Film Review: Until The Light Takes Us

March 8, 2011

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.

Burzum – Dominus Sathanas
Darkthrone – Where Cold Winds Blow

[image courtesy of The Examiner]


  1. Tyler Kent

    I was there for the 1st wave of “black metal” and got Venom’s Welcome to Hell and Black Metal as preorders (along with the Die Hard picture disc ep and other singles) and later enjoyed Slayer and others… but Venom to me, with their sense of humor as well as taboo satanism (real or imagined) really clicked for a somewhat outcast teenager in a very preppy private school in Hilton Head.
    I saw this movie some time back and because of it bought Burzum’s Belus… a record I listen to now and then and enjoy for a change of pace.
    I thought Varg seemed pretty bright and clearly more mature than when he committed his crimes. Fenriz too seemed intelligent and decent enough…. clearly his “schtick” and real life are separate.
    Still, Venom, with classics from early records like Teacher’s Pet, Buried Alive and Die Hard are the high water mark in the genre for me. I would like to locate those keyboard only Burzum albums however.

  2. Josh

    I watched it also, just wanting to gain some insite into the genre. Their scope was pretty small but interesting. I looked up the murder after and reportedly there were 23 stab wounds on the body of Euronymous, mostly in the back, making Vargs self defense story a little silly. He was arrested with 3000 rounds of ammo and 150 kg of explosives in his home. satanist, nazi, terrorist, it’s not a justifiable ideology, it’s bat shit crazy. He puts on a good front though, very lucid and intelligent, like most sociopaths.

  3. |

    The shit was weak, Evan. Youtube Fenriz for some hilarious interviews where he lets his nerdy affection for music shine through the grimness. This documentary was crazy uneven in regards to whatever ‘scene’ they wanted to perpetuate. The real travesty was all the time wasted on douches like Frost and the conceptual art bologna and the shittons of more important music/artists from that era got completely ignored. Varg’s pure evil genius, make no mistake. And don’t be fooled into thinking this is all there is with black metal, because then you’re just playing hipster doofus.

    “only death is real”

  4. |

    i was really looking forward to this documentary and then forgot about it and then remembered again after reading your post. just like the comment above me, i found the shit to be weak. while i was watching it i came up with a top ten list. “top ten bands who should have been in a documentary about norway’s bustling early 90s black metal era”.

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