Black metal is one of those things that's been on the periphery of my subcultural awareness since the early 90s. I've never had the bandwidth to devote to becoming a real fan of the music, which has always had a certain elusiveness about it. I just never got the same charge out of tracking down music as I have out of seeking books and films, and I find some of the philosophy of the movement to be... problematic. That having been said, I find black metal to be a fascinating subculture insofar as it has all the theatricality of the more-familiar-to-me Goth scene while having absolutely no room for Goth's gallows humor.
Black metal is an interesting phenomenon. Inspired by the occult metal of the 70s and 80s and aiming to be as anti-establishment and anti-commercial as possible, black metal was music made by young men (many in their teens in the early 90s) who were the products of a well-off, homogenous society. To my ears, a lot of early black metal sounds like a tin can full of very angry bees, but that's the intention. Many of the early black metal albums were intentionally recorded using the cheapest materials possible--headphones used as mics, dictaphones, and half-broken recording rigs. Not the bees thing specifically, but you catch my drift--there's a purposefulness behind the aesthetic decisions of these musicians and their best songs have a "wall of sound" quality that can be emotionally overwhelming. Add to this the fact that many black metal albums have these gorgeously poetic titles like "Transylvanian Hunger" and "In the Nightside Eclipse" and my interest is *completely* piqued. Unlike the American and English heavy metal stereotype of blue-collar guys chugging beer and rocking out riffs about broads, beers and bad-assery, the black metal musicians exhibit a distinctly intellectual bent of mind, focusing on religious and political topics. Much of black metal's reputation as "the most extreme music in the world" comes from the fact that it was spawned from the minds of very young, attractive, white men from a well-to-do culture. That disconnect is especially haunting for many Americans who may want to impose a comfortable "even people with everything can still be KUH-RAZEE" moral onto the story.
There is a really interesting documentary somewhere in the footage that makes up "Until the Light Takes Us," a 2008 exploration of the Norwegian black metal scene--a fact that makes the jumbled mess that is the final film all the more problematic. Devotees of the music are unlikely to find new insights, and those unfamiliar with the basics of the players and mind-set of the scene will likely be confused by the lack of background information. It's a big issue that the nature of the relationship between the two (dynamic and well-spoken) key figures in the film, musician and convicted murderer Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes of Burzum and musician and not-murderer Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell of Darkthrone, is simultaneously a focal point and yet never explained. The two men seem to think of each other "good guys" who are "working on their own projects" and who have grown apart. Is this a sad misunderstanding between two close comrades, or an overstatement for the film? I couldn't sort it out, and I knew who these people were going into the documentary.
At the center of "Until the Light Takes Us" is the development of the "inner circle" of black metal musicians who were involved in a series of violent acts in the early 1990s, including the arson of multiple churches, a suicide and two murders. In some ways, the film is a response to Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind's book "Lords of Chaos," which offers a sensational portrait of these crimes. Let's be frank, though--it's a little hard not to adopt a sensational tone when there's a very real trail of dead bodies left by an outspoken group of self-proclaimed culture terrorists. There seems to have been an emphasis on money/mouth proximity in the early days of the black metal scene, which led to an escalating pattern of violence as these young men tried to prove their dedication to their ideals, which included a return to Norse paganism and an eradication of invading influences in Norway.
The central problem of the film is that it assumes a familiarity with the black metal scene even as it attempts to build narrative tension as it leads up to Vikernes' 1993 murder of fellow musician Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth, an act that is infamous well outside of the world of black metal. The film simultaneously attempts to trace the early history of the music movement and define its place in current culture, post-hipster-appropriation, without exploring the fifteen years in between.
"Until the Light Takes Us" compensates for some of its fuzziness by providing biting commentary on the nature of art, appropriation and cultural identity. The best moments in the film revolve around the work of artist Bjarne Melgaard, who is shown mounting a show that draws its imagery from black metal. It's clear that Melgaard is taking visual cues from the scene without exploring the deeper aesthetic drives of the musicians. At best, he's only interested in the surface and is simply appropriating images--at worst, he's capitalizing on knee-jerk controversy and making the work of other artists seem superficial by decontextualizing it from its underlying significance. The iconic black and white corpse paint becomes cartoonish and ridiculous when depicted in painted caricatures, while a wall of photographs of the early black metal scene lends an air of legitimacy to the exhibit that feels misplaced.
Fenriz talks about his views on modern art before attending a show of Melgaard's work. Now, I may be alone in this, but I could listen to people of a creepy bent of mind talk about visual art all damn day--I love knowing that artists have given thought to the existence of creative work outside the one they work in. He discusses his sense of connection with the works of Norwegian Symbolist painter Edvard Munch, whose paintings explored themes of alienation and horror not too far from the ones examined in black metal. It's clear that he's thought about his relationship to art history, and he's passionate about the topic.*
*There's a great moment here where Fenriz mentions his parents' idea that if a painting has "a moose and a sunset" then it is good art.
This makes it all the more wince-worthy when Fenriz attends Melgaard's show, which simultaneously trivializes and appropriates from the aesthetic the musician helped to create. When the men come face to face at the end of the exhibit, there's a polite greeting followed by uncomfortable silence, broken only when Fenriz turns to the camera to ask if there are any more questions. Even though the black metal scene is tarnished by real-life crime and violent rhetoric, it's hard not to empathize with Fenriz' discomfort in this moment.
The film closes on a performance art piece at another of Melgaard's gallery shows that features Frost, a black metal musician that Melgaard says has "a poetic nature." It's uncomfortable to watch--not due to the gory content, but due to the fact that this person has been put on display by someone who is deriving fame from second-hand notoriety. The final frames show a video installation of Fenriz walking through the snow, his image taken and re-purposed in the same way he'd objected to upon seeing Melgaard's art.