Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Halloween night, I wound up catching the world premiere of the Norwegian black metal documentary, Until the Light Takes Us, with a friend whose music coincidentally appears in the film (and I also heard a Black Dice jam on the soundtrack). It was one of those instances where I realized there would've been corpse-painted faces in the crowd no matter the holiday.
By no means am I an expert on black metal, nor was I ever much of a metal head (even when flashing other hesher tendencies in high school), so I was excited to catch the doc and hopefully learn a bit more about what makes black metal such a fascinating sub-genre. So it was frustrating to be plunged into the documentary expecting to already be intimately familiar with the subjects Darkthrone and Burzum and why they are important (and I would argue that they aren't important in the grand scheme of things).
For a good twenty minutes, I was uncertain just why we were following around these dudes named Fenriz and Varg. One struts around a purgatorial Oslo in black leather, the other is in a maximum security prison. Not once does the film attempt to frame the Norwegian scene for outsiders and I myself (though having heard epochal albums Transilvanian Hunger and Burzum's solo works) felt clueless. Instead, we get talking heads about why Mayhem's Dead rubbing on corpse paint was "important." As if the Misfits, KISS, The Crow or Phantom of the Paradise had never happened. Yes, perhaps in the late 80s, no teens in Oslo who were in shitty metal bands were doing it, but does that make it important on any scale greater than basement shows?
The other detraction is the music itself. Too often, we have discussions about black metal, but only scant instances of hearing the actual raw stuff. Instead, the soundtrack abounds with bleepy, dated early 2000s electronica from múm, Boards of Canada, and the like. Perhaps such sound selections would work in another story, but when they rub against the actual black metal tracks, it's painfully out of place. The instances of Darkthrone and Burzum music is fucking intense that I found myself longing to hear more of that music.
It's a shame that Until the Lights Takes Us doesn't do much to shape or frame these stories a bit better, as there's some fascinating stuff in the film. Varg Vikernes remains one of the most intense figures in underground music. How he explains the motives behind the church burnings sets the controversial incidents in a new light (no pun intended), arguing that it was a move to reclaim his Nordic pagan culture from the clutches of Christianity, Americanization and monoculture. It's fascinating how the press then distorted such acts for their own sensationalist ends, twisting it into acts of Satanism. Which in turn spawned copycat vandalism, now festooned with 666s and upside-down crosses, generating even more press coverage, fear, and misrepresentation.
For all that misguided sensationalism, it was this distorting of truth that catapulted Norwegian black metal to the forefront of musical imaginations around the world. Equally deplorable is how this deeply personal expression of music now gets exploited by high-minded artists as well. The footage of Harmony Korine tapdancing like a jackass in a gallery (in minstrelsy black metal face) or Bjarne Melgaard's clueless cash-in conceptual paintings on the subject would make anyone want to take a battleaxe to their false-metal asses.