As the Palaces Burn begins like many other rock docs I've seen and enjoyed. We meet the members of the Grammy-nominated metal band Lamb of God and learn that despite the ferocity of their music and live shows they are all regular guys with families and lives outside the band. "As everybody knows," drummer Chris Adler quips as he loads luggage into the back of his Toyota, "real metalheads drive Priuses."
The film begins in 2012 as the Richmond, Va., band is just releasing its sixth studio record, Resolution. The album is doing well, debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard chart, and it's quite an accomplishment for a band with essentially no radio play (something true of many metal bands). Despite the achievement, we're told that the only way for Lamb of God to succeed is to get out on the road and play shows. Record sales just aren't the income stream they have been in the past, and it's on tour where the bread gets buttered.
Director Dan Argott's initial goal for the documentary was to capture the band on the road and speak about the power of musicmetal in particularand how it can unite and inspire people across the globe. The film takes us to Columbia, Venezuela, Israel and India. We meet fans of metal and fans of Lamb of God, in particular; many in India, for example, have traveled days by train to get to the gig. It's a presentation I always love to see: the love of fans for a style of music so much of the mainstream world has never understood or respected. I enjoy it, but I've seen it plenty of times before.
Then, at about the 30-minute mark, As the Palaces Burn takes an unexpected and dramatic turn. Landing in the Czech Republic, in Prague, the band members note a significant police presence. "'There must be somebody, some fugitive, on the plane or something,'" guitarist Mark Morton recalls thinking at the time. "That crossed my mind. 'Wow, we are on the plane with some criminal!'"
But it's Lamb of God whom the authorities are after. The musicians learn there was an incident two years prior at one of their Prague shows. Singer Randy Blythe had allegedly shoved a fan off the stage. The man injured his head in the fall and later died in a hospital. No band member had any recollection of anything out of the ordinary occurring at the show. Nor had the band been contacted in the intervening years. But all the same, when the band steps off the plane, Blythe is arrested and charged with manslaughter.
The final hour of As the Palaces Burn is a different story completely from what the film set out to be. Everything about Blythe comes into question; two years sober, his past as an alcoholic looms darkly, impeding on any evaluation of what his character might actually be. The band faces difficulties as shows and tours are canceled. They begin to sell memorabilia to help pay Blythe's legal fees. "People seem to think that because we are on magazine covers we are insanely wealthy," bassist John Campbell says in one of the interviews. "This is not the case. We do okay. There's tons of people who do better. Lawyers being one of them."
What strikes me is that Blythe is on trial for more than just the accusation of throwing a fan off the stage. It seems he is in a position of trying to defend an aggressive and sometimes violent style of music, the live performance of which probably seems utterly terrifying to people who don't "get it." For fans of the genre, there is nothing more cathartic than the physical energy of a great metal show: the sweat, the volume, the joy of bodies hurled against each other without malice. Metal tends to get a bad rap because of the imagery it embraces, and I agree that much of it is tired and childish. At the same time, it is the music of choice for millions of fans, and for that alone it's worthy of some thoughtful evaluation.
How the trial plays out is fascinating, both in the debate over the alleged event and in the differences between U.S. and Czech legal processes. To discuss further would spoil the outcome, but I found it gripping, and Blythe as a character in an awful situation is compelling.
In over 90 minutes, As the Palaces Burn evolves into one of the better rock documentaries I've seen. My hope is that folks who enjoy music documentaries, even if they're not into metal, check it outand with an open mind.
As the Palaces Burn screens at the Carmike 12 Thu., Feb. 27, at 7 PM.