Lords of Naivety – The problem with (black) metal documentaries

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Original Dutch text and English translation by Degtyarov
(Klik hier voor de Nederlandse vertaling)

Even if black metal can be considered one of the more obscure branches of metal, the interest that documentary makers have taken in this subgenre over the years has been substantial. However, the fascination of (pseudo-)journalists with black metal seems to focus first and foremost on the myth surrounding the music, rather than the music itself. The turbulent early years of the genre, as well as its relatively radical character still lure dozens of sensationalists to Norway. The unpolished nature of black metal, moreover, makes amateur productions covering the origins of this ‘movement’ more acceptable than they would be, had they covered instead those currents of music where professional production values are demanded. For these reasons, the majority of the black metal documentaries is superficial, incomplete, or downright unbearable. Fortunately, such prevalent incompetence does not render a good documentary about the topic impossible. But, in order to realise worthwhile, mature coverage of the subject that is of interest to both the layman and the expert, a number of prevalent elements in such documentaries should be avoided in the future. What follows is a list pintpointing recurring elements in black metal documentaries that should be avoided for such an improvement to be realised.

Focus on Norway

Not a single documentary about black metal reaches the end credits without the controversial events in Norway in the early ’90s having been mentioned. The suicide of Mayhem vocalist Dead, the murder of Euronymous (Mayhem) by Varg Vikernes (Burzum), the murder of a homosexual man by Faust (Emperor), the church burnings perpetrated by black metal musicians: all of these are topics that are so well-known among metal listeners that even discussing them at this point seems obsolete. And while black metal documentaries often try to uphold the pretence of catering to an audience of experts, these tired events are used time and again, often serving the simple objective of ‘spicing up’ the documentary. Had new perspectives been provided at each mention of these events, their repetition would still have been somewhat justified, but, in reality, novel insights are seldom offered[1]. The handling of these topics is often without any sense of reflection or irony, resulting in blatant posthumous glorification of Øystein Aarseth, taking the form of commercial exploitation of said musician’s carefully cultivated “Prince of Darkness” image.

Vikernes en AarsethYou could play a drinking game with this picture.

Apart from the somewhat exhausting effect the excessive coverage of the Euronymous saga has on a more ‘experienced’ audience, the obsession over the Norwegian scene is becoming less and less desirable from a musical point of view, as well. Though it is undeniable that many present-day black metal bands can thank the Norwegian ‘Second Wave’ for a large part of their sound and imagery, Norway has barely produced leading black metal artists over the past few years. Since the nineties, the black metal sound was developed further in countries such as Germany (the pagan sound), France (the mediaeval sound) and Greece (the old-school sound). The fact that black metal documentaries spend next to no attention to black metal that is not from Scandinavia or the United States implies that the musical evolution of the genre is of little interest to documentary makers. Their fascination lies solely with the myth in which bands such as Burzum, Mayhem and Darkthrone are cloaked.

Breaking the myth

And the myth, that is where most documentaries, such as Black Metal – A Documentary and even the very decent One-Man Metal, fall flat on their asses. It is hard to deny that image is an important aspect of black metal. Nearly every band actively tries to surround itself with a certain atmosphere that goes beyond the limits of just the music: they create their own personal myth, so to speak. It is not without reason that black metal artists utilise aliases, facial paint, grainy band photos, unreadable logos and all those other elements that make black metal bands so easily identifiable before a single note has even been played. This does not imply, however, that black metal is ‘theatrical’ – despite a carefully constructed image, most worthwhile bands are still very serious and honest about what they do and represent – but it merely goes to show that the wrong kind of exposure can cause a supremely crafted atmosphere to fall like a house of cards.

Thus, as soon as black metal artists open their mouths in a black metal documentary, they more often than not unknowingly cooperate with the dismantlement of their own myth. The causes of this are varied in nature. A camera by its nature makes people more vulnerable, which is exactly the kind of position that a musician will not want to find themselves in. Moreover, one has to accept that musicians are not always among the most gifted of speakers, and that, when deprived of their instruments, metalheads in particular often struggle to uphold the pretence of intellect that emerges from their song-writing. Bands that rather pompously include philosophical ideas and unconventional words in their lyrics, will preferably be interviewed about their music right after a concert, resulting in answers consisting mainly of confused and obnoxious drunk talk. Alternatively, musicians may have eccentric aspects to their personality, which surface not necessarily in their music, but will be exposed in an on-camera interview. A good example of this is Scott “Malefic” Conner of Xasthur, who is remarkably open-hearted in One-Man Metal, resulting in him coming across as borderline autistic.

The position of USBM

In the exceptional case that the documentary’s producers choose to ignore Norwegian black metal, they do not reserve plain tickets to Central Europe in order to interview some of its extraordinarily accomplished and relevant black metal musicians. Instead, they choose the comfort of home (most black metal documentaries were made by Americans) and start exploring the USBM scene. Even though lately, bands such as Wolves in the Throne Room have harvested some recognition in Europe, American black metal does not have the reputation among European fans of the genre that is alluded to by documentary makers. In the Netherlands, for example, the black metal audience mainly resorts to Scandinavia, Germany, France and certain home-grown products (Urfaust et al.) for quality music. USBM is not taken too seriously here, nor in large parts of the rest of Europe.

Reaction of the average Dutchman when hearing USBM.Reaction of the average Dutchman when hearing USBM.

American documentary makers do not seem to realise this when they rather ignorantly exaggerate the US’s contribution to the evolution of the black metal genre. An allegation that was put forward in one of the countless documentaries was that, where the Norwegians had lead the Second Wave of black metal, the Third Wave was largely an American ordeal, implying that bands such as Xasthur and Judas Iscariot had contributed more to the genre’s maturing process than such European acts as Peste Noire and Varathron. Outside of America, USBM is in the most positive of cases perceived as a decent imitation of the European masters, while in the worst cases it is considered a downright laughing stock. The attention spent on this scene in black metal documentaries is disproportional and should be reduced drastically if their makers even want to entertain the thought of being somewhat relevant.

Documentary makers’ background

Black metal documentary makers are to be divided into two groups[2]. On one side, you have the fans who are in touch with the daily reality of the ‘scene’ and, as such, possess at least a respectable amount of knowledge about the genre, but lack the skills to properly translate said knowledge to cinema. Conversely, there is the professional documentary maker, who knows how to put together a documentary in terms of direction, editing and presentation, yet lacks the knowledge to pick out relevant material. Unfamiliar as they are with the genre, they are all too willing to delve into the shocking truth behind the Norwegian metal scene, not knowing that its story has already been told dozens of times in all sorts of media. Frequently, they even appear to be unaware of what black metal actually is. In the episode about metalheads of the Dutch television programme Metropolis, for instance, a metalcore band was labelled as ‘black metal’, and the United States was foolishly branded ‘the homeland of metal’, both of which are examples of clear misinformation, which, in turn, betray the journalists’ obliviousness to the topic. This blatant lack of knowledge also renders interviewers unable to ask the right questions, as their naivety makes it difficult to resist the nonsense that musicians tend to bestow upon them.

The interviewers who fall into the fan category, too, have trouble maintaining their ‘journalistic integrity’. While, in the case of professional documentary makers, this difficulty arises mainly from pure ignorance, fan journalists are instead afraid to insult their idols by openly disagreeing with what they say. Even more lamentably, fan journalists tend to have the urge to explore the ideological background of the subgenre while they clearly lack the knowledge/qualifications to do so. A good example of this is Black Metal Satanica, a documentary that starts out by clumsily drawing a parallel between the Norwegian black metal scene and the history of the Vikings. If documentary makers ever want to boast a respectable degree of credibility, this sort of pseudo-scientific analysis will have to be weeded out.

Mishmash of guests

Important as comprehensive editing and asking the right questions may be, it are the guests of a documentary (whether it is on metal or any other topic) who will ultimately make or break the deal. The concept behind Until the Light Takes Us may not have been very original (see ‘Focus on Norway’), but the documentary was partially saved by the in-depth interviews with Fenriz (Darkthrone) and Varg Vikernes. The same can be said of the documentaries Pure Fucking Mayhem and Once Upon a Time In Norway, both of which are worth the trouble for the contributions of ex-Mayhem drummer Kjetil Manheim alone.

Princes of Happiness.Princes of Happiness.

Unfortunately, it is a rare occurrence that the producers of black metal documentaries succeed in attracting only profoundly interesting guests. Seeing as the black metal scene is not exactly brimming with camera-friendly personae, said producers tend to settle for less, meaning that guests are no longer selected based on their achievements or analytical skills, but rather their willingness to appear on-camera. That is the only plausible explanation for someone like the guy from Gloomy Grim (mature band name, by the way) appearing in multiple documentaries, enabling him to dictate to the audience what ‘true’ black metal supposedly is. If black metal documentaries are to reach a respectable level, their producers must reconsider their priorities: their goal should be to make a good documentary about black metal. If they fail to attract the guests who could help them reach that goal, they should opt for not making the documentary at all, instead of settling for a half-baked, schizophrenic product that helps absolutely no-one.

Conclusion

While some black metal documentaries have indeed been satisfactory, their average level remains dreadfully low. A more mature production, a more professional approach, a more refreshing focus and a better collection of guests are all necessary to increase this level. For example, it would be very welcome indeed if a documentary were to dedicate itself to the cultural mechanics at play behind black metal throughout various countries, as such a theme remains terra incognita for producers of documentaries. Until projects like this actually take shape, a desire for more insight into the background of black metal music will force you to turn to alternative sources and media. Such as the internet. Try, for instance, a very respectable website titled Black Ivory Tower.

Beacon of DarknessBeacon of Darkness.

Notes
[1] An exception to this rule is Once Upon a Time In Norway, in which the Euronymous myth is reconstructed by those who were directly involved with him. The manner in which the situation in Norway escalated is placed into an individual, social context rather than an ideological one. This refreshing angle can mainly be attributed to the particularly useful and interesting contributions of Kjetil Manheim (ex-drummer of Mayhem) and Anders “Neddo” Odden (Cadaver), who replace the prevaling image of the “Prince of Darkness” with that of a rather dorky kid who descendend into madness at the hands of his own delusions.

[2] The only exception to this rule that I can think of is the documentary One-Man Metal, which was conceived by professional journalists who, in addition to their competence, appeared to be quite familiar with the documentary’s subject matter. They also managed to maintain the repressive atmosphere of black metal somewhat by broadcasting the entire documentary in black and white. It were mostly the guests who somewhat tainted the credibility of this otherwise flawless documentary. Apart from the fact that the bands discussed in the documentary, apart from maybe Leviathan, just are not very interesting, images such as those of Russell “Sin Nanna” Manzies (Striborg) screaming in a cave invoke laughter more than anything. Refer to the point about breaking the ‘myth’.

Links to the documentaries watched for this article
Black Metal – A Documentary
Black Metal Satanica
“Metalheads” (Metropolis) (Dutch)
Once Upon A Time In Norway *
One-Man Metal *
Pure Fucking Mayhem
Until the Light Takes Us *
“True Norwegian Black Metal” (Vice)

* Recommended

About degtyarov (121 Articles)
Molotov cocktail in the face of music whorenalism.

1 Comment on Lords of Naivety – The problem with (black) metal documentaries

  1. I think USBM gets a bad wrap, everyone immidiately looks at Xasthur or Wolves and honestly they completely overlook bands that have come from America and were making music at the same time as their Norwegian counterparts. Bands like Absu or Von, Profanatica, Demoncy are perfect examples of bands no one seems to acknowledge. For example,lets take a figure like Varg, the guy had never even heard Venom when the pictures of him were taken at the courthouse, he simply wore it because it had “Black Metal” on it, my point is, he was, in fact, a big fan of California’s Von. Even Euronymous, who I’m not denying gave Black Metal a direction,was a fan of Sarcofago, a Brazilian group. I guess the bottom line here is there are USBM bands that have been around just as long but no one seems to realize it.

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