Lighting a fire: The bizarre intersection between underground rock music and the annihilation of history (with murder, suicide and self-mutilation also thrown in for spice) is explored in Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell's U.S. documentary Until the Light Takes Us.

'Until the Light Takes Us'

Dennis Harvey July 29, 2009

In the realm of crimes against humanity, there’s something particularly abhorrent about the willful erasure of history itself. Think how much knowledge of ourselves was lost when invading armies of old destroyed ancient libraries. Recall the much more recent dynamiting of the 6th-century Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban, one religion’s magnificent representation destroyed in the name of another. It’s not the motivating religious or conquering fervor of the assailants that will be remembered by future generations, but the ultimately pointless, shortsighted waste of something that should have endured as long as mankind.

Something similar happened in normally tranquil Norway about 15 years ago: a series of arsons that damaged or annihilated over 50 churches, many historical landmarks, some dating back almost a thousand years. The scandal that emerged tied these events (though a few may have been copycat crimes without real affiliation) to the country’s black metal scene.

That bizarre intersection between underground rock music and the extinguishing of local history—with murder, suicide and self-mutilation also thrown in for spice—is explored in Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell’s U.S. documentary Until the Light Takes Us, which recently played briefly at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and now returns for a regular run at S.F.’s Roxie Cinema.

"If you want to build something new, you have to destroy the old first" says one interviewee here, explaining the early 1990s mindset of some mini-luminaries and wannabes in Norwegian black metal. For some, the idea behind burning churches was to "take back the land" from the non-native "plague" of Christianity—rooted as it is in those dastardly Jews—and honor Norway’s ancient pagan beliefs. (Funny, isn’t it, how often anti-Semitism lies at the heart of seemingly unrelated hate crimes. In a not-funny-at-all way, of course.) Others were perhaps just trying to gain infamy in the predictably in-fighty bubble of black metal bands and their hangers-on. It was also alleged some of this was done in the cause of Satanism—a flame eagerly fanned by "shocked," enthralled popular media—though several relevant folk here dismiss that as sensationalist bunk.

Indeed, many years later, fingers of blame are still being pointed and guilt denied. (One figure here is interviewed only in silhouette, with a distorted voice.) That includes argument over details in the most notorious related incident, the 1993 stabbing death of Mayhem guitarist Oystein Aarseth aka Euronymous. Ving Vikemes of the band Burzum, who was just released from prison (and still doesn’t seem especially sorry about the murder), claimed Aarseth planned to torture and kill him.

There’s considerably more juicy stuff in Until the Light Takes Us, which may disappoint if you’re looking for a comprehensive overview of black metal, or even just Norwegian black metal. The narrow focus here is on a few specific players in a very specific period that’s come to overshadow everything else (and everything since) in the genre. There isn’t even much attention paid to the music itself, which as heard here is pretty much what you’d expect, whiskey-gargling rasped vocals, unintelligible nihilistic lyrics and all.

Part of the documentary’s fascination comes from the fact that, "dark" as this metal scene and the events that occurred within it are, the whole thing is also kinda silly. One interviewee here admits that in liberal, well-off Norway, there isn’t really much to rebel against—would-be noncomformists have to be creative because frankly there’s not much out there oppressing them. (We hear how before the church burnings, some metalheads used to ride their bicycles into town and shoot at the McDonald’s sign. Hardcore!)

There’s something at least as pathetic as it is menacing about grown men in corpse paint and regulation black, with adopted names like Hellhammer and Demonaz Doom Occulta, burning down a millennium-aged monument. History will record the physical loss as tragic—while the perps are going to look forever…lame.