An aggressive Norwegian offshoot of speed metal with a deeply sinister bent, "black metal" is so laden with gothic gloom, satanic brooding and Viking iconography it would be comical if not for the seriously screwed-up antics of some of its biggest stars. The insanely driven, raging anti-heroes in this true-life cautionary tale take suffering for their art to delirious extremes. If you can call it art. This curious, and occasionally ponderous lo-fi documentary peeks behind the veil of one of the music world's most infamous subcultures, and is fascinating exactly to the point when it becomes nearly as impenetrable as its subject.
Black metal's trappings — the all-black wardrobes, the shock-white clown makeup, the upside-down crosses and the albums that sound like chainsaws clanging inside a washing machine — aren't really any goofier than other underground scenes, but the protagonists' commitment to civil disobedience, pagan ritual and actual bloodshed took it way over the top. The first mutant strains of this thrash genre arose in the early '80s with such bands as Bathory and Celtic Frost, but it was a second, even rowdier, generation that would take the music and chaos to its logical, if gruesome conclusion.
The central figure here is Varg Vikernes, bassist of the band Mayhem, a charming iconoclast who did 16 years in the clink for a string of church burnings and the multiple stabbing murder of his lead guitarist. That unfortunate dude, dubbed "Euronymous," had years earlier found the body of his lead singer with his brains blown out, and rushed for his camera, turning the carnage into a bootleg album cover. (And you thought the Beatles had backstage troubles.)
If you're wondering why young men raised in a heterogeneous, affluent, largely crime-free culture would plunge so far off the deep end, keep wondering. Directors Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites seem content to let Varg and his some of his peers wax nostalgic on their glory days, and to spew their anti-religious, individualist, anti-social prattle in self-satisfied tones. Varg is a pretty lucid and controlled interview subject, and his attempts to blame his fate on the media hysteria nearly works, until he starts believing his own hype. All that's missing is context, insight or outside perspectives. As pure cultural rubbernecking, Until the Light Takes Us is intriguing, but it doesn't have a lot to say about its demented musical heroes, except to prove that for all their rage at the world, they're only a danger to themselves.
Showing at the Burton Theatre (3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-473-9238).
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].