In the early 1990s, black metal began to take off in Norway and it left the peaceful Scandinavian country reeling in its aftermath. Mayhem vocalist Per Yngve ‘Dead’ Ohlin had shot himself in the head, Burzum founder Varg ‘Count Grishnackh’ Vikernes had been sentenced for brutally murdering his former friend (Mayhem guitarist Euronymous), and church burnings swept across the land.
Flash forward to 2009, with Vikernes only just released on bail from his fifteen year sentence, and a new documentary was coming out. Titled Until The Light Takes Us - and now available to watch in full for free on YouTube - it tried its best to depict the story, so well known by metal heads but largely misreported on by those outside of its nail-studded, leather jacketed circle, of how one era of music went on to leave such a surreal and morbid legacy.
In the eyes of the glancing media, the blame landed at the door of Satanism. But the real story of Norse black metal is way darker, tainted with its penchant for violent homophobia and worship of a neo-Wagnerian nationalist mysticism. (Oh you don’t know what neo-Wagnerian nationalist mysticism is? It’s basically a rejection of post-600AD history, Judeo-Christianity and being pro-Odin & co. Obvs.)
The church burnings, and Varg’s chilling smile as he was found guilty of stabbing Euronymous twenty-three times, caught the attention of the media way beyond Norway: Kerrang published a six page spread on the movement, which some believe birthed Satanism and black metal as an accepted music “scene” rather than just a bunch of pale outsiders in face paint screaming about death. The media misrepresentation of black metal and the men involved with creating it eventually spawned a copycat Satanist movement by pyromaniac teenagers, leading to even more church burnings. At its peak, even Harmony Korine got in on the act with some kind of whack ass performance art piece involving him cavorting around a gallery space wearing corpse paint and an orange fright wig.
Which brings us back to Until The Light Takes Us. Even if you've never seen this film, and even if you aren’t totally into black metal and arson, the character of Gylve ‘Fenriz’ Nagell is enough reason to give it a watch. A black metal OG, who mostly seems bemused by everything and a little bit tired of where black metal went following the media coverage of the burnings and his mates, Fenriz is still about fighting the good fight for his genre, having worked on over 35 albums mostly as one half of the two-man metal band Darkthrone.
According to his Wikipedia page, he is known for “his refusal to play live, his obsessiveness about music listening, supporting other underground bands and his lack of interest in the mainstream music business in general”. This blasé Scandinavian attitude to everything throughout the documentary becomes either hilarious or terrifying depending on which way you choose to see the subjects. At one point, two of Varg’s former friends recount the whole murder fiasco with little to no emotion and conclude on the matter of the brutal slaying by saying, “Now he’s in jail and that must suck for him”.
Throughout the film it's clear: absolutely nothing fazed those of the Norwegian black metal scene. There’s a bit when the two members of Immortal are talking about a performance where Mayhem vocalist Per Yngve ‘Dead’ Ohlin cuts himself multiple times live on stage with a sacrificial knife - verdict: “It was a good show” they nonchalantly remark. The film also recounts how, at a later date, when Euronymous walked in on the suicide scene of bandmate Dead - with his brains blown out, frontal lobe still seeping out of his skull - before calling the police he left the house to buy a camera so he could take photos which he then used as his next album cover.
Unsurprisingly, the interview sections with Varg Vikernes are fascinatingly fucked up. Sitting in maximum security prison with a smile that never leaves his face during the course of all the interviews (“it’s like a stay in a monastery”), he calmly recounts the murder in which he stabbed his former friend twenty-three times as if he was talking about how he went to the shop to get some milk that night.
The documentary’s directors, Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, were criticised after its release for being too in awe of their subjects to properly criticise or question their beliefs (Varg’s right-wing fascism and rampant anti-Semitism aren’t explored beyond a surface level), and the title of the film itself is a translation of a Burzum album name (Hvis lyset tar oss).
But at its core, Until the Light Takes Us is still a jaw dropping account of Norway’s black metal scene, and how a tiny subculture spiralled away violently from its core beliefs. It carries with it a warning about what happens when underground subcultures are co-opted without context, and how fringe movements are adopted by the sanctioned art world and inevitably spat out as chokers sold at Claire’s Accessories. Towards the very end of the film, Fenriz finds himself outside what was previously Helvete, the record shop that functioned as the scene’s HQ. Now, ironically, or maybe even inevitably, it is a hip new gallery space.
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To celebrate the release of our new documentary, Redemption of the Devil, about the life of Eagles of Death Metal's Jesse Hughes (which you can buy on iTunes here), we'll be running features all week that celebrate the past and present of top music docs.