While the ooky-spooky sound and arcane trappings of black metal have become yet another hipster enthusiasm in recent years, it bears remembering that the history of the genre is truly blood-soaked and flame-licked. Indeed, all that many people know about black metal, if they know anything, is that the young Norwegian men who put the genre on the map in the early '90s were involved in a murder and a series of arsons that leveled a number of churches. There is, as it happens, a more complex, more nuanced, and more fascinating story beyond the inflammatory headlines. Filmmakers Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell do a fantastic job of making that story come alive in their documentary Until the Light Takes Us (Factory 25 DVD and Blu-ray), even for those who can't stomach blastbeats and blackened guitar buzz.
The story of Norwegian black metal begins where so many stories of musical rebellion do: with a small group of bored, pissed-off teenagers. Forming bands such as Mayhem, Darkthrone, and Burzum, they took the aggro velocity and frantic riffing of death metal and pushed it into an altogether darker, danker place, a forbidding sonic realm of trebly lo-fi shrieking. As Aites and Ewell document with a lively mix of interviews and archival material, the corpse-painted Norwegians also took their nihilism seriously. Not only did Mayhem singer Dead commit suicide, but bandmate Euronymous took photos of his frontman's splattered head before calling police. And Mayhem/Burzum member Count Grishnackh carried black metal's violent energy and anti-Christian rhetoric to extremes, torching churches in the name of pre-Christian Norse paganism and, eventually, stabbing Euronymous to death.
This is all shopworn lore to true fans, but Aites and Ewell cannily avoid Behind the Music territory by balancing their narrative between two very different main subjects. Count Grishnackh, known to the Norwegian penal system as Varg Vikernes, was still in prison during filming, and frankly he seems like a good candidate to stay there. Clean-cut and articulate, he is nonetheless imperiously smug, callous, and unrepentant. He is not a Satanist, he insists convincingly. A giant asshole? No doubt of that. Darkthrone drummer Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell, on the other hand, comes off as a long-haired, leather-jacketed mensch. His dogged dedication to black metal seems like exactly the sort of thing that has probably helped keep him out of prison, and reinforces the key fact that you don't have to kill and burn to prove you mean it.
The cameras follow Nagell on a visit to an exhibit of black-metal photographs and black-metal-inspired art. Watching him encounter the images of his youthful lashing-out framed on pristine white gallery walls only underlines the distance between the particularly chilly puddle of teenage bile from which black metal emerged and the dress-up quality of later waves. (See also: footage of Satyricon drummer Frost doing an idiotic gallery "performance" that involves spitting fire and stabbing a couch.) Until the Light Takes Us not only uncovers the human story behind the inhuman screams, it also makes for a tidy illustration of how art becomes mere style.
Another pole star of contemporary underground music is featured in a recent DVD document of an essential time, though the time in question was just a single evening: July 7, 2007 (7/7/07), beginning at 7:07 p.m. That's when dreadlocked dervish Yamataka Eye of the uncategorizable Japanese band Boredoms signaled 77 drummers arranged in a spiraling loop in a waterside Brooklyn park to begin the epic piece 77 Boa Drum. If you missed it, Thrill Jockey Records just issued a documentary/concert film of the event that provides the next best thing to having been there.
Indeed, director Jun Kawaguchi manages to find a good mix of dropping in on the rehearsals and set-up and presenting large chunks of the piece itself. Brief talking heads introduce a fraction of the drummers, from indie stars such as Hisham Bharoocha (Black Dice) and Brian Chippendale (Lightning Bolt) to avant music vets Alan Licht and David Grubbs to ringers like jazz drummer Jim Black and, uh, Andrew W.K. The Boredoms themselves play a relatively small role in the backstory aspect, other than some footage of their explosive earlier incarnations and several glowing testimonials to Eye's visionary artistry. The latter is, after all, why everyone's there, and why you would be watching this disc.
And while a version of the entire performance with no interruptions or cutaways would have been a welcome extra, the extended sections offered here capture the epic, epochal, almost tribal nature of the piece. It begins with a cymbal sizzle passed from drummer to drummer around the spiral, eventually morphing into a two-beat tom tattoo that follows the same arc. Further sections explode with free-for-all drum frenzy or thundering beats, all of it cued by Eye, who waves colored sticks, vocalizes into a mic, brandishes a trident, and bangs it into racks of what close-ups reveal to be rudimentary, multicolored electric guitars. At one point late in the piece Eye conducts a rising and falling cymbal crescendo by hand with the delicacy of a Leonard Bernstein, the peaks and valleys of sound mirroring the chop that ebbs and flows against the nearby seawall. It's an extraordinary moment within an extraordinary event, and just one of many here.