Described as “the most widely demonized and vilified music scene in rock history,” (O’Hehir, 2009), the Norwegian black metal scene of the late 80s and early 90s took Black Metal to new extremes. The bands and fans all wore head-to-toe black leather, wrist- and arm-bands and boots with spikes or nails, and black and white “corpse paint.” Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell’s Until the Light Takes Us (2009) tells the story of the scene in stark tones and up-close interviews.
Members of the bands Darkthrone, Mayhem, Burzum, Immortal, and Emperor provide more than a full cast of characters. The major players involved in the scene include Øystein Aarseth (a.k.a Eronymous) of Mayhem, Per Yngve Ohlin (a.k.a. Dead) of Mayhem, Varg Vikernes (a.k.a. Count Grishnackh) of Burzum and Mayhem, and Bärd Eithun (a.k.a. Faust) of Emperor, among several others. “Dead’s name was an ever-looming portent of his destiny” write Moynihan & Søderlind (2003, p. 58). Very much into self-mutilation, often on stage, Dead eventually shot himself in the head with a shotgun. His band-mate Euronymous found the body, took pictures, and reportedly took pieces of his skull and brains. One of the pictures ended up as the cover art for a live Mayhem record (Dawn of the Black Hearts; 1995), and Euronymous supposedly made stew out of Dead’s brains and necklaces out of his skull.
The sometime bass player for Mayhem and full-time one-man-band Burzum, Grishnackh, paranoid of an alleged plot by Euronymous to kill him, beat him to the punch: One late night in Oslo, Grishnackh stabbed Euronymous to death. Euronymous had been the figurehead of the Norwegian black metal scene. His record store in Oslo, Helvete, had served as a central meeting place for bands and fans, as well as a place to buy records and paraphernalia. It was darkly lit and Euronymous wanted it to be kept completely dark and to make customers use torches to see the records and their way around.
Underwhelmed by what he saw as posturing without action by Euronymous, Grishnackh allegedly set about burning down churches. Grishnackh’s philosophy is one of nationalism. He sees Christianity as colonialist, having moved into Norway and displaced the native Norse religion. His intentions did not keep the church burnings from being seen as “Satanically motivated” by the media. The heavy metal magazine Kerrang! ran a cover story that read, “Arson… Death… Satanic Ritual… The Ugly Truth about Black Metal” and the spread bore the quotation, “We are but slaves of the one with horns…” across the top of its pages (Moynihan & Søderlind, 2003, p. 100-101). “Copycat church attacks followed throughout the Northern Hemisphere, often accompanied with spray-painted pentacles and 666’s and so forth, and whatever had once been distinctive about the Norwegian scene just became, in Vikernes’ [Grishnackh] words, “a bunch of brain-dead, heavy-metal guys.”
The image of the black metal scene at large was one of darkness and evil. Hebdige (1979) writes, “In most cases, it is the subculture’s stylistic innovations which first attract the media’s attention. Subsequently deviant or ‘anti-social’ acts—vandalism, swearing, fighting, ‘animal behaviour’—are ‘discovered’ by the police, the judiciary, the press; and these acts are used to ‘explain’ the subculture’s original transgression of sartorial codes. In fact, either deviant behaviour or the identification of a distinctive uniform (or more typically a combination of the two) can provide the catalyst for a moral panic” (p. 93). The moral panic that followed the church burnings illustrates how easily such a scene is vilified and labeled “Satanic.” Subcultures are largely imagistic and operate on the level of surfaces: Never mind that half the members of the bands involved are or were serving prison terms for their actions. A movement as such quickly becomes regarded as exclusively stylistic. Attaching Satan to a movement that was largely nationalist in nature is a move that occurs on the surface of the phenomenon.
In order to get under the skin of this scene, filmmakers Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell moved to Norway and hung-out with Darkthrone’s Fenriz, Hellhammer from Mayhem, Frost from Satyricon, the guys in Immortal, and visited Vikernes in prison, among others. Throughout the film, it is the stalwarts of the scene who tell the story. Aites and Ewell make no appearance. Their placement in situ gives the film an immediacy that many narrated documentaries lack. If you’re at all interested in the Norwegian Black Metal scene or the chaos thereof, this film is indispensable.
Until the Light Takes Us is currently making its way around the country. Keep your eyes open.
Here’s the official trailer [runtime: 2:07]:
Aites, A. & Ewell, A. (Directors). (2009). Until the light takes us [Motion picture]. United States: Field Pictures.
Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. New York: Routledge.
Moynihan, M. & Søderlind, D. (2003). Lords of chaos: The bloody rise of the Satanic metalunderground. Los Angeles: Feral House.
O’Hehir, A. (2009, December 6). Sympathy for the devil worshipers: Until the light takes us movie review. Retrieved on December 7, 2009 from Salon.com.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.