Image: Wikimedia Commons
What do you do when music is intriguing, but the message and imagery are somewhat repulsive? When the visuals are fascinating, but you come away a bit queasy?
No, I’m not talking gangsta rap, although the same issue has occasionally been known to arise (cf Cardi B, my current favorite vocalist…)
I recently watched some videos by a unique ensemble from Northern Europe – Heilung. The band re-imagines prehistoric music, along with a heaping helping of Wagner-cum-Las Vegas grandiosity.
I was intrigued and amused (not that their videos and music betray the slightest humor or irony).
But after a while it got disturbing.
The band re-visions what Stone and Bronze Age musical/ritual performances might have sounded and looked like. Using only materials that would have been available to our ancestors (along with microphones, pickups, etc), they “amplify” sounds from long ago.
Apparently our beloved forebears were into drony voices, slapping bones together, and pounding on anything else they came across. No one “plays” anything – the verb “to play” in all of its senses would be utterly out of place at a Heilung show.
The mix is undeniably engaging, and pushes “trance” music into a new zone – kinda like stone-age down-tempo house. I predict every Pagan band will soon have a veiled female vocalist wailing and banging bones together.
When the vocalists get going in polyrhythmic interplay, all the while pounding on big frame drums, the energy is incredible.
Militarism and Misogyny?
Yet I came away disturbed at an overall tone and imagery that ooze militarism and misogyny without any sense of implicit critique or even awareness.
The band disclaims any political intent or message. But when your performance mimics Wagnerian imagery last idolized by fascists, and you end the night with a bunch of spear-bearing warriors “dancing” around the stage – you might want to make just a mite bit clearer where your true sympathies lie.
The on-stage visuals are striking, and their videographer does a great job with angles and close-ups. There’s much pounding, yelling, and pulling of harsh faces.
The male voices are distant ancestors of today’s death-metal guttural groaners, and take their jobs very seriously. The one female vocalist is veiled and unmoving, as if stoically holding all of the pain and mourning of the male ensemble.
Imagery and Messaging
The band would surely deny any connection to fascism or intent to appeal to such elements. Here’s their wikipedia blurb, probably written by their agent:
“Heilung is an experimental folk band made up of members from Denmark, Norway and Germany. Their music is based on texts and runic inscriptions from Germanic peoples of the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Viking Age. Heilung describe their music as “amplified history from early medieval northern Europe”. Their music is usually about Norse deities, jǫtnar, and valkyries. ‘Heilung’ is a German word meaning “healing” in English.”
To pick a nit – last I heard, no scholar believes that runes can be read, pronounced, or that we have access to any ancient tradition of meaning. Modern runic divination is based on intuitive interpretation – well and good, but a flimsy basis for reconstructing lost languages and cultures.
To pick a further nit – is it my imagination, or does the band’s name carry a distinct echo of the salutation used by an infamous political movement of the last century when addressing their Great Leader?
Male Aggressiveness and Female Passivity
At a broader level, this “reconstruction” of ancestral music and ritual suggests unremitting male aggressiveness accompanied by blindfolded, immobile women.
You can see where someone might read a bit of violence and misogyny into this.
Clearly the manufacturers of Hellblade, a poorly-animated adventure/fight videogame built around incessant threats to the physical well-being of a young woman, felt that the music was a perfect fit for their franchise.
Is Heilung hopeless? Hard to say. The music is intriguing. Maybe what we’re seeing is just a warm-up for an extended Las Vegas run.
Whatever their goal, they are promoting dangerously ambiguous cultural imagery with no evident awareness of its history or implications.
At the least, I’d like to see some hint that Heilung is aware that our forebears had a sense of humor, that they interacted in ways other than growling and pounding, and that the goal of their rituals might not invariably have been to empower warriors.
Just a suggestion. Give them a look/listen.
The lead singer apparently has a bit of a messiah complex – he reports that the band’s performances have resulted in numerous miraculous healings!
Sorry to laugh, folks, but this is a bit distasteful. Music can be healing – but performers are not messiahs.