Heilung at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre

You stroll through a thick autumnal forest, swatting aside thick branches as you stumble over roots in the barely-visible moonlight. After hours, exhausted, a rhythmic, guttural rumbling pierces the silence. You edge towards it. In a clearing, scantily clad warriors dance to the beat of a taught deer-skin drum, the light flickering as their otherworldly bodies move to the hypnotic, almost manic beat. You’ve stumbled across Heiling, and ‘the ritual’.

Okay, so the Bord Gais Energy Theatre is a discordant venue for the hosting of an ancient Germanic collective, but so it is. Heilung, a group that performs in the language of stories centuries old, blend a form of throwback theatre with their transformative, transporting music. Their stage show is so all-encompassing and entrancing that you truly could be deep in the Black Forest, witnessing a cultish display of dedication.

Before Heilung, we’re treated to Eivør, a singer from a tiny village in the Faroe Islands, also inspired by Nordic Folk and ancient tradition. Eivør loops her way through a set powered primarily with piercingly dramatic, semi-instrumental vocals and the beat of a single shamanic drum. She cuts a stark figure, loud and striking, her music infused with power that echoes through the theatre and highlights a remarkable vocal ability. It’s easy to imagine how her music links back to her roots: an energising force, strength against the wind-battered shores of the North Atlantic.

Heilung – meaning healing – are unquestionably the main event here, though, and the Danish, German and Norwegian collective don’t so much play a gig as draw you into their world. For five minutes before the musicians appear, a hooded character carries out a kind of ritual cleansing of the stage, swishing smoke over the stage props – eerie looking sticks, skulls, gigantic instrumental horns and drums – leaving behind a sweet herbal scent that engulfs the hall. Birds chirp, and the audience howl like wolves.

Then the bulk of the collective appears. Led by core vocalist, the antler-headed Kai Uwe Faust and his distinctive redheaded co-lead Maria Franz, as well as the stark figure of Christopher Juul, Heilung refer to their performances as ‘rituals’, drawing together obvious pagan influences and a sound they describe as ‘amplified history’. The music is heavily drawn from writings from, in some cases, a couple of thousands years ago, in ten different languages.

Featuring warriors seemingly coated in ash, drummers that looks like characters from Vikings, and the two stark, vocally enthralling lead singers, Heiling fluctuate from sombre and dark to joyous and freewheeling. Never, for a single second, do they edge even an inch out of character.

The result is pulsating and yet slow building. Opener ‘In Maidjan’ sees the delicate opening ceremony quickly transform into a brutally loud track featuring guttural instrumental vocals with throat-singing at their heart, and pounding drums. From there, we take interludes with the intensely bassy vocals of the male side of the band, and the almost Bjork-esque quirkiness of the female lead Franz, whose lead tracks feel less otherworldly than Faust’s but utterly ooze class and sentiment.

In a set where the stark imagery, beautiful lighting, dancing and startlingly powerful rhythm take precedence over the conventional idea of tracks, nonetheless a couple stand out. One is the pure party of closing track ‘Hamrer Hippyer’, the rowdiest and most outgoing track of the night that builds up into a wild dance across the heart of the stage, the storm before the calm of the birds chirping a closing.

Another is the epic, driving chanting of ‘Traust’ a track that builds so slowly and releases from such a tight coil that it seems to explode into life as it develops. Then there’s ‘Asja’, perhaps the most perfect blend of the almost didgeridoo-like, throat-led male vocal gruffness, and the pristine perfection of Franz at her gorgeous best.

Really, though, this whole thing is about performance. It’s about the barely visible deer antlers emerging from the fog in the darker moments as the drum pulses through the very structure of the venue. It’s about the swirling, tribal dance moves, the shows of power from Heilung’s hyper-masculine fighting unit, and the use of varied instruments to create sounds that sometimes border on the surreal.

We learn, later, that their instrumentation is also from the iron-age era. While elements like the thumping of spears against the stage and the bashing of massive ceremonial-looking drums (one of which is made of horseskin and painted with human blood) are impossible to miss, less obvious instrumentation includes a human bone, human ashes in a clay rattle,  and temple antiques.

Heilung, in short, might be loosely categorised under the gothic-feeling ‘Nordic Folk’ banner, but they’re unlike almost anything else you’re likely to come across, an inspired and carefully constructed collective where every detail, from lighting to instrumentation to the sublime slow-building crescendos of the music, is delicately constructed. In 20 years and thousands of shows, this reviewer has never seen anything quite like this, and very little that will stick in the memory for so long.

On the way out, the metaphorical twigs slapped against our faces, and the shining of Grand Canal Dock felt incongruous, like centuries passed by in a few small steps, and we’d left behind a small but compelling glance at our roots. Heilung aim to heal. More than that, they enthral.