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– a review of ‘Until the Light Takes Us’

There’s no better way to rebel against authority and general societal malaise than through music, and in the early Nineties in Scandinavia, if you really wanted to strike terror in the hearts of your parents, it took just two words – black metal.

In this relativistic day and age, black metal is practically mainstream. Many of the headlining bands of metal these days either originated in black metal or were directly influenced by it, far too many for me to mention here.

What was it? Where did it come from? And why was it so divisive, what riled the media to such a shark chum feeding frenzy, what caused these terrifying, sensationalist headlines?

These are some of the questions directors Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell seek to answer in their 2009 documentary ‘Until the Light Takes Us’.

In order to even begin to understand black metal beyond the stereotypical image of corpse paint, black garb and inherent nihilism, you need to understand something about that inner heart of dark that lurks in Scandinavia, and is not just endemic to Norway. Whether it’s the weather (usually miserable), the damp cold (usually present) or the absence of light (for a fair portion of the most miserable time of year), the heart of those Viking descendants is a bleak and dismal place. Once upon a time, the pagan Norse struck terror in the hearts of Christian Europe, as Varg Vikernes, one of the key figures and self-styled ideologists of black metal points out, then came Christianity and much later, a particularly joyless semi-Calvinist brand of Lutheranism, and somewhere along the way, Norway degenerated into a liberal, relativist, cultural landscape of celebrated mediocrity and stifling conformism, something that could also be said of my own closely related cultural desert, Denmark.

This was the environment that fostered the beginnings of black metal, the rebellion against nice, against conformist, and even against the off-center musical leanings of death metal, from which black metal evolved.

What started out as a straightforward exercise in teenaged rebellion and new musical boundaries soon gravitated toward ever-increasing extremes – in terms of stage performances, exemplified by the lead singer of Mayhem, Per Yngve ‘Dead’ Ohlin, who adapted the corpse paint of performers such as King Diamond but took the look even further, for instance burying his clothes in the ground before performances and cutting himself on stage with knives and shards of glass.

When Ohlin committed suicide in by shotgun and slashed wrists in 1991, he was found by another member of Mayhem, guitarist Euronymous, owner of the pivotal record store and gathering place ‘Helvete’ (Hell) in Oslo. Instead of calling the police, he bought a disposable camera and took photos, one of which made it on the cover of a bootleg Mayhem LP.

From there on, it only gets stranger. Vikernes, frontman of rival band Burzum, soon began a personal crusade against Christianity, media-fed cultural conformity and the increasing globalization of Norway and what he came to see as the pollution of indigenous cultures by Judeo-Christian values.

When the burning of churches began in 1992/1993, Vikernes wanted to set the media record straight and contacted a Bergen journalist. Instead, the journalist went to the police, who promptly arrested Vikernes for arson, but soon had to let him go for lack of direct evidence. And meanwhile, the media both in Scandinavia and worldwide had a field day. Arson! Satanism! Antisocial, disaffected, ghoulish youth, lured by the siren call of Evil Incarnate! This was the stuff myths are made of, this was too extreme even for fiction, and this was, at least if you asked some of the main participants, the beginning of the end. Many saw Vikernes as the main culprit for laying claim to several church burnings, and in no time rumors began circulating that Euronymous of Mayhem wanted to kill Vikernes under the pretext of signing a record contract. The precise details are obscure even today, but in any event, Euronymous was killed in an altercation with Vikernes in August of 1993, ending in his sentencing for murder and arson in 1994.

This is the story ‘Until the Light Takes Us’ sets to tell by going straight to the sources of those who were there, those who defined and still define black metal today – Fenriz of Darkthrone, Vikernes, still in a maximum security prison at the time of filming, and a few other key musicians. While the film does an admirable job of treating its controversial subject matter in a levelheaded, non-sensationalist fashion, it falls rather short in portraying its key members in a critical fashion. The two main interviewees, Vikernes and Fenriz, couldn’t be further apart – Fenriz, the polite, mild-mannered musician who only really comes alive when discussing his music past and present, and Vikernes, the chillingly articulate, charismatic, cool ideologist, describing Euronymous’ murder in such a dispassionate fashion, my blood ran cold. The directors’ fascination with Vikernes in particular borders on idolatry, and contrasted with Fenriz, nowhere so articulate or even quite so compelling, only made me wish they had dared to be a bit less in awe and a lot more critical of their subjects.

All these years later, black metal has gone mainstream. Corpse paint fazes no one, extreme music has become ever more extreme and button pushing, and even the originals – Fenriz and Frost of influential black metal band Satyricon – both lament that it became so popular, it almost became a parody of itself.

For some time, in my own explorations in the netherworld of music, I came to realize some of the most compelling and interesting metal these days one way or another started with the mother lode of black metal. Bands I love and constantly play – Dimmu Borgir, Enslaved, even Fenriz’ own short-lived folk metal experiment Storm and their seminal album ‘Nordavind’ – this is where it started, this is what made it.

‘Until the Light Takes Us’ (a mistranslation of Burzum’s ‘Hvis Lyset Tar Oss’ – ‘If(!) the light takes us’) does a great job of explaining the beginnings of black metal, but falls rather short at making Fenriz, or for that matter Frost, reduced to breathing fire and simulating suicide at a performance art installation in Milan, as persuasive as Vikernes, or even to describe what makes them both at least as important. Last, but not least, it fails miserably at portraying what the orginal scene was all about – or even is to this day – the music. What it does do is strip away many of the misconceptions, the hype and sensationalism of the original media circus.
Somehow, the music got lost, overpowered by the ones who created it, and this is the film’s greatest failing.

Ideology – however misguided or well-articulated – never was the main context of black metal, never was the original lure that gave it such an influence over metal even as we define it today. It was – just as it always was, just as it hopefully always will be – about the music.

Somehow in this film, the music got lost, overpowered by the ones who created it and the drama that surrounded it, and this is the film’s greatest failing. Nevertheless, this is a riveting story, and just for steering clear of easy sensationalism, it should be applauded.

Original image: anders.phoggy.com

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Originally posted as a “review” – of sorts – on an online writing community. Part rant, part rhetoric – and all heart!

The Aural Anaconda

-a review of ”Bloody Kisses”

It’s time…for a change. It’s time to get my head either out of my ass or out of Roman Britain, or just plain…out, somewhere – elsewhere, or else wear out what’s left of my synapses. They’ve been buried, unfortunately not fatally, in dense archaeological tomes of academe. A woman can only take so many Sub-strata B earthworks variations (early first to third-century CE), before having an overwhelming urge to cause a good few third millennium earthquakes of her own.

To that end, I take a deep breath in front of my CD collection. I shall pretend that I have never heard the contents of any of these glossy acrylic cases before. This will not be hard to do. I shall shut off my superego at its main power supply and up the volume on my id, who is only too happy to oblige. Any excuse, right? So, deep breath. Close eyes. Trail fingers over cases. Back and forth several times and…there! A snag, a slight tug and pull, and out comes…

“Bloody Kisses”, by Type O Negative.

Wow. This should be fun. A lesbian love fest is in full swing on the cover, and I haven’t even put in the CD yet! Damn it, I wasn’t even invited! My id is already happy-dancing. My inner six-year-old wiener wants to know where their hands are, but the outer 44-year-old takes one look at those faces and – knows.

On the back, four funereal dudes are wondering why they’ve been caught grave-robbing, but then, I happen to blink, and there he is, Poe’s poison-green Imp of the Perverse, jumping on a tombstone and somersaulting out over the trees decked out in winter drab. I blink again, and he’s gone, but I saw him, I swear I did. The underpaid morticians on the back cover never noticed. They’re checking out the real estate, thinking “development opportunity”.

I have been warned. This is, in other words, to be taken at face value – at my peril.

Few opening tracks in the history of music recording have been so aptly named as “Machine Screw”. The title alone says it all, and whatever’s left over will clear any earwax your Q-Tips might have missed. Be careful, though. Prolonged exposure might take your brain with it.

Just before my disappointment reaches epic levels, an eerie, creepy keyboard line insinuates itself into my now immaculate auricles and I’m well away, borne on a twisting sinuous tide into “Christian Woman”, and…Holy Catechism! I totally get it! It’s Bernini’s “The Ecstasy of St. Theresa” in music.

Now, this is a statue that has been known to make even hardened Catholics smirk. They nod, they walk around this epic poem in marble in awe, and then – they smirk. Religious ecstasy, sure it is. Her toes are furling, her fingers curling, and as for that expression on her face, well! Obviously, those smirks seem to say, religious ecstasy has something to recommend it, doesn’t it? One and a half billion Catholics can’t be wrong. This statue is what all those millions of Catholic women are hoping for.

Evidently, these women have never read Origen, Tertullian or St. Augustine. Maybe they should listen to this.

If first impressions are important, then one of the first things you are going to notice is that Peter Steele can sing. Love it or loathe it, you can’t get around it. By donning a black-clad, neo-Goth Orpheus persona, his voice also has a strange effect on just about every female I’ve ever introduced to the band. All male rock’n’roll singers are testaments of testosterone, one way or another. Put a guy with an attitude in front of a microphone stand and a band, and he becomes a singing, breathing projection screen for every female fantasy a woman can throw at it. By welding his bleeding heart right out in the open onto his cast-iron shirtsleeve, Steele just might have an edge on all those other guys, who would never dare. His voice has been slaying ladies in the aisles and everywhere else ever since.
So, for the sake of argument and my fragile sanity, he shall hereafter be referred to as That Voice. It’s a voice that can and all too often does most peculiar things to women in particular, making them do things like lose all reason, buy CDs, black corsets, Type O concert tickets…Trust me. I’ve introduced every girlfriend I have to that voice, and the same thing inevitably happens. They really, truly lose it. They seriously discuss the virtues of Catholicism. They develop an insatiable craving for black Valenciennes lace. You’ve heard of those voices who could read phone books and you’d swoon, but this is ridiculous. It spans a range in one song that goes from upper baritone to basso profundo, which is nearly as low as a human being’s vocal chords can go. The only thing That Guy has to do is…breathe, and there we stupid susceptible, suggestible females would be, “before him begging to serve or please, on our backs or knees”. Oh, yes, we would. Not in a New York minute, but a Brooklyn second!
And right before we feckless females are about to enter St. Theresa mode, borne off on a relentless tide of musical bliss both harrowing and sublime – the arrow! The arrow – please, right this effing second, I am so…ready! – comes the punch line, carried by a raunchy, leering guitar and a hard beat, and the imp comes out again. “Jesus Christ looks like me!” Well, blow my mind! Here I thought he’d be a swarthy, hirsute Levantine! Silly me. When I should have been looking for a nice Brooklyn boy of Northern European extraction. Catholic, of course. A godless Lutheran could never have written this.

Then, a riff of the Munsters theme brings me back to Earth, sort of, and an ominous growl pronounces: “I went looking for trouble. And boy, I found her…” “Black no. 1” is a brilliant satire of that nemesis you used to hate, back when Goth was cool the first time around, back when Ian Curtis was a (recently dead) genius and I wanted to marry Robert Smith when I grew up. If he wasn’t available, then Andrew Eldritch would do. Ian Astbury, in a pinch. Indulge my severe fit of nostalgia for a moment. In those days, I did my level best to exude my own unique brand of 5’2” fabulousness. Black wardrobe? Check. Snow-white tan? Check. Too much makeup? Check. A haunting telltale trail of Eau de Sarcophage? Caron’s “Narcisse Noir”, purloined from my mother, who never did forgive me. Prerequisite over-sized boyfriend? Double-check. I had two at the same time – one 6’4” Henry Miller look-alike, one 6’8” curly-haired grizzly bear. We scavenged our wardrobes and our furniture from the Soviet Army “surplus store” dumpster-diving outside the Soviet Embassy in Copenhagen at 3 AM. And meanwhile, right when I really thought I was too cool and too Goth for pre-20th-century words, there was another girl, who somehow managed to be several degrees more sepulchral than even I could manage. She was tall, she was thin, she was lethally gorgeous, and I hated her on sight. We all did. This song was written for her, I swear on my first edition of “Fleurs du Mal”. This is what happened when the Christian Woman gave up holy orders, decided that the Jesus Christ-a-like from Brooklyn wasn’t satanic enough for her, and dumped him. He went looking for revenge – and boy, he found it! If only all revenge was this hilarious. “Loving you was like loving the dead.” One thing none of my former boyfriends ever complained about.

Before I’m completely carried away by a tidal wave of nostalgia, a tribal chant marks the return of the Imp, and the second practical joke of this album, “Fay Wray Come Out and Play”. Please, Fay, do. King Kong is waiting, and the natives are…restless. So is King Kong. And you look so beautiful when you scream.

Are you dying for a chance to stomp the imbedded cat fleas in your carpet into submission? Do you want them to beg for mercy on their tiny knees and make you swear on your old copies of Green Egg that you will never do that again? Would that be too cruel for your eco-friendly sensitivities? Then, practical joke number three is not for you.

If, however, you don’t give a flying about those poor dying fleas in your fifth-hand rug, and you can be found in your off moments playing air guitar with a hairbrush in your skivvies to Pantera (guilty!), then “Kill All the White People” is for you. Try headbanging to this with the nearest available three-year-old, and he will, if he knows what’s good for him, love you forever for it. He might even join you. He won’t get the joke, but you will. If, on the other hand, you don’t, then you don’t deserve this album. May I commiserate. Not.

A very long time ago, there was such a thing as eight-track cassettes. A.M. radio was huge, because that’s where all the hits of the time were played. One cheesy bit of dandelion fluff was a monster hit on A.M. radio in those days. It was called “Summer Breeze”, by Seals and Croft. I lived through those days, and I remember the song well. Catchy. Cheesy. More or less instantly forgettable, even with hippy-dippy harmonics. Not likely to be induced into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame anytime soon.
Try to get this particular version of it out of your brain, and you are in mortal danger of never hearing it any other way again. Ever. All D-tuned strings, distortion, doom-laden drums, keyboards proclaiming the coming Apocalypse and vocals by Beelzebub, giving a throwaway hit some sinister, serial-killer punch it certainly never had before and likely will never have again. You can just see Ted Bundy, coming through the door and across the floor, wielding a bloody axe to this, blowing through the jasmine in his mind. My awfully wedded shall never forgive me for playing this version for him and ruining the original forever. Not to mention screwing up his happy childhood memories. This is evil, evil genius.

Right before a fatal descent into the maelstrom, you are brought back from the brink by “Set me on Fire” and a bright burst of keyboard masquerading as cathedral Bach, where the Dybbuk-in-Disguise has ditched the Devil, left the building and headed straight for the choir of Silly Seraphim. It’s the perfect antidote for serial killer schmaltz, if only because this song – with lyrics consisting of seven words – goes on for over three minutes, and lo and behold!, you can even dance to it. It is bouncy and silly and stupid and beautiful all in one, and if it can make a nearly middle-aged woman feel all of 16 at 9 AM on a dreary rain-soaked Tuesday, then it can’t possibly be bad.

This is an album recorded by four incorrigible practical jokers, and the Imp makes yet another appearance, before I self-asphyxiate in warm, fuzzy 16-year-old thoughts. First, we have “Dark Side of the Womb”, and I can’t quite decide if this is what really happens to Rosemary’s Baby once the camera stopped rolling, or if this is what I wanted to happen three years ago when I gave birth to Damien, the Sequel. The blood of a newborn child. Oh, the possibilities!

There’s more flea murder and dust-bunny decimation to come in “We Hate Everyone”. In fact, it might be fair to say that it takes hardcore to a whole new level. My downstairs neighbors never breathed a word of complaint over Pantera. But they complained about this one, and they have a point. Even the jaded three-year-old didn’t like it much. As a motivational track for housecleaning however, this has its uses. It even beats my perennial favorite the Sex Pistols into shame. My toilet bowl underwent a cathartic experience from which it has never quite recovered. Methinks, however, the gentlemen doth complain a tad too much.

I have days like that, too. It’s called PMS. At least I have that excuse.

From extending a middle finger to the rest of the world to bombastic blood-chilling…suicide? We’re back in penny dreadful novel territory with “Bloody Kisses” (A Death in the Family). I don’t mean that in a bad way. The band throws every single death-and-despair cliché at the unsuspecting listener, and then milks all of them dry for all they’re worth. Ah, this is heart-breakingly depressing. And heart-stopping beautiful. I award it five Victorian mourning hankies. I may cry. You’ll have to excuse me. I have to swoon now. Ah, they’re dead! Alas, they’re dead! And now I have no hankies left to mop up those salty tears. Just loosen my stays. Or else I’ll have to swoon again. All that wailbone is killing me.

By now, I think I’m suffering from a mild case of musically induced schizophrenic personality disorder. “Too Late/Frozen” begins with a screw-up intro, someone calling “Fourths, dude!”, then…we’re back on familiar ground here. Or are we?
What’s really disturbing is the way the opening piece reminds me of a catchy early-Seventies commercial jingle. “It’s too la-a-a-a-a-ate!” coos the chorus like blissed-out pigeons on Prozac, and suddenly I catch myself thinking that chorus would be perfect for a car commercial. Just have them sing “Chev-ro-le-e-e-e-et!”
“So you call to say you’re very sorry/Won’t happen again – forgive me?/Time will not heal these wounds/And I’m bleeding/Because of you” croons That Guy again, and within seconds, this hapless female has forgiven him not just that Beelzebub impersonation, but – everything! Only to be dropped off a cliff at a vertiginous height, and the only way to go is…down and down and down.
You’ve heard of raining on someone’s parade. This is the equivalent of a monsoon downpour on the Fourth of July. What I really love/hate/loathe/adore is that I’ve woken up at 4 AM with this song on constant replay in my head. So catchy, it’s driving me crazy, and I already have plenty of reasons to be lured over the brink, thanks. There should be a health warning on this CD. “Listening to this will be hazardous to your health.”

More hazard lurks ahead in “Blood and Fire”. One-two-three-four, here we go again. “No more nights of blood and fire/with no warning/you were gone/And I still don’t know what went wrong” warbles the black-clad Orpheus with all the heartfelt sincerity of the thoroughly beaten dog you’re convinced he is, and like any human hound who ever lived, breathed and wagged his tail alluringly, he goes on…”You don’t know what I’ve been through/Just want to put my love in yo-ooooooo-o-ooooooooou”.

Uh huh. Sure you do. That’s where the trouble starts, right? Exit sanity, enter libido, begin heartache. And other aches and itches and twitches for which all guys think they know the cure. And they wonder why we leave.

Sanity, man. We just can’t handle all that rock hard love. It does weird and eerie things to our heads. And other susceptible parts of our delicate feminine anatomy.

Right when I’ve deluded myself into thinking I’m at least semi-sane again, the final coup-de-grace. “Can’t Lose You” should be recommended by the New York Psychiatric Association as aural therapy for libidinally impaired females. Or indeed any females who think they’ve lost their primeval urge and have only menopause to look forward to.
Ladies, listen to this. I dare you. One long, meandering, near-instrumental croon with a sitar, yupp, the Ravi Shankar inciting variety that is the nearest thing to aural sex I’ve ever heard. Somewhere between the sitar, the guitar and oh, geez, that, ahem, Effing Voice again, I’ve totally and utterly lost it. Thankfully, I’m married, which means a dick is never too far away.

This album is a mess. It’s not hard to guess the influences here. Take vintage Black Sabbath, Zeppelin, Deep Purple and a whole army of butt-rock bands large and small, add a healthy dose of the Beatles, along with generous sprinklings of lesser-known bands like the Cocteau Twins, Lush, the Cure, Sisters of Mercy and Fields of the Nephilim, and put them all in a blender. Whatever you do, don’t forget a good, few economy-sized wallops of classic punk and molten-lead metal. Now, add a liberal sense of twisted humor, an amazing keyboard player who spans the range from Bach to Jon Lord to OhmiGawd and far beyond, cackling all the while. Remember a drummer who can actually play drums, believe it or not. Right before you’re about ready to scream, throw in a guitar player who’s been practicing licks and riffs since the womb, I suspect, and is not averse to delivering a few new versions to fully satisfy your curiosity about New Things to Practice on Your Hairbrush In Your Underwear.
Oh, yeah. The bass player. He plays the bass. Most of the time, not badly. He’s also the guy who sings. The combination has been hazardous to my health ever since.
Turn on the blender. Forget the lid. Let’s face it, you’ve always wanted oxblood walls, right? Here’s your excuse.
You might, if you’re very lucky, end up with something like this. The album is now teenaged, in a matter of speaking, but it doesn’t sound dated, doesn’t have that feel that screams “Oh, that sounds so…Nineties!”.
Type O Negative is, shall we say, a definite acquired taste. You either hate the solipsistic/narcissistic bombastic Baroque satirical mess of it all, or you give up, give in and let yourself be swallowed whole by an aural anaconda of an album that won’t let you go. Not now, not tomorrow, not fifteen years from the moment you bought it. Just don’t let the Imp out of your sight. He’s there, all right, and boy, is he perverse!

Speaking of which, you’ll have to excuse me. I’m off to see if a guy can be raped. The sitar made me do it.