Shining a light on deadly musical underground
Film explores Norway’s violent black metal scene
Filmmaker Audrey Ewell was raised on a commune in Tennessee. Like her grandparents she was baptized Roman Catholic, though her mother was Wiccan and her father was Southern Baptist. That upbringing, perhaps unsurprisingly, made her an agnostic.
“There’s no way to be raised in that kind of environment, with everyone thinking they’re right, without asking some questions,’’ she says.
The experience served her well in co-directing “Until the Light Takes Us,’’ an inquisitive documentary about the violent black metal scene in Norway that opens Friday for a run of late-night screenings at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Ewell and Aaron Aites spent two years living in Norway among some of the key players in a music underground that made international headlines in the 1990s when members committed murder and suicide and burned down several historic churches.
The filmmakers are well aware that such material is inherently sensational. But they also sought to uncover the deep-seated motives behind the crimes, enlisting the cooperation of two of the scene’s fiercest ideologues, Gylve “Fenriz’’ Nagell, lyricist of the black metal band Darkthrone, and Varg Vikernes, who served 16 years in prison for the murder of a onetime bandmate, the scene figurehead who called himself Euronymous.
To these musicians, standard-bearers of an assaultive, uncompromising musical style that became a cultural revolt, the encroachment of American commercialism in the 1980s and ’90s prompted the burnings of centuries-old Christian churches, which represented a much older imposition on folkloric Scandinavia. (Some of the musicians dabble in an offshoot genre known as “Viking metal.’’)
“By the 1990s, American culture - McDonald’s, 7-Eleven, MTV - was flooding into what was previously a fairly closed-off society,’’ says Aites, who was raised in part in Hyannis, by phone from New York. “One of the things Varg had in mind was to draw a parallel from the last time a cultural force came in and destroyed the previous culture. It goes beyond the idea of religion and speaks more to a full-on culture, being able to maintain the thread of a cultural narrative.’’
Euronymous’s band, Mayhem, was an anchor of the so-called “second wave’’ of black metal. He ran a cavelike record shop in Oslo called Helvete - “Hell’’ in Norwegian. His band went through frontmen with stage names such as Maniac and Messiah before the gruesome suicide of another singer, who called himself Dead. Euronymous’s murder at the hands of Vikernes was the culmination of a power struggle within the movement.
With relatively little archival footage of the music, the film actually takes on an introspective quality, following earnest Fenriz as he handles office chores for his record label and visiting Vikernes, a much more disquieting figure in a Mephistophelean beard, in prison. During Vikernes’s term - he was released last year, after the filmmakers had returned to the States - he got married and had children, taking advantage of the Norwegian penal system’s weekend furloughs.
“They focus on preparing their inmates to reenter society,’’ says Ewell. “They have social interactions and build relationships that will allow them to be functioning people, as opposed to the American slave-labor-for-capitalist-gain system.’’
The documentary wades into the same controversial territory as a 1998 book called “Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground.’’ Even before they began screening their film, Ewell and Aites braced themselves for harsh feedback from black metal fans, many of whom believe the music has been unfairly stigmatized.
“There’s defensive ownership there,’’ says Ewell. “It’s this much-maligned subculture. We’ve actually received countless hate-mail letters from people who haven’t seen the film.’’
According to Aites, many who have seen it send notes saying, “I was prepared to hate your movie, but I loved it.’’
“It’s only natural to be worried about how a subject you care deeply about is going to be treated,’’ he says. “If I recall correctly, the ‘X-Men’ film had angry comic book fans complaining about the movie before they saw it as well.’’