Don Argott's documentary As the Palaces Burn tells two interconnected stories, but it started out to tell just one. The idea was to travel with the metal band Lamb of God on the world tour in support of their album Resolution, interviewing fans about their (often intense) connection to the band — and by extension, to each other.
It was going well enough, but when the band arrived in the Czech Republic, lead singer Randy Blythe was arrested and charged with manslaughter. Two years earlier, a Czech fan named Daniel Nosek had crashed the stage during a Lamb of God show. Blythe was accused of throwing him off the stage and causing a head injury which resulted in Nosek's death. Argott made good narrative use of the horrific situation, turning an exploration of the metal community into something more harrowing and personal. The film screens tonight, Thursday, February 27, 7 p.m. at Oceanside's Digiplex Mission Marketplace and Digiplex Poway.
Matthew Lickona: Randy gets released on bail after a month, and Lamb of God is able to perform at the Slipknot festival. After the show, one young fan is so moved that he says, "It's so not metal to cry, but I'm going to cry anyway." What is metal?
Don Argott: That's a complicated question. It's probably one of those more unspoken things. The idea of a tough exterior, of being a little bit hardened. The idea of the music being aggressive and help you — you internalize things, and then you externalize them by letting loose at the show. I'm not sure I agree 100% with the sentiment the guy expresses. The idea is that there's a toughness, but in the film, that gets broken down. You see the band members with their kids, and it totally disarms you. The aggressive music is just one facet of who they are.
ML: You say in one interview that heavy metal has a power to unite people in a way that religion and politics can't. How is that?
DA: Music, specifically this kind of music, becomes more of a lifestyle that you adopt. So within that, just like your political beliefs and your religious beliefs, you end up with a group of people that are "like minded." You see the world the same way, to a degree. With heavy metal, there are none of the messy trappings that come along with politics or religion. I don't think there's the same level of baggage. It's more something that you feel, an emotional thing. It's the idea of community. I grew up listening to heavy metal, and doing this film, I felt an immediate connection to the guys in the band. We already had a kind of common bond, and when we were going to India and Israel and South America, as soon as we'd meet people [who were fans], we'd have this relationship already formed, which is pretty powerful.
ML: Would you say, then, that heavy metal provides community based not on creed or platform but on shared feeling?
ML: What did you listen to growing up?
DA: I started out with punk rock and thrash metal. I was huge into The Misfits. Then I got more into speed metal, stuff like Slayer and Merciful Fate. It was the mid-'80s, and it was an amazing time for that style of music that was emerging. It was new, and it was cool to be there as it was happening.
ML: Getting back to metal and community. It does seem that it has some kind of moral vision. When Randy talks about why he went back to the Czech Republic after he was bailed out and returned to the States, he says that he can't be singing about deception and how f'd up things are, and then not do what's right.
DA: The majority of heavy metal and punk rock is about being anti-establishment, questioning, being anti-religion...it's about the subversive nature of human beings. People get into the death and destruction and end of the world talk, but there's something about the music, as Randy says in the film, that means something. When I grew up listening to punk and heavy metal, I was too young to understand the political climate, to know that they were railing against Reaganomics and all that shit. But I understood and responded to the aggression, that kind of railing against authority. And I think it helped to shape how I see the world.
ML: I get that bit about anti-authority, and it's really hammered home by this quote in the press materials from Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton: "If it doesn't make you want to push the accelerator to the floor a little harder, flip off a cop, or throw a bottle against a brick wall, then I haven't done my job." That's what's funny to me: so much of what I remember about punk rock is "F the system." And yet here's a guy who is not saying "F the system." He's going right into the teeth of the system, knowing it may chew him up. So much of metal says, "The system is corrupt and justice is not going to be served." Why is Randy submitting himself to the wheels of justice when he thinks they're going to roll right over him?
DA: Randy going back to the Czech Republic had nothing to do with the wheels of justice. It had to do with something much more real to him, namely, he felt responsible to the family of Daniel Nosek. It wasn't about the legal system; it was the right thing to do out of respect for the family. I think Randy took that very seriously. I don't know how many people, while we were making the film, said, "Oh, my God — I would never go back." I'm like, "Well, how can you say that? Somebody is basically holding you responsible for taking a life. You have to live with that. If you don't go back, you have to wake up in the morning, look at yourself in the mirror, and know that you're kind of a coward." Randy went back, not because he felt a legal obligation, but because he felt a personal and human obligation to the family.