"Until the Light Takes Us" Black Metal Documentary Review
An Intriguing Walk on Metal's Dark Side
Film: Until the Light Takes Us (2009)
Directed by: Aaron Aites and Audrey Newell
Featuring: Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell, Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes, Bard "Faust" Eithun, Jan Axel "Hellhammer" Blomberg, and others
I have yet to see Lords of Chaos, director Jonas Akerlund's dramatized 2019 film version of the now-infamous crimes that took place in the early '90s Norwegian Black Metal scene, but its recent release prompted me to re-visit Until the Light Takes Us, an intriguing documentary about those same events, via Amazon Prime.
For those who are unfamiliar: in the early '90s, a small group of Norwegian extreme musicians decided to accompany their deliberately lo-fi, Satanic, abrasive metal music with acts of violent anti-Christian, anti-social activism—which resulted in a variety of crimes across Norway that included a rash of church arsons and several murders.
I've never been a fan of the black metal music style, but I've always been fascinated by this story. I remember trying to keep up with the saga via European metal magazines while it was going on, reading about who killed who, which guy was in jail and so on, and thinking to myself, "Damn, what the hell is in the water in Norway?"
Until the Light Takes Us may not help viewers understand the mindsets behind these events, but it is an interesting ride nonetheless, taking viewers into the dark underbelly of a music scene that became legendary for a variety of reasons that had little to do with actual music.
"Pure F**king Armageddon!"
The two main "characters" in Until the Light Takes Us are Gylve "Fenriz" Nagel of Darkthrone (considered by most to be the first "true" Black Metal band from Norway) and the infamous Varg Vikernes, aka "Count Grishnackh" of Burzum and Mayhem. (the film takes its name from the English translation of a Burzum album title, 1994's Hvis lyset tar oss.)
Fenriz seems like a bit of an odd duck, but he's likable enough in his role as the "voice of reason" in the film. If this were a documentary about '60s rock, he'd be the old hippie guy who was into the "scene" strictly "for the music, maaaaan." He laments how the small, insulated black metal scene suddenly became crowded with wanna-be's who jumped on the bandwagon with their own violent campaigns once the media-fueled "Satanic Panic" hysteria began. By the mid '90s black metal had become a cartoonish trend, and you can tell that he's still bothered by it to this day. I could sort of relate to how he feels; from a mainstream metal perspective, it reminded me of old Metallica fans who turned their backs on that band when they released their gazillion-selling "Black Album," and let everyone into their cool little club.
Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes, meanwhile, is interviewed from his jail cell in Trondheim, where he was serving a lengthy prison term for taking part in several church arson fires and the murder of his one-time Mayhem bandmate, Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth (though he's been released since this film was made). Varg saw black metal as a vehicle for his nationalist political views -- he believed that Norway should declare outright war on Christianity and return to its Viking/Pagan origins. He comes across as surprisingly soft-spoken, good-humored and even somewhat charming during these segments, which makes it all the more disturbing when he describes the murder of Euronymous (which he maintains was self defense) as if it was no big deal.
Mayhem - "Deathcrush" (Live in Leipzig, 1990)
Other interviewees in the film include the surviving members of Mayhem (who continue to release albums to this day) and musicians from such bands as Satyricon, Immortal, and Emperor. Some of these guys have, shall we say, "interesting" views of the events that transpired.
By this point, viewers who are unfamiliar with black metal will either think these guys are all from Mars, or that they simply shouldn't be walking around loose. Clips from Norwegian news reports about the events are interspersed between the interviews, and judging from all the media hoopla, Varg Vikernes' arrest and court case appears to have been Norway's "Trial of the Century," transforming him into a sort of Norwegian Charles Manson, i.e. a "celebrity" criminal/boogeyman that everyone has heard of.
It's strange to think that this story was such huge news in this tiny country, but since it all took place during the pre-internet age, most people outside of Norway -- or at least those who didn't follow the underground metal scene - had no idea that any of it was transpiring.
Summing It Up
I enjoyed Until the Light Takes Us, but viewers who have never heard of black metal and don't know anything about the figures profiled in it are likely to be completely lost. Therefore, it helps to have some idea of who these players are before watching the movie. The film probably could've used a narrator/voice-over at times to fill in some of gaps and to move things along in a more linear fashion, but aside from those minor complaints, I imagine anyone with an interest in black metal, or true crime documentaries in general, will find Until the Light Takes Us an enjoyably bizarre way to spend 90 minutes.
© 2019 Keith Abt