Review by Jason Guest
How many times have we heard the cliché, “If it weren’t for heavy metal, I’d be in prison or dead”? As if metal is their saviour, most if not all metal frontmen and more than a few fans have uttered this phrase at some point. For one, in Some Kind of Monster, when Metallica play San Quentin State Prison, in some vain attempt at solidarity with the inmates on death row, even Hetfield parrots it. And of the fans featured in Sam Dunn’s Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, their feelings approximate that same level of sentiment. But cliché or otherwise, it’s fair to say that heavy metal means many things to its many musicians and its many fans. In 2012, for one heavy metal fan-come-musician, Lamb of God’s vocalist Randy Blythe, this cliché was turned on its head when he was arrested in Prague for murder. Beginning with Blythe’s and the band’s background and plotting Lamb of God’s arduous rise to prominence, As The Palaces Burn provides a very real depiction of what it is to be a metal band in the 21st century.
While we see the truth behind the band members’ relationship (they are “far from friends”) and are given an insight into the many events that threatened to pull them apart – Blythe’s issues with alcohol in particular – the myth of the rock band and the rock n’ roll lifestyle are soon dismissed. Music isn’t what it once was. Though bands can see their albums rise up the charts, those numbers mean a lot less than they did ten years ago and bands now have to earn their money and their reputation on the road. Lamb of God’s journey takes up the first half an hour of the film and is juxtaposed with the lives of two of the band’s fans – one a taxi driver from Colombia, the other a young girl from India – their stories similar to that of Blythe. Disaffected and disillusioned by their cultures and with little on offer other than perhaps a life of crime, of endless disappointment and defeat, it is heavy metal – and, of course, Lamb of God – that give them purpose, hope even. What the three have in common is that, whether as a means of self-expression or solace, as an outlet for their frustrations, or as a way out from the mundane into the meaningful, heavy metal has always been there for them.
Thirty minutes in and we’re at the point where the band’s rise appears to be unstoppable. Then in 2012, for the first time in two years, they land in Prague. With first-hand accounts from the band, Blythe’s legal team, fans, and the family and friends of Daniel Nosek, from here on in, Blythe is noticeable by his absence. As fan-filmed footage from the show in question is ploughed through time and again as the legal team endeavour to build their case, with the claim that there was “intent to harm”, the courtroom drama that makes up the latter part of the film is captivating, not only because it threatens to echo the Judas Priest trial of 1990 – Blythe, the band, and the genre on trial – but also because of its striking similarity to the absurdities depicted in Kafka’s The Trial and Camus’s The Outsider.
Director Don Argott deals with his subject with respect and has produced an excellent documentary that avoids all the trappings that it could so easily have fallen foul of. There are two remarkable aspects about the film. The first is that even though he’s fully aware that he could face imprisonment despite his innocence, Blythe’s concern is always with Nosek’s death and his family’s loss. The second is that Nosek’s side is heard. It may well be voiced through his friends and family – the former offering support for both their friend and the band, and the latter, specifically his uncle, explaining directly to Blythe (and through him, the audience) the depth of his family’s loss – but the effect is no less moving. While Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Lemmy, God Bless Ozzy Osbourne, Spinal Tap, and even Some Kind of Monster, see their subject emerge somehow victorious, here, what we are left with is a near-bankrupt band, a frontman that faced imprisonment for the alleged murder of one of his own fans, and a family mourning their son. In As The Palaces Burn, there are no victors, only survivors. And that’s what makes it the most heavy metal film of all.
Screening in the UK on 6 March, there’s also a very interesting 30-minute Q&A with the band and director which will be shown immediately after the film.
9 out of 10