Until the Light Takes Us
Directed by Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell
Norweigan black metal drew attention to itself in the mid-90s, when its leaders publicly condoned and at times participated in a series of criminal gestures, including church arson and murder.
Years after sensationalist media coverage and contemporary art's momentary fixation (around 2000) on black metal have both warped and mythologized the genre, Until the Light Takes Us attempts to give those involved a chance to testify. Documentarians Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell give viewers a better notion of the moment's chain of events and media blow-up with archival concert and news footage, but they notably resist hard statements, leaving us with a purposefully tenuous grasp on the implications of the black metal genre.
Part of the reason for this is that while those interviewed (mainly Burzum member and convicted murderer Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes and Darkthrone's Glyve "Fenriz" Nagell) often decry the popular appropriation of their genre as substanceless and derivative, it remains unclear if they even know what the movement's original intents were-beyond a vague nationalism.
Virkernes, who killed his rival, Euronymous (the guitarist of Mayhem) in an escalated scuff in 1992, proposes that the movement was a reaction to global capitalism: "When McDonald's appeared in 1991... We stockpiled weapons to prepare for war. We not only suspected there might be a third world war we hoped there would be. If you want to build something new you have to destroy the old world first." He speaks, vaguely, about Christians burning the pagan texts in the library of Alexandria, and justifies the burning of churches as retribution for 2,000 years of Christianity's smothering of "true" Norwegian culture: "It was no worse doing it now than [destroying Pagan culture] was in the year 900."
Since the film's release, Vikernes has been set free on good behavior. Meanwhile, the black metal aesthetic has been fetishized by Swedish artist Bjarne Melgaard, who invited Kjetil "Frost" Haraldstad from Satyricon to slit his wrists for a show in front of well-coiffed gallery-goers in Europe, and by Harmony Korine, who sent up the genre in a frightening tap-dance at Patrick Painter in 2000.
What remains so luridly appealing and fascinating about black metal are the extremes to which violence has been stylized and built into the ethos of a musical genre; though that genre is musically not much different than American death metal, it sparked a toxic reaction in a homogenous population in a small Scandinavian country. While Aites and Ewell provide us with a good overview of black metal's history, their main accomplishment is revealing the intrinsic hypocrisies and contradictions of the genre, leaving us to wonder to ourselves when and why, in this particular instance, performance and reality collapsed.