This post has been a long time coming. I have finally and officially seen the black metal documentary Until the Light Takes Us.
There was a time when I didn't have high hopes for this little film, as the preview clips were boring and it appeared the directors didn't really utilize the Count to his maximum potential. How wrong I was to judge so quickly. I watched it a couple weeks ago and had to let it sink in before I posted my official review. Warning: it's going to be a long one and it's not going to be the laugh riot you're used to at S&C. So here goes.
I once received a response to one of my black-metal-kooks-are-HYYYlarious posts that said something along the lines of, "If you really feel that way, then you don't understand black metal at all."
This anonymous commenter was correct. I didn't understand black metal. I still don't and I never will, in the same way you can't understand anyone's experience until you walk in their shoes. But I can now see how the whole sordid tale played out. And much to my surprise, I found myself thinking it all made sense.
The movie starts off showing a 30-something, long-haired metal dude on a train being searched by police. "They busted me on fucking tear gas—they didn't find the drugs of course," he says. This is Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell from the pioneering black metal outfit Darkthrone. He talks a little bit about Norway ("It's like New Zealand, only just grimmer") and talks about how hands-off his fellow countrypeople are.
Suddenly, we're whisked away to a maximum security prison, and you know exactly where this is going. It's the Count! He talks about how the early black metal musicians "rebelled against traditional song structure," getting the worst equipment they could find and using a headset as a microphone to create guttural noises that sounded like hell.
Norwegians were afraid of the black metallers almost from the get-go, and the Count says they survived on reputation alone during the '80s. Then Dead joined Mayhem.
We all know what happens next. Dead's bandmate Euronymous finds the 19-year-old Dead actually dead with his brains falling out from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The photos Euronymous took of the body famously became the cover of Mayhem's Dawn of the Black Hearts album (seriously, that link is not for the faint of heart), and Euronymous allegedly cannibalized Dead's brain and made jewelry out of pieces of his skull.
After that heartwarming scene, Fenriz is back to discuss the state of Norway in the early '90s. The establishing shots they pan through are beautiful: charming snowcapped chateaus, idyllic town squares. But in '91 the first McDonald's opened up in Bergen and Fenriz and friends didn't like it. They grabbed some rifles, rode their bikes to the restaurant and shot the windows out. "We hoped there would be a third world war," the Count says of those halcyon days. "We knew that if you want to build something new, you have to destroy the old first."
Enter the church burnings. The Fantoft Stave Church was built in 1150—on top of a pagan holy site. "It's stigmatizing to talk about heritage," says Count Grishnackh. "Christianity erased our original cultures anyway. We might have known worse periods, but they destroyed records, wanted to replace our culture. Christianity is the root of all problems in the world. They have no respect for the Norwegian culture. Why should we respect their culture?"
It's at this point in the movie that I start to get scared because...wait for it...I THINK THE COUNT IS MAKING SENSE. Forget all the racist, screamy rants and the diva-like bitching about his domain name. I am nodding my head in agreement with what he is saying and thinking, "Fuck yeah! Fight the power, Count!"
In 1992, the wooden Fantoft Church went up in flames. It was the start of a series of fires that was eventually blamed on the Count. Hysterical news reports warned of satanists in Norway's midst. Then Kerrang! magazine published an in-depth report on Norwegian black metal in 1993. Suddenly, the underground scene was front and center on the news. Copycat church burnings, satanic symbols and extreme concerts began popping up around Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. Black metal was a trend.
Fenriz is shown waiting for a phone call from an interviewer. The reporter calls and he is so friendly and kind to her. He gives an interesting, insightful interview, engages in some playful back-and-forth about his lyrics and then thanks the reporter for her time. It's a telling moment. This is the man that everyone fears, whose life's work has been reduced to a shocking moment in a cable channel countdown.
Next we see indie director Harmony Korine, who helmed the movie Kids and dated Chloe Sevigny before she was an it girl. He's dancing around like a fucking moron in corpsepaint and talking about how he's really in to black metal. "I went to Norway where all the guys burned the churches down and killed each other," he foams. "And I visited Euronymous's grave!" I couldn't have expected anything more from the director of Gummo. I fucking hate this raging douchebag so fucking much.
At first, I didn't really get why the filmmakers included this short but epically annoying scene with Harmony, but it suddenly hit me. He was practically giddy talking about the death and destruction that occurred in Norway, and what he was saying was exactly what Fenriz and Count Grishnackh said they hated. Their art, their outlet, was viewed as the exact opposite of their intent.
Fenriz is shown attending an art gallery exhibit of black metal-inspired paintings (that are actually pretty cool). He quietly views the art and the photographs of the original black metallers hanging in the lobby. He greets the artist and leaves the gallery, hands shoved deeply into his pockets.
Now we've come to the defining moment in black metal history: the murder of Euronymous. The Count explains that he heard through the grapevine that Euronymous was pissed off that the Count granted an anonymous interview to a newspaper in which he copped to being the mastermind behind the church burnings. "He said he was going to knock me out and kidnap me and make a snuff film while torturing me to death," the Count remembers. "And I took it serious."
We all know the outcome of this little feud. The Count recounts the evening when he stabbed Euronymous to death and maintains that it was in self-defense. "He was swimming in glass fragments in his underwear with a broken lamp," he recalls. "I finished Aarseth off. I stabbed him in the skull so he died immediately."
The 20-year-old Varg "Count" Vikernes was sentenced to 21 years in prison, the most allowed under Norwegian law, for the murder of Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth. The media referred to him as "the satanist Varg Vikernes."
On the day of his sentencing, he says,"I already knew they were going to give me the 21 years. [The judge] wanted to underline we don't tolerate this rebellion in Norway. They were expecting me to be wetting my pants or something, but it just made me smile, really. I just turned my head to the audience, you could call it, and just smiled. And from what I gathered they smiled back."
Then they show this:
I had to rewind this scene several times. It was at this point that I remembered the anonymous comment that I didn't understand black metal. It's easy to make fun of...the corpsepaint, the ridiculous outfits, Immortal. And I'll continue to make fun of it, because it is fun. But it was at this point that I came the closest to understanding that I probably ever will. The first time I watched this scene, I gasped. By the fifth or so time I rewound it, I smiled, too.
I don't like to talk about myself in too much detail on this blog. But one of the main reasons I love rock so much is because it was an outlet to my feelings of isolation from growing up in a small town. It felt like someone else out there understood feelings I couldn't explain, someone in a place I assumed was better and cooler and more fun than where I was. These crazed rockers in Norway who burned churches and killed each other were kids like me who felt misunderstood, except they also felt helpless to what they believed was a rape of their culture.
Fenriz describes Norway as a place that's even, with no real cultural scene. It's easy to see how something extreme can simmer up from a place that's artistically barren, freezing cold and neutral. It got out of control, but I can't say that I, as a small town girl, never felt like burning down a building or mowing a few people down out of frustration. Don't report me to Homeland Security; I'd never do that, mofos! But teenage isolation and feeling misunderstood can cause crazy thoughts to pop into your head. You've felt that way, too, and you know it.
The movie winds down with a few words from the Count about the media. "You're bombarded by commercials and senseless information every day," he says. "If you turn your head, you see a sign or a commercial, news, magazines, products being sold. Everything is meaningless." He's sitting in prison, where he says he's had time to think and read. "It's a sea of lies and it's impossible to find the truth, unless you know where, when and how to look," he continues. "You will eventually weed out all the lies and you will end up with something at least similar to the truth. It's hidden under rocks. You'll stumble and get branches in your face and make mistakes before you finally find it."
Fenriz laments that their original music is now out in the open. "It's everyone's property and it's out of our hands," he says, shaking his head. "It's a brand now. What can I do? What's the point?"
The ironic twist at the end is that Helvete, the music store Euronymous once owned that was considered the center of black metal culture in its heyday, has been transformed into a bright, white art gallery. "I wish this whole thing didn't turn into a trend," says Fenriz. "Then again, people like to dress up."