Heilung at Barrowland BallroomSupport: Eivør| Lili Refrain
January 22, 2023 at Barrowland Ballroom
Every so often, a line-up crops up that just feels right. One where everyone on the bill has some sense of commonality that goes beyond a similarity in sound and into the realms of the existential, where the same sense of purpose and soul can be felt in every performer. This is one of those nights.
Lili Refrain might be the de-facto outsider here, taking her inspiration not from Scandinavian roots and culture but rather from her Roman heritage and a deep-seated sense of personal spirituality, but as she injects her every movement with a sense of purpose, steadily building up tom beats that resonate in the pit of the stomach until they resemble the martial advance of a terrible army, it’s clear that the similarities with tonight’s headliners are far greater than the differences.
Pulling her set entirely from last year’s Mana, there’s a freshness and enthusiasm to the performance that spreads throughout its tempestuous peaks and solemn, almost meditational, troughs. ‘Ichor’ is a strange and beautiful introduction to Lili Refrain’s world that demonstrates both her skill in subtly building a tower of sound from the ground up and her incredible vocal range. One minute she’s an avenging goddess, uttering arcane mantras and the next she’s got the clear, piercing timbre of a Scala soprano. ‘Wata Mami’ amplifies her percussive abilities to their limit, every salvo primed in a mix of theatre, ritual and musical precision, and ‘Sangoma’ dials it all right back with a haunting intimacy that nonetheless captivates a sold-out ballroom.
Having spent over two decades perfecting her mix of indigenous folk, pop and rock, it’s to little surprise that Eivør Pálsdóttir’s appearance is as welcome, accomplished and varied as it is. Although there are many moments where she shows a skill at compartmentalising the disparate realms of her sound, with an opening rendition of ‘The Last Kingdom’ sticking purely to its folk roots and harnessing the simplicity of Eivør’s hand drum, a smattering of sparse drones and the dexterity of her voice, more often than not she ties these threads together and delivers something utterly incomparable.
‘Salt’ has an intimate quality that is in keeping with what ‘The Last Kingdom’ started but as the beats become sharper and more her rhythmically diverse, and her voice spreads out to take in everything from breathy wails to a piercing, emotional high that brings to mind Kate Bush a new dimension appears to open up. That breadth of scope reaches its widest with the throbbing electro-goth floorfiller ‘Í Tokuni’ but it’s the haunting, primal simplicity of ‘Trøllabundin’ that rounds off the set and leaves the strongest impression on the crowd.
There isn’t much that can be said about the Heilung live experience that hasn’t been spoken by someone, somewhere, already but it still doesn’t quite hold up to witnessing it first-hand. From the opening ceremony with a lantern-led procession of performers and acolytes being blessed and repeating a mantra that most of the audience partake in to the ‘”concert” itself, a spectacle of steel and bone, of rhythm, dance and voice that blends theatre, ritual and intense musicality, Heilung are unlike anyone else on the touring circuit these days.
Musically, they are a rich and complex ensemble whose rhythmic precision is simply spectacular. In the case of ‘Asja’, the depth comes from the sparseness of their sound, a handful of percussionists leaving ample room for Maria Franz and Kai Uwe Faust’s voices to fill the air but ‘Othan’ goes for a grander approach, a cacophony of beats and bells swelling around Franz’s growls and trills. It’s truly sumptuous and as the assembled voices rise in call-and-response harmonies, there’s a genuine sense of power in their sound that the heaviest, grindiest bands in the world would sell their souls for.
Beyond the sonic aspects of the performance, the sheer spectacle of it all is magnificent. It’s not just the costumery, a feast for the eyes of bone, fur, cloth and paint, nor is it the sense of abandon that those on the stage exhibit as they lose themselves in each whirling frenzy or sober, careful orchestrated ceremony; it’s all that and more. Even sceptics have to be taken in by the scale of it, this fusion of ancient practice and modern composition, and there’s a sense that if any of the old gods are listening then they’re probably impressed.
Thankfully, there’s always a balance being struck between musicality and spirituality so no-one in the sold-out crowd ever feels left out. Even as the theatre reaches its peaks, Franz’s hypnotic voice and the steady, insistent pound of drums remain grounded and earthly. A final delivery of ‘Galgaldr’ proves this ably as Kai and Franz’s fire feverish mantras back and forth, drums and drones building until the tension becomes palpable and only a final, sober ceremony is capable of drawing the energy down to a close. It’s a masterpiece of performance and rite but chances are, you know this already. And if you don’t? Go find out.