The Music of DCC: The Shamanic Rites of Heilung
by Michael Curtis
The shield-maiden stands before the priest, her arms bound behind her, lashed to a spear. The drums, which have played mercilessly, ominously, throughout the rite have stopped. The witnesses to the ritual stand in the shadows, watching breathlessly. A noose hangs around the shield-maiden’s throat, the priest holding the cord. Then, as the witnesses gasp, the priest tightens the noose with a single, sharp motion and the shield-maiden collapses to the ground. The gods have been appeased.
On the evening of January 29th, 2020, I traveled both physically and temporally to witness a primal rite being held at Webster Hall in New York City. Physically, the trip required only a couple of hours on the Long Island Railroad, but chronologically, it was a journey back into the Iron Age. This night, Heilung was returning to Webster Hall to close out their North American tour.
What is Heilung? One is hesitant to use to term “band” as it has connotations that don’t truly apply to Heilung. Instead, “musical historical reenactors” might be closer to the mark. Heilung as an entity, whose name means “healing” in German, was formed by Kai Uwe Faust, Christopher Juul, and Maria Franz in 2014. In 2017, Heilung was voted one of the top 10 best performances at the Midgardsblot Metalfestival and released a recording of their performance on YouTube, which attracted nearly 17 million views.
Seeing Heilung perform live is akin to stepping out of time machine into the midst of a pagan rite, one held deep in the Black Forest or in a wooded glen overlooking the fjords of Scandinavia during the Iron Age. The performance is a ritual reimaged for the 21st century, and Heilung does indeed call their concerts “rituals.”
The show begins with a cowled figure emerging from the shadows, a bowl of smoking incense in hand. He smudges the stage, the instruments, and the audience members, who are now no longer paying attendees but witnesses to the ritual about to occur. Once space is cleansed, the rest of the performers appear, antlers in hand and dressed in a mixture of Iron Age clothing and ceremonial costuming suitable for a pagan high priest and priestess. Singer Maria Franz is especially startling: dressed in a white gown adorned with cloth ribbons, her face is painted ashen, her eyes and lips black as coal. A veil of white cloth hides her eye and a pair of thin antlers rise from her headdress. Kai Uwe Faust, as a counterpoint, is dressed in dark blues and reds, his back adorned with temple bells and the rack of a great stag crowning his head. The rest of the performers, who include Christopher Juul, looking like he just stepped off the bow of a Viking longship, another pair of drummers, and two female backup singers and dancers, form a circle and hold their horns aloft. An incantation is made, some of the audience answering in call-and-response, and then the ritual begins…
For the next 90 minutes, the boundaries between the modern world and the distant past crumble. Animal skin drums pound, temple bells ring, shields and spears clash and clatter. Rattles filled with human ashes are shaken, a horn the size of an auroch’s is sounded, swords are played like bells, and bones and branches are on display everywhere. Faust’s voice is guttural, sounding like a Tibetan throat singer’s as he vocalizes lyrics in German, English, Old Norse, Icelandic, and Gothic. Franz’s range is far different, her voice ethereal and haunting, the direct opposite of Faust’s demonic utterances. A “Viking chorus” appears, storming onto the stage with great round shields and spears, and it is from its ranks that our shield-maiden will eventually be drawn, chosen as a sacrifice to the gods. At one point, one of the back-up singers dons a leather helm shaped like a raven’s head and dances before the great drum in the middle of the stage with birdlike movements reminiscent of Native American medicine dances.
The audience is drawn into the ritual. The floorboard rise and fall beneath your feet as the attendees stomp in time to the music. Hands are raised high to the rafters, intoning the ancient gods. Face paint and Ren fair garb is not uncommon among the audience, but it’s all a pale imitation of what we see on stage.
The rite culminates in a grand debauch of dancing and fire. Three of the Viking chorus enter the audience, lifted aloft by the worshippers, whose hands turn black from the warriors’ body paint. The slain shield-maiden is raised from the dead by Franz’s high priestess, who moves across the stage with the grace of some forest creature. A pair of antlers, each point burning like a torch is brought on stage by the resurrected shield-maiden who dances with them held aloft, perhaps in homage to the gods’ power that has revived her. Faust begins to spin, his ribbons and bells whirling and chiming before he collapses on the stage. The drums begin to slow, the performers’ energy spent. A final incantation is held, then the stage is plunged into darkness. When the house lights come up, it is empty, the rite is over.
While I knew and enjoyed Heilung’s music before I saw them perform, I sensed that they were something that had to be witnessed live to fully appreciate their art. I was not wrong. I’m still processing the experience, and it is not an easy one to sum up in words. The night was alien and unearthly, yet still managed to touch something primal that responds to the beating of drums and the rattling of bones. I seldom use the word “art” in the context of a live show, but Heilung is worthy of such an accolade. Much of their success as performers stems from the fact that they don’t interact with the audience as a band normally would. There’s no “Hello, New York! We’re Heilung and we’re here to rock you!” That would feel as alien as if your local Catholic priest began Sunday services that way. Instead, one feels that your attendance is a matter of happenstance. That what you’re seeing would have occurred even without a paying audience. It was a ceremony, one designed to, in the words of an old anthropology professor of mine, “wind the universe to keep it running as intended” and your presence here is incidental. Heilung’s shows are theater, immersing the audience into the narrative being enacted on stage.
Before going on, and because we live in the world we do, I feel it necessary to pause and reassure readers that despite Heilung’s artistry and their focus on “spiritual traditions of the Eurasian circumpolar peoples,” they have no affiliation with any modern political or religious movements. It came out that a woman of color experienced discrimination at one of their shows by an audience member recently. Heilung thoroughly condemned the act publicly and reaffirmed their stance that their music and rituals are for everyone and that the choice of their name (Healing) was not coincidental.
Having praised Heilung and their performance to a degree worthy of them, let’s now see how our Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign can benefit. Clearly, Heilung’s music is the primary avenue for doing so. That Basil Poledouris Conan the Barbarian soundtrack you’ve been playing since 1982 is getting a bit long in the tooth and it’s time for an upgrade. With three albums out, all available digitally, Heilung presents some great tracks for your game sessions; from the driving to the eerie to the somber, you’ll find something that suits your table if you utilize music. Many of the songs are performed in archaic languages, meaning you don’t have to worry about the “sing-along” factor that can make game table music a challenge—unless your players are fluent in Proto-Germanic or Old Norse, you should be O.K.
The second means of drawing inspiration from Heilung is through their live show. As I described, costuming is a tremendous part of their performance and the ritualistic garb of Kai Uwe Faust and Maria Franz is the ideal religious wear for any shamans or pagan high priests and priestesses the characters might encounter. A quick image search for Heilung will provide you with ready-made player handouts the next time the party has to talk with the Weird Witch of the Western Woods or the Shaman of Trances who lives in the ancient ruin down the way.
Heilung’s rituals can also be plundered for “in-game” religious ceremonies. Their YouTube performance presents at least two dozen inspirational ideas for the judge to use to spice up their descriptions of religious ceremonies, as well as providing players with creative springboards to help to describe how their clerics (or even wizards) enacts their magic.
Although Heilung’s North American tour is concluded, DCC fans in Europe and the UK have more opportunities to see them perform in person in the coming year: their next show is scheduled for York, the UK at the “Descended from Odin Festival” and “Jorvink Viking Festival” on February 18-19, and the 22nd. April and May see them performing in France, in the Russian Federation in May, and Poland in June. As for the rest of us in North America, we’ll have to bide our time until time and space once again warp and we can attend the shamanic rites of Heilung in person. You’ll be sure to find me there.