Title: A Spell to Ward Off The Darkness
Director(s): Ben Rivers, Ben Russell
Release Year: 2013
If you were to ask me what my favourite genre of music was, I would probably just say ‘metal’. And then go into detail of each sub-genre that I listen to frequently. So when I saw that there was a documentary which featured Robert A.A. Lowe of Lichens-fame as the protagonist, playing at VIFF this year, I was sold. For a long time, black metal has been associated with anarchy and satanism, due to artists like Burzum and Mayhem going around burning churches and killing people. However, lately, the scene has changed and with bands like Wolves in the Throne Room and Om, there has been a shift to trying to entwine spirituality within the music. A Spell to Ward Off The Darkness is the first film I have seen to display this new wave of black metal so vividly. It is not a perfect film, but for what it is trying to do, it serves its purpose with ease.
The film is comprised of three parts, with the final part representing the culmination of the first two acts. The problems that the film encounters primarily stem from the initial act, where we sit in on a 15-person collective in Estonia, as they live their lives among each other. The sense of community presented in this section is something which the film does to great effect, but in relation to the rest of the film, it creates the most problems. There is no main character provided before the switch to the second act. This is because the film tries to show as many characters as possible, and the one person who ends up being our protagonist, is the one who talks the least and who we barely understand except that he plays guitar. Other characters have more depth by the end of the first act than him, but we still wind up watching his journey. Of course, the man in question is Robert Lowe, who spends the next section of the film wandering through the woods, finding himself. This section isn’t necessarily exciting, but it is interesting in the context of A Spell to Ward Off The Darkness.
It will probably turn many off by having a black metal concert being the final act of the film, for many reasons, but for me, I was engaged by simply the melodies and the sense of community that the atmosphere gave off. Plus, it was a conclusion to the journey of Robert Lowe, even if the audience had no idea we were on the journey in the beginning. A Spell to Ward Off The Darkness fully captures the essence of a lot of United States black metal acts and demonstrates how spirituality and community can come together to form such a dissonant and ferocious sound. For fans of black metal and bands like Wolves in the Throne Room and Altar of Plagues, there is plenty to appreciate here, and for others, while the music may not be pleasing to the ears for everyone, there is still an appreciation of the music that can be formed by watching Lowe’s journey.
Screening courtesy of the Vancouver International Film Festival.