It’s not your average music documentary that begins with one of its subjects being fined for travelling on a train with tear gas in his backpack. But then this is black metal we’re dealing with, and the stereotypical behaviour rules aren’t quite the same as those of conventional rock music. This isn’t the first black metal documentary I’ve seen—I’ve previously seen Satan Rides the Media, Once Upon a Time in Norway and the Bill Zebub video—but it’s probably got the highest profile of any of those, which is why it’s ultimately kind of disappointing. Co-director Audrey Ewell calls the film “a feature length documentary chronicling the history, ideology and aesthetic of Norwegian black metal”, which would be fine if the end result actually lived up to that description in more than a limited fashion. Indeed, it’s when you look at the substantial deleted and extended scenes on the DVD—which give a voice to assorted folk not otherwise featured in the film (I remain a bit baffled by the almost complete absence of Emperor; apart from Samoth getting a thank you in the credits that’s about it)—that you realise just what a missed opportunity the finished film is; for one thing, the only time I recall the words “national socialism” being used comes not in the film but the offcuts. Given the extent to which right-wing politics (or people possessing same) play a part in black metal, that’s a kind of stunning omission; Fenriz from Darkthrone is one of the film’s focal figures but not a word is said about the fuss surrounding the latter’s Transilvanian Hunger album, the “Norsk Arisk Black Metal” thing and the “Jewish behaviour'” press release. (Little Varg is the other, obvious focal point here.) And while the media sensationalism around the church burnings and the murders and all that is hard to avoid, surely if you’re considering the historical and ideological and aesthetic aspects of the musical form there’s more to it than that. There’s little sense of black metal as a not only flourishing but international form apart from Fenriz pissing and moaning about trends, nor indeed a lot of sense of where it came from either; it’s a bit ironic that the Australian DVD also carries a second feature-length doco, Black Metal Satanica, which has a number of its own problems (not least the cheesy presentation style and occasional dramatic reconstructions, plus its aping of Bill Zebub’s irritating tendency to identify his interviewees by their band’s name rather than their own), but which actually does a slightly better job of the historical side, right down to the baffling development of Christian BM. Bill Gibron’s review of this other film here (it’s available by itself in the US) is more glowing than mine would be, but it does have certain points over the main feature.
But the main feature does offer some insights of its own, including a distinctly curious moment with young Mr Vikernes when he describes how the “inner circle” would loaf around the Helvete shop that was their base and when there were no customers around they’d talk about things like how they preferred to eat their cornflakes at breakfast, but as soon as the customers came in they’d shut up and start being “evil” instead”. This perhaps inadvertently points up the unaddressed question of the extent to which black metal involved/involves a degree of posturing, and Fenriz (perhaps just as inadvertently) says something at the end of the film about people liking dressing up, admitting elsewhere that the overcooked visual aspect of black metal, the “props”, was a big part of such appeal as it had or has. Black Metal Satanica poses the question too, in the form of the guy from the Swedish “suicidal black metal” act Shining, who may be the ultimate champion fuckwit of the entire genre and whose authenticity is kind of challenged by the mere fact of his still being alive; when your schtick is all about trying to inspire suicide and you talk about how much you hate being alive, the fact that you haven’t died yet may make you look insincere. Kvarforth is merely a prize shithead, though; it’s not as easy to just call the other folks here a load of similar fuckwits. I mentioned Once Upon a Time in Norway earlier, and for me the interesting thing about that film was the way in which it suddenly made me realise just how basically divorced from consensus reality Messrs Aarseth and Vikernes really were; the early black metal scene was not rich in irony (arguably BM never has been), and they seem to have been trapped by the image more than most. But Until the Light Takes Us invites us to wonder about some of the other participants in the early scene (I mean, tear gas on a train for fuck’s sake), who no longer have the excuse that they were just kids at the time (and it is remarkable how many of the early 90s Norwegian mob were just in their late teens when all the bullshit was going down), and we’re left to consider for ourselves whether or not there’s still anything heroic about their defiance of convention and “normal” society if there ever was.