To many, arson, Satanism, murder and suicide are all that's known about the curious strain of counterculture known as black metal. With its origins in grimy almost-punk bands like Venom, Celtic Frost and Bathory, its more extreme second wave would have likely remained secluded in portions of Scandinavia, if a series of extra-musical events — namely arson, Satanism, murder and suicide — hadn't catapulted a small group of Norwegian headbangers to infamy in the early '90s .
To a niche audience, though, the earliest black-metal records were completely revolutionary. It's no exaggeration to say the influence of this gritty and primal sub-genre permeates the entirety of contemporary underground metal. A new documentary called Until the Light Takes Us plunges into the foul entrails of the black-metal netherworld, but it frustrates by never committing to either fans or scandal-mongers.
To shoot up close, filmmakers Aaron Aites and Audrey Euwell moved to Norway, embedding themselves in the scene and living among the musicians. The footage often mirrors the subject matter — lo-fi and raw — as Aites and Euwell gain candid interviews with members of pertinent bands such as Emperor, Burzum, Mayhem, Satyricon and Immortal.
The film's narrative revolves largely around two figures — Darkthrone member Gylve Nagell (better known as Fenriz), and the then-incarcerated Varg Vikernes. As sole member of the band Burzum, Vikernes dubbed himself Count Grishnackh, released a few records, burned some churches — and oh yeah, murdered the guitarist for Mayhem. These events have been well-documented, most notably in the surprisingly academic book Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, which serves as something of a black-metal Rosetta Stone.
Though a number of its subjects criticized the book, Lords of Chaos highlighted their contradictions without glossing over the anti-Semitism and racism that seeped into the scene's more radical pockets. But where the book elaborates on Vikernes' tendency to adopt extreme right-wing ideology and retroactively ascribe his actions to it, Until the Light Takes Us simply allows him to deliver unchallenged his well-rehearsed account of the murder of Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth. His criticism of Christianity as a "Jewish religion" also goes unchecked.
That laziness, alas, is typical. Throughout the film, names are dropped that mean nothing to the black-metal layperson — enough to stock one of Tolkien's eye-glazing lists of elves. Nor does the movie take the time to distinguish black metal from other sub-genres like death metal or thrash. Instead, the filmmakers play up the most shocking parts of the story — such as the suicide of former Mayhem singer Per Yngve Ohlin (aka Dead) — while gawking as Mayhem drummer Jan Axel "Hellhammer" Blomberg expresses admiration for a comrade who "killed this fucking faggot" in Lillehammer, Norway.
But the focus on sensational events without any deeper scrutiny or curiosity is wasted on black-metal fans, who've already heard them recounted exhaustively. It's hard to believe anyone else would care, and Until the Light Takes Us won't win new believers. Aites and Euwell rely so heavily on the shock value of random footage (including an out-of-left-field clip of a possibly ambushed Nashvillian) that the order of events comes off murky and haphazardly sequenced. The result is clumsy and confusing. During an interview segment, the drummer and lyricist Fenriz rhetorically asks how this whole thing happened. While the quote figures prominently in the movie's trailers, Until the Light Takes Us never answers that question.
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