself so completely. Every nerve of my body was so much there, and because of the fringes, you see everything and they don’t see you, so you go into a completely different space.”
“We worked so hard to make those shows and when you do them it feels like only a minute has passed,” adds Christopher. “It’s so unfair! When the first drum is hit, you’re transported into another dimension, and from there you really can’t remember how much time has gone.”
With Ofnir getting a reissue though Season Of Mist, alongside an audio recording of Lifa – and with further live rituals at Hellfest and Summer Breeze already announced – Heilung are going from being a fraternally shared secret into one of the most talked-about bands across the wider metal landscape, recognised as one of those rare emissaries who have become transformative, spiritual guides.
“We didn’t figure out all of a sudden that we wanted to dress as Vikings,” says Kai, “we’ve been doing it for most of our lives. I’ve been in the shamanism scene since the 90s when we were 10, 15 people, all very secretive in the forest making small rituals, and then suddenly at Midgardsblot I saw thousands of people gathering in a circle, yelling, being all the way there. If someone had told me in the mid-90s this is how it’s going to be, I would have never believed them.”
“There are many things when you look at the world that can make you negative,” concludes Christopher. “But I also see things like this that make you positive and being on a festival like Castlefest or Midgardsblot, it’s an awakening.”
OFNIR AND LIFA ARE OUT NOW VIA SEASON OF MIST