The subject of Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell’s documentary is Norwegian Black Metal, a scorched-earth subset of thrash that materialized around 1990 and gained international attention when churches started burning.
Until the Light Takes Us defines Norse Black Metal as a combination of image (morbid corpse paint), philosophy (rejection of post-A.D. 600 history; anti-Judeo-Christian, pro-Odin), and music. As with any sect, arguments supersede doctrine—and the primary divide is illustrated via two elder statesmen: Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell, drummer for the long-lived Darkthrone, and “Varg” Vikernes, of the equally venerable one-man-band Burzum. Fenriz is supposedly apolitical, an aesthete who compares his music’s dredging horror to Edvard Munch. Varg is the hardcore lived-it Thoreau of the movement’s early years, a self-styled ultranationalist prophet, interviewed while in prison for arson and internecine murder.
Since this film’s completion, Varg has been released and has announced a new album, The White God. The cover art is borderline Tom of Finland; unfortunately, the homosocial/homophobic schizophrenia of Black Metal is herein unexplored. As is the actual music. Most songs slip quickly on and off the mix, with electronic noodling padding scenes of interviewees in transit, picturesque landscapes gliding past (the film’s subtitle might be Norway: Heaven and Hell). More the pity, for were Darkthrone’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky not a perfect maelstrom, none of this would be worth talking about.
The filmmakers seem cowed into obeisance by their subjects. Varg’s last onscreen appearance is accompanied by a montage fitting a schoolyard crush, and the film’s title is the translation of Burzum’s fourth album, Hvis lyset tar oss. Though his doctrine is largely based on silly LARP fantasy and a fear of kebab shops opening all along the fjords, the camera as good as nods along to Varg’s well-oiled monologues on the pollution of Norway’s indigenous culture by “Christianity, USA, Democracy, NATO” (CUT TO: McDonald’s storefront), stuff to go down easy with the anti-globalization crowd. Maybe the filmmakers “don’t judge their subject,” but in giving Varg a soapbox while being too timid to dare him out of his comfort zone and push him to articulate the less palatable aspects alleged of his philosophy (enthusiasms for Quisling, eugenics, etc.), they only indulge his cult of personality, letting both Varg and the audience off easy. (Also: Does anyone actually feel “bombarded” by advertisements? Really?)
Preceded by Didrik Søderlind and Michael Moynihan’s book Lords of Chaos and a Norwegian documentary, Satan Rides the Media (both 1998), Until the Light arrives a decade too late to add much. Fenriz points out a white-wall gallery in the space that once held the scene’s epicenter, record shop Helvete, tying into the one interesting idea that Aites and Ewell play with: the adoption of Black Metal by the sanctioned art world. (Fun fact: Matthew Barney has Black Metal font on his yacht!) In a Milan performance space, drummer “Frost” breathes fire and stages suicide (a tame replay of Black Metal’s most famous performance piece, when Mayhem frontman “Dead” blew his brains out—his corpse becoming the next album’s cover art). One artist favorably compares the homemade metal scene to state-supported “mediocre cultural activity”—as good a designation as any for Until the Light Takes Us.