By K.J. Doughton | December 4, 2013

“As the Palaces Burn” is an all-access pass into the eardrum-damaging world of Lamb of God, a ferociously aggressive heavy metal band from Richmond, Virginia. But hold on a minute. If you don’t worship at the altar of all things Slayer, Metallica, and Megadeth, don’t run away just yet. Don Argott’s film is also a stirring commentary on the cathartic power of sound, a suspenseful courtroom procedural… and much more.

Behold, as the movie re-invents itself over and over, like some improvised drum fill, into delightfully unexpected forms. Director Argott (“Last Days Here”) has constructed a dazzlingly complex mosh-pit of a movie, bouncing viewers from one unpredictable groove into another. It’s a mind-bending examination of one sudden, unforeseen tragedy. The manner in which this event is interpreted by those involved makes “As the Palaces Burn” something altogether more profound: the towering “Rashomon” of rock-docs.

Early into “As the Palaces Burn,” Argott welcomes us backstage with Lamb of God. We meet a quintet of musicians seemingly plucked from HR Tolkien’s Middle Earth: you could knit a quilt from their Gandalf-length beards. But soon, it becomes clear that these men aren’t medieval earth-muffins nor, despite their brutal musical aesthetic, chest-thumping cavemen. Articulate artists of sonic sound, they’re also laid-back family men when not thrashing onstage. Most have children, and would rather shoot hoops at home than raise hell.

One band member, vocalist Randy Blythe, stands out amidst all of the untamed facial hair. Sporting only a benign soul-patch beneath his lower lip, along with a bookworm’s glasses and dreadlocks, Blythe looks more like a gangly punk than a burly metal front-man. We’re informed that Blythe’s volatile moods also set him apart from his low-key band-mates, through archival footage of the singer’s drunken onstage brawls and the injuries that followed. In one scene, Blythe convalesces in bed with a nasty head-wound sustained during one such altercation, appearing as though it was delivered by a battle axe.

By the time of filming, however, Blythe has embraced sobriety and tempered his moods, as the band hits the road on tour. “As the Palaces Burn” immerses us in the enthusiastic vibe of international metal festivals. We meet various fans like Oscar, who lives in Colombia and drives a taxi. Metal music is Oscar’s passion, confirmed by his battered steering wheel. “I have to change the wheel,” he explains, “because I get excited (while listening to metal) and start hitting it.” A promoter from India claims that one Lamb of God enthusiast offered to “be my slave for life and give me a b*****b,” if that’s what it took to meet the band.

Such commentary sheds light on the global allure of heavy metal. We come to understand how fanatical metalheads from strife laden corners of the world vicariously vent their frustrations – whether political, socio-cultural, or personal – through the band’s battering ram of sounds. Metal’s overwhelming visceral blast of audio power is, as one fan puts it, “a way of breaking out, and breaking free.” Bassist John Campbell and his bandmates are fueled and moved by this heartfelt praise. Is that a tear he wipes from his eye when a backstage fan exclaims, “Your music is like dopamine for me”?

So far, “As the Palaces Burn” comes across as a superior rock-doc. At its half-way mark, however, the film takes a freakishly unexpected turn. Blythe is apprehended by police in a Prague airport, and charged with manslaughter. Huh? We watch as band manager Larry Mazer, in head-scratching disbelief, grapples with the circumstances behind Blythe’s arrest: two years earlier, Lamb of God performed a Prague concert that seemingly concluded without incident. However, all was not what it seemed. Hours after the show, a fan slipped into a coma, only to die two months later. Allegedly, the victim had sustained a fatal head injury after Blythe pushed him off the stage, even as the singer claimed no recollection of the event. The strange proceedings, during which Blythe served prison time in Prague before eventually standing trial for the alleged crime, abruptly take center-stage. Without warning, the film morphs into a suspenseful crime yarn, as we observe the legal wrangling, conflicting witness reports, and smart-phone videos of the gig that raise more questions than answers.

Lamb of God fans are no doubt familiar with the trial’s outcome. Even so, it’s likely that both band followers and the uninitiated will find themselves emotionally invested in the film’s compelling questions. Do the high-decibel sound waves of metal provide a healthy, communal release, or are they a diabolical catalyst for death and destruction? It’s clear that Argott feels empathy for the band, but he’s evenhanded and fair to the music’s detractors. A courtroom appearance by the victim’s uncle captures the anguish and finality of a child’s death, and it’s heartbreaking. Meanwhile, the band are far from heartless ogres, distraught and horrified by the incident. “It was the last event he was able to attend,” confirms one member, wiping away tears.

Alongside beautifully filmed concert footage that perfectly conveys the band’s pummeling style of precision riffage, “As the Palaces Burn” captures some unexpectedly contemplative images. Lamb of God might be a metal band, but its members are also dynamic human beings who take solace in the calming balm of nature. As guitarist Mark Morton strums a lovely acoustic guitar melody from his rural front porch, he takes a moment to stare into the sky at a passing jet plane, in a kind of harmonious truce between forces both natural and man-made. Later, we hike with Blythe onto a Virginia hillside, where he shoots photos of gorgeous sunset skies framed between fields of quaking aspen trees. Musical mayhem might be their stock-in-trade, but it’s clear that Lamb of God respect, and are empowered by, the great outdoors.

Over the years, the notion of documentaries detouring off the trails they had initially taken has almost become a cliché.  “Capturing the Friedmans,” “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” and “The Armstrong Lie” are but three examples of docs that ventured into bizarre new terrain as their stories inexplicably morphed into unusual new animals. “As the Palaces Burn” fits this category, but also transcends it, mining genuine tragedy, sadness, triumph, and resiliency from what was already a supremely stirring ode to the spiritual power of music.

Argott’s film is also an amazing look at one man’s unexpected trial by fire. It’s ironic that after three decades of screaming onstage with the loudest of bands, Blythe’s most grueling performance would occur in front of a courtroom judge. When the final verdict is read, Blythe shows no emotion – just the flat, shell-shocked demeanor of a man nearly unable to comprehend the surreal rabbit hole he’s been thrust into. With “As the Palaces Burn,” Argott allows us entrance to this same bizarre chain of events. It’s an amazing ride, and one of the best rock-docs of recent memory.

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