In Praise of Palace Burners

11 Nov

Any respectable list of the nascent millennium’s best metal albums would have to include Lamb of God’s 2003 career high-water mark, As the Palaces Burn.

What a joy it was then, having woken to a cold, blustery Monday morning and now steeling myself to endure its attendant Monday morning hangover commute, to learn that these rugged Virginians have put out a remixed/remastered edition to commemorate the 10th anniversary of this, the band’s best–and, incidentally, most sonically lamented–record.

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While anniversary reissues are often given a fresh mix/mastering tweak as a way of enticing fans into repurchasing something they already have, there were likely additional reasons behind the decision on this one. Both the band and producer (eccentric Canadian maestro Devin Townsend) have admitted in interviews that they were unhappy with the low-budget production. So much so that Randy Blythe has said that he can’t listen to it and prefers live recordings of the material.

I never had an objection, though. The gritty guitar sound lent those dissonant, trebly riffs a suitably jagged, piercing quality that I wouldn’t trade for the cleaner but less lively production of LoG’s breakthrough follow-up album, Ashes of the Wake (2004). And the punchy, organic quality rarely trespassed upon the dense precision of the arrangements. The airpockets buffeting the tight blasts of ‘Ruin”s obliterating post-solo section register clearly and noiselessly.

That said, the retooled audio production does nicely enhance the record’s already crushing suite of sturm und drang. The bottom end has been disinterred and rendered pronouncedly audible, and it blends more smoothly with the (now crisper) shredding guitars. Some clever processing has expunged the slightly cheesy quality from Blythe’s spoken intro vocals on ‘For Your Malice’. In short, it’s a fresh and polished sonic patina on what was already, at core, a flawlessly executed post-thrash album.

I was struck at the end of my first complete listen by the overall concision here. As the Palaces Burn is a remarkably lean and unhesitating novella of a metal record. From front to back it clocks in at a little under 40 minutes (38:06) and feels shorter.

That relatively quick runtime is a key virtue, staving off monotony. For AtPB is neither particularly dynamic nor stylistically diverse. Relatively subtle flourishes like the spectral keyboard tones (classic Devy) which weave under the final syncopated waves of riffage in ‘A Devil in God’s Country’ stand out like a mantis shrimp in a deli lobster tank.

And the songs, for the most part, grind out at a brisk, ceaselessly aggressive pace. Some at a steady gallop; others, like the title track, are sprinting torrents of aural carnage. The lurching downtempo grooves featured on some of the band’s subsequent work (eg. Omerta) are deployed sparingly (though when they are, as on the menacing ‘Ruin’ outro, the results are damn impressive).

When at last we arrive–limping, strung out from adrenal fatigue, probably bleeding internally–at ‘Vigil’, AtPB‘s worthy conclusion, something strange happens. By now accustomed to relentless surging aggression, we’re suddenly disoriented by an unfamiliar sound: clean, chorus-tinged guitar tone, demurely ringing out a softly arpeggiated chord progression. As the guitar is presently complemented by an uneasy electric bass pulse and palpably restrained drum-and-synth flourishes, we rightly flinch, as if in expectation of a blow.

We’ve been abruptly dropped at the eye of the storm. It lasts less than a minute.

Then, the inevitable: Blythe’s deep, rhasping–”Our father, thy will be done…”–announces an upsurge of heavy, overdriven guitar doom. And soon even the layered, plodding stonermetal dirge dies off, to be eclipsed by the frenetic staccatto barrage that’s reigned over our ears for the past half-hour or so.

In short, when these guys switch it up, they do it right.

If the occasion for the remixed reissue and its attendant celebratory fanfare is the 10 year anniversary of a landmark metal album, then I think it’s worth closing with some praise for As the Palaces Burn‘s sadly neglected significance as a small-but-meaningful piece of American cultural history.

It has always struck me as shameful that in the years following the horror of 9/11, as the US decimated and occupied two countries in the name of a transparently propagandistic “War on Terror,” American bands provided disgracefully little in the way of protest music. We should, then, also honor Lamb of God’s unflinching willingness to place front-and-center a fiercely defiant stance against the rampant militarism of the Bush II regime.

Here, I want to caution the metallically  uninitiated against a (blandly literal) misreading of what’s at work in LoG’s rebuke of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld junta. It exasperates me to periodically encounter reviews that indulge in facile condemnations of the lyrics’ witheringly grim political pessimism. 

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The apocalyptic vision is only fitting.

Lamb of God is, after all, a metal band. And read in the appropriate context of their genre, these lyrics mattered.

Speaking personally, I keenly remember being an outspoken budding leftist on fairly conservative college campus. At a time when reactionary frat mooks were prone to do things like scrawl “Go join al-qaeda, faggot!” on my door in permanent marker, I was grateful to Blythe & co. for writing righteous antiwar lyrics (see also) and making videos like this one:


(PS: You can watch the accompanying documentary packaged with the 10th anniversary reissue here.)

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One Response to “In Praise of Palace Burners”

  1. kate spade December 11, 2013 at 3:49 am #

    The queen of chic prep is at it again: Tory Burch filed suit against no less than four retailers in the Southern District of New York court this morning, according to WWD.

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