Documentary Review- ‘As The Palaces Burn’ (****)

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The members of Lamb of God- a band name you could probably sneak past your local church music director.
The members of Lamb of God- a band name you could probably sneak past your local church music director.

“As The Palaces Burn”   **** (out of 5)

Directed by: Don Argott

When I was younger, I viewed metal music as dangerous- something the angry, mischievous kids listened to, and thus I stayed away.  Later, I found that I couldn’t digest it as music; it was too much for me- I only heard unstructured sounds and silly growling.   Here we are, in March of 2014, and I had remained ambivalent- perhaps until now.  I was clueless to who ‘Lamb of God’ was, nor did I recognize any songs, despite the band having had the #2 charting album quite recently.  According to this documentary, they’re a metal heavyweight, standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Megadeth and Metallica- not that I knew any better.  “As The Palaces Burn” had the unlikely task of enlightening me to a side of music I had dismissed, simply due to a lack of understanding.  I’m pleased to report that it succeeded, not just in re-educating me, but also the way it deftly handles a complete swing in tone.

Vocalist Randy Blythe is the first to appear on-screen, as he takes the filmmakers back to where he once lived.  It’s neither a posh nor rundown neighborhood; it’s under a bridge near a river.  What makes this interesting is the way Blythe appears humbled by what he sees, and by his own words music is the reason he’s not dead or in prison.  Well, that makes sense.  If you’re exposed to the elements, you’ll eventually have to make unsavory survival decisions.  He also talks about music helping him to not feel alone- while that’s not the first time we’ve heard that, against the backdrop of his would-be home, it’s certainly more powerful.

Blythe’s intro lays the framework for what this documentary tries to tell us over the first half, i.e. the purpose of metal music in people’s lives, and the extent to which Lamb of God is responsible for that.  We’re introduced to a couple of ‘die-hard’ fans from different cultures, and the way they explain their affection for this music is unexpected.  Their love appears to come not just from the music itself, but also a need to release aggression, to purge unhealthy feelings, and the desire to belong to something.  Listening to a young Columbian cab driver spoke volumes- he thinks about “getting out a machete and start cutting off heads”, but he puts in the music and he feels better. 

That mindset may seem on the verge of sociopathic behavior, but in this context it seems reasonable.  Music has always been an organic, healthy outlet for people; it has a way of bringing focus and peace to minds constantly barraged by negativity.  “As the Palaces Burn” lends credence to the thought that there exists a healthy connection between the angst and energy of metal and the fans who crave it to release their own.  After all, it stands to reason that if the lyrics come from a place of hurt, desperation, and anger, it will likely resonate with many a person.  That’s a fascinating angle that I hadn’t considered before, and a welcome thought indeed. 

If I told you that’s simply what the documentary was about, you might think it was perfectly fine as is.  However, we’re led down an entirely different path as the band reaches the Czech Republic for a leg of their tour- a path the film had to explore, and it becomes the crux of the experience.  Fans familiar with the band know the story, but allow me to illuminate those in the dark- as they landed, the band was detained.  Why?  Back in 2010, as was alleged, a fan died as a result of injuries sustained ‘leaping’ from the stage at a Lamb of God concert in Prague.  The prosecution alleged that Randy Blythe was partially responsible for this, and thus charged him with manslaughter- later he was indicted.

If your first reaction was ‘what?’, you’re on the right track.  We’ll need to put aside the fact that a human being did die, a young man and fan of the band to boot- that’s clearly sad enough.  What’s interesting for our purposes is the legal situation itself. The documentary does a commendable job of intertwining the emotional journey of Blythe through this process and the guts of putting a real defense together, all laid out before our eyes.  As an American just familiar enough with our legal system to get by, I could easily spot the holes in the prosecution’s case.  However, I also know of the danger in allowing foreign courts, with all the uncertainty, to decide the fate of an American.  The end result might seem perfunctory- but be it by accident or not, the filmmakers were able to craft this unfortunate court case to the tune of a perfectly adept legal thriller. 

I commend the film for getting through to me as a non-fan of the genre, and furthermore for deftly weaving our new-found intimate knowledge of the band with a messy overseas legal scenario.  It’s honest, forthright, and unflinching as it reveals to us the band’s personal demons along with the celebration of their triumphs and successes.  We see the band for who they are- talented musicians with varied backgrounds who managed to put something special together, and nearly lost it.  What we may take for granted, as fans, is that bands are families too; non-traditional, perhaps, but families nonetheless.  The threat of losing a family member long-term had to weigh on the group, especially if you consider how unfair the entire situation seemed.  On top of that, think of something like this happening to, let’s admit it, a ‘more popular band’.  Take N-Sync at the height of their popularity, or Beyonce.  I never heard of this particular incident involving Lamb of God, but a major American band had a member detained in a jail– my guess is that we’d break Twitter again if Beyonce was put behind bars.  Luckily this documentary exists to tell us what happened.   

If there is one negative to take away from this, I’d say the lack of immediate reaction from the band, or the failure to capture what was likely more visceral disbelief in Blythe’s imprisonment is slightly disappointing.  I imagine that out of respect for the young man who lost his life, some stronger commentary existed, but it’s not for our eyes.  That’s hardly a damning statement, for this is still a very well-done documentary- tense and informative, even enlightening for this metal rookie.


One thought on “Documentary Review- ‘As The Palaces Burn’ (****)

    […] As the Palaces Burn- **** […]

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