I’ve tried at several times during my tenure as proprietor of this establishment to understand and enjoy Black Metal. I’ve seen a handful of Lightning Swords Of Death shows and interviewed Autarch, I had Sam burn me copies of albums by Temnozor, Graveland, Nokturnal Mortum and others. I really dig Wolves In The Throne Room, Wealking, and some Burzum records. But I am by no means an expert, or a devotee, or even a “fan” in the typical sense of the word. So when Ian told me that Netflix Instant is currently streaming a documentary on Norweigian Black Metal called Until The Light Takes Us, I thought it might make for an informative viewing experience.
Specifically, the film deals with members of black metal’s “second wave,” bands who emerged in the early ’90s in the wake of the previous decade’s progenitors (mostly Venom and Bathory). Talking heads include Fenriz of Darkthrone, Varg Vikernes of Mayhem/Burzum, Hellhammer of Mayhem and Frost of Satyricon. A history of the music scene is roughly sketched and juxtaposed to the visual art style and general aesthetic that emerged simultaneously. The criminal activities of the musicians is also expounded upon, with the murder of Mayhem’s Euronymous by Varg Vikernes acting as a kind of climax for the story.
I found the film intriguing and frustrating in equal measure. The genesis of this widely publicized and often referenced (also frequently misconstrued due to the mythology surrounding it) genre was by far the most enjoyable aspect of the film. Having only heard a small portion of Darkthrone’s recorded output before (A Blaze In The Northern Sky) I wanted to hear more. I thought Fenriz came across as a likable and worthy lead character for the documentary. Although there glimpses that suggest he might kind of be playing a character (see: his outraged comments during a phone interview) his statements about the co-opting of the “scene” by other artists and the media were poignant, and he picked a worthy event (a feature article in a British metal magazine devoted to the Norwegian scene) in the timeline of black metal as the moment when everything changed for the worse. Conversely, I’ve heard a number of Burzum records — and really like a few (Hvis lyset tar oss, Filosofem and Belus) — but oh man is Varg Vikernes an unsettling dude. I try not to focus on the fact that he’s been loosely (sometimes not so loosely) affiliated with neo-Nazi groups since the early days of his incarceration, and I can understand as an artist why one might want to release statements intended to muddy the waters as to whether or not he genuinely embraces National Socialism or racism (money! parole!), so I can enjoy his music. Does the fact that Alice Cooper is a republican make Billion Dollar Babies any less awesome? Should I not listen to the Ronettes or All Things Must Pass or Death Of A Ladies Man because Phil Spector killed a woman? Hell, even H.G. Wells and Roald Dahl made anti-Jewish remarks. Oh well. Some people don’t like me! I’m not going to dwell on it.
AAAAaaaannyway… as I started to say earlier, some of the points raised by the film are indeed indicative of the relationship between media and music in any era. There’s a scene where Fenriz comes face to face with the visual artist whose photographs of famous Norweigan black metal musicians are on display in a high-end gallery and it is evident he can’t really stand to be in the same room as the guy. Later he decries the media for latching onto the Satanism angle in reporting on the spate of church burnings across Norway in the early ’90s. In fact, one could go so far as to say that parallels could be drawn between any number of media frenzies of the last decade. After Columbine there was a huge backlash against certain American musicians. Violent movies, television shows and video games are often held up as examples of motivating factors in criminal activity. To hear his account of what were (for lack of a better term) the darkest days of black metal is fascinating. For a lot of people involved, it really was about the music. But once the spotlight finds its way onto a scene, things are invariably changed, and not for the better.
The filmmakers did a wonderful job of editing together archival footage with the modern interviews, and of putting the viewer in the blustery, depressing landscape that helped inspire the grey, cold, harsh music created by those involved in the black metal scene. It might not be an accessible genre for the common music fan, but Until The Light Takes Us can still be appreciated as a story and a character study. It’s streaming now on Netflix Instant, so feel free to check it out and let me know what you think.
[image courtesy of The Examiner]