MOVIE REVIEW: Lamb of God’s ‘As The Palaces Burn’

lamb of god

Film: As The Palaces Burn
Directed by: Don Argott
Starring: Lamb of God

Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen a surprising amount of heavy metal-focused documentaries — from Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster to Anvil! The Story of Anvil and Last Days Here — extend their reach past a conceivably niche audience to gain mainstream attention and critical adoration thanks to some remarkably intimate and inspiring stories and downright fascinating storytelling. But Lamb of God‘s As The Palaces Burn might just be the most personal and important of the bunch.

For all intents and purposes, Lamb of God is the metal band of our generation. Since the demise of Pantera, no band has emerged from the underground to experience the level of success that Lamb of God has seen while attracting a rabid fan base across the the globe, all without compromising their heavy sound for the sake of radio exposure.

They’ve already done the behind-the-scenes and tour documentary thing several times over, but for this film, accomplished documentary filmmaker Don Argott (Last Days Here, The Art of the Steal) aimed to turn the cameras away from the band and instead focus on the fans, exploring the common bond found amongst those who follow aggressive music genres like heavy metal and hardcore punk.

And that’s very much the film we see for the first 30 minutes of As The Palaces Burn. We follow the band to Columbia, Israel and India and meet several fans who attempt to put their connection to Lamb of God’s music into words. But frankly, the film they set out to make isn’t all that moving. For anyone.

If you’re a metalhead, you already know their story because it’s just like yours. You’ve had this same conversation with outsiders who can’t comprehend the appeal of blast beats and screaming vocals, or with relatives who don’t understand why people are stage diving and moshing at concerts. You know it’s a fruitless endeavor. And if you aren’t a metal fan, well, 90 minutes of fan testimonials aren’t going to shed new light on what a small minority of people have spent their lives defending. You either “get it” or you don’t.

But sometimes a great story just falls into your lap. As The Palaces Burn completely shifts gears as everything changes for the band when they arrive in a Czech Republic airport as vocalist Randy Blythe is cornered by police officers and arrested on manslaughter charges for something that occurred two years ago.

Daniel Nosek was a 19-year-old fan who attended a Lamb of God show in Prague while the band was on their 2010 European tour, hitting up some smaller venues to fill the gaps between some of their big European festival dates. After the show, he began feeling ill and was quickly rushed to the hospital, where he soon fell into a coma and died two weeks later from serious brain trauma. Some witnesses who attended the show claimed the singer shoved him off the stage, causing Nosek to fall directly on his head. Blythe faces upwards of 10 years in prison.

From here, the film spirals into a gripping legal drama worthy of Lumet or Wilder. The band must first raise $400,000 to bail their singer out of jail. Sure, they’re a successful band in the metal scene, but “success” is relative in this industry. So they’re forced to sell their guitars, homemade “Free Randy Blythe” t-shirts, and really, anything of value, just so they can get their friend and bandmate home.

As The Palaces Burn is the sort of film that makes you question whether your theater is spending way too much money on air conditioning because the chill-worthy moments are endless. The reunion between Blythe and his bandmates when the singer arrives in his hometown Richmond, Virginia airport after spending 38 days in a Czech prison is as dramatic as anything you’ll ever see in scripted cinema. And when Blythe emerges from the fog to take the stage for his first show back in the U.S. as a sea of fans chant his name, it feels like the ultimate go-home feel-good moment. But Randy’s fight had really only begun.

The arrest and trial took a mental and physical toll on both Randy and his bandmates (guitarist Willie Adler, easily the most emotional of the bunch throughout the film, looks at least 50 pounds lighter in the post-credits interview that screens after the film than he did during filming), but Blythe knows this is nothing compared to what Nosek’s family must be experiencing. So when he’s called back into court, he returns to the Czech Republic, not only to defend his innocence, but because he feels “ethically obligated” to provide some answers to Nosek’s ailing family.

“It’s not a story I can write,” he reflects, sitting atop a cliff on river’s edge amidst a picturesque sunset. “It’s a story I can live and hope for the best.” And that’s the beauty of documentary filmmaking. The best and most human stories often write themselves. I mean, would Hoop Dreams have been nearly as great had an unfortunate knee injury not seriously altered the path of William Gates?

The trial itself is a complex one and undergoes a number of twists, as Randy’s defense team dissects everything form fan-filmed YouTube footage to contracts between the band and promoters that outline barricade metrics and security specifications. Randy refers to himself a derelict at the start of the film and up until a few years ago was an alcoholic, considered a “wild card” by the band and their management. But throughout this entire process, he remained a model of humility, compassion and professionalism.

It’s unlikely a non-metalhead would return home from a screening of As The Palaces Burn with a sudden appreciation for Lamb of God’s music, but they’d be hard-pressed not to find themselves invested in the band’s story or come away with a newfound respect for the band’s members for being educated, well-spoken individuals, as opposed to neanderthals and deviants, as metalheads are typically viewed by the mainstream.

Lamb of God have been carrying the torch for heavy metal for the better part of a decade, and the world would be a strange place if they just suddenly ceased to exist. As The Palaces Burn is the heartbreaking and inspiring story of how that almost became a reality and a forewarning that the band is sure to come back stronger than ever.

Grade: A-

As The Palaces Burn continues its tour of one-night-only showings through April, with many of the screenings taking place at some very cool concert venues and bars. Check here to see if and when it’s playing in your city.

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