Film Review: EXTOL's Of Light and Shade Sheds Light on the Christian Extreme Metal Band
Extol is a band that needs no introduction. They've always been at the forefront of forward-thinking, truly progressive metal, and each of their albums are considered classics of the genre. Evolution and progression have been at the center of their long and storied career, which is probably the biggest factor as to why they're celebrated as legends of progressive metal. From the blackened atmospherics of their debut album Burial to the more angular stylings of Synergy to the alt-rock leanings of The Blueprint Dives, no two Extol albums sound anything alike, yet each of them are permeated by undeniable, unifying elements which make them unmistakably Extol.
There's no denying the impact Extol has had on metal, but there's one characteristic about them that makes their lurking influence somewhat unusual: Extol are and always have been an outspokenly Christian band. Their personal beliefs are front and center in Peter Espevoll's thoughtful, heartfelt and introspective lyrics, which makes their rise to fame in a genre largely populated by anti-religious sentiments and behavior surprising, to say the least. It begs the question: how does a group of Christian musicians reconcile their devout beliefs with playing a style of music known for a prominent anti-Christian stigma? This very topic is the centerpiece of Extol's insightful and excellent new documentary, Of Light and Shade.
Snippets of what appear to be various religious figures preaching about the evil draws of music and how it's one of the best avenues the "devil" uses to corrupt people open the film, serving as an ironic jab of sorts at religious nuts who take themselves too seriously and simultaneously exposing the seemingly incompatible relationship rock/metal music and religion has had over the years. This dichotomy serves as a central theme of the film, one that is tackled ever so gracefully and tactfully. Members of legendary Christian metal staples such as August Burns Red, Living Sacrifice and Mortification as well as several other music industry professionals and Christian figures weigh in on the subject, painting a unique and well-rounded picture of the unexpected, yet lucrative manner in which metal and Christianity can, in fact, co-exist with one another.
Of course, it wouldn't be a proper music documentary if it didn't focus on Extol and the brilliant music they've made during their career as a band, and in this respect, Of Light and Shade provides an intimate look at the humble beginnings of Extol all the way to the recording of their most recent, self-titled opus. There's a reason why Extol are one of the most universally respected bands in the history of metal, and the documentary does a fantastic job highlighting just why that is. The core of the band has always been frontman Peter Espevoll, guitarist Ole Børud and drummer David Husvik, and the documentary focuses plenty on each of them, their personal lives and their relationship with one another. However, it also features interviews with former members of the band and recognizes them as just as crucial a piece of Extol's history.
It's a miraculous revelation that Extol was spawned amidst the prominent anti-Christian black metal movement that occurred in Norway during the early '90s, a fact that becomes very apparent early on in the film. Bomb threats, middle fingers and two guys with swords were par for the course at an Extol show, but they didn't let that stop them. The members of Extol are very candid about their beliefs and how they've dealt with discrimination from metal elitists and even fellow Christians over their years as a band. It's expected that black metal heads would not take too kindly to an outspokenly Christian metal band, but perhaps the most shocking of these stories of discrimination comes from former guitarist Christer Espevoll, who speaks about a time when elders of his own church forced a him and girlfriend he had to break up because they believed the music he played was of an evil nature. This segment of the film is particularly fascinating and revealing at the same time, simply because it seems unfathomable that members of Extol's own institution would decry what they're doing, yet they still deal with it to this day, and are still baffled by it, as they state in the film.
One reason this documentary works so well is because it features a distinct human element that not only provides a tangible connection to the band for viewers but also delves into some of the personal hardships the individual members have faced. A particularly vulnerable part of the film shows Peter Espevoll talking about his struggles with anxiety and panic attacks and how it practically crippled him after Extol released The Blueprint Dives in 2005. This was a large contributing factor to the eight year gap between that album and 2013's Extol, and hearing him speak about how he's worked through this difficult mental state which he continues to struggle with is a touching moment of the film, one that must've required a great deal of humility and vulnerability to share and deserves to be commended.
The overarching message of Of Light and Shade is dynamic and changing depending on who's watching, and that's what makes it such an effective documentary. To the die-hard metal elitists who maintain that metal and Christianity cannot be compatible with one another, Of Light and Shade does a great job of showing that metal is much more than a specific set of anti-religious ideals; it's an amorphous form of art which can adhere to an infinite number of messages and forms, which is what makes it such a special genre of music in the first place. To the jaded, tight-assed Christians who think that metal is evil in all its forms and has no place in religion, this documentary shows that the very opposite is true, and Extol is living, breathing proof of this. Here's a band that has faced opposition from both sides of the fence and had every reason to give up, yet they've consistently cranked out some of the most interesting, intelligent and downright kick-ass metal music the genre has ever known. Extol are much more than just a metal band, and they're much more than just a Christian band; they're an institution in and of themselves, never compromising any of their artistic integrity, and built on a foundation of unshifting rock. God bless death metal, indeed.