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Live Rituals


Heilung isn’t a metal band, at least not in the conventional sense. Nor is it quite a world music project. Yet the sounds they develop, and the people present at their performances, are a definite intersection of both. Ceremony, ritual, and spirituality are major components of the Heilung live experience. Before the first wave of Heilung’s performers took the stage, a single person appeared to bless or cleanse the space with burning sage or another smoldering, fragrant substance. Wisps of its smoke combined with the particularly humid venue, with the sold-out crowd already perspiring — myself included.

Heilung performing at The Regency Ballroom, in San Francisco, CA on January 11, 2020. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II

No opener performed this night. And with the stage packed with instruments and decor, it’s unsurprising. With the show advertised as starting at 8 PM, we all waited until nearly 8:35 for something to happen. Recordings of nature sounds like wind, insects, and water filled the venue’s spaces, and a few simple projections of runes or other symbols held static positions around the performance space. At one point the crowd began chanting for the band to take the stage, but after several minutes they grew tired and the beckoning fizzled out.

But suddenly, the crowd perked up, all eyes were forward, and there was a palpable tension and anticipation coming off of the hundreds of people present. Slowly and deliberately walking onto the stage, and meeting at its middle, the first wave of Heilung’s members appeared, forming an inward-facing circle, moving in unison, chanting, and engaging in their opening ceremony. The members of Heilung were adorned in a variety of traditional garb — some of it intended to intimidate, like the dark body paint and shields of soldiers, while others were intended to invoke a sense of connection with the natural world, with furs, bones, sticks, and other organic materials used as ornamentation on several women.

Heilung performing at The Regency Ballroom, in San Francisco, CA on January 11, 2020. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II

As the ritualistic activities of the opening ceremony played out, a number of attendees eager to document their experience with cell phones were quickly instructed by others to put them away. Amazingly, all but one person did so. Such was the level of respect that attendees chose to show the hosts this evening. This was the debut performance of Heilung in the San Francisco bay area, and many fans were intent on preserving the purity of the experience, rather than recording it on a device.

This wasn’t just a concert for many — this was a ritual they were part of; more people dressed up in theme for this concert than any other I’ve attended. Intricate head dresses, face paint, and delicate jewelry adorned women, while some men wore fur-lined cowls, kilts, and boots that were closer to something a Celtic horseman would wear than a San Francisco metal head. However, there were still plenty of metal fans, and I spotted a number of t-shirts celebrating extreme bands on the fringe, with Daughters, Wardruna, and The Melvins all being represented. A fair number of fixtures from the local Gothic / Industrial scene were present as well.

Heilung performing at The Regency Ballroom, in San Francisco, CA on January 11, 2020. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II

From memory, the rest of the performance is a bit of a whirlwind, ebbing and flowing, with feminine and masculine energy coming in and out of focus, performance art, drumming, chanting, singing, stomping, and a wide variety of traditional and not-so-traditional instruments being used to take the audience on a journey of about ten emotionally and tonally varied pieces. One moment, a shamanic figure walked out onto the stage extension that reached into the middle of the audience, and performed athletic dance maneuvers and sang in a throat-singing style. At another moment, a beautiful woman with a headdress covering her eyes sang and played a string instrument made with human bone. Fire dancers appeared, men stomped their feet and the ends of their spears, lighting alternated from extremely bright to pitch black, and…. well, it was overall just a beautiful experience.

Heilung are a band I absolutely adore live. Do I intentionally listen to their music in my off time? Not really. But I wouldn’t hesitate to see them again any other time they pass through my city.

I’ve done my best to sum up the most visually interesting aspects of the performance within the constraints of the show, venue and lighting below. Hopefully this will convince you to see them at the next opportunity.

Written By

San Francisco Bay Area-based photojournalist and event photographer.

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