Cold, cold hearts

Until the Light Takes Us peers into black-metal darkness

Metalheads: before you gang up on Until the Light Takes Us — a new documentary by Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, who dare to admit they weren't really into metal before starting their film — consider the sinister fact that there's now an imdb entry for the 2010 release of Lords of Chaos. This narrative take on Michael Moynihan and Didrik Sonderlind's 1998 book (subtitled The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground) casts Twilight vamp Jackson Rathbone as scene boogeyman Varg Vikernes.

Remember, also, the cursory attention afforded Scandinavian black metal in the sprawling doc Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (2005). You may not recall that same year's Metal Storm: The Scandinavian Black Metal Wars — an interesting if technically rough look at the subject — because it screened locally just once, as part of a Yerba Buena Center for the Arts series on heavy metal cinema. Metal Storm featured interviews with a young (circa 2000) Vikernes. The erstwhile Count Grishnackh, late of Burzum, returns in Until the Light Takes Us, which hits YBCA for a three-night stand.

Locked up in 1993 for murdering Mayhem's Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth, Vikernes was very recently paroled. But he was still incarcerated in Until the Light Takes Us, and he doesn't seem terribly put out, likening his time behind bars to "a stay in a monastery." He's articulate, intelligent, and unrepentant, reflecting on his various deeds. He claims he provided the shotgun ammo used by another Mayhem member, Per Yngve Ohlin (a.k.a. "Dead"), to committ suicide. (Of course, after Euronymous discovered Dead's body, he took a photo that was later used as Mayhem cover art. Seriously, these were spooky dudes.)

Vikernes may be a fascinating fellow — a worst-case scenario for anyone eager to believe that heavy metal is a recruitment tool for Satan worshippers — but Until the Light Takes Us isn't centered on him. This is not a true-crime tale (though it does offer some striking footage of Norwegian churches set ablaze during black metal's criminal zenith). Nor is it trying to teach Metal 101 (though it does touch on black metal's eerie, atmospheric sound, pagan themes, and deliberately lo-fi production). Instead, Until the Light Takes Us attempts to show what happens when a very specific, proudly isolationist art movement becomes commercialized — to the chagrin of founding members like Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell, memorable for his demon-like appearance in full corpsepaint on the cover of his band Darkthrone's 1994 release, Transilvanian Hunger (Peaceville Records).

"I don't want to be blamed for black metal becoming a trend," Fenriz says, some 16 years after an article in the U.K. magazine Kerrang! introduced black metal to the mainstream. Though the film interviews other players like Mayhem drummer Jan Axel "Hellhammer" Blomberg and former Emperor drummer Bård "Faust" Eithun (himself a convicted murderer who appears as a voice-altered silhouette), Fenriz is Aites and Ewell's focus, drifting around icy Oslo, working on current music projects, and ruefully reminiscing about the movement he helped create: "I guess the sale of black lipstick went through the roof."

Rather than focusing on copycat bands, Until the Light Takes Us explores black metal's influence on artists like Bjarne Melgaard, whose "Sons of Odin" installation earns smirks from Fenriz, and Harmony Korine, who earns smirks from the filmmakers. Not mentioned in the film: the Vice-produced 2007 internet videos series and Peter Beste's subsequent book of photographs, True Norwegian Black Metal.

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