Norwegian death metal is a fascinatingly dark corner of the musician-as-fanatic landscape. Early photos of the controversial group Mayhem with black-and-white "corpse paint" makeup are as creepy as low-budget slasher flick stills. They're especially unnerving when you know that members of this legendary band committed suicide, murder, and arson when death metal first took hold of Norway in the early '90s, turning an extreme music into an extreme lifestyle of violent one-upmanship. More than just a genre, this branch of Scandinavian brutality became so severe it begs for a documentary dissecting its origins and impact.
Until the Light Takes Us is an attempt to create the definitive film on the subject, but directors Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell instead offer a passive, jumpy synopsis that's more artsy than insightful. Their documentary lacks the larger context — such as interviews with criminal psychologists or outside authorities who could speak beyond the sensationalist headlines that flooded the media nearly two decades ago — that would enrich our understanding of these band-driven crime sprees.
The story of Norway's original black-metal scene is a Behind the Music like none other. Its origins were detailed in the sprawling 1998 tome, Lords of Chaos: The Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, which chronicled, among other things, the "Black Circle" death-metal cliques that formed in an Oslo record store. The book included such salacious details as Mayhem vocalist Dead committing suicide, only to have a necklace supposedly fashioned from fragments of his skull by his bandmate. It also details the spate of death-metal–related church burnings that started in 1992. As convicted arsonist and murderer and Mayhem bassist Varg Vikernes explains in Until the Light Takes Us, he believed these holy houses should be turned into ashes because Christianity similarly destroyed Norway's early pagan religions.
Vikernes is a conspiracy theorist confident of his yarns. Whether he's on camera discussing his hatred for capitalism's corporate sprawl, touting his anti-Semitism, or arguing his belief that his bandmate Euronymous was going to kidnap and kill him (so Vikernes stabbed the guitarist to death) the smug convict's controversial beliefs are left unchallenged here. We learn that he hates Christians and McDonald's, but not how that translated into masterminding heinous crimes.
The other major figure in the film, Gylve Nagell of Darkthrone, offers minimal insight into the scene; more often than not, he's on a tangent about a topic (Frida Kahlo?) you're unsure why he's discussing, or he's stumbling over what it means to sell out. The most confusing moments in Until the Light Takes Us, however, involve Faust from the band Emperor, who was convicted of murdering an innocent man. He's presented on camera as a black silhouette with his voice altered, his need to cloak his identity left strangely unexplained.
The documentary works on a more subtle level, in its attempts to portray a lowbrow music genre (where bands recorded through dictaphones, or into headphones instead of microphones) as high art. The musicians are presented as innovative craftsmen, discussing their legitimately unique approaches to playing and recording. The montages of picturesque, snow-covered towns and footage of flaming churches are incredible, especially set against glitchy electronic compositions from Lesser, Black Dice, Boards of Canada, and Múm.
Elsewhere, the link between art and metal is more direct. Aites and Ewell include clips of subversive American filmmaker Harmony Korine decked out in corpse paint, performing modern dance moves in a gallery. The filmmakers also interview Australian-born artist Bjarne Melgaard, whose Norwegian-death-metal–inspired paintings are looked upon with disgust by Nagell in an uncomfortable meeting between the two men. Melgaard is later shown orchestrating a performance art piece with Frost, the drummer for Norway's Satyricon. Before a stunned live audience, Frost goes from breathing fire on Melgaard's paintings to lacerating his own wrist and neck. It's one of the most intense and unnerving moments in the film, second only to the image of a gruesome Mayhem album cover: Dead's actual suicide-by-bullet photo (taken, apparently, by Euronymous), his brains spilling out next to his disfigured head. These scenes could've fueled further examinations of the complicated ways a violent musical movement has been incorporated by a creative class beyond its underground borders.
It's unfortunate that with such rich source material, Until the Light Takes Us offers a flat display of the Norwegian-death-metal puzzle. The directors have said in interviews that their passion is in experimental film, and their editing and cinematography skills are impressive. If they didn't want to go the heavy psychological analysis route, they could've at least pushed further into the art side, diving deeper into death metal's uncomfortable place in pop culture.
It is fitting, however, that Until the Light Takes Us won't be shown in a grungy old movie theater, but rather in a hip San Francisco museum — Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. It's a pristine space I imagine ol' Nagell wouldn't approve of, but it's the appropriate setting for further viewing this darkly gruesome world through a lens of modern art.