Neofolk, the label most frequently attached to Heilung, doesn’t even come close to describing what the band are doing. Amplified history, the term they came up with themselves to define their art, is more fitting and actually pretty precise, but too unusual to be self-explanatory. Yet, the complexity of their concept, the knowledge involved in creating it, and the thoroughness of its realization is precisely what makes Heilung differ and rise above the multitude of bands that dabble in paganism. While going into every detail of their approach would go far beyond the scope of this review, I’ll do my best to get you acquainted with it. Hopefully, this will awaken your interest, because the band certainly deserve your attention.
Most importantly, Heilung’s approach to the Northern European Iron age and the Viking period is a holistic one. They don’t just concentrate on certain aspects that shaped the lives of the people of that time and age, in this specific setting, they are trying to enliven the feel of that setting, the atmosphere, even the mindset of an individual living in it.
When I saw Heilung at this year’s Roadburn festival, the impression that stuck with me, was their performance being something between a play, a concert and a spiritualistic ritual. It was simultaneously each one of those things, and all of these things together. The stage had an intricate production design, as did the costumes, and there were a lot of performers on stage, main and supporting. The movements of some of the performers, for example of Maria Franz, were slow, executed consciously and with precision. There was a set beginning and an end to the show. The atmosphere was sublime, eerie and spiritualistic at the same time. In front of the stage people were dancing in repetitive moves, dancing themselves into trance. Futha, the band’s most recent release, has cemented my impression from the show. The focus, the theme of the album is different than before, but the approach remains the same.
“Futh”, primarily, are the first three letters of the runic alphabet (the Futhark) read together. However, the band points out instances were “futh” is used to mean the female genitals. Or, to put it bluntly and not politically correct, since political correctness is a notion the ancients didn’t have and didn’t care about, “futh” can also mean cunt [the German word for cunt is “Fotze”, which is pretty close to “futh” in writing]. Futha seeks to evoke and transmit “the healing power of the female wild strength” (Heilung press info). While “Ofnir was a very masculine album (…), Futha is the counterpart, the feminine side”. This understanding of femininity, however, has nothing to do with what passes as femininity today, but with the energy and the strength present at a woman giving birth or seen in a lioness hunting. To be clear about their intentions and to prevent misunderstanding the band further states that “Heilung has no political agenda whatsoever,” and “Heilung also has no desire to contribute to gender mainstreaming or gender discussion with Futha. People are not equal, but of equal value, no matter where, as what, or as who they are born.” I couldn’t agree more.
In addition to the ancient, wild feminine, the album title and some of the tracks reference the runes – the album title, amazingly, does so in one word. As you might or might not know, the runic script is a very special script indeed. In case you have no idea what’s so special about it, here’s a brief explanation: In general, there are two forms of scripts; there are scripts that use signs for sounds, like our script, the Latin script, and scripts that use signs for whole words and concepts, like the Chinese script. The runic script, interestingly, did not follow this general divide. The runes were designed to be both: representations of sounds and words. Also, as one look at the rune for “thorn” or the th-sound demonstrates, an effort was made for them to be visual representations of their meaning. In addition to that, runes were ascribed magical properties, that’s why they were worn as amulets or engraved in seemingly everyday objects. One of the more fascinating and yet unresolved enigmas concerning the runic script is who came up with it and why. It was clearly created in contact with Rome and the Latin script, since the runes resemble the capital letters of the Latin alphabet. But why did the ancients not just use the Latin script, since they were obviously acquainted with it? Why did they come up with something of their own? And who did this highly intellectual work? Science has its theories, but nobody knows for sure. Choosing the enigmatic runes in combination with a reference to the ancient, primal feminine as an album title and a theme for an album is, I must say, one stroke of genius, indeed.
Very much like the live album Lifa, Futha contains elements of a play or a performance piece. There are monologues and battle sounds, sounds of arrows flying and hitting their mark. There is the sound of fire and ice. There are songs, that are beautiful all by themselves, but actually every track on the album is part of a whole, one chapter of a story being told. You can enjoy Traust for the beauty of its soundscape, its details and its harmony, but you’ll be missing out on the bigger picture if you leave it at that.
The album’s first track Galgadr sets the stage, the time and the place of the story, very much like the first act or the first scene of a play. In guttural Old-Norse, a stanza from the Völuspá, the first and best-known poem of the Poetic Edda is cited. The chosen passage is the description of a turning point, a devastating final battle between good and evil. While the setting is frightening, only the previous devastation makes it possible for a new world to arise. Following the citation, we hear a rooster calling, signalling the rise of a new morning. After that, the music sets in.
The music on Futha is similar to previous albums, but also different. There is, as before, a dominance of singing and percussion, which absolutely makes sense. Effectiveness is gained through repetitions, and everything is enhanced by spherical tunes and deep buzzing sounds from synths. Echo effects contribute nicely to the overall atmosphere. Futha differs from former albums in that is a bit more mellow, a bit rounder at the edges.
As in Galgadr, ancient texts function as lyrics on many tracks. Norupo, for example, the second track, features the Norwegian rune poem, which gives a complete description of all sixteen runes of the younger Futhark. But the album also features lyrics written by Heilung themselves, for example on the track Vapnatak, which thematises the allegiance sworn to the chieftain in times of battle, an also on Svanrand, written entirely for female warriors.
Apart from singing, percussion, and background sounds to help transmit the story being told, an effort has been made to include natural sounds, like the sounds of fire and ice. The majority of the sounds in Elivagar were produced by actual ice: “Ice was broken in pieces of different sizes, hit by ice or smashed and grinded together. It produces the unique sounds that only nature itself can give.” Similarly, on Elddansurin, an ovation to fire, actual fire was used to create the atmospheric sounds, and the low-end rhythmic elements were produced with wood.
Futha, Heilung’s most recent release, is absolutely worth your attention, your time, and your money. The monologues might test some listeners’ patience, especially since most listeners won’t be able to understand what is being said. The techno beat in the final track Hamrer Hippyer I also find a bit challenging, but those are really minor annoyances, on an otherwise very special album. One of the things I like best about the album is that Heilung have taken a derogatory term, cunt, traced it back to its original, un-derogative meaning and turned it into a badge of honour.
If you haven’t yet, you absolutely need to hear and see this. It’s an experience. Amplified history.