By Don Simpson | November 28, 2010
Director: Aaron Aites, Audrey Ewell
Starring: Varg Vikernes, Fenriz, Harmony Korine
During the 1980s, a generous handful of thrash metal bands began paving the road for black metal. This “first wave” featured bands such as Venom (whose 1982 album was titled Black Metal), Mercyful Fate, Bathory and Celtic Frost. Anti-Christian themes were prevalent as was unpolished (“lo-fi”) and minimalist recording production. Bathory is oft-cited as the first to feature “shrieked” lead vocals. Black metal musicians adapted menacing pseudonyms; some began to sport the now iconic corpsepaint.
In the Early 1990s, Norwegian bands such as Mayhem, Burzum and Darkthrone carried the burning torch of the “second wave” of black metal which truly solidified the scene into a distinct musical and sociological genre. Awash with high gain tones, abundant distortion and fast tremolo picking, black metal guitarists utilize certain scales, intervals and chord progressions to produce the most dissonant and ominous sounds possible. Blatantly deviating from conventional song structure — utterly void of verse-chorus sections — black metal typically features extended and repetitive instrumental sections.
And then the churches began to burn… The black metal scene was presumed responsible for the arson of more than fifty Christian churches in Norway between 1992 and 1996. One of the most noteworthy churches that was reduced to ashes by black metal was Norway’s Fantoft stave church. Originally constructed in Sognefjord around the year 1150, it was relocated to a location in Fantoft in 1883 that was rumored to have deep ancient significance to Norse pagans.
The spate of church burnings — as well as three grisly deaths — garnered high profile international media attention for the black metal scene, showcasing a nihilistic rampage of satanically-minded youth. Despite the unbridled onslaught of negative publicity, this once underground scene in Norway quickly gained notoriety resulting in skyrocketing record sales worldwide.
Co-produced and co-directed by Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, Until the Light Takes Us focuses primarily on two of the most prominent “second wave” musicians: Varg Vikernes (“Count Grishnackh”) and Gylve Nagell (“Fenriz”) the two representing the yin and yang of black metal.
We follow Nagell as he rides trains, walks the streets of Norway, sits in his apartment and attends art installations all the while ruminating on the “lo-fi” recording techniques and philosophy that his band Darkthrone abides by. For Nagell, black metal is purely about the music — more specifically, its easily identifiable sound. While Darkthrone has profited from all of the press surrounding black metal, Nagell purposefully maintains a safe distance from the negative actions of the scene. All in all, Nagell seems like a very nice guy albeit with a nihilistic and misanthropic slant.
Vikernes, of the one-man band Burzum, is interviewed solely in a bright and cheery prison room while serving a maximum sentence (in Norway the maximum sentence is 21 years) for the 1993 murder of the lead singer of Mayhem, Øystein Aarseth (“Euronymous”), and multiple arson charges (including that of the Fantoft stave church). It is readily apparent that Vikernes considers himself to be the philosopher king of the black metal scene; he comes across as well-read (especially in Norse mythology and its apparent destruction at the hands of Christians) and intelligent.
In the spring of 2009 (after Aites and Ewell’s film was completed), Vikernes was released on parole after having served almost 16 years of his 21-year sentence. He promptly announced a new album — The White God — offering a blunt reminder that the white power and homophobic schizophrenia of black metal is left unexplored in Until the Light Takes Us. There is no mention that Vikernes has been identified as a Nazi throughout most of his life, or that while in prison he coined the term “odalism” (derived from odinism — Germanic Neopaganism) to describe his ideologies. According to Vikernes, within odalism “lies Paganism, traditional nationalism, racialism and environmentalism”; Vikernes contrasts odalism with modern civilization (“capitalism, materialism, Judeo-Christianity, pollution, urbanization, race mixing, Americanization, socialism, globalization, et cetera”).
In order to create Until the Light Takes Us, Aites and Ewell traveled to Norway and immersed themselves amongst the black metal scenesters for several years, establishing the trust and friendship of this film’s subjects. Their focus is on the anti-establishment ideologies of the scene, not to mention how the film’s subjects have historically been misunderstood by the media (for example: though black metal is anti-Christian, that does not mean it is pro-Satan). In other words, it is obvious which side Aites and Ewell are on — most of the negative aspects of the scene are either shrugged off or ignored altogether, their primary goal is to provide black metal an opportunity for rebuttal against the media’s claims.
What Until the Light Takes Us does extremely well is visually illustrate and explain the Norwegian context (the unforgivably dark and cold environs; the über-conformist yet liberal society; the invasion of globalization, commercialization and Americanization) which caused these self-effacing, eccentric and intelligent young men to feel alienated and oppressed by their surroundings.
What I really do not understand is why black metal would take a backseat on the Until the Light Takes Us soundtrack to songs by Múm, Black Dice, Lesser and Boards of Canada?
The limited edition 2-disc DVD set & Blu-Ray includes: a 36-minute Black Metal short film of deleted scenes; an alternate ending; outtakes; “The Cutting Room” with musicians not in the film (including: Enslaved, Ted “Nocturno Cutlo” Skjellum from Darkthrone, and Jørn “Necrobutcher” from Mayhem); additional footage of Ulver, Immortal, Jan Axel “Hellhammer” Blomberg, Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell and Kjetil “Frost” Haraldstad; 46 additional minutes of Varg Vikernes; and a 45 minute class on the history of black metal with Fenriz.