Almost two decades after a spate of vandalism, violence and murder turned a localised musical subculture-within-a-subculture into a bogey tale of extreme music begetting extreme acts, two American filmmakers set out to meet the progenitors of Norwegian black metal music and those who still seek to mythologise them. The resulting documentary is neatly made, but frustratingly anaemic, so keen to avoid editorialising and judgement that it ends up lacking in clarity, tension and even coherence.
The central story is one already familiar to any extreme music fan. Three bands - Darkthrone, Mayhem and one-man outfit Burzum - are among those at the crux of Norway’s black metal explosion in the late 1980s and early 1990s, gaining notoriety both for their nihilistic, deliberately DIY sound and raw visual aesthetic, somewhere between Xeroxed punk collage and Grand Guignol. The brutal suicide of Mayhem’s first singer, Dead, is a note of real horror among the posturing. Burzum’s Count Grisnackh, the alias-within-an-alias of 19-year-old Varg Vikernes, burns down a number of historic wooden churches; this sparks sensationally reported copycat crimes, which are blamed on ‘Satanists’. The tension culminates in the stabbing of Mayhem founder and record shop owner Øystein Aarseth (known as Euronymous) by Vikernes, an event he willingly recounts from the high-security prison in Trondheim, from which he was released earlier this year after a 21-year sentence.
Told via interviews with Vikernes, Darkthone’s drummer Gylve Nagell, aka Fenriz, and members of Immortal, Mayhem, Emperor and Satyricon, it is still a strange, chilling story of how rage can bubble under the most prosperous, peaceful society. It is easy to see why it appealed to Aites and Ewell, but why did they feel the need to tell it again? One reason the directors have cited is musical, talking in interviews of their discovery of BM via a record-store friend in quite revelatory terms, yet this is not a very musical film. Extracts of the featured bands are used in the background, but the soundtrack also leans heavily on electronica from Múm and Boards of Canada, and there is scant live footage or extended musical examples. Given that Aites and Ewell wanted to avoid didactic or critical voices, more musical content would have been welcome - not least because, well, black metal is an extraordinary sound. Its sheer jagged ugliness; its alienated interiority and chaotic, teeming noisescapes are revelatory when you first hear them. One rarely feels that excitement from Until the Light Takes Us, and from Fenriz, its most prominent and articulate interviewee - a musician, first and foremost, who seems frustrated to be talking about scene politics and black metal identity. I felt I learned as much about him and bandmate Nocturno Culto - whose absence from this film isn’t remarked upon - in their own film release, The Misanthrope (2007), where they don’t say much at all. There is also little sense of how black metal has developed since the 1990s, with thriving communities and labels in both Europe and the US.
We spend more time with what’s politely called, in the film’s publicity literature, the ‘complex and largely misunderstood beliefs and principles’ of black metal - or more accurately, of Varg Vikernes. For me, this is where Until the Light Takes Us becomes most problematic, albeit bleakly absurd at times, as Vikernes is still, so many years later, at pains to point out that his church-burning was not motivated by Satanic beliefs, but rather his anger at the Christian ‘invasion’ of Norway many hundreds of years ago. This argument is no more complex or misunderstood than it was when he made it in the 1998 documentary Satan Rides the Media, although in that film we do get more of a glimpse of the conformist Christian culture against which the black metallers rebelled.
While some of us will join the dots between his professed ‘heathenism’ and far-right ideology, it’s interesting that not only do the filmmakers omit any overt right-wing rhetoric from Vikernes, but there’s no acknowledgement that, during his time in prison, his world view developed from a sort of Tolkienish paganism to neo-Nazism - other than, perhaps, Fenriz’s tactful mention of Vikernes’s ‘politics’. If Aites and Ewell do, as they’ve stated, wish the audience to make up their own minds, it would be helpful to let them know more explicitly what those politics are. It probably would not have been hard to elicit them from the man himself, alongside his more palatable diatribes against McDonald’s and NATO.
Black metal’s preoccupation with identity and origin myths has made and can still make it a tidy vehicle for nationalist politics. Skirting around this connection - which many black metal musicians do not adhere to, a further tension between art and ideology that’s surely of interest to the viewer - leaves a strange gap at the heart of the film. However, Aites and Ewell do explore another kind of conflict, perhaps one they are more comfortable with: the reappropriation of black metal aesthetics in art. This is where the directors’ hands-off approach works best, as they follow artist Bjarne Melgaard’s fascination with black metal through painting, film and installation work. Melgaard’s slightly vampiric approach is coolly observed, as he asks Frost from Satyricon to appear in a piece of gruesome performance art. We see a nonplussed Fenriz at Melgaard’s Stockholm show, while Frost seems pleased at the artistic validation, staging what looks like a re-enactment of Dead’s suicide at an Italian gallery while a track from Sunn O)))’s Black One (itself a reappropration of black metal) grinds in the background. Black metal’s journey from a localised music cult to ‘edgy’ art reference point is well-drawn, and here I also sense a kind of self-awareness in Aites and Ewell, in relation to their own role as filmmakers and observers. This kind of rigour could have been put to good use elsewhere in Until the Light Takes Us.