Heilung @ Forum Theatre

Heilung was unlike any other live show I’ve been to, a mystical, otherworldly experience that’s part music concert, part ritual that seeks to connect with the ancient world of northern Europe.

Ever since I discovered this German/Scandinavian band and their unique, primal sound on YouTube, I’ve been dreaming of seeing them live one day, but I always assumed that I’d have to catch them overseas, in Europe or the USA. I had no idea that they had amassed enough fanbase here in Melbourne to sell out two nights at the Forum Theatre; I was so over the moon that of course I snapped up the tickets to both shows.

There’s an old Russian proverb that goes, the best is the enemy of good. I loved my first Heilung show on Saturday from the fringes of the general admission, but I decided that next time I wanted to be much, much closer to the stage. And sure enough, the Monday night show blew Saturday out of the water. Heilung were brilliant on both nights, but it just made such a huge difference to be so close you could see the tiniest details of intricate costumes, strange archaic instruments including human bones, drums adorned with the skins of the animals, body and face paint, ritualistic gestures and movements, and feel the floor reverberate with every tribal beat.

I’ve seen some colourful crowds at the gigs through the years, but the line of Heilung fans snaking along Hosier and Flinders Lanes could give any of them a run for their money. Goths, metalheads, neo-pagans, hippies, people in medieval, fantasy and folk costumes; I felt like a total underdressed normie in comparison. Because I was already familiar with the stage setup from the first show, second time around I picked a spot to the right to see more of the female vocalist, Maria Franz, who is my favourite member of the band.

There was no opening act on both nights, so it was a lengthy wait until 9pm for the show to start; it is admittedly less of a chore when you’re in a venue as beautiful as the Forum. It began with the calming sounds of nature, setting the mood that transported the audience into the depths of an ancient Scandinavian forest. First to appear on the stage was Kai Uwe Faust, the founder and throat-singing shaman of Heilung, who blessed the stage with smoke from a burning piece of wood, before blessing the rest of the collective, about twenty people including the core members of the band, musicians and performers.

The first few songs were identical to the band’s legendary Lifa live set that first made me fall in love with them, kicking off with the sounds of horn and thundering drums of In Maidjan that built up the intensity with anthem-like chanting. Maria Franz looked like a divine pagan goddess in her white outfit with long fringe and antlers, and her astounding vocal range is truly something to behold. Faust‘s harsh guttural throat singing could be an acquired taste for the uninitiated, but I love the contrasting vocal styles, harmonies and the complex interplay that beautifully blends feminine and masculine.

Warlike Alfadhirhaiti introduced the fearsome ensemble of male and female warriors with shields and spears, who performed a tribal chant in preparation for battle, and made more appearances throughout the show:

I was a bit crushed that the epic, trance-like Fylgija Ear, my personal favourite from Lifa, didn’t make it into the setlist on either night, but it’s understandable that some older songs had to be cut in favour of newer material. In return, I got to hear all of the more recent tracks I was hoping for, including the ethereal Norupo and my latest Heilung obsession, Anoana. Unusually, I think I prefer the studio version of the latter; though it was still amazing live, the gorgeous strings that make the song got somewhat lost in the mix.

The show was both dreamlike and relentless, making you feel like you’ve managed to escape the modern world for a couple of hours, if you could ignore all the glowing phones in the crowd that is. I was just as guilty of course; before the second show, I thought to myself that surely I had enough photos and videos from the first night. Maybe I could just stay in the moment for the entirety of the concert, without putting a screen between myself and the experience, but of course that resolution didn’t last five minutes. I consoled myself that at least I wasn’t as bad as a teenage girl in the front rows who must have had her phone out for at least 80% of the show.

It was hard to abstain from taking pictures and videos though when the concert was so visually arresting, with an elaborate and dramatic light show and choreographed moves meant to evoke the stories of old, including what looked like a ritual killing and resurrection of a young female warrior. There was also an eerie spoken-word interlude in which the two vocalists literally locked horns in a battle for supremacy.

The immense closer Hamrer Hippyer turned the stage into a wild, feverish bacchanal of dancing bodies, and a couple of the painted warriors even jumped into the audience for a bit of crowd surfing:

The night ended just as it began, with the serene ritual of blessing among the sounds of the forest, during which the crowd kept reverently quiet. Though in some way it was more like a theatrical experience rather than a conventional concert, with zero banter from the Heilung collective, they somehow made everyone feel like they too were a part of the ritual. I hope they’ve enjoyed their time in Australia, because I’d love for them to come back soon. Hell the next time I’ll also make an effort and dress up!

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