My favorite Norwegian black-metal story, well-known by now to connoisseurs of the demented, is the one about the singer called — prophetically, as it turned out — Dead. Per Yngve Ohlin was his real-world name, and he fronted the influential black-metal band Mayhem. One day in the spring of 1991, at a house the group shared not far from Oslo, Dead blew his brains out with a shotgun. (“Excuse all the blood,” his suicide note said.) His body was discovered by the band’s guitarist, Euronymous, who of course realized the police would have to be called. Before doing so, though, Euronymous scurried out to buy a cheap camera, returned to the house, arranged the death scene a little more photogenically — the shotgun carefully positioned next to the corpse, with its frontal lobe still slopping out of the cranium — and snapped some pictures. He also gathered up a number of skull shards, which he later fashioned into souvenir necklaces for friends of the deceased; but that’s not the good part. The good part is that one of those photos turned up a few years later as the cover art on a Mayhem bootleg called “Dawn of the Black Hearts.” And that record is still in print — I just found a copy online, signed by the band’s drummer (“Hellhammer,” what else), retailing for $356. Dead not only lives, he gets a check.
The world is overstocked with flamboyantly wasted rock stars and heavily strapped rappers, but few of them can hold a guttering candle to the ghoul-boy nutters of Norwegian black metal. Theirs is a tale speckled with murder and church-burning rampages, perfumed with rumors of cannibalism and devil-worship, and marinated in a timeless broth of violent homo-anxiety and neo-Wagnerian nationalist mysticism (Sons of Odin, and so forth). For those to whom none of this is actually happening, it’s a hoot.
The NBM story has been told several times before, starting with the 1998 Feral Press book “Lords of Chaos.” Now it’s been reprised by two first-time American filmmakers, Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, in a documentary called “Until the Light Takes Us.” Aites and Ewell get points for moving to Norway for two years to suss out the scene before starting to shoot. And no doubt they were working with a budget that even Ed Wood might’ve found restrictive. Still, their doc, with its awkwardly staged interviews and episodic meandering, is likely to play best for viewers with at least a little prior knowledge of the subject.
Black metal, the Nordic offspring of ’80s death metal, apparently came together as a scene around an Oslo record shop called Helvete in the early ’90s. The shop was run by the aforementioned Euronymous, who also operated a record label on the premises called Deathlike Silence Productions. Among the new-school metalheads drawn to the store was a fresh-faced Tolkien fan named Varg Vikernes, soon to become famous — and then infamous — as a one-man black-metal band called Burzum. Euronymous signed Vikernes to his label, but their relationship came to an unhappy end one night when Vikernes showed up at his apartment and stabbed him in the head — fatally, as you might imagine. Vikernes — already a person of interest to police in connection with an ongoing series of black-metal arson attacks on dozens of medieval wooden churches — was sentenced to 21 years in prison for the murder.
The movie is anchored by jailhouse interviews with Vikernes and rambling interludes with another black-metal star, Gylve Nagell, of the band Darkthrone. The Nagell segments, which wander all over the place, expose the directors’ central weakness, which is editing. The Vikernes interviews compel more attention. Here we have a talented musician whose rosy-cheeked smile never slips as he reviles Christianity and all of its works, takes barely veiled potshots at Jews, and describes with eerie nonchalance the bloody murder he committed at the age of 20. (Vikernes was paroled earlier this year, after 16 years in prison. It’s nice to know he still calls Norway home.)
The rest of the movie is a potpourri. There’s a startling scene in which the very odd Satyricon drummer Frost makes a performance-art appearance at a gallery in Milan, Italy, in which he furiously stabs a sofa and then, after slicing up his own neck and arms, proceeds to bleed all over it. There’s also a story, framed by newspaper headlines, about a young black-metal musician who murdered an older gay man for no reason. (It’s followed by a shot of two other musicians laughing appreciatively.) And there’s a curious cameo by alt-film director Harmony Korine, whom we see cavorting around another art gallery in black-metal makeup and a yellow fright wig. (Korine is a longtime fan — he slotted a Burzum song into the soundtrack of his 1997 film, “Gummo.”)
In its erratic framing and dodgy sound, the movie is as low-tech as black metal itself. (Vikernes says that at his first recording session, he demanded that the engineer provide him with the very worst microphone available.) But the directors are admirably disinclined to sensationalize a subject that’s already plenty gaudy. And they get you interested in the music, some of which rewards further investigation.