The growing trend of theme cruises is aimed at drawing a young crowd in order to dispel the stereotype of nursing homes at sea (no one wants to sail on the assisted-living Poseidon Adventure). There are now hundreds of ships booking passage with enhanced programs from LGBT, sports and political gatherings to mystery and fitness conventions: special interest cruises have revitalized the industry and music festivals are among the most popular.
 
The 2015 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise is a dizzying, electric, head-banging Caribbean adventure featuring extreme metal bands from around the world. Genres of thrash, death, doom, grindcore, black metal, power metal, pirate metal, folk metal, and straight up rock were represented by 60 bands performing two sets each over four days and nights from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to Ocho Rios, Jamaica and back aboard the Royal Caribbean ship The Liberty of the Seas.
 
It is essentially a heavy metal booze cruise: partygoers can rock out, drink and smoke to their heart’s content and stumble safely back to their staterooms. The 2016, 6th Annual 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise was recently announced, returning to Jamaica for more crazy metal partying. But aside from partying, what makes “70,000 Tons of Metal” so special? What does it mean to be metal and how does this cruise define metal in the 21st Century? Back in January correspondent MICK STINGLEY went on a metallic maritime mission to find out.

THEY DON’T TELL YOU THAT YOU WILL BE STANDING IN LINE FOR HOURS BEFORE YOU BOARD. It is not even 11AM at Port Everglades and there is a line that snakes through labyrinthine retractable belt barriers around the corner of the building. Queuing up are metal fans from 70 countries, as far away as Argentina and Sri Lanka. Drinking has already begun for some people and empty cans and bottles clutter the sidewalk, curiously left standing upright against outdoor support beams and street signs. Tattooed men and women of varying hairstyles and colors shuffle slowly along, excitedly conversing about the band lineup and schedule. Cargo shorts and black band shirts are the formal wear for this Love Boat and everyone is ready for action. People smile and nod as they check out each other’s shirts and there is a good feeling building among these contrasting souls that, for better or worse, we are all in this together.

70000 tons of metal

 

Standing in line to get in I chat up a guy with a 70K shirt from a previous cruise that lists all the bands who played.

“Any advice?” I ask. “I don’t want to make any rookie mistakes.”

“Yeah. Make a list of bands that you want to see, where they’re playing and what times. Most importantly, if you drink too much go back to your room. If you pass out on the ship people will take your picture and post it on the internet.” Nice.

We are all here for “70,000 Tons of Metal”, a floating music festival created by Ultimate Music Cruises, a Canadian company founded by former concert promoter Andy Piller. Piller had the brilliant idea of setting a European heavy metal festival on a boat and it has been selling out ever since. There are other music cruises (“ShipRocked” features modern rock bands like Filter, Sevendust, and Otherwise; and “Monsters of Rock” has an ’80s-heavy lineup with Extreme, Tesla, and Night Ranger, among others), but 70K includes genres of thrash, death, doom, grindcore, black metal, power metal, folk metal, and straight-up rock. It is a rare opportunity for metal fans to experience myriad bands, attend music clinics and listening parties and rub shoulders with the artists within close proximity to bars, restaurants and staterooms. This is especially key as landlocked music festivals means parking, port-a-potties and hours under the sun without relief.

The Liberty of the Seas has a crew of 1300 and can accommodate some 4600 guests, 3000 of whom are ticketed passengers and the rest are band and related personnel. With no recognizable band members in sight (they may have boarded early) some 3000 anxious metalheads are in line or left to wait in a large auditorium space before finally being called to board. There is a lot of fussing with cell phones: once the ship departs, exorbitant “ocean tariffs” are applied to anyone using the ship’s Wi-Fi and no one boasts having an affordable long-distance plan for being at sea.

Deck

Boarding begins around 12:30 PM and there is an excited roar as people march up the gangway. As we move up the ramp you look out the window from the terminal and really get to see the ship and how massive it truly is. Food and supplies on palettes are loaded in with cranes, followed by luggage and the all-important band gear: amps, instruments and who knows what else. Once we find our stateroom it is time to explore the ship. There are fifteen decks with pools, Jacuzzis, a rock-climbing wall, a FlowRider® Wave Simulator, a jogging track, basketball courts, a golf simulator, a video arcade, a nursery, Johnny Rockets, duty-free shops, restaurants, a casino and countless bars. The Windjammer café features an unlimited breakfast and lunch buffet that is included in the cost of booking. There is also a spa and fitness center, a library and an internet café. Glass elevators ferry passengers between decks and offer a glimpse at just how immense the boat is.

The only thing that really matters is the music. Bands are featured on an overlapping schedule at four different venues that ordinarily feature movies, musicals, comedy and an ice rink. A very large stage is being set up on the top pool deck for bands to play but won’t be ready until Friday night. That leaves a large theater (The Platinum), a small theater (Ice Rink) and club-sized room (The Sphinx) to see bands. Karaoke will take place every night at The Sphinx after Midnight until sunrise.

At 4:30 there is a mandatory “Muster Drill” to inform passengers about what to do in case of emergency on the outside lower decks. Everyone gathers on the lower decks outside the ship to see where the lifeboats are and learn what to do in case we go Costa Concordia. One of the crew leading the exercise reminds people that during a possible evacuation to be mindful of others and says, “Remember, we’re all in this together.” Clearly this is the prevailing thought among sailors and metalheads. After she said this, some guy in the back yells, “Metal!” and we all have a good laugh. By 5 o’clock the ship leaves Port Everglades as high-spirited passengers chant “Your boat sucks!” to pretty much every other vessel in the water. It is time to get a beer and start seeing some metal. Au revoir, Fort Lauderdale!

HEAVY METAL MUSIC ATTRACTS THE YOUNG AND YOUNG AT HEART. The genre itself is only 40-something years old, if you subscribe to the widely held opinion that heavy metal began with the first Black Sabbath album in 1970. A number of subgenres have evolved over the years but the constant is always loud guitars and heavy drums and that it is ignored and often reviled by the mainstream. Fans of metal on this cruise appear to be in their 20s, 30s and 40s, mostly Europeans and South Americans where metal is still insanely popular. There are some people who are clearly older than that but they have all come together with the unspoken understanding that because they love metal they are outcasts, marginalized by the mainstream. The Grammy Awards didn’t even recognize metal until 1990 and the award for “Best Metal Performance” has never been televised.

Although it is often derided, playing heavy metal takes skill. That was something that was overlooked a lot in the poofed-out 80s heyday of metal. Musicianship is as important to metal as it is to classical music and metal fans have a great deal of respect for this. One of the bands scheduled for this cruise is Apocalyptica, a group of classically-trained cellists who started out playing Metallica covers and soon began writing their own music which they play on cellos through Marshall amps. Not every band has that kind of education (if they have any at all) but there is a deep appreciation among fans for the ability and dedication it takes to play an instrument, write and perform.

Apocalyptica

Apocalyptica

What really makes metal so exciting is a sense of danger. A feeling of recklessness and breaking the shackles of convention: the banging of heads and bodies slamming into each other as guitar strings break, drumsticks are lost and singers scream and yell, fight or fall. It’s in the lyrics, the riffs and the looks: it’s unpredictable and can be silly but it’s not mundane or choreographed. While pop music is instantaneous and disposable and often reflects a precise period in time; metal is similar to classical in its endurance. It can be as pretty as a polonaise or as enigmatic as a symphony. The wonder of metal is that it is music that is cherished and savored over time. People who consider themselves metal fans don’t simply abandon an act the minute the next one comes along. Metal fans are collectors and connoisseurs, accumulating bands while remaining open to others as new sounds emerge to stimulate their interests. “70,000 Tons of Metal” wasn’t just about music and partying: it’s about people sharing an experience they all love. It’s what separates it from other music and what we are all here for.

Equilibrium, a German folk metal band, kicks off the first show of the cruise and they are best enjoyed with beer. In the packed theater it becomes immediately clear by the enthusiastic chanting, head-banging and fist-pumping that this disparate group is like a family. They look different and they might speak different languages but there is camaraderie here unlike anything else. As the band blast through its set with fast guitars, high-energy songs and punishing drums it looks like mayhem on the floor. Excitement is high because it’s the first band of the cruise and perhaps just being on the ship evokes a certain behavior, but when someone falls, three people move to help the guy up. It’s like that every day, wherever you go and even if you don’t notice it, you can’t help but feel it. Like they said at the Muster drill, we are all in this together.

THERION IS THE WORLD’S MOST BAFFLING BAND. They are also one of the most exciting. The seven member Swedish group combines heavy riffing with operatic vocals, like Judas Priest singing with Maria Callas. Started by guitarist Christofer Johnsson, the band features three vocalists including Spanish coloratura soprano Isa Garcia Navas and the father and daughter team of Tomas and Linnea Vikström (Tomas is the son of Royal Swedish opera singer Sven-Erik Vikström). They couldn’t get arrested in the States but in Europe and South America, they’re huge. This is the closest they’ve come to the States in years so it’s a treat for many Americans to see them. I’m not alone on this as an American couple in front of me (Nathan and Whitney Murdock, celebrating their anniversary) cheers them on during the set. The band played at 7 o’clock in the Platinum Theater and soared through an hour of songs to the delight of the largely European and South American crowd.

therion 2 photos

Therion

Europeans and South Americans are far less uptight about singing along with a band than Americans. You can tell when a band playing the States has just returned from a world tour and tries to lead the crowd in a sing-a-long only to fail miserably. The rest of the world has us beat in this area and over the course of the cruise I see this again and again.

I spent the night is spent running back and forth from venue to venue, catching ten bands in all including Einherjer; God Dethroned; Arch Enemy; Kataklysm; Apocalyptica; Korpiklaani; Trouble; and Melechesh, from Jerusalem. Apocalyptica, from Finland is insane and dazzles the crowd with their energy and uniqueness, mixing originals with Metallica covers (“Fight Fire With Fire”) and classical (“Hall of the Mountain King”), and the crowd eats it up. With their new singer, the soulful American Franky Perez, they own the night. Korpiklaani, also from Finland, play lively folk-metal and are probably the drinkingest band on the cruise. There’s a lot of people in Korpiklaani so if anyone is messing up while inebriated it’s difficult to tell. This band needs a beer sponsorship if only because they inspire so much alcohol consumption. If I was a Budweiser exec (or in Finland, perhaps Lapin Kulta) I would throw serious money at these guys and send them out to conquer the world. There were easily as many people at the bar as in front of the stage during their set. Late night karaoke at The Sphinx is also a drunken mess. Metalheads from Sweden singing Abba, badly; but it’s also a lot of fun. It’s the first night and everyone has been hitting it pretty hard. It’s a vacation and a celebration.

Canadian hot tub crowd surfing!? Only on #70000TONS! Happy #CanadaDay! #MetalCruise #CanadaDay2015

Une photo publiée par 70000 TONS (@70000tons) le

  THERE ARE NO COFFEEMAKERS IN THE STATEROOMS WHICH IS SOMETHING THAT ROYAL CARIBBEAN NEEDS TO RETHINK. If only for this cruise anyway. Friday morning comes too soon when someone is screaming outside the door at 8AM. They could be excited to start the day or they’re being stabbed to death. At this hour I think, “Let them die.” When room service arrives it’s clear that there are no dead bodies in the hallway and it was obviously either a bad dream or a metal maniac who is also an early riser. At 2 o’clock I have a brief chat with Max Cavallera of Soulfly. The former frontman of Brazillian thrash legends Sepultura is excited to be on the cruise with his hard-rocking poly-rhythmic quartet: “We just finished recording our new record and the chance to play two shows, go to Jamaica and see a bunch of bands that are friends of ours was impossible to turn down.” He also mentions he and his wife were kidnapped the first time they were in Ocho Rios but managed to get freed when his wife was able to get to her cell phone to call for help. I think, “So, that’s helpful”. Nevertheless, he is excited to return.

Christopher, of Therion

Christopher, of Therion

After lunch I speak to Christofer and Tomas of Therion. Christofer is happy to be back on the cruise, “It’s like combining a vacation with work.” Tomas adds, “The only bad thing is you’re eating yourself to death on this cruise, but just look out the window: what is there to complain about?” I ask Christofer to explain the uniqueness of Therion for those who’ve never heard them. “It’s a mixture of different styles from heavy metal and 70s progressive to folk and classical influences and it really fits in a natural way. Anybody can make a sandwich with whatever odd things on it but it won’t taste good; we make an odd sandwich but it just makes sense.” I smile and tell him that pretty much sums up this cruise.

Friday night brings more running around to check out sets by Thy Antichrist; Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock; Soulfly; Whiplash; Blind Guardian; Riot V; and Ensiferum. Colombian black metal ghouls Thy Antichrist refer to themselves as “tragic existentialist black metal” and put a lot into their stage show, dressing in cloaks and elaborate black and white face makeup called corpse paint for those who did know. Their music is a cacophonous blast of speed and staccato drumming while the singer rasps like a cartoon demon. They are entertaining as Hell, if unintelligible, and incite some headbanging, while others like me clutch a beer and watch the singer strike poses between verses. He looks pretty evil, I guess. He seems to be covered in flour or powder and when he moves there is a burst of white cloudy material around him. It’s an unusual effect and keeps you focused on him. This is a band that my 14 year-old self would have been really into if only to drive my mother completely nuts.

thyantechrist

Thy Antechrist

I’m lucky to get a seat for Michael Schenker, the beloved guitarist from The Scorpions and UFO who influenced Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen and Kirk Hammett. His band is rounded out by two former Scorps, bassist Francis Bucholz and drummer Herman “Ze German” Rarebell; guitarist Wayne Findlay and ex-Rainbow singer Doogie White. In their 50s and 60s (Schenker turned 60 on January 10th) these guys are among the oldest musicians on board but play with a zeal of a band half their age.

Michael Schenker

Michael Schenker

They opened with UFO’s “Doctor, Doctor” and blast the crowd with old favorites from Schenker’s bands. Scottish singer White teases the crowd – “There’s a little barrier here for your own protection because we’ve got three living Scorpions on the stage with us!” – before launching into the Scorps classic “Lovedrive”. The band is on fire and people young and old are going nuts as I realize that age obsession is an unfortunate American preoccupation. Old-school New Jersey thrash lords Whiplash rocked The Sphinx. The room fills with people, mostly older, from the Tri-State area and it’s funny that I’ve come so far to hear Jersey and Long Island accents. Whiplash is fast-fast-fast but instead of a mosh pit there was respectful nodding. At 11 o’clock, German power metal pioneers Blind Guardian brought majestic soaring vocals and galloping riffs to the standing room only crowd. Power metal crowds know every song and all the words.

Blind Guardian

Blind Guardian

On the pool deck at the top of the ship, people splash around in front of the stage while the bands perform. There is more drinking and I make a discovery: Ensiferum is incredible, rocking and fun – a thrashy folk metal band from Finland that is heavy and yet so upbeat. They are debuting new songs from “One Man Army” (Metal Blade) and even if they were playing selections from “My Fair Lady” I have no doubt the crowd would eat it up. When they finish it’s after 2 in the morning and this crowd looks like it will carry on until sunrise. We find ourselves in a lively discussion about metal with some guys from Germany and Finland at the Casino Bar. “A pop singer can sell millions of records and fill stadiums then two years later is a joke. A metal band can sell 50,000 worldwide but every year will fill clubs and theaters and rock tens of thousands at festivals because metal fans are loyal.” After much consideration (and alcohol consumption) it was agreed all around that metal “is about all kinds of people coming together for the love of heavy music, guitars… and also maybe drinking!” Lots of drinking. There are hugs all around and I am thinking we are all in this together. SATURDAY BRINGS A SIX-HOUR STOP IN OCHO RIOS, JAMAICA THAT BEGINS AT 9AM. With no bands scheduled until 4, some of the artists participate in sponsored excursions but we opt for an organic experience, as it is our first time there. Walking into Ocho Rios from the terminal is a revelation: it’s a depressing hike into gritty poverty-soaked streets of chaos like 1970s New York, but with sunshine and palm trees.

This is NOT the Jamaica you see on TV commercials. There is a reason excursions were offered by the ship: safety and comfort but probably mostly safety. Better to go snorkeling with Kataklysm or ride dolphins with Cannibal Corpse than get constantly harassed by street hustlers. Anyone coming off the ship is a target. Calls of “Hey Boss man! Where ya want ta go?” are followed by offers of ganja that they will put right in your hand whether you want it or not. It is simply a cultural thing but it can be scary. We did our best to avoid this and after some walking we encountered The Silver Seas Hotel, which was an oasis of calm with stunning views, beach access and a pool bar. It’s a dilapidated estate turned resort hotel that was built in the 40s after World War II and feels like it hasn’t changed all that much. The chairs and chaise lounges look like antiques and the stone wall around the resort and leading down to the water is weathered and conjures another time. The bartender, Donna, makes a terrific pina colada and is a most excellent conversationalist. Reggae music plays over the PA and we are the only ones here. We switch to Red Stripes and sit in amazement at how beautiful the place really is as our pace has slowed down to Island Time. Donna is a wonderful raconteur and will tell you that nothing in Ocho Rios around the cruise terminal is authentic, not even the Bob Marley shirts. We stayed there, went swimming, relaxed some more – no worries, Mon – then took a cab back to the terminal. Everyone came back with souvenirs like Jamaican coffee and clothes; and one or two people I know brought themselves some native Jamaican herbs. Irie.

Back on the ship there is only time to see six bands before crashing from sun and excess: Crucified Barbara, four Swedish women who play no-nonsense rock n’ roll;

Nicki from Crucified Barbara

Nicki from Crucified Barbara

On the pool deck, I am wowed by two more bands I’ve never seen: Wintersun, another Finnish metal band, spun off by a former member of Ensiferum, are heavy and melodic; and English grindcore veterans Napalm Death, who turn in an absolutely stunning set. The thrashy, sociopolitical noise band is fronted by Mark “Barney” Greenway, who charmed the crowd between songs (sounding a bit like Michael Caine). They are unbelievably fast and with a booming drummer and treat the crowd to a new song, “Smash A Single Digit” from its new album, “Apex Predator – Easy Meat”, as well as classics like “From Enslavement to Obliteration” a Dead Kennedys cover, “Nazi Punks F—k Off” and the shortest recorded song ever, “You Suffer”. They are brilliant. When they’re finished it’s 3AM and I don’t even feel tired; I’m just drinking my beer and staring up at the stars. Some guy, a Canadian, sees me, looks up and says, “It’s awesome, right?” It is.

mick stingley and michael

Michael Schenker and Mick Stingley on board

SUNDAY IS THE LAST DAY OF THE CRUISE. With only one cup of coffee in me, at Noon I chat with a very funny Michael Schenker, who recently turned 60. He doesn’t look it, with his blond hair peaking out from a black knit hat which is also where his sunglasses sit. His band is one of the few straight up rock and roll bands on board, but as he was an influence on Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen, among others, his status is very secure, though he had his misgivings about participating. “Well, you know, I actually didn’t want to do it at first but I’m very glad we did it. The ship is filled with very cool people who leave you alone and they’re very polite: it’s like we’re all together on a holiday. I think it’s fantastic.”

Later, during a visit with Eicca Toppinen and Franky Perez of Apocalyptica, they echo Schenker’s attitude. These guys never stop smiling and may be the happiest band on the ship. They have a new album coming out in April, “Shadowmaker”, and played it earlier at a listening party. “We are excited for that but also to be here and watch some bands. We’ve been using the gym a lot,” Eicca laughs. Franky adds, “And enjoying the cruise the way I think you’re supposed to enjoy it. I thought this was going to be mayhem but people are so cool.”

By the late afternoon there is a curious quiet as the event draws to a close. At 3:15, Jeff Waters of Canadian thrashers Annihilator hosts an all-star jam, which features members of various bands covering famous metal tunes. A number of luminaries including Nergal from Behemoth, Michael Schenker, Max from Soulfly, Cronos from Venom, Hansi Kürsch of Blind Guardian and Barney Greenway of Napalm Death shared the stage with members of 1349, Ensiferum, Primal Fear, Heathen, Destruction and Dusk Machine and treated the crowd to an hour’s worth of classic rock and metal like “Immagrant Song” by Led Zepplin (featuring Kürsch on vocals), Pantera’s “Walk” (Nergal on vocals) and “Breaking The Law” by Judas Priest (featuring Doogie White on vocals). Schenker absolutely ripped on his cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” with Chris Boltendahl of Grave Digger on vocals. They should do this on the first night instead of saving it for the last day of music but it was sensational nevertheless.

Eicca Toppinen from Apocalyptica

Eicca Toppinen from Apocalyptica

Bands will continue to play into the wee small hours (the venerated Scottish pirate-metal band Alestorm is scheduled for 2AM) but there is only so much anyone can do. Still, we rally and see Korpiklaani; Amorphis; Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock up on the pool deck; Corrosion of Conformity; Therion; D.A.D.; Soulfly again and Venom. The Danes known as Disneyland After Dark (D.A.D.) play melodic hard rock with twangy guitar and lit up the Ice Rink. At 11PM, the hugely influential band Venom played The Platinum Theater. The room filled up to see them debut its fiery new album, “From the Very Depths” from start to finish (“The Death of Rock N’Roll” was a standout). Among the audience are members of Behemoth and Napalm Death. After the set bandleader Cronos took requests from the audience and they played a bunch of old tunes to great delight and fist-pumping.

At midnight the ship’s glass elevators and carpeted stairwells are still crowded with people out to see more bands. It is a rare and unique opportunity to see this many bands in a venue like this – nothing succeeds like excess – but it is exhausting.

Monday morning it is time to check out but going ashore brings about post-cruise depression. There’s so much more we could have done and bands we could have seen. We never saw Anvil, even though those guys were instantly recognizable from their movie, “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” and walking around everywhere (in fact, there was a point when I thought they were following me). We missed the second set by Blind Guardian which a lot of people said was even better than the first. We never actually used the pools or any of the adventure amenities on board; but none of it mattered because we were too busy running around having the time of our lives.

The Jaccuzzi

The Jaccuzzi

As we file out no one is talking with the excited energy of the first day; instead people check their phones and shuffle along, heads down. I see Lipps and Robb from Anvil (again!) in front of the terminal and they look sad, too. Like any vacation, it was liberation from the mundane and now we all have to go back to our shitty lives. In spite of this I’m feeling pretty cheery. I saw 27 bands, went to Jamaica, drank a few beers and made some new friends. And unlike most landlocked festivals, I got to do it free from conspicuous advertising, in a beautiful setting among like-minded people. It was something unique that I shared with a small group of people, something to cherish. If you love metal, this is an experience you definitely should not miss.

As I drag my luggage out to the cab stand I see one of the guys from Friday night. He looks like he recognizes me but maybe isn’t sure how he knows me. We just kind of nod and smile at each other and he throws me the horns, “Metal!”

I throw the horns back. “Fuckin’ metal, dude!”

The next 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise takes place February 4 – 8 2016 departing from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida sailing to Falmouth, Jamaica and back, with 60 bands on board the Independence of the Seas, the newer sister ship of the Liberty of the Seas.

Note from the editor: 23 of the 60 bands playing at the 2016 edition have been announced at this time. Epica, Children of Bodom, Lacuna Coil, Iced Earth, Insomnium, Sodom, Turisas and Visions of Atlantis will be part of the cruise. See full list here.

All pictures (except for Instagram embeds) in this articles by EVELYN DUNCAN – all rights reserved.

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About The Author

Mick Stingley
Collaborator - RREVERB

Mick Stingley is a freelance writer with a concentration in music and humor. He has been published in Esquire, The Hollywood Reporter, Rolling Stone, BillBoard, VICE, Metal Edge, Terrorizer, Dominion, KNAC.com, Men's Fitness, FHM, The Huffington Post, Hustler, Consequence of Sound and The New York Post among others. He lives with his fiancee in NYC.