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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (2013)

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is a peculiar little film. It’s both epic and highly intimate on a spiritual level, spanning over three different phases (or lives, depending on how you look at it) in the journey of a musician as he dictates the flow of the current he finds himself drifting along to. Community, nature and black metal. These are three key ingredients (at least how I see it) to the three individual sections we see in musician Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (AKA Lichens)’s mythic journey that unfolds before us: a commune in Estonia, the vast breathtaking expanse of Northern Finland, and finally Lowe performing with a black metal band on stage in Norway.

Extreme metal genres often come with a stigma of pain, anger, Satanism, hate, violence, etc. These assumptions are often always made by people who have no understanding of the emotional depth and visceral spirituality that something like black metal possesses. In this film’s case, we see the world with which this musician presides in, with nature and community playing a key role in shaping him creatively and personally.

We never hear him speak, nor do we approach him, letting him be in his own story in his chosen environment. These three distinct chapters are important in trying to understand the heart, mind and soul of a complex individual – what makes them tick, what moves them and what motivates them. As said before, there is a common misconception that extreme music like black metal is stemmed from and can only be performed with hate, anger and pain. Although we don’t get to hear the inner musings of Lowe, we see it through his interactions in nature and with those around him when he is performing. Even though we barely see him in the community section of the film, we get a real sense that nature is his true home spiritually, mentally and physically. The camera is up close and personal with each of the commune members in Estonia, never interrupting moments of spontaneity found in their conversations and activities. But in Finland, the camera opts to watch from a distance as much as possible, showing the calming tranquility found in Lowe’s surroundings and how he seamlessly blends in with all of it just like he did in the commune. The camera sits still for what feels like a lifetime as we stare out at Lowe fishing on a lake. A gentle rain glistens the water. The still quietness is deafening.

Lowe adorns his face with corpse paint, returning to civilization as he parts ways with his home in nature. The camera drifts around, focusing on other members in the band instead of solely sitting on Lowe as the music rages on around them. Is this the darkness the spell was supposed to be warding off? Was the spell keeping him hidden away from the world? Or is this just a continuation of the spell doing its job in warding off a greater darkness? We finally get to hear Lowe’s voice as it howls through the walls of guitars and percussion - an outlet for his creativity and voice to express itself and possibly cast the spell once more in keeping the darkness at bay.

ASTWOTD makes effective use of sound and its relationship to the images on screen. The opening shot is over six minutes as we sit on a lake, slowly panning in circles with the sun setting (or rising) over the forest. Music slowly swells as we continue to spin around, with the reflections of the trees bouncing off the water eventually looking like soundwaves. It’s a beautiful moment of transcendent clarity for me, submerging my senses into the warmth of the choral chants echoing over the murky opening visuals. It set a specific tone and mood in the film for me, casting its spell on me as much as it does for Lowe.

It’s hard what to make of ASTWOTD at every given moment during its run-time, and when it reaches the end you probably still won’t quite know what to think of it all. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, trying to understand the profound sense of creativity and spirituality the film evokes in me, how I can blend them together to help me improve as not only a creative but a person in touch with their surroundings and themselves. I feel like that is the strength of films like this; their raw sense of subjectivity in each passing moment allows for its viewer to go back and compare it to their own lives, unpacking and interpreting the journey Lowe takes in the film as one of their own.

Where you can watch it: The Criterion Channel, Prime Video (USA), Mubi (UK), Google Play and YouTube (Australia)

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