Until The Light Takes Us (2008), is a documentary about black metal music culture in Norway that’s quite good. You don’t have to know much about, or even like the music to be drawn into this film. It seems that the impulse of the original black metal bands, who had a miniscule following, was in part, to defend Norwegian culture—at least as they saw it. They saw the Americanization of their culture as a terrible thing and something to fight against. When the first McDonalds came to Norway, they shot at it. Similarly, they felt that Christianity imposed upon true Norse culture and mythology (i.e. Odin and Thor)—quite reasonable, in a way (I was rooting for them, at this point).
The documentary describes the rise of the black metal scene. One guy, Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell, was the first to wear “corpse” makeup.
Nagell also paints pictures—they’re really good paintings—and it seems Mr. Harmony Korine is a fan; there was even an exhibit of his work in LA.
Another artist, to make a statement, burnt a church that was built over a pre-Christian sacred site.
One practitioner compares the scene’s music and art to that of Edvard Munch, another Norwegian, which isn’t a big stretch. Both Munch and artists of the black metal scene express parts of their culture that are generally kept tightly bolted down.
Although, they aren’t all necessarily “nice” guys. Burzum frontman, Varg “Count Grischnackh” Vikernes, is interviewed in prison (a prison with very homey curtains it seems!), where he is serving 21 years for murder and several church burnings. He describes the murder, quite matter-of-factly, in the film. It’s a chilling scene, as he comes across as articulate and disarmingly mild-mannered, explaining that their music is a way of defending Norwegian culture and heritage.
The press portrayed the black metal scene as purely Satanist, which it was not. But, it was the press’ branding of the scene as Satanic that caught fire (oops). Soon, everyone accepted this as truth and as younger bands came into the scene, they claimed to be Satanists. These kids burned more churches than ever before, and also put up 666 graffiti. It all spiraled out of control—not that there was much “control” from the start.
What began as a not totally unreasonable impulse to defend Norwegian culture, (though I’m not defending the burnings and murder) was perverted by the media. This perversion encouraged a far more deeply disturbed youth to emerge, badly copy, develop and act out in sad and meaningless ways. The “evil” thing that was preached against in press, was, in a way, encouraged to come forth and manifest.
A friend wrote to me, “David, didn't something vaguely analogous happen with American skinhead bands back in the day—I mean, decline of western civilization one day? Didn't [west coast punk groups] groups like TSOL launch entirely banal attacks on suburban ennui, but looked like skinheads with some window dressings, got written up as white supremacists, and so began a generation of surf Nazis?”
One can see how forms, not just musical, that trade and dabble in dangerous, disturbing images and provocative actions—even if these images and actions are not the main focus of their intent—run the risk of being perverted. There is, it seems, a great likelihood that potent images and actions will be used for other purposes. Not just likelihood, one can almost predict that powerful memes like these, like some strong medicine or drug, will inevitably be repurposed. It’s almost as if there really is a dark world, and upon entering, one surrenders some control—or at least maintaining control is extremely difficult. Someone like young Vikernes, disgusted by the bombardment of commercial images he saw all around him, decided to resist not just a little, but completely reject the whole package of how other people accept the world. He, alone, struck out into remote and barren territory, as he described, “to find the truth in a sea of lies.” Again, I’m sympathetic to the resistance to the McDonaldification of his country—most of us simply cave in and accept that this is the way things are going to be. It takes a saint or a maniac to reject the status quo, and maybe the two are flip sides of the same coin.
Going at this alone is a solitary quest, in a dangerous landscape, taken, in this case, without a guide. One would be tempted to say that maybe Odin, Thor, Wotan and the rest of the Norse horde, might have been summoned—but maybe these Gods or archetypes are too powerful to be confronted by an amateur. As with Voudoun, chanting, LSD and many other arts and practices that reach parts of us that we often don’t touch, it might be wise to have a professional along who knows where the dangers and pitfalls lie.
“The truth is hidden, under grass, under rocks, in a hidden trail, a forgotten trail in the forest, you know? And when you find these trails you will stumble, you will get branches in your face.” -Varg Vikernes
Additional quotes from others in the scene:
“He is like an angel lost in a dark universe.”
“It’s out there now [black metal]… anyone can have it… it’s like a brand now.”