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'Until the Light Takes Us' goes behind the music -- and the murder

Documentarians Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell lived in Norway for two years to get the inside story of the notorious, dangerous Norwegian black metal scene.

December 06, 2009|By Mark Olsen
  • Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell is in Darkthrone.
Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell is in Darkthrone. (Variance Films, xx )

Heavy metal music often conjures imagery of decadent hair bands in tight spandex, or cartoonish Viking-style warrior-heroes with guitars for axes, but the genre's Norwegian black metal sub-strain goes somewhere altogether darker and more mysterious. With accusations of Satanism, incitement to violence, and antisocial rhetoric, the music and its dedicated followers exude an air of genuine danger.

As examined in the documentary "Until the Light Takes Us," opening in Los Angeles on Friday, in the early 1990s a small group of Norwegian musicians, many barely in their 20s, began making an extreme form of heavy-metal music usually recorded on inexpensive equipment. They would gain worldwide notoriety not so much for the music itself but for the stories of outrageous behavior that swirled around the scene. A wave of church burnings swept the country. After a member of the band Mayhem committed suicide, a graphic photo of his corpse appeared on a record cover. Most notoriously, musician Varg Vikernes murdered another key figure on the scene.

In pursuing the story of Norwegian black metal, American filmmakers Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell moved to Norway for two years while making the film.

They gained the confidence of the strident Vikernes (then still in prison, though he has since been released) as well as assorted other survivors of the scene, including the sweet-natured Gylve Nagell, giving the film a startling intimacy.

"We were really into it, that's the first thing," said Aites, 39, of what drove them to up and move across the globe for the project. "We were resistant at first, but once we did listen to the Norwegian black metal, we really did just dive in."

"It was just the next obvious step after we'd bought all the records and read all the interviews we could get our hands on," continued Ewell, 33. "We just wanted to know more. There always seemed to be something missing; we couldn't quite get our hands on the totality of it in some way. We went looking for a documentary, just assuming that someone had made one, and there wasn't one. There was something that we wanted to complete for ourselves."

During a recent phone interview from their apartment in Brooklyn, Aites and Ewell playfully debate/patiently bicker -- they are also a couple -- over just how many actual death metal songs are used in the film, as the soundtrack contains a mix of more unlikely ambient electronic music amid the metal mayhem.

"For lots of dabblers, it's definitely the sensational aspect, the killings, the church burnings, the larger-than-life characters, the drama, but none of that would be enough to get someone to listen to, or love, black metal," said Andee Connors, co-owner of the San Francisco store Aquarius Records and one of the leading champions of black metal in the United States. It was Connors who first turned on Aites and Ewell to the music.

"From a purely sonic standpoint, it's pretty unique and to these ears incredibly appealing," added Connors, "droning buzz, blasting beats, demonic vocals, sometimes moody synths, epic melodies, dense, complex song structures, all delivered with a sense of urgency and grim determination and cloaked in a veil of secrecy and elitism, a truly unique form of outsider music making."

Everyday madness

Aites and Ewell structured their film to pull back from the tabloid aspects of the story to let the characters emerge in a more naturalistic, nonjudgmental way. Setting the stories of Vikernes and Nagell in counterpoint with each other, at times the film plays simply as the story of a music scene, with the internal squabbling and hazy recollections familiar from many rock docs, although here the point of contention can be who did or did not commit mass arson.

"From the perspective of making the film work, we felt it was important to not just have this crazy story about kids running around murdering people and burning churches," said Ewell. "So allowing these characters to develop in some kind of organic way was really important to us."

Their portrayal of Vikernes, in particular, was carefully calibrated, so that even though he emerges as the most radicalizing and controversial figure in the film he is at times used as a narrating voice of reason, providing useful insight into the inner workings of the scene.

"I think because his actions are so extreme . . . he killed his bandmate by stabbing him in the skull repeatedly -- I feel like we don't have to make a big deal about that for people to get that he's not the best guy," Ewell said.

If the documentary sometimes seems to let the music itself take a back seat, that's because Aites and Ewell wanted the focus to stay on the personalities involved. "We didn't want to play it for shock . . . because if you just think about it for a minute, it's already so insane and abhorrent," Ewell said.

"When you take it out of the context of Norwegian black metal, if you try to tie it to another scene -- like let's say there was an intra-band murder in Pavement -- it's nuts."

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