Broadly speaking, documentaries fall into one of two categories: those that provide the viewer with a narrator who gives a certain insight or sometimes opinion on the subject (Grizzly Man or any Michael Moore film spring to mind) or those that prefer to let the content do its own work, witholding any overt moral judgment to guide the viewers’ response. Until the Light Takes Us (released in theaters in 2009), which examines the Norwegian black metal scene and the controversy surrounding it in the early 1990s, takes the second tack, although like most documentaries in said camp, the filmmakers’ views come through in the juxtaposition of material, as in the subtle way a musician like Kjestil Haraldstad, who performs in the band Satyricon as Frost, can be made to look like something of a poseur compared to Gylve Nagell, aka Fenriz, the leader of seminal black metal band Darkthrone. The early black metal scene is ripe for such documenting, bringing with it murder, arson, accusations of Satanism, and basically everything a good filmmaker could want in a non-fiction subject.
Filmmakers Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell frame the rise and (in some ways quite literal) self-immolation of Norway’s black metal scene through extensive interviews with Fenriz and another of the scene’s founders, Varg Vikernes, aka Count Grishnackh of Burzum. Those with little knowledge of black metal will not find this film a suitable primer (Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind’s 1997 book Lords of Chaos remains the genre’s best point-of-entry), in part because the soundtrack is largely electronic music (although creepy enough, including as it does Boards of Canada), but the clear tension between the situations of the main interviewees is enough to propel you through it: Fenriz is seen being interviewed by a magazine, going out to bars, checking out an art exhibit, and doing everyday things while Vikernes is locked up in a maximum security prison.
On the other hand, this focus on the people involved means that various interesting bits fall by the wayside. Vikernes’ and Nagell’s interest in making records that would sound as bad as possible (Vikernes explains that they ended up using a headset mic to record much of Burzum’s first album) is fascinating, and Nagell’s brief explanation of the “typical” black metal guitar riff is poetic but unenlightening, perhaps due to the language barrier. How exactly does picking up and down produce an eerie sound? Quickly, such technical concerns are pushed to the background as the black metal scene becomes embroiled in politics and in-fighting, which leads to church burning and the murder of some members by some others. The explanation of this, which is key to understanding how Vikernes landed in prison in the first place, is left to Vikernes alone, and it makes little sense. The confusing—at least to non-Norwegian ears—jumble of names and pseudonyms makes it worse, and there’s little attempt to sort out the facts.
But even though no individual part is truly satisfying (there’s also a visual artist who pops up every once in a while as he’s preparing an installation based on black metal, but we get little to no sense of him), the sum ends up exploring interesting issues about art and meaning. It seems that black metal aspired to a kind of artistic purity through a strange combination of virtuosity (playing really fast is key for both drummers and guitarists, it seems) and lo-fi recording, and while Fenriz seems resigned to its commodification as a pose nowadays, it’s clear that Vikernes still has a twisted sense of idealism about what the scene meant.
As a sociological study of cliques and violence, Until the Light Takes Us is fairly capable, reserving judgment of its subject in a way that mostly helps the viewer. But as a chronicle of a musical style, it falls short. Interested listeners of modern avant-garde metal bands like SunnO))), Boris, Black Dice, and Mastodon will find little insight here into the music of black metal itself.Visit Until the Light Takes Us | Factory 25
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