Black Metal: A Documentary (2007)
By: Mr Intolerance on July 23, 2009  | 
DVD
Bill Zebub Productions (USA). All Regions, NTSC. 4:3. English DD 2.0. 90 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Bill Zebub
Starring: Abbath, Cronos, Alain, Mortiis, Grutle, Ymir, Christof, Gaahl, Fenriz, Tom Warrior, Martin Ain, King Diamond, Agathon, Arkhon Infaustus
Screenplay: Bill Zebub
Country: USA
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
You either like black metal, or you don't. There's no two ways about it – and generally the folks who like it, they really like it. Sometimes scarily so. I like black metal. I don't necessarily go out and buy release by every corpse-painted pack of funsters, but there's a substantial amount of black metal in my collection (mainly old school stuff from the 80s – Celtic Frost, Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer, Sodom – and the more infamous Norwegian second wave from the early 90s – Emperor, Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone). I'm a black metal fan, and proudly so, and so is documentarian Bill Zebub, as this film makes pretty clear.

Let me give you a brief description of black metal, in case you're scratching your head and wondering what the hell I'm talking about. Black metal, at it's hardest, rawest and best, is about an extreme form of music as you'll get this side of the power electronic mayhem served up by Whitehouse, Sutcliffe Jugend, Genocide Organ and the like. It's like being flung into a blizzard of hate, basically. It's a life-denying, nihilstic music, veering (much like horror films) between being evilly atmospheric and viscerally brutal, and often played at high speed and with a hammer-to-the-face intensity. The production is often raw to the point of bleeding, and the lyrical concerns are generally to do with violence, hatred, war, death and most often with an especial interest in things Satanic. You can usually spot a black metal band (or fan) a mile away – the look is pretty distinctive: a logo that's nearly impossible to read, bullet belts, leather, spikes and studs, and most obvious of all, corpse-paint. The idea is simple: be as evil as you possibly can be in any way, shape or form. But then the question has to be raised: how much is simply an image, and how much is real? That's one of the questions Zebub attempts to answer here.

There's no narrator here, as in Sam Dunn's recent Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, as Zebub reasons that the bands should tell the story of black metal themselves. The interviews, led by Danny Shipman (who's very rarely on the video or the audio track), cover bands from the whole gamut of the black metal genre range from Venom, Enslaved, Immortal, Gorgoroth, Primordial, Korova, Darkthrone, Celtic Frost and more, present quite a varied take on this much-maligned form of music. The first point that all of the interview subjects agree on is that there is no one defining sound to black metal, but that it has to be meant, it can't be ironic or parodic, because it simply won't work. This talk of the sound leads very neatly to a discussion on the look, and why certain bands use the distinctive chiarascuro of corpsepaint, the black and white make-up that for people from outside the scene use as a lazy shorthand for defining what is or isn't black metal; the point is made early on that many of the bigger bands, even from the second wave of black metal from Norway who popularised it, don't even use it. Black metal is far more than simply fancy dress.

One thing that divides black metal fans, and it seems almost ridiculous to me, is the use of keyboards or synths in such music. The consensus seems to be that yes, they're okay if they're used properly. What exactly "properly" means is probably up to the individual band. There's a whole sub-genre of gothic black metal helmed by the likes of Cradle of Filth, Gehenna, Dimmu Borgir and the like which couldn't exist without keys any more than Deep Purple, but these bands are generally reviled by the legions of BM fans who adore the "true" bands – having been part of Sydney's BM scene for some years it was always funny to me when people would shun some bands sound unheard, simply due to their use of keys (conveniently forgetting that some of the real heavy-hitters of the world-wide BM community used them: Emperor, Marduk (on their first few LPs, before they started claiming "No Keyboards Were Used In Recording This Album"), Burzum – on the local scene both Nazxul and Lord Kaos had no problems with utilising keys in producing LPs of unparallelled brutality). On a global level, some BM fans and bands seem to make this equation in their head: keyboards=weak. Horror movie fans are the same. Some dolts will tell you that a film can't be great unless it's drenched in blood, conveniently forgetting that say The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is almost 100% explicit gore free; the atmosphere sells the film. With black metal, it's not just the atmosphere that makes the music, it's the songwriting. The instrumentation and production are secondary.

The point is made about the stagnant nature of the black metal scene, and about elitism in general – this fits into any niche genre – people are scared of change and progression. When a director changes their style, when a band produce an LP which sounds totally different from their older recordings, when a novelist starts working in a different genre, the fans are apprehensive at best. I know people who won't watch films by George A Romero unless they're part of his Dead series, for example. Or punk fans who wouldn't listen to any of The Clash's reggae influenced numbers. In the black metal scene in the early 90s there was a burgeoning world-wide tape-trading movement, and the most prized recordings were demos, and especially rehearsal tapes. You could have the most up-to-date recording of the latest band, and no one would give a single shit. You were judged, much as in Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity, on what you knew and how obscure the recording you listened to was – or the t-shirt you wore, and how obscure the band was, or how old the LP was. In horror films, it's how extreme the films you like are – avoid the mainstream at all costs! Metal was, and probably still is, exactly the same. This attitude holds back any kind of progression – bands might try to change their sound on one LP, but when the fans don't like it, they revert to their old sound (My Dying Bride, anyone?).

In extreme metal, traditionally, there's always been a divide between black metal and death metal. From outside the scene the division must look a bit...well, silly. I mean, if you weren't a conneissieur of either, you probably wouldn't hear too much difference, and the interviews really do address this division – the "why" of black metal's popularity, and in turn the reasons for why so many black metal fans turned their backs on death metal, as the death bands weren't living the lifestyle their lyrics and images suggested – being zombies and vomiting maggots are the examples given here – whereas the early black metal bands were most definitely living life in as grim and "evil" a way as their lyrics and image indicated, or at least, as much as that was possible when you're living with your parents as a teenager. That brings us back to that whole notion of elitism again – it's documented here as well as in Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind's totally essential expose of the black metal underground, Lords of Chaos, and other places, that death metal simply didn't seem evil enough, metal enough or "true" enough. Let's face facts, it's pretty hard to look evil in a track suit and sneakers, as many big name death metal bands of the time would wear in their promo shots. But if you were in leather, with big boots and lots of spikes... Well, you'd probably look like you were going to the Blue Oyster Bar in the first Police Academy film. Or were somebody's gimp. I'm allowed to say that – I spent many years of my life in the full black metal regalia (sans corpse-paint) – it made total sense back then, and while it seems stupid now (and I cringe at thoughts of being an elitist, as I was), it marked you out as a real outsider. Something different. I still wear the gear, 'cos I still like the music – but I don't ascribe to the mindset, and neither do the majority of the interview subjects here. The black/death dichotomy was a thing of immaturity and wilful one-upmanship, as many of them observe.

The blight on the face of black metal? NSBM: National Socialist Black Metal – that's right, Nazis. Or, I suppose, Neo-Nazis. Being a black metal fan it's a constant bias you have to put up with: you wear a Burzum t-shirt, people call you a Nazi. It's happened to me, and I'm no fuckin' Nazi, let me tell you. But there are plenty of folks out there who quite openly embrace that kind of hateful ideology. And again, it must be asked: how much is real, and how much is just for show? And even if it is just for show – why choose that particular show? Is it simply to shock, or do you possibly, in your heart of hearts, mean it? The rise of NSBM over the last 15 years or so has been sadly larger than you might allow for such a lunatic fringe – you have to understand that it's one of the more horrible parts of the human mind to tap into a super-ego that allows all of the most awful parts of your psyche to come to the fore – but with something that is so fundamentally wrong and evil – how can you justify that? A member of the band Grom tries to do so, but his arguments simply don't make sense – he states that, "In black metal you had most bands following the formula of anti-christ, kill the christians, well...what about the Jews, y'know? On a religious level Christianity's based on Judaism, umm, on a different level which NSBM takes it to, Jews are a race, umm...I think that they're responsible for most of the wrongs in the world." Now how the hell do you justify that? A race that's been persecuted and disempowered and disenfranchised for over 5000 years – where's your proof? Idiot. He goes on to say, ludicrously enough: " the Holocaust was fake, and that, y'know, too bad it didn't happen." He tries to equate the fantasy lyrics of black metal with the well-documented reality of the mass slaughter of a minimum of 6 million European Jews, to a total of 13 million plus people in extermination camps – what the fuck is in the water where this guy lives? Or maybe he just lives under power-lines.

The bands interviewed all express that the National Socialist element does exist in the scene, but with the exception here of the fella from Grom, and the nutter behind the Satanic death metal band Acheron, are uniformly against it, and do point out the inconsistencies in the philosophy of it's poster-boy Varg Vikernes, the one man hate machine behind the band Burzum – I like the music and all, and by the way, the lyrics on NONE of his LPs espouse Nazi ideology; he left that for his insane rantings in the political tract Vargsmal, written when he was in prison for the murder of Mayhem's guitarist Euronymous, as well as burning down a number of stave churches in Norway. Memebers of Dark Funeral point out that he started off as a Satanic black metaller, moved to saying he was a Pagan, and then declared himself a fascist – someone should also have a very close look at his early records which, like indeed the name of his band, rip-off Tolkien's fantasy world – Burzum means "darkness" in the language of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. Makes it a little hard to take him seriously, to say the least.

And as for Satanism in black metal? Well, some of the bands rather candidly, and credibly, state their allegiance to the devil, as a metaphor for freedom. But Satanism, like all personal political viewpoints, whether party political, philosophical or religious, is open to wildly different interpretations. Members of Gorgoroth, Arkhon Infaustus and Dark Funeral see Satanism as freedom, an escape from what they refer to as the "flock mentality", as typified by the NSBM cretins, whose adherence to race hate is seemingly based on the whole "boo-hoo, why is my culture being blamed for genocide?" mode of thought. Your culture isn't being blamed, dolt, it's your adherence to a political system that is inherently evil and wrong (and like the Dead Kennedys told us in their toon "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" - "In the real Fourth Reich, you'd be the first to go!"). Satanism as LaVey would have it in his The Satanic Bible is open to Social Darwinist ideas of the strong having a right to crush the weak as an expression of that freedom to act, which is impossible to condone – what? You assert your freedom by denying the freedom of others? Isn't that a little contradictory? By the way, if you read Ragnar Redbeard's 1905 Social Darwinist manifesto Might Is Right, written over sixty years before The Satanic Bible, you'll see where LaVey stole huge slabs of text from – not referred to with quotes, but directly stole with no acknowledgement (as he did Dr John Dee's Enochian Keys, which LaVey refers to as being "Satanically correct" (whatever that means), but Dee, who wrote them, referred to as the language of the angels – hardly Satanic) – and Redbeard's text has nothing to do with Satanism, by the way; if anything he's kind of more akin to Nietszche, who was an atheist, but with a more aggressive stance on creating yourself as the Ubermensch.

Satanism is ultimately dependent on the notion of Christianity, and buys into the idea of the Judeo-Christian religion, which kinda means that you have to believe in Jesus or Yahweh to believe in Satan (remember that the word Satan is a derivation of the Hebrew word "Shaitan", meaning "The Adversary" or "The Enemy" - and by the by, if you read The Bible, he never appears under that name), which does mean that a number of these NSBM arse-munchers are contradicting themselves by claiming a hatred for the Jews, and yet needing part of their religion and language to define themselves. Nice logic, cretins. It also kind of means that despite the fact you claim to be following a free spirit, you're following the spirit who's trapped forever in the inferno, and therefore are backing the losing team. Bravo. That's the elite? Following a convict? It's a good thing for you that you make top-notch music fellas. I think the term you're looking for is "individualism", boys – but why define yourself by somebody else's terms, like Satanism? Be yourself, guys.

The ash-smudged chapter of black metal that was the burning of the stave churches in Norway is addressed, and folks who have otherwise seemed normal, like Grutle from Enslaved, come out as being in favour of them, symbolically. Others, like Mortiis (ex-Emperor) see them as pointless acts that will unite the Christians, or even just regular folks who don't see things one way or the other, against you. As Emperor's guitarist and singer Ihsahn has gone on record as saying, why burn down something that is aesthetically beautiful and is of cultural significance to your people – the stave churches were built with a pretty strong Asataru look (the crucified Christs in these churches are usually depicted as one-eyed, a la Odin, when he hung on the world tree to gain knowledge, and the look is of an ornate Viking longhouse), and while, yes, they are Christian churches, they are also monuments to Norse history, culture and architecture, built with that specific Odinic feel in mind – to me that makes them subversive: here's your Christian church, but we've laid our cultural stamp upon it – you can't kill the religion of the Aesir.

The mythology surrounding black metal is almost as important as the music itself, and that's one of the final points that is raised here – that black metal is humourless (which Cronos dismisses in a...well, dismissive fashion), that it is violent, that it is something to be feared. Let's face it: if you're reading this review, and you've read it this far, you're probably a fan of black metal, most likely a fan of horror or exploitation films, and with very few exceptions a well-adjusted human being who maybe needs an outlet for anger or frustration that music and films provide. Your favourite films/bands/comics/whatever are probably lambasted by the mainstream, and probably by the people you work with – but does that make you a lethal killing machine? Of course not. You might, to whatever level, revel in the fact that your favourite interests are antisocial, and maybe you dig the fact that you're an outsider. But what it all gets down to is the absolute truth that you see yourself as an individual, and regardless of how true that might be, that's all that's important. You tap into whatever pop-culture experiences you might enjoy, but that ultimately does not make you who you are, and I think ultimately that's one of the points that Black Metal: A Documentary is trying to raise.

The editing of the film is done very well indeed, giving a logical flow to the proceedings, although the quite extensive directors comments at the end of the film lead us to want to distrust that flow, and more to the point, to research the ideas raised to find out for ourselves as to what the artists are trying to say, by listening to their music. We're flat out told that the opinions here are not the only ones worth listening to – I like that notion that even though you can present a documentary, you know that you're not the only authority on the subject.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to listen to Immortal's Battles In The North. MEEEEETTTTAAAAALLLLL!!!
Video
Well, it's a low-budget flick and one that is not especially well shot, but it's certainly up to the task. The low budget vibe suits the low-budget/underground thing that is black metal. A big shiny version of this film would simply not work. Warts and all does not even come close to describing it. The live footage of bands like Immortal, Mercyful Fate or Gloomy Grim are fair enough, but not exactly studio quality. In that regard it's a fine and quite fitting tribute to the genre.
Audio
Variable, depending on where the interviews take place, or where the live footage is from, it's adequate at best, but at times distorts badly, or is very difficult to hear (the Celtic Frost interviews are barely legible, and it has nothing to do with the band members accents or grasps of English, which are fine). But like I said, it's a low budget flick, and you gets what you pays for.
Extra Features
There's some trailers, some of which are actually pretty fucking funny and will certainly have me tracking down the completed features: Metalheads, Assmonster and my favourite: Dolla Morte which looks kind of like if Robot Chicken was co-scripted by Cannibal Corpse and a bunch of porn fans: sex, violence and just totally wigged out insanity, performed with dolls (my favourite moment was when the Jaws doll ate the Jesus doll, mind you, Hitler being in charge of the SS Enterprise – geddit?! - was pretty darned funny, too) – and the darker and more twisted Into Thy Hands (aka Jesus Christ Serial Rapist), Rape Is A Circle, Bad Acid, The Crucifier, all of which looked like simply little more than mean-spirited soft-core torture porn – just because you can make a low budget film doesn't necessarily mean that you should. There was another one for something called Spooked, which I simply couldn't fathom. We're also told that Bill Zebub will be releasing a DVD of interviews with a range of bands under the same banner as his zine The Grimoire of Exalted Deeds. Now that might sound as pretentious as all fuck, but believe me, The Grimoire takes itself in no way seriously, and certainly early issues of it led to howls of laughter, when musicians thought they were being interviewed for real by someone with a faux-Shakespearean register – funny stuff, let me tell you – oh, and the magazine's covers are normally adorned with scantily clad "Grimoire Girls", hot boobalicious metal chicks. There's also a live clip of a King Diamond song (maybe it was Mercyful Fate, Diamond was definitely the vocalist, either way, I'm not a fan – the clip should show you why), another by Shape of Despair (the reason for its inclusion should be bleedingly obvious very quickly...). It's not the best package out there by a long shot, but it does adequately give you the homespun Bill Zebub vibe, and that's a good thing – an enthusiastic grass roots music and horror fan who's one of the fellas and instead of whining about the state of the scene goes out and contributes to it. More power to him!
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
I will apologise right now for the cliché, but this really is a film made by fans for fans. I think that if you're not a fan of black metal, some of this may be lost on you, albeit not too much, and I do think that it's a pretty entertaining watch, although at parts, I think you'll be a little confused by what some of the informed and intelligent folks, and the knuckle-heads, on screen have got to say, if you aren't a part of things. It bears all the flaws of a low-budget film, especially with regard to the soundtrack, but has some interesting, if rather confronting interviews, and some neat footage of concert clips - I just wish the live footage of Immortal had better sound. If you like black metal, I really think that you should check this out, and even if you don't and you just like docos about music, it's definitely worth a watch. I guarantee it'll be an eye-opener.

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