By Bona Pjarren
I was delighted to receive Heilung’s latest album for review as I have to admit I am a bit of a fan. Heilung, in my opinion, are something special on the music scene, an opinion that was reinforced when I had the opportunity to see them live at The Barbican in York, just prior to lockdown. Heilung don’t just play music, they perform a full ritual on stage that is a masterclass in performing art. They themselves state: “Heilung’s ritual is neither a performance nor a concert; it is a fully immersive ceremony that connects its listeners with the elements of nature through music, dance, and spirituality”.
And so onto ‘Drif’, which is the third album to be released by Heilung in which they reach far back in time to the Northern European Iron Age and Viking period to create the core of their sound experience. They have also kindly included explanations of each of the tracks which I have referenced throughout this review.
The first song of the album is ‘Asja’, which starts with guttural chants before Maria takes up the main body of the song. It is a love song that incorporates lines quoted from Havamal , combined with a selection of blessing words meant to provide help to the listener in a troubled times. The song is made up of very basic elements and consists of body sounds, drums, leaves, straw-brooms, bowed lyre and vocals. ‘Asja’ is Heilung’s take on a more traditional folk song. The lyre in particular adds a haunting ethereal feel to ‘Asja’. It is a very strong start.
‘Anoana’ was the track that was released as a YouTube video and constitutes a spell from the beginning of the Dark Ages. Heilung state: “the lyrics for this piece are mainly taken from bracteates: golden, circular coins or amulets found in Northern Europe that date from the fourth to seventh centuries CE. They are often fitted with a decorated rim and loop, which indicates that they were meant to be worn and perhaps provide protection, fulfil wishes or for divination”. There are some wonderful soundscapes on this track and it is very meditative in its construction. Maria’s beautiful voice is given full range while Kai brings his enchanting chants.
This again is another masterpiece of writing. I have to remind myself that all the instrumentations are played on traditional instruments as, while staying true to the ancient music that they’re recreating, ‘Anoana’ also has quite a contemporary feel.
Heilung explain that ‘Tenet’ is “a palindrome in every respect: all individual musical parts, melodies and instruments (and even at times the lyrics) play the same both forward and backwards. The song is based on the so-called “Sator Square”, the earliest datable two-dimensional palindrome, first found in Herculaneum (Italy), a city buried under the ashes of the erupting Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, at that time part of the flourishing Roman Empire. What is particularly interesting with this palindrome is that not only does it read forwards and backwards but also vertically and diagonally in both directions”:
S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S
The full palindrome can be heard chanted at the beginning of the track before descending into something darkly spiritual. It is often quite difficult to explain Heilung’s sound to somebody without hearing it, they are so unique. The music really does feel like it fits perfectly with the TENET palindrome and is very otherworldly.
‘Urbani’ is a song originally sung by the Roman army. In his biography of Gaius Julius Caesar, the Roman historian Suetonius provides us with a record of this song. It is said that veterans performed the piece with a heavy mocking undertone during Caesar’s march of triumph in 46 BC in Rome. The Emperor is called a squanderer of tax money with a questionable sexuality and his political actions are ridiculed. The records give no clue however as to how it was originally sung. Heilung give this a militaristic rhythm accompanied by chanted lyrics which is totally sympathetic to the source material.
‘Keltentrauer’ is a poem written 20 years ago with the aim of leading the listener into the Iron Age. The piece describes a clash of cultures: Celtic tribes colliding with Roman attitudes and military machinery. It is a fictional battle, conjuring up/evoking visions of warfare in the first century BC. ‘Keltentraur’ is predominantly a spoken word piece accompanied by various samples and vocal chants. The lead vocal is in New High German, while the chants and shouts are in Gaelic. Heilung provide the following explanation of the piece:
“In the beginning, we hear the Celtic people’s army in all its martial beauty gathering in front of the Roman troops. Having just marched in, the Romans now stand still and silently waiting in perfect formation. The chieftain of the Deer People, an impressive man, steps in front of the line, undresses and walks naked towards the Roman army leader while his comrades sing a war chant. He offers the mounted officer a chance to solve the dispute in a battle of champions. After ancient habit, only the best warriors would meet on the battlefield and so decide the outcome in a court of weapons: a lifesaving tradition of the Iron Age farming cultures where most warriors were also farmers, fishermen, blacksmiths and so on. The Roman officer, with a purely professional army behind him, does not deign to answer and has the chieftain shot down by his archers. This incurs the wrath of the Celts and an indescribable bloodbath unfolds. Several historians of the time suggest that women took part in battles alongside the men: not merely to have their back, but also actively engaging in combat. The Romans, prepared for the imprudent attack, mercilessly slaughter them all and we hear desperate cries of both men and women. Following the Celtic habit of committing suicide to avoid captivity, even the last warrior meets his end. While the last flags fall, we hear a once-proud warrior lament the downfall of his people, regretting having lived to see the sacred land of his ancestors now unprotected and open to a ravaging foreign army.”
While interesting, it is a bit of a challenging track for an English speaker, but does underlay the willingness for Heilung to experiment with sounds.
Heilung say that “Nesso is an ancient healing spell to pull sickness out of the leg of a horse. In early medieval Europe, sickness, disease and pain were often imagined as taking the shape of demonic worms crawling around the body. Songs and spells against worms are thus a big part of ancient European healing magic, not only for humans, but animals as well. ‘Nesso’ is rooted in the conceptualization of a time where people perceived the work of spirits and unseen entities in every event of their life. Every disease, every weather phenomenon had intent, genius and soul. The concept of dead matter and beings without intelligence and cause was not known and likely not graspable for our ancestors.”
With a gentle introduction that gradually builds into the main body of the song, it has a certain darkness and dreaminess to it’s construction, particularly from the deep sonorous bowed sounds of the lyre. The slow but steady frame drum beat adds to it’s hypnotic quality.
‘Buslas Bann’ is inspired by the rune spell of Busla from “Bósa saga”: a legendary saga written in Iceland around the 13th Century. The Icelandic original contains incredibly coarse language. We find rune carvings related to the curse in the stave churches of Nore and Lomen (Norway) and many other places of early mediaeval Scandinavia, but inscriptions have also been found on the almost a century older rune stones from Gørlev (Denmark) and Ledberg (Sweden). Heilung provide an incredible chanted, up tempo and evocative rendition of this historic spell which is said to be a curse.
‘Nikkal’ is a song from the Bronze Age. The song was found carved into clay tablets in the Canaanite city of Ugarit (modern-day Syria) and is dated at 3400 years old. It is currently the oldest surviving complete work of annotated music. The tablets contain not only lyrics and notes, but are also believed to contain instructions on how to tune the harp or lyre-like instrument for the song. The ancient composer’s name is unknown. Nikkal has a strong spiritual aspect to it and evokes a feeling of Gregorian chant. The background wash of samples and traditional instruments allow the beautiful vocal harmonies to come to the fore.
‘Marduk’ is the final track of a thoroughly immersive album. This is the 50 names of Marduk. Transported by handmade singing bowls of bronze, we arrive at another poem. From the ruined library of Assurbanipal in Nineveh (modern-day Mosul, Iraq), the lyrics for this piece emerge, quietly whispered. It is the fifty names of Marduk, the highest god of the Mesopotamians. Although the clay tablets bearing the text date back only to the seventh century BC, according to assyriologists, the origins of the text lie in the first Babylonian dynasty (1894-1559 BC). ‘Enuma Elish’ is the original title of the Babylonian creation myth, which finishes with the list of Marduk’s names and royal titles on the seventh tablet. The singing bowls add a meditative aspect to the spoken poem performed by Kai. At over eight minutes long it is a piece appreciated if you lie or sit quietly, close your eyes and let it transport you to your own sacred place.
‘Drif’ is a truly masterful body of work that is worth listening to time and time again. The spiritual and pagan elements weave their way through every aspect of this stunning album. While I would imagine that not all off the tracks would suit a live performance, I am particularly thinking of ‘Keltentrauer’, there are enough other tracks that would really add to the live experience, ‘Anoana’ and ‘Asja’ in particular. Heilung are a unique group of artists that continue to amaze and astound as they continue to create their particular style and sound.
‘Drif’ is a superb body of work weaving well researched stories from the arcane past and weaving them with pagan magic.
- ‘Drif’ is released on 19 August. You can get your copy HERE.
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