Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Until the Light Takes Us is a feature-length documentary from filmmakers Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell. The film was assembled from footage shot over a two-year period in which the filmmakers lived and hung out in Norway, the “birthplace” of black metal. The infamous history surrounding the genre is covered in detail through interviews conducted with guys like Fenriz from DARKTHRONE, Abbath and Demonaz from IMMORTAL, Frost from SATYRICON, Varg from BURZUM (interviewed from prison) and Hellhammer from MAYHEM. For people unfamiliar with the Norwegian scene and the major players, the documentary might seem to be lacking in key details, as well as unfocused and vague as far its true intention and purpose. At the same time, for fans and people who have followed the genre’s past, many of the stories and information will be redundant, from the rise of MAYHEM and visionary member Euronymous, who opened the first black metal record store in Oslo called “Helvete”, to the rash of church burnings in the early 90’s, leading to Varg’s murder of Euronymous and subsequent incarceration. In addition to treading mostly familiar ground that’s been covered many times over, the film’s production values are evident right away. It’s obvious the filmmakers didn’t have a large budget to work with. Nonetheless, the film has a rugged, ad-hoc charm that’s engaging. Often times utilizing a light electronica score featuring bands like MUM and BOARDS OF CANADA, the film has a melancholic tone and seems to come across as nostalgic for the simpler and purer era in which the music was born. Several times the filmmakers use music and montage to make points; during one segment a raw black metal track is heard while the footage cuts between corporate logos, fast food chains, and trendy retailers around Norway, emphasizing the dichotomy between the roots of this fringe music and the antithesis of what it stands for: global corporate infiltration and takeover.
Perhaps the most engaging aspect of the film is the casual, “fly-on-the-wall” nature of the footage. From the cameras point of view, we hang out with Fenriz in a candid, day-in-the-life type of manner; we follow him at home, riding a train, visiting an art gallery, and having a drink at the bar. Also compelling is Varg Vikernes, who at times is charismatic, funny, thoughtful, and very articulate, and other times seems cold, calculating, and without scruples, particularly when he describes the night he murdered Euronymous.
For me however, the most riveting and shocking moment comes late in the film, when we journey to Italy with Frost for a “performance” at an art gallery. It’s humorous to see Frost get on a plane looking very menacing with his black leather jacket and long black hair, and a small boy next to him looking terrified as Frost maintains a stoic and psychotic expression. When Frost arrives at the gallery and the performance begins, things get more serious. He states in his interview that he is not afraid to be self-destructive for a project he is interested in, and that he intends to give the audience “a sign that something is wrong”. After breathing fire and setting ablaze all of the art and drawings in the gallery, he uses a large butcher knife and begins hacking and stabbing a couch while the crowd of 100 or so watch. He then sits on the couch and places the tip of the knife on his wrist, and with apparent force he slices up the length of his forearm and begins bleeding profusely. Then he does the same thing to the side of his neck before sliding lifelessly into the couch, saturated in his own blood which has formed a large puddle on the floor. It’s totally gut-wrenching and difficult to shake, as the scene just stays with you long after the film ends.

The Special Edition 2-Disc DVD and Blu-ray are packed with bonus materials, including much more documentary and interview footage with the above mentioned musicians, as well as a number of them not featured in the film. One of the highlights of the bonus content for me, however, is a 45-minute “History of Black Metal” class with Fenriz. Taking place in a bonafide classroom, Fenriz uses text and diagrams on a very large chalkboard to outline the roots and origins of the sub-genre, beginning with BLACK SABBATH, 1970. For non-fans, this is a massive amount of information to plod through, but for people into the music it’s a fascinating lesson and got me seeking out lots of bands that I had missed or wasn’t aware of. You have to give Fenriz props; the guy knows his shit.

I would recommend this film to anyone interested in black metal and the Norwegian scene. The film strides forward bravely as it takes on the difficult task of appealing to fans of the music while also bringing the uninitiated up to speed. Again, for fans much of the history covered here will not be anything new, and the low-budget quality is obvious but perhaps appropriate for the subject matter. The opportunity to get a glimpse into what daily life is like for these Norwegian musicians is worth it, however, and the closest most of us will come to experiencing their world. It conveys a listless sort of longing without becoming depressing or overly sentimental, and whether you agree with the attitudes and actions of these individuals or not, you cannot deny the profound impact their music continues to have.
I suggest not screwing around and picking up the 2-disc DVD or Blu-ray. Chances are if you are curious about the film or have seen it and have decided to buy, you’ll find the extra content worth the purchase.