REVIEW: HEILUNG – “Futha”
One of the more unexpected, and surprising bands to emerge in recent years is Heilung, a multinational entity who play within a neo-folk style, but have their own definition which I think is much better “Amplified History.” They rose to fame after their first performance was filmed, and recorded at Castlefest, and was uploaded to YouTube. Indeed that is where I first became aware of them. It’s an incredibly striking performance, complete with leather, and bone outfits, and primitive often homemade instruments. The result is a very organic, and primitive style of music, that seeks to “amplify history” and bring the far ancient Northern European past into the present. And done so without any form of political, or religious connections, or statements. And they are now set to release their second full-length album ‘Futha’ and the distant past is once again brought to life.
It is history that is brought to life in each of the nine songs that make up the album. The download came with extensive notes for each song, and the lyrics (including what language they were sung in). The notes dealing with differing translations of runes, the places where they were found, and their meanings reminded me far more of the notes one usually finds in “academic” music produced by bands such as Sequentia, or classical compositions, than what would come with a popular music album. It is very clear that they take the creation of their music, and the words, and history very seriously. And I think that elevates what they do to a higher place than someone who wanted simply to dress up in outlandish outfits and make “Viking” music. It comes across more similar to a traditional gathering of Native Americans in the U.S. to celebrate their heritage, or taking part in a drum and fife corp for Revolutionary War reenactments than it does doing it for show or shock value.
The album beings with “Galgaldr” and the low chanting, and throat singing of a male voice. The song deals with the end, and destruction of all creation. But only in the destruction may rebirth become possible, and that seems to be the theme of the piece. After the initial chant is finished, the crystal clear voice of Maria Franz becomes stronger and more pronounced. This is something that runs through the length of the album. ‘Futha’ is meant to be a more feminine counterpart to the very masculine debut ‘Ofnir’ and so her vocals have a larger presence than in the past.
In many ways, this is an awkward sort of album to review and talk about. The lyrics are all in very old languages that I at least have no real familiarity with, and have more to do with ancient spirits, magical spells, and the like than anything in the modern world. Because of this a multi-track review approach, I find to be unproductive. Instead, I’ll just highlight a few songs, that stand out to me more than others. One of these is “Traust” sung in Old high Germanic, phenetic old Norse and Icelandic. The female voice, floating on smoke as it were, enchants and takes the lead while the male voices respond. The overall meaning is the chants and spells are meant to release warriors from their bonds after being caught in battle. The music is fairly minimal, in nature and quite peaceful. The result is a song that is very soothing, and beautiful.
“Elivagar” is another song that stood out very early on. Dealing with the ice rivers that freeze, and move across the omnipotent void Ginnungagap, at the beginning of creation in Norse mythology, it is an eerie, very cold piece of music. The beginning is void of music and is mostly spoken word (in this case Old Norse and German). The words are nearly spat out and growled rather than sung in any normal sense of the word. The themes are how coldness encompasses much of earth, and humans as well, in anger, or bitterness. The atmosphere is heightened by the constant sound of ice being broken, smashed, and ground against itself that was done in the studio. The latter half of the piece brings back standard percussion and a chorus of harshly chanted lines. It is the coldness and starkness of it that stands out strongest to me.
The final song is the 14-minute “Hamrer Hippyer” and should be familiar to anyone who’s watched their live performance, or heard the live album they released of it, as it is featured prominently during the performance. It goes without saying that the studio version is not as intense, or powerful as it is in a live setting, but that is to be expected, and the clarity and cleanness of the performance in the studio have its own strengths that make it very much worth hearing again. The layers of history and meaning in this song are many, but it is at its heart a song to bring about healing. Healing of the body, the soul, and the mind. This is truly reaching into the murky pre-Christian past to bring that world and its spirits and atmosphere into the modern world. It is history living, and present, doing their best to give us a glimpse of what can never be seen. And it works very well, the piece is often dark, and chaotic, much like life, but the end everything calms, and become beautiful and serene. People have spoken for years on the healing power of sound, and the benefits of musical therapy. So feeling at peace at the end of this album is not the only natural but quite intended.
With ‘Futha’ the sounds and, charms of an ancient world have been lovingly, and rather intelligently, and academically brought into the modern world. Heilung has stayed true to the ethos, an approach that thrust them into the musical spotlight, and have produced a singular work, of deliberate vision, and purpose that grabs the attention of the adventurous listener and holds them tightly through its 73 minutes run time. At times dark, and intense, and more often incredibly delicate, and beautiful, it is a journey to the past well worth taking.