On paper, booking Heilung to headline ArcTanGent seems like nonsense. The festival is dedicated to heavy music at its most forward-thinking, with the other two main events of the weekend being Converge and Devin Townsend. Meanwhile, this folk collective are rooted firmly in the past, their shows grand interpretations of rituals from millennia gone by.
Shortly into Heilung’s 90 minutes, however, all becomes clear. A curtain pulls back to reveal a main stage transformed into a backdrop lavish enough to host a play. Trees stand at each corner, with massive and exotic percussion instruments scattered everywhere. As vocalist Kai Uwe Faust, masked and horned like a shamanic priest, arrives onstage to bless his surroundings, it’s clear the impending show will decimate the usual expectations of a heavy concert.
Faust, co-vocalist Maria Franz and singer/percussionist Christopher Juul are the nucleus of Heilung. The three formed the band after meeting through Viking reenactment societies in Scandinavia. Yet today they are merely a small part of an extensive ceremony, as In Maidjan reveals a 20-something-person lineup of performers, from percussionists and singers to dancers. Bar the microphones and lights, everything onstage is true to the middle ages: the costumes, body paint and weaponry are as historically accurate as they are timelessly impressive to look at.
The soundscape is similarly staggering. Although the instrumentation is simple, centred around primal drumming, the sheer volume makes every beat a smack to the ribcage. Combine that with the number of voices growling out the band’s olden war chants and ritual songs, and Heilung earn their self-description as “amplified history”.
There’s no choice but to be enveloped by the cacophonous throwback, especially when each track comes with its own elaborate choreography. Midshow, there’s a segment akin to a ritualistic sacrifice. Booming drums and eerie vocals are accompanied by Faust tying up a female performer, binding her neck with rope before she falls to the floor. You don’t do that shit without some serious dedication, and that effort is matched when dancers later circle the singer during a magnetic vocal sermon, shields in hand as Franz ominously sways with a tambourine.
Juul joins in with the pageantry when he holds a cane topped by a deer horn: his rhythmic pounding of its base into the floor incites the spear-wielding soldiers behind him to do the same. The tribal beat then draws claps from the 10,000-strong ArcTanGent crowd. Spotlights flashing in perfect time with each hit affirms the moment as a standout, even in a set packed with unforgettable images.
Hamrer Hippyer builds the night towards its crescendo, every performer coming out to wildly dance and play together in a closing celebration of history and music. Only when Faust ends the song with a whispered “thank you” to the audience does Heilung’s spell finally break, and thousands are reminded they’re in 2023 Bristol, not Norway a thousand years prior. Before his bandmates dance away into the darkness, the vocalist blesses them the same way he did the stage at the start of the show – and the cheers and applause from tonight’s stunned onlookers continue for the entire post-show ritual.
Heilung setlist – ArcTanGent, August 18