Prior to watching Until the Light Takes Us, I had been hearing shocking stories of Satanism, church burnings and brutal murders related to the Norwegian black metal scene of the late eighties and early nineties. About three years ago, I visited Aquarius Records in San Francisco and heard a track from Norwegian artist Burzum, otherwise known as Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes. At the time, I knew nothing about him or his reputation, but I remember being pummeled by the hellish sounds; Burzum's screeching guitars and goblin growls put me in an utterly grim headspace. I wasn't inspired to go out and burn the cross, but the music was original and had a lasting impact. Later on, I learned that Burzum, or Varg Vikernes, was one of the founding fathers of Norwegian black metal and, in 1993, was sentenced to 21 years in jail for three church arsons and for fatally stabbing a fellow musician in the skull. This was enough to inspire further investigation.
Until the Light Takes Us premiered in late 2008 and is a first of its kind documentary, focusing solely on the notorious black metal movement in Norway -- a movement known for Satanic imagery, corpse-paint, double bass drums, anti-Semitism, homophobia and the contempt of Christian influence on Norwegian society. Directors Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell spent nearly two years in Norway to separate fact from fiction and explain how this movement, and the crimes that ensued, became prime time news fodder. To my surprise, Aquarius Records was also instrumental in motivating them to make the film. In an interview with The Alternative Film Guide, Aites and Ewell explain: "We were introduced to black metal by a friend (Andee Conners, who owns Aquarius Records in San Francisco) and we both really got into it (almost obsessed with it). We were both working in film and we were in the early stages of working on a narrative feature together... we really wanted to see a documentary about black metal and there wasn't one. That's where the idea came from."
The feature length film methodically mixes archival footage, practice sessions, audiotape and photos with artist interviews, taking a chronological look at the rise, fall and ultimate trend appeal of black metal in Norway. (Warning for the faint of heart: one photo, also used as an album cover, shows brain matter seeping out of Dead's head -- Dead is the former vocalist for the band Mayhem.) Relentless pounding riffs, bleak chord structures and ghostly cries characterize the black metal sound, and albums such Mayhem's Deathcrush, Burzum's self-title EP and Darkthrone's A Blaze in the Northern Sky were the first to pioneer this frenetic, genre-bending style.
The majority of the film is spent with Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell of Darkthrone and Varg Vikernes of Burzum. Once friends, Gylve and Varg started along similar paths, devoting themselves to their music and cementing their reputation as metal overlords. Varg ventured beyond the music to fulfill some of his own personal convictions and, at the age of 21, was found guilty of first-degree murder and the burning of three historic churches. His interviews are shot entirely from a maximum-security prison in Trondheim, Norway.
The directors do a good job of remaining neutral throughout the film and refrain from adding voice-over commentary or personal interjections. The candid interviews, graphic photos and bleak Norwegian landscape tell the story best on their own. What is surprising is the amount of humor and human qualities that shine through, despite the morbid music and the retelling of despicable acts. During a phone interview with a music journalist, Gylve from Darkthrone talks about how his new records should drive people to suicide, but also jokes about how he's into Monika Kruse and German techno music. "We in Oslo... usually know about a lot of different sorts of styles of music. We're not fu**in living in a trailer camp just listening to Anthrax, if you know what I'm saying." Varg delves into some gritty details of how he murdered Euronymous, Mayhem's guitarist, ("in self-defense") without a shred of remorse, but then gets some comedic relief as he recounts a time, long ago, when he and Gylve were discussing whether corn flakes are better soft, or crispy.
The film takes a strange turn when Bjarne Melgaard is introduced. Bjarne is a visual artist who has latched onto black metal, and blatantly capitalizes on the movement for his own personal gain. Oddly enough, Gylve agrees to walk in a snowy forest as part of a video piece for Bjarne's collection, but is shown in the gallery looking uncomfortable as hell, making fun of the exhibit flyer with Bjarne's name in extra extra bold type. Clips from Harmony Korine's 2000 black metal exhibit in LA titled The Sigil of the Cloven Hoof Marks thy Path show him tap dancing with corpse-paint, ranting about how black metal is the most intense, raw music. At first, these scenes seem out of context but they ultimately prove how the movement has crossed over into other "artistic" venues. As Gylve puts it, "A big part of me wished that this whole thing didn't turn into a trend... then again, you know, people like to dress up."
The film captures Norway's beautiful, cold landscape with its slow pace, and pairs the mood well with the dark sentiments of black metal. Until the Light Takes Us doesn't give into shock value or offer quick-fix assumptions of what this movement is about. Instead, the directors choose (wisely) to let the source material take center stage. Like the Manson murders, this is a story that had to be told and fortunately, Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell use enough tact and discretion to follow through with a provocative and intelligent film.
Until the Light Takes Us is screening at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, July 9-11, 2009.