Art is a short word, nothing more than a mere syllable or a brief passage of air through the fleshy ropes in our throats. But, as most words are, under the script and physical utterance lays something much more substantial in the world of the non-physical. At times in our history, art was believed to have the power to change the world. But, as the disasters continued to pile up over the years, this passion died. It is in the nature of such fire to be unpredictable and prone to its own whims, and thus it can flare up without warning. And in early 1990’s Norway, this spirit rose again in the guise of black metal. Since then, the sub-genre has become one of the main interpretations of the larger heavy metal dogma, and has even reached mainstream popularity. But, the character of such a genre would dictate such popularity and diffusion should not have occurred (they were even against death metal and grindcore because they were too commercial!). After all, even I, an American, left leaning, mixed race, nerdy, jelly belly suburban kid, love it. I am sure that the blackened founding fathers (and sisters?) would be very, very excited about that fact.
After viewing the 2009 black metal documentary ‘Until the Light Takes Us’ (a reference to the Burzum opus ‘Hvis Lyset Tar Oss’…check the film’s website out here.), I began to reflect upon my experiences with the genre over the last seven or eight years while examining the film itself. Its existence is polarizing for a number of reasons, but I believe the work is very strong as both a piece of art in its own right while also presenting a much more accurate and I daresay sympathetic portrait of its topic. The genre has been documented numerous times to varying degrees of success, but in my view this is the best one so far. Even with its modern presentation (lots of silent transitional shots and a somewhat detached low key atmosphere in general…ya know, stuff that hipsters and cinephiles go bananas over!), the camera really has its eye on the human aspects of the main characters on display here. The work also caters to fans in its assumptions of knowledge about the scene, and does not merely give a history lesson. And because of this, it operates at its own pace and defies expectations, not unlike like music it documents (in its purer forms). Not to mention the soundtrack, while sometimes predicable, totally rocks.
The first time I heard of anything related to black metal was this program VH1 did in the early 2000’s entitled “100 Most Metal Moments,” which was one of the millions of ‘countdown’ shows they did back then (and right about the time when the channel became totally irrelevant). There was one item in the countdown that dealt with the events surrounding Euronymous’s death (and come to think of it, Dead’s death…basically compressing a period of a few years into a few days). And of course, it was the one that stuck with me, because both the channel’s and my own ideas about metal where of a much more tame and mainstream variety than that depicted within the sensationalized lens of the channel. After all, who wouldn’t be freaked out hearing murder, suicide and arson sandwiched between recollections of Led Zeppelin and Motley Crue debauchery? It is probable that many new fans (again, me included) are drawn to the genre because of the extremity of both the crimes committed and intensity of the music. And the result is clear: the integrity of the forerunners vision is continually compromised and cheapened.
Thus, black metal is at war with itself. Certain groups are even mainstream enough to appear on Hot Topic racks to be eaten up by the suburban youth. Black metal is also the only metal sub-genre (the closest I think of is the retro-thrash and throwback old-school death metal movements) to have an offshoot with the word ‘Orthodox’ in it; which signifies a very reactionary mindset towards the former. And these feelings are probably much more intense (if more understated) than current issues with deathcore and metalcore vs. traditional death metal (come to think of it, the punks have a similar beef with the use of ‘core’ in such genres). The black metal spirit is both obsessively conservative (words like ‘trve’ and ‘kvlt’ come up a lot as do some Nationalist-Socialist tendencies…probably the biggest scare factor) but also radically liberal in its aesthetics, individualism and composition. The style is liquid enough to have found its way into branches of post-rock, folk, progressive, electronic, ambient, avant-garde, industrial, most other styles of metal, and other combinations of genres. Most people who listen to such genres probably know what black metal is and use it as they see fit. Like any movement that is inherently non-conformist and soon finds itself in the limelight, the passion dies. Art always seems to become commercial as acceptance catches up.
I was awed by the way the documentary illustrates how harshly the long dark hair and black clothes of the protagonists contrast against their sterile white and metallic surroundings of Norway’s cities. All of it appears in perfect working order, all except for our heroes (or supervillans?). However, the shots of icy landscapes and the forests are much more comparable to both the aesthetics of the music as well as the sympathies of the musicians. There is a reason for their longing for the cold dark past and the equally anti-modern ideals involved. Black metal is a very Romantic (this issue has been coming up a lot in my life lately) in its outlook, and is strangely enough quite positive in its core principles. And again, the film showcases and illustrates these quelled desires for freedom, strength and individualism very well. The images speak for themselves. Above all, melancholy is present in both the people and world surrounding them. Much like the intellectual and artistic movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, these ideals live through these men and their beloved music.
But what makes the film really work is the fact that we get to follow Fenriz (the real deal) around. He is a living person, not just a face in an interview. This fact really, really enriches the film, as the rest of the narrative relate to him as both a musician and an individual. We get to talk to Varg, and too Frost, and to Garm, Faust, Abbath, Demonaz, Hellhammer (who doesn’t come off very well…especially his comment condoning Faust’s murder of a homosexual man) and several more. But we also get to talk to some people that wouldn’t normally make it into such a lineup…
In this way, the film makes a wise choice (much to the chagrin of some fans) to spend a good amount of time examining an art exhibit called “Sons of Odin” by artist Bjarne Melgaard, which is about black metal. This aspect of the film pushes it beyond mere history and into the place of analysis and long term critical reception. And without the presence of the show with the musicians surrounding (Fenriz and Frost), the film would be yet another ‘oooo aren’t these guys crazy?’ piece. Context is everything in a documentary, and here you have it.
Melgaard makes explicit connections in his work to famed Modern artist Edvard Munch, (who was also Norwegian). The iconic cover of Darkthrone’s Transylvanian Hunger is in his mind very similar in appearance to Munch’s most famous work, The Scream, in both its appearance and its content. Both images represent a form of alienation and existential horror. The corpse painted Fenriz is much like the death masked figure at the center of The Scream in that they are theatrical and separate for their environment. The two figures in the middle ground of Munch’s work seem oblivious to the pain of the protagonist, while Fenriz’s shocking costume and expression tear forth from a dark black night. Melgaard’s paintings are very much in this style; as corpse painted faces and bodies lurch outwards from swarms of expressionist paint. There are also photographs of people ‘metalized’ but drawing corpse paint etc on them. They look like the scribbles in my notebooks when I cannot focus on class and can only think of black metal (inverted crosses, pentagrams etc). These also come up later in the film when Frost makes his appearance, more on that later.
Fenriz makes a trip to the exhibit during the film, and through this has a relevant impetus to be an agent rather than an impression. On the way explains his views on art and aesthetics. While his comments might not be about black metal specifically, they completely explain his reasoning in finding his way to that music. He states that he loves modern art because it is not conservative or pretty, which his parents and Norwegian society would both desire and expect. Black metal’s modernism is directly correlated to these feelings of rebellion. He also gives credence to the art of the rich and insane; comparing its nihilism to the idealism of the art of the poor (Frida Kalho is his least favorite artist). Much like the artists he admires, he comes from a well to do background, and had to face a different kind of stagnation and barriers. Instead of taking a place with his parents and his class, he chooses to be different (this action is echoed somewhat by black metal’s expanding fanbase). A touching (in the everyday sense) moment shows him stopping by at a flea market and looking through old tapes and other items. He reflects on how he came to this same place of 20 years prior to buy an audio recorder, which helped him begin his music career. Fenriz comes off as a kind, good natured and thoughtful person in the film, the kind of person that most ‘different’ people would like to be. He is unrelentingly nonconformist, but he remains aware and exercises his own friendly disposition. From my own experience, such ‘types’ of people are often similar and are in fact very agreeable types. While this depiction might not match the real Galve Nygell (his birth name) completely, I really hope that he actually is like that. He might be the most talented person still working in the scene (he plays every instrument, sings, has several great side projects and seemingly creates quality music with little effort or pretension) that survives the second wave. He really made the movie wonderful for me, and perhaps I will get the pleasure of meeting him someday.
On the other hand, we have the infamous Varg, who is the other major player in the story. He comes off as an extremely intelligent and well-spoken person. And as expected, he is VERY charismatic, to the point where his words both excite and invoke real feelings of interest and fear in the viewer. While considered the boogey-man (Charles Manson) of Norway for his church burnings, Nationalist Socialist rhetoric and murder of Euronymous, it is nearly impossible to not be captured by his personality (as is often the case with sociopaths). This is of course why many people see him as a dangerous person. His account of the events of 1993 is spellbinding and his casual description of his murder of Euronymous is chilling. He has been released from prison since the film has been made, and has released two new albums entitled ‘Belus’ and ‘Fallen.’ He still means business in the music department, his first several works in Burzum are of a most masterful and genre defining quality, and these new forays are not far off the mark. The end of the film frames his evolution from black metal extremist onto white supremacist to his current status as a sort of reformed sage in only a few frames. This of course will be troubling to those familiar with the depth of his past (and perhaps present) views. He cryptically states that his life has been defined by his search for the truth. And in the process of looking for it, he has made many missteps. He might not be referring to the same ones shown, but his goals continue to push him onwards. And without him, Fenriz’s presence in the film would be unbalanced. I was not aware that the two shared such a close relationship prior to Varg’s imprisonment (Varg did convince Darkthrone to switch to black metal from death metal). And the film does a great job in showing how the two are still connected to each other through the music and past they shared. As two polar opposites of the history, they still maintain a great level of respect and affection for one another, which I think can give hope to people looking to find common ground in their lives. Varg does not visit the exhibit (prison?), but I suspect he would probably explain his displeasure in a most interesting way.
Of course, Fenriz does not seem pleased with the art at the show. This is probably because he still thinks of the music as something that belongs to him and his friends from the time. The now iconic images of the battle painted death masks are his friends both living and dead. The fact that this little scene grew to such massive and parodic proportions baffles, angers and saddens him. An interview over the phone with a magazine reporter allows us to see his angst towards the subject and his life. The interviewer asks him whether he and Darkthrone have softened their image, musical and lyrical content the past decade. He passionately responds that the group’s newest works (which have a stripped down crusty-punkish element) are much more true and dark than their more famous earlier works. He claims that the lyrical themes of the past are now cliché, while the newer ones represent is deep sorrow and pain about his own life. He further reasons that by breaking away from the ‘expected’ he and bandmate Nocturno Culto are representing (on the back of their newest release, Circle the Wagons) an ‘underground resistance’ against the destruction of their beloved music.
Modern culture functions on a mix of nostalgia baiting and trend hopping mechanics. The underground itself also survives on a similar mix of conservatism and tribute, and black metal is no exception. Punks young and old long to relive the spirit of 77 while revivalist Hip-Hop seeks to find a way back to 88. Black metal fans usually look back to the early 90’s. However, even that second wave was looking back to the 1980’s (Bathory, Celtic Frost and their ilk), trying to recapture a moment in time. Darkthrone and Burzum (represented by in the film by Fenriz and Varg respectively) are probably the best examples of this reproduction of sound. Darkthrone’s black trilogy (A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Under a Funeral Moon and Transylvanian Hunger), Burzum’s catalog and other milestones of the genre all strive to reach a sound that reflected a convention unlike anything that had come before. Yet, all things both significant and trivial come to an end. As Fenriz comments near the end of the film, “This used to be Helvete.” He stands amazed outside the former site of the famed shop where the black circle met all those years ago. It is now a shiny and clean building that probably caters to a much more typical Norwegian clientele. No signs of black painted walls, old Venom records, medieval weaponry or any of his old friends. A truly sad moment.
In addition to the Melgaard exhibit, there are two performance art pieces by director/artist Harmony Korine and Satyricon drummer Frost. The choice of the absurd Korine piece (part of his The Sigil of the Cloven Hoof Marks Thy Path art exhibit) completely encapsulates how the actual ethos of the scene became so easily digestible by people around the world. While Korine is a well-known alternative filmmaker and artist, this sequence betrays his own (and by association, most everyone into black metal, including myself) sense of novelty and ignorance towards the music. A quick search on the internet will yield a great amount of humor and skepticism towards the music. And like just about everything else in this cynical age, it is laughed at and reduced to its most negative and naïve elements.
At the request of Melgaard, (he says Fenriz wouldn’t do it) Satyricon’s drummer Frost dons his corpse paint and leather getup to perform at the opening of the exhibit. His inclusion completes the focus of the documentary, and provides a look into the inherently dramatic and theatrical persona of the music. He begins his show by blowing fire like Quorthon and Abbath Doom Occulta, burning papers hung on the wall covered with pentagrams and other icons of the genre. He then pulls out a large knife, and begins to rampage and stalk with it. He tears apart a light colored couch covered with scribbles similar to those on the walls. And then, he proceeds to cut a long gash in his arm as the crowd watches transfixed. While Frost proves to a vital part of the film due to his strange and eccentric personality, he also quickly defines the history of genre’s aesthetics and anger inherent in black metal. The presence of the couch can symbolize the comfort afforded to the youth of Scandinavia by their parents, which is rejected violently with his knife and blood. The pictures and gibberish on both the couch and papers might suggest the parodic elements that have arose from the genre’s excesses, which he immolates. At the end of it all, all we see is a person, who is no longer young, showing his disgust with his own image and the alternative that it sprang from. While he does not come up in the usual discourse about the topic, I am glad I got to learn more about him. He is not as vocal and straightforward as his partner Satyr in Satyricon, and thus remains somewhat enigmatic in comparison.
As can be surmised, I could not stop thinking of my own relationship to the music both during the movie and after. Who do I so identify with these events and people? They have nothing to do with my own life or experiences…or do they? I was a small child when all of the killings and burnings happened, and I spent my days living the life of a normal (well, normal enough!) middle class spawn. But in the course of my growth, something happened, little by little in me. It is hard describe without sounding overdramatic, but changes did not have the best effect on me. Yet, here I am now, someone who is somewhat obsessed with what was once a pretty incendiary (literally!) musical genre and culture surrounding it. I am not the only one, as a ‘Black Metal Theory’ academic discourse now exists along with the huge fandom is also a force to be reckoned with. It doesn’t seem farfetched that black metal could find its way into college classes that examine modernism and post-modernism in a cultural/artistic context. After all, it is really enriching stuff intellectually.
Like Garm (another person whom I really admire, but sadly he only receives a brief cameo in the film) said in the controversial ‘Lords of Chaos,’ about metal fans, I too am I child of low self-esteem who got teased in school. I never was confortable in my own skin and never felt like I could measure up to other boys and attract the most coveted opposite sex. And from this, complications arose, mixed racial and cultural dissonance added an element of self-hatred while the development of several anxiety disorders furthered my personal discomfort. In this way, I also suppose I found my way to the genre to be a part of an exclusive club, as I was ‘different’ and ‘separate’ from my classmates and peers. Much like any other angsty teenagers with an inferiority-superiority complex would. But underneath it all, nothing changed, the feelings of stupidity and powerlessness continue. I cannot speak for the men on display here, but I get the feeling that they might feel the same way about their lot, even if they are 20 years older than me. The film showcases them in a real crisis. Their lives have been defined by events nearly 20 years in the past. They almost seem like relics in a world that left them behind. And I am not just talking about their music. It seems self aggrandizing to say this, but again, I feel like I am similar to them in this respect. And of course, other self-styled fans probably feel the same. And the result? We all feel cliché and unnecessary.
However, I feel little kinship with my fellow fans for reasons I cannot completely understand. I suspect it is because they are like the rest of the world that I feel little connection to. They stand as a unit and are disconnected in their own way, and in from my impression don’t seem to mind. I always minded. I wanted to be a part of something culty and scary, true, but I also always wanted to be everyone’s friend, no matter who they were. But metalheads are yet another clique in a world obsessed by them, and black metal is no different in that sense. The drive to different is very, very strong with us a species. It probably has something to do with getting laid. Everything does! And when find yourself unable to find a truly different and unique place to reside…
…you make your own reality up. That limbo will either consume you or be appropriated by others and destroyed. And thus, you have the story of black metal.
And perhaps, my own story.
Very Highly Recommended.
As a shocking sidenote, it appears that a movie based on ‘Lords of Chaos’ is in the works (read Varg’s chagrin at that here). Even worse, some dude from ‘Twilight’ was in the running to play him. Wow. This makes the impact of ‘Light’ even more brutal and incisive.