Pray for Ruin: Lamb of God’s “As the Palaces Burn” 15 Years Later
Once an album transmogrifies from mere experience to sheer memory, its nature can never be reversed. Some say novelty occludes true artistic expression; others say it's impossible to recreate that feeling of hearing something for the first time. But, we know that feeling exists: that bewildering and mystifying reaction to art so freshly exposed, that burst of initial frisson as your expectations are so cleverly dismantled, that blissful hour or so of continuous raw data input -- every single ounce of it irrepetible. Excitement can certainly color and mold our experience with an album (and therefore memory of it), but ultimately, our anticipation cannot destroy the music itself. In fact, positive anxiety lives on in its own mature form as passion, driving us even closer to the sounds which soothe our souls. There's a literal need to consume what draws us right into the rapids of time, away from the anxious future and lingering past; passion, in this view, is gusto and grit. Music becomes the ultimate channel for someone with nothing to lose.
I was a flaccid, pathetic humanoid until I heard Lamb of God's As the Palaces Burn, which is still my favorite metalcore album of all time: the album which sparked a passion for metal which led me to where I am today, right here and right now.
The year was 2003. I was in high school experiencing what is now, retrospectively, the worst era of my whole fucking life. Not because anything terrible happened to me, per se -- in fact, I took for granted some privileges and comforts others certainly deserve but are systematically deprived of -- rather, because I couldn't come to terms with the monstrous intensity of my own feelings. Every situation, instance, and day-to-day happening felt like a gut-stab of embarrassment, no matter how inconsequential; I couldn't understand why I always felt so alien in my own social presence. This resulted in incessant internal thought-loops and diabolical insomnia which then resulted in destinationless late-night excursions through the neighborhood and countless hours hiding under the covers with my Sony portable CD player. These "moments of personal retreat" (which I still take today albeit in different forms) altered significantly following my discovery of As the Palaces Burn: instead of seeking catharsis in a void, I'd have it delivered directly into my skull.
Pleasures (rare) were thus amplified a thousandfold. I'll never forget the warmth of the tears running down the sides of my face as I grinned manically, fists clenched by my side, flat on my back, staring up into nothing at all as "Blood Junkie" assaulted my consciousness -- I was enraptured by the raw catchiness of Lamb of God's aesthetic and the riffy groove of their musicianship. As a budding guitarist, these became the only songs I wanted to play because, bottom line, they sounded just so goddamn fun. I wanted their amplifiers, their guitars, and even Randy Blythe's cigarette voice as it dared me to feel as he feels and scream as he screams. All this is to say that I became obsessed. I had never known music could be this aggressive and angry -- I myself was a loathsome fuck -- and when the vocal-driven breakdown in "Blood Junkie" hit, my goosebumps were mountains as my internal strife managed to abate for the most ephemeral of moments.
Such deep connection and impact arises from one source: Lamb of God's authenticity. Grit defined As the Palaces Burn, all the way down to Devin Townsend's raunchy production quality and the hollow, crunchy Mesa Boogie chugs. The riffs themselves clutched the freshest of oranges: recognizable and relatable, but totally on-brand for Lamb of God's eccentrically groovy style. From the "11th Hour"'s iconic breakdown to the old-school riffing on "A Devil in God's Country," this band rewrote metalcore from the ground up using their guts as guidance, retaining the music's movement but eliminating all fat, fluff, and filler. As the Palaces Burn remains the leanest album Lamb of God have written to date: literally no moment is wasted to hammer home a dark melody or break down into complex syncopations. It's this extreme and efficient approach which drew my mind to the album's ethos. I sought the fucking sandpaper to everyone else's silk. I sought the realest of the best. I sought the pure. Ultimately, I sought myself.
The damning realization, though, was this: I'd never be this good at anything. To stand in the shadow of artwork you deem masterful is more than humbling, it's degrading. So, I balked at competition outright, even though society is essentially one big contest. By proxy, I became removed -- cast out, indifferent, but "free" as I saw it, as long as I had my music. This was my one mistake with respect to As the Palaces Burn: even though the album catalyzed me existentially, it discouraged me from standing up and, essentially, asserting myself upon the world. And partly due to my obsessive tendencies at the time, I was extremely content in my mental echo chamber with my powerful, cutting-edge metalcore music. I wasn't paying attention to the album's message, too distracted by the music itself of course -- songs like "Bootscraper" entranced me with a gnarly, triplet-infused ballet of aggression whose underlying poignancy escaped me.
Death and domestication ends in shattered hopes,
Can't see the hand at the other end of the leash.
Turn and bite.
Turn and bite the hand that bleeds you dry.
Throw yourself a bone, no one else will.
And here I am today, not throwing myself a bone, so to speak. Revisiting As the Palaces Burn reminds me of an important message I overlooked 15 years ago: you gotta get in there and fight. Even now, I fail at this repeatedly, even though I try to muster to wherewithal it takes to compete in the modern world. I tried to define myself in this awkward, inward fashion when the real answer was to not only engage with outside existence, but to assert myself upon it, to make an impact. It doesn't have to be political by any means, it only has to be real. Once you step into the water, opportunities begin to present themselves -- you need the same wherewithal you used to enter chaos in order to control (some of) it. As the Palaces Burn is timeless in this regard: even now, it acts as emotional fuel for the internal fire I still need. One song in particular, actually, still drives me near the initial intensity I felt all those years back:
It's incredible that Lamb of God nailed emotional and political dialogues to this song while still maintaining its forthright, straightforward heaviness. Beginning with clean guitar and moody overtones and ending in a furious staccato blast, "Vigil" captured every dimension of the band's surprisingly complex character. Their debut album, New American Gospel, felt completely prototypical when As the Palaces Burn was released, signaling significant progression and confirming the band's technique. While they would eventually go on to release Ashes of the Wake, probably their fan favorite overall, it was on As the Palaces Burn that the true essence materialized and flourished. "Vigil" demonstrated Lamb of God as dualistic: a permeable personality with the indestructible edge of hardened steel.
I certainly recognize the coincidental nature of my situation with respect to the timing of the album's release, though I don't believe in fate. What I do believe in is the power of certain music and its effect on certain people at a certain time. For me now, As the Palaces Burn means something different than it did then, but both sentiments are ultimately related. Listening to it now connects me to my past not just by reminder, but by the active mental process of reliving. But it'll never be the same as it was then in every way, and maybe for a good reason. It's more than a signal of personal growth: it's the reality that albums themselves mature in your mind after countless listens and the lessons they teach likewise carry enhanced wisdom and foresight. One day, As the Palaces Burn will die, and so will I -- but until then, it'll always be close to my heart no matter how harrowing the experience it delivers may be.