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