Heavy metal fans are uneducated, disrespectful, vulgar…and they lack moral substance.
That’s what they say, anyway, whoever they are. As The Palaces Burn, a documentary by the Richmond, Virginia metal band Lamb of God, attempts to debunk that statement as either misunderstanding or ignorance, a stereotype perpetuated by critics who would judge based on their own musical tastes.
Originally intended as a tribute to the fans, a desire to turn focus away from the band and onto those who are greatly responsible for the band’s continued existence, the filming took an unexpected turn when vocalist Randy Blythe was arrested in the Czech Republic for what was legally defined as “assault with an intent to harm, which resulted in manslaughter.” And during a show, no less. In simple terms, Randy was accused of causing the death of a fan who had jumped up on stage during the concert.
Let’s be clear; As The Palaces Burn is not your typical band documentary.
As the film opens, months before the arrest, Blythe tours a river bank he knows well, with bottles of non-alcoholic beer stuffed into the pockets of a leather jacket that screams LOSER on the back, and he laughs in disbelief-and perhaps a touch of insecurity-at his own life. He says, “I fly around the world and get paid to scream. I feel like…they’re gonna find out. I don’t know who they are or what they’re gonna find out, but they’re gonna find out and it’s all gonna be over.”
Ominous, sure. Foreshadowing, you bet. It’s a common feeling for artists of all types. We’re exceedingly passionate about what we do, even dramatically so at times, so we don’t always recognize the toll this work takes on us until it has bled us dry. And we’re always worried that we’ll be exposed as hacks or imposters or something less than what we imagine ourselves to be, and that it could all come crashing down at any given moment.
What follows is a tribute to the band’s fans and the struggles they face from day to day. A taxi driver living in drug and gang infested areas of Colombia, surviving the violence that claimed his brother’s life. A tattooed woman in India fronting her own heavy metal band, a victim of sexism, feeling like an outcast among her own people. Kids all over the world traveling hundreds of miles by train or car to attend a single concert.
These scenes are intercut with shots of the band members at home, with their own families and children, not only defying the “rock star” lifestyle, but also showing that they are no different than the fans who come to their shows. The message is simple, intuitively understood by those of us who have a natural passion for this type of visceral and aggressive music; we’re all the same. We may have different beliefs and different values, but love, family, and passion rise above all.
Why, then, is the music so angry? A glimpse at CNN or BBC or Fox News and the answer is clear. The modern world is a dangerous place where violence is glorified by media that lives the tagline, “If it bleeds, it leads.” And life is hard. It doesn’t matter where you live or what you do; unless you’re born into riches and can buy your worries away, life is hard. It is varying degrees of hard depending on which particular dictatorship or government rules your country, but…life is hard.
Much of As The Palaces Burn documents Randy Blythe’s personal struggle during those days just prior to, and immediately after, his incarceration in Prague. But what drives this film, more than anything else, is the consistent and repeated deflection away from Lamb of God as a band (and an entity) and toward the fact that a family out there in the world has lost a son, a brother, a nephew who was-albeit unknowingly-celebrating his last moments as an enthusiastic audience member at a heavy metal show. In fact, the most powerful moments of the film come when the band members themselves attempt to reconcile their concern for Randy’s well being with their devastation over the fan’s death. Many tears are shed, both over the incarcerated friend and the lost life of this young man. And Blythe’s own awareness of perspective is impressive; he understands that no matter how difficult his personal situation may be, the victim’s family is experiencing something much worse. He gets it. After all, though this is mentioned nowhere in the film, he has also suffered the loss a child.
As the Palaces Burn is a study of passion, of the human spirit, of ethics and morality, and it will stick with you – metal fan or not – long after the lights go up and the theater empties.