Review by Francesco Ferorelli
Directors Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites have done black metal a service with their documentary Until The Light Takes Us. By now the arsons and murders in early ’90s Norway are the stuff of legend. However, they continue to spark controversy almost 20 years later. The film has predictably met with mixed reactions. This excellent review encapsulates many of the reactions I had. Rather than the usual goulash of pointy-headed academics, industry moguls, and inarticulate musicians, the documentary intimately examines two of Norwegian black metal’s last men standing: Kristian “Varg” Vikernes of Burzum and Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell of Darkthrone. Other black metal figureheads like Garm of Ulver, Abbath of Immortal, and Hellhammer of Mayhem opine, but the twin narrative poles are Varg and Fenriz. In a Trondheim maximum security prison, we hear Varg wax revolutionary, then follow Fenriz around Oslo while he cracks wise and drops knowledge.
The Village Voice panned the movie, in large part because it doesn’t address Varg’s political views. Allegations of neo-Nazism and white supremacism have long dogged him, and he’s done little to dispel them. Interested in this omission, I spoke with one of the film’s co-editors, Michael Dimmitt. He said that those are the things everyone already knows about Varg and often the only things, so the film tries to show other sides of the protagonists by letting them speak for themselves. Without a narrator or voiceovers, it shows much without telling. When people hang themselves, it’s because they’re given enough rope, not because they were strung up.
Throughout the film, Fenriz’ humor and insight keep things buoyant. He also provides philosophical ambiguity. In one particularly good monologue, Fenriz expresses distaste for the paintings of Frida Kahlo. The genuinely oppressed, according to him, want things to be bright and shiny as counterbalance to or escape from their woes. He’s sympathetic but prefers modern art resulting from “the exhaustion of easy life,” as he calls it. Dimmitt pointed out that museums and galleries are filled with art mostly by the leisure class, often with sections dedicated to “folk art” or other condescending designations. With almost no crime and a progressive social welfare system, Norway is a tolerant place where no one starves to death or disappears for speaking out against the government. Christianity’s prevalence, the country’s ethnically homogeneous conformism, must then be some kind of own yoke. Where does Black Metal fit into the artistic and socio-political spectrum that Fenriz describes? Is it some antisocial folk art, or is it a rebellion against a life some would envy? Fenriz doesn’t give an answer, except to say that Black Metal is out of his hands now. It’s become a brand, and he can’t get upset anymore when people use it in ways he finds upsetting.
Varg’s unambiguity, except for his retelling of Euronymous’ murder, stands in sharp contrast to Fenriz’ rumination. He talks openly about his hopes for revolution. The church burnings were just a precursor to more extreme action he perhaps never got the chance to take. His anti-consumerist, anti-NATO, anti-US views set Burzum apart from the largely apolitical Darkthrone. (The one exception was the band’s statements regarding their fourth LP Transilvanian Hunger: anyone criticizing the album should be “thoroughly patronized for his obviously Jewish behavior.”) Save for a few dodgy phrases, however, Darkthrone never set out to change the world. Vikernes, on the other hand, absolutely meant to. From jail, he cites his disappointment with his former crowd, saying they “turned out to be just another bunch of brain dead metalheads,” uninterested in remaking Norwegian society in a pre-Christian image.
Despite their differences, Fenriz and Varg share significant common ground. I was struck by a scene where Fenriz visits a black metal-themed art opening. On the wall are framed prints of various black metal musicians posing or playing live. In one shot, Euronymous is framed from the waist up: leather jacket, Venom t-shirt, hair over face, swinging a Les Paul. It’s cool as hell and decidedly rock ‘n’ roll. One can trace a line from it back to Iggy Pop smeared with peanut butter or Johnny Cash giving the bird. Mayhem’s shows were (and still are) infamous for the self-mutilation and extreme stage behavior of vocalist Attila and former vocalist Dead — again, rock ‘n’ roll theater harking back to GG Allin, Iggy Pop, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Burzum and Darkthrone, however, chose not to find expression in live performance. Their otherworldly wrath was all internal.
Both bands incorporated highly stylized theatrical elements, but to different ends. In the movie, Fenriz states that his focus increasingly became musical as Varg’s was increasingly political. This divide manifests itself in the aesthetics of their self-imposed isolation. Darkthrone’s aloofness, vampiric overtones, and minimalist design aesthetic created both identity and mystique, which their shunning of live performance only amplified. Burzum’s infamous mace and spikes press shot and the cover of Aske with charred church remains were declarations of war. Burzum’s visual aggression perhaps attempted to magnify the potential threat from one man.
Despite the protests of all the musicians involved, the Norwegian media and metal media (most importantly, Kerrang‘s sensationalized article) dubbed the black metallers “Satanists.” Satan has a long history of being thrust upon different forms of music. In the early 1900’s, American blues was reviled by a terrified nation as the devil’s music. Blues men were often convicts, murderers, brawlers, drunks, and womanizers. The devil’s music was not an exaggeration; the blues was dangerous. In our lifetime, Norwegian black metal marks possibly the last instance when music was dangerous.