During the first scene of “As the Palaces Burn,” Don Argott’s wildly unpredictable documentary, singer Randy Blythe is clearly enjoying his life. Blythe, whose metal band Lamb of God have sold over four million records worldwide, is famous for screams that would make a lion back off. But on this day, wearing a black leather jacket with LOSER emblazoned across its back, the lanky, bespectacled Blythe is hiking along a mellow riverside in Virginia. “I fly around the world and get paid to scream,” he exclaims incredulously, as if immersed in a dream too good to be true. “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.”
In a sense, ‘They’ would find out. Soon.
On June 27, 2012, during a world tour, Lamb of God flew into Prague. Departing from their jet plane, Blythe and his bandmates found the airport runway teaming with cops. According to goateed band drummer Chris Adler, the scene resembled “a SWAT team raiding a drug dealer.” Adler and his fellow musicians stood helplessly by as Prague authorities, sporting menacing ski masks and brandishing machine guns, carried Blythe to prison and charged him with manslaughter. Accused of pushing a fan offstage to his death during a concert held two years prior, Blythe endured 38 days of incarceration in Prague’s Pankrac Prison. Meanwhile, his band and manager weathered a trippy mind-f**k of surreal legal wrangling. Under the condition that he return to Prague for his ensuing trial, Blythe was eventually released on $400,000 bail and returned to America.
Fast forward to March 5, 2013. We’re transported to a Prague courtroom, where Blythe appears as dazed as a deer in headlights. The screamer’s signature dreadlocks are gone, replaced by a clean-cut trim. He’s traded in his Bad Brains t-shirt for a suit and tie. When “Not Guilty of Manslaughter” is proclaimed in Czech by the judge, Blythe remains vigilant until a translator assures him of the favorable verdict. With the thousand-yard stare of a shell-shocked soldier, Blythe slants his head across the room, directly at the camera, and slowly raises his hand to give a relieved thumbs-up sign. The nightmare was over.
“As the Palaces Burn” makes us witness to both the bizarre circumstances behind Blythe’s arrest, and the ultimate outcome of his trial. Argott’s previous film, “Last Days Here,” also mined the unpredictable journey of a heavy metal misfit. This time, he shoves us mercilessly into his disorienting mosh pit of a movie. We’re repeatedly caught off guard as the film slithers, like a drunken, skin-shedding serpent, into different directions while twisting from one shape to another.
None months following his trial, Blythe is finally decompressing from his ordeal. “I’m writing my book on the beach,” the singer explains via a telephone call from the North Carolina coast. “I take pictures, and fish. It helps me relax.”
Entitled “Dark Days: My Tribulations and Trials,” Blythe’s book is slated for release in Summer, 2014. After initially shaking off a reluctance to scribe the tome, he’s found some therapeutic benefit in both the writing process and the film. Even so, his long trip down this bumpy rabbit hole, zigzagging from terror and guilt to redemption and closure, has been a tough thing to revisit. “I would rather the movie had never been made,” he confirms. “It’s tragic, but it happened, and we’ve never been one to stop something once it’s started.”
In “As the Palaces Burn,” we’re transported to Richmond Virginia, and quickly introduced to Lamb of God. Currently breaking out of cult status and into the metal mainstream, the band is comprised of five laid-back but fiercely persistent musicians. Their combined facial hair would make Rasputin, Gandalf, and ZZ Top hide their wimpy whiskers in shame. One member, bassist John Campbell, sports the gentle eyes and soothing voice of a fatherly shepherd. He would make a good casting choice to play Jesus.
On record and stage, however, there’s nothing holy about Lamb of God. Wizards of sonic audio death, the band’s pummeling riffs and rhythms are absolutely merciless in their precision, speed, and volume. Blythe’s guttural growl completes the grueling mix. Listening to Lamb of God, there’s no room for compromise. You either retreat, or surrender to this storm-cloud of sound and its torrents of electric rain.
Named after one of the band’s signature songs, “As the Palaces Burn” was originally conceived as a movie dedicated to Lamb of God fans. There’s surprisingly little concert footage within the film, and many of its early passages consist of interviews with fans. A teen-aged, female brunette from India, proclaiming her nonconformity through untamed hair and tattoos, explains the connection she feels to Blythe’s intense lyrics. A young taxi driver shows us the cemetery where his brothers, caught up in the frenzy of drug dealing culture glamorized by Pablo Escobar, rest six feet under. Clearly, these intriguing Lamb of God followers take priority over the band’s members.
“Our manager came up the idea to turn the cameras away from Lamb of God this time,” explains Blythe, “and interview the fans worldwide. Particularly in nations where there is economic or political strife, or where there are issues with class or gender. The point was to create a balanced look at how people internalized this music and used it in their everyday lives.
“Coming from the golden land of America, I had a relatively easy life compared to some of these people. But I still used music the same way. They take it into their lives and it helps them get through the day. It’s not pop music. It’s a lifestyle. That’s the difference between fans of Lamb of God and fans of Britney Spears. For better or worse, they don’t grow out of it most of the time. The idea was to turn the cameras towards them, and expose the uniqueness of the underground music scene. Try to give back to the fans and say, ‘Here, we love you. You deserve to be on the camera just as much as us.’ It was supposed to be a tribute to our fans.”
“Then I, of course, get arrested… and charged with killing a fan of our band.” Blythe’s voice, more tentative and vulnerable than the version he employs onstage, is cracking.
Blythe’s criminal charges stemmed from a Lamb of God concert performed at Prague’s Abaton club on May 24, 2010. According to a press release issued by the band’s PR agency, the incident involved “a fan that three times during the concert jumped the barricade and rushed Randy during the performance. It is alleged that the third time, security was not able to reach him and that Randy pushed him back into the audience where supposedly he fell and hit his head.” The victim, 19-year-old Daniel Nosek, later died from injuries sustained at the show. On November 30th, 2012, the State Prosecutor’s Office in Prague officially indicted Blythe on manslaughter charges.
Argott’s film shows us videos taken of the event, and we hear testimonies from several onlookers. However, footage of the incident is unclear, details obscured by distance, writhing bodies and awkward angles. Witnesses give widely differing accounts of what happened. It’s here that “As the Palaces Burn” enters a strange “Rashomon” realm, raising more questions than answers and becoming increasingly surreal.
“The three judges involved,” explains Blythe, “all grew up in communist-era Czechoslovakia. These are children of a repressive regime, with no exposure to this kind of music. The biggest hurdle with our court case was trying to explain to these people that we weren’t a bunch of insane, nihilistic Satanist murderers, or whatever. They had no frame of reference for what an underground metal show would be. None whatsoever. They’ve only existed as independent nation since 1989. I talked to a fan over there who explained that during the communist era, getting a Metallica tape required that you go to the black market. The stuff was illegal. As a kid, this guy had heard rumors that this music existed, but it took a long time for it to take root over there.”
Blythe sighs, as if exhausted at repeating the same story, yet one more time.
“A Wikipedia page had a definition of moshing that we provided to the judges. They don’t know what moshing is. They didn’t know what stage diving was. It was crazy. That page had a subsection that said, ‘Criticisms of Moshing.’ Ironically enough, I’m listed in it as having stopped one of our shows to tell the crowd, ‘You guys are getting too crazy. If you don’t stop and help each other, we’ll stop playing.’ A superb irony. We always want our fans to be safe.”
During Blythe’s prison stint, we watch his Lamb of God bandmates as they face uncertainty about the future of their comrade. In one scene, guitarist Mark Morton plays a gentle acoustic melody from his front porch. He’s suddenly distracted by the roar of a jet passing overhead, in a moment suggesting the abrupt chaos interrupting his band’s wave of success.
Blythe might provide the vocal pipes through which Lamb of God’s lyrics are expressed and externalized. But it’s the electric fretboard wizardry of Morton and fellow string-strangler Willie Adler that ignites Lamb of God’s music on fire. Their dual-guitar riffing is furiously fast, delivered with surgical precision. From Morton’s rural Virginia home, where his young daughter can be heard giggling in the background, the musician acknowledges that Lamb of God play technically challenging music. But he also points out the deeply personal nature of the band’s lyrics. The track “Grace” explores Morton’s relationship with his father, a man whom the guitarist describes as “my best friend and hero.” The sinister-sounding “Walk with Me in Hell,” he clarifies, is actually a love song. The cathartic “Ruin,” Morton explains, was a way of expressing his feelings of lonely isolation during adolescence.
In other words, peel away the iconic, macho veneer that seemingly defines Lamb of God, and you’ll find a surprising wealth of sensitivity hiding within. These are tough men, but Argott isn’t afraid to show their tears and laughter. When Blythe enters an airport after his release on bail, he’s given a welcoming bear hug by bandmate Willie Adler. “God-damn, man,” cries Adler, his eyes misty.
Soon afterwards, there’s a moment of surreal spookiness as Blythe prepares to take the stage in Iowa for his first live performance since prison. With sun setting and the sky turning jet black, Blythe is greeted by an ocean of welcoming fans chanting, “Ran-dy! Ran-dy! Ran-dy!” It’s an eerie, emotional moment. Whiffs of past tragedy waft in the air with the electric pulse of musical rebirth.
“I don’t really know how to describe the realm of emotions that went along with us during that show,” reflects Morton. “There was certainly an element of catharsis in getting back onstage, being a band again and having Randy back. But in the course of all of this was a constant thread of deep, deep sorrow for what happened, and a reminder of Daniel’s death. I really remember feeling that, as we were preparing to take the stage… the gravity of everything that had happened. It was a very intense moment, and a mixed array of emotions that I really don’t have words for.”
For all of his fierce onstage raging, Blythe admits to being a sensitive soul, often “hurt and freaked out” when his friendly efforts at Southern hospitality aren’t reciprocated. He was raised on the coast of North Carolina, and continues to reside there when he isn’t creating music with his band in Richmond. In both locations, the singer explains, it’s a common courtesy to offer someone a welcoming “good morning” when passing them on the street. However, during a recent two-month stint in New York to track vocals, Blythe learned that this ritual wasn’t practiced everywhere. “A guy walked towards me in an industrial area, near the projects. I looked at him, said hello, and nodded my head. This guy looked at me like I was crazy, and was trying to rob him. He crossed to the other side of the street.”
Director Argott says that by capturing the band’s considerate nature, his film can hopefully dispel the misperception that metal musicians are callous cavemen. The filmmaker applauds Blythe for honoring his commitment to return to Prague for trial, despite the risk of a guilty verdict and ten years of imprisonment. “I hope that people who see the film, even if they’re not heavy metal fans or Lamb of God fans, will see how smart and articulate these guys are. They play heavy metal, but they’re not f*****g Neanderthals. Randy played against type, so to speak. People who are supposed to do the right thing – some Wall Street types who rip off investors for millions of dollars, or politicians, often never do the right thing. Because he’s (in a heavy metal band), Randy isn’t supposed to do the right thing. But he goes back, despite potential punishment, and does the right thing. He’s a real stand-up guy.”
Blythe says that while he’s grateful to have the court case behind him, Daniel Nosek’s death weighs heavily on his heart and mind. “Daniel’s death was a very tragic consequence to what happened at Prague. It’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and something I think about every day.”
Before leaving Prague, Blythe spoke with Nosek’s family. In a memo released through Metal Injection magazine shortly after the trial, Blythe wrote, “While I am relieved that my innocence was proven and apparently I shall not be going to prison, I am in no way shape or form a happy man right now. A young man is still dead, and his family still suffers. Please remember that fact. This family did no wrong, and have shown me great kindness – with silence, with actions, and finally with words.”
There’s a scene from “As the Places Burn” where Blythe, after making bail and returning to America, is seen taking photographs from a rural hilltop. He’s biding his time, trying to relax while awaiting return to Prague for his trial. And now, months after reclaiming his innocence, Blythe is still using his camera to capture beauty in its lens. Shortly after our interview, he sends me one of his photos, taken near a beachfront cabin where he’s currently enjoying some down time. There are no walls to be seen. Only two docked sailboats, and a purple sun setting between them in the open North Carolina skies.