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Review: Until the Light Takes Us

Metal, terrorism, and gossip
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  February 10, 2010


To shoot their frustrating but nonetheless fascinating documentary about Norwegian black metal, directors Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell spent a few years in Norway, gaining the trust of members of the notorious scene before interviewing them. Their investment, in a way, paid off: Until the Light Takes Us contains unsettling and sometimes sensational footage of and about some of the scene's most important members. Unfortunately, it also lacks much in the way of judgment or perspective.

The genre or niche, a (more) dire offshoot of the more popular international thrash and death metal scenes, originated in the late '80s with the band Mayhem, led by Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth. It was further popularized by Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell's duo Darkthrone and Kristian "Varg" Vikernes's solo project Burzum in the early '90s, and those two musicians are the film's main focus.

Their music was recorded in single takes with defiantly lo-fi materials. On stage, they wore "corpse paint" (this is presented as an original idea, though the makeup is similar to KISS's) and were known to engage in brutal behavior onstage (such as self-mutilation and using weapons). Certain events, like the 1991 shotgun suicide of a Mayhem musician (which was photographed and used as the band's next album cover), popularized the scene as it became more radical, espousing anti-capitalist, -Christian, and -Semitic messages. Members and followers of the scene burned down around two dozen churches in Norway in 1992-93, which exposed black metal to the mainstream, with the media labeling the musicians Satanists.

Most of the discussion of the political slant of the scene comes courtesy of Varg, an unnervingly articulate and charismatic figure who speaks from his (well-equipped, with computer) jail cell, where he's approaching the end of a 21-year sentence for murder and arson — Varg was connected with at least a few of the church burnings. (Fenriz speaks as more of a suffering artist, albeit one who looks to incite suffering in his music.) Varg talks of the adolescent disillusion that drove him to his extreme views and actions, railing against the Christians who "destroyed the [original Norwegian] culture," and discussing how he sought to make the movement more ideological and active. This led to a nasty power struggle within the scene: one of Varg's crimes was the murder of Euronymous, a deified figure (he ran Helvete — "Hell" — the record store that was the scene's effective headquarters, complete with an underground weapons stash). The scene, full of gossip and backbiting, has waned in influence and artism since then.

Aites and Ewell give Varg carte blanche to espouse his speculations and extreme viewpoints through the film; this is troublesome (you worry about the impact the film could have on modern teenagers; indeed, the black metal inspired a two-week rash of arson and petty crime in Florida in the mid-'90s, which goes undiscussed here), but it also simplifies the origins of black metal. Even Varg's own music took considerable inspiration from more mundane ideas, like the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. According to outside accounts (Brandon Stousy's July 2008 Believer article, "A Blaze in the North American Sky," is a good starting point — it's available online — as is the 1998 book Lords of Chaos, written by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind and released by Feral House), Varg has radicalized considerably since his imprisonment, and Aites and Ewell do little to challenge to his views, which effectively pigeonholes the genre, along with the film.

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