THERE'S NOTHING ELSE LIKE 70000 TONS OF METAL
70000 Tons Of Metal Cruise: Fort Lauderdale, Florida To Labadee, Haiti
February 2nd to 6th 2017 17th February 2017
Words: Ian Sutherland, Pictures Artur Gelumbauskas
When UK Metal fans think of festivals, they usually think of fighting through the mud and rain at Download or Bloodstock and having to try and anticipate how our unpredictable weather will affect their weekend. These days some people bypass that by enjoying indoor holiday camp festivals like Hard Rock Hell or Hammerfest in winter time but there is a much more exotic alternative. A festival at sea.
Music themed events on cruise ships are nothing new and Europe has its share of them but MetalTalk decided to go and check out the granddaddy of them all, the biggest heavy Metal cruise on the planet, 70000 Tons Of Metal.
The seventh incarnation of the cruise picked up 3,000 Metalheads in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for a four night cruise to Labadee, Haiti and back. To keep them entertained while on board there were sixty one Metal bands, each due to play two sets split between four stages during the trip. Oh and all the food you can eat, a multitude of bars that NEVER CLOSE and all the usual cruise ship facilities available on Royal Caribbean's giant vessel Independence Of The Seas. These are the highlights of an incredible trip for a couple of MetalTalk adventurers.
Terminal 18 at the Port Everglades facility never looks like this any other time. This may be a Caribbean cruise leaving from the sunshine state but Metal tradition cannot be denied and a bewildering array of black t-shirts fills the embarkation hall. There is a real sense of anticipation as the doors open and the Metal nation starts to file on board and the adventure begins. For the newbies this is time to start finding your way around the ship, not easy when you realIse that if you add passengers, bands and crew this is a small town of nearly 5,500 inhabitants, easily contained within that enormous hull.
It's not long before the bars are already full, the hangovers from the pre-parties getting treated and the party has begun. Legend has it that on the first of these cruises they ran out of beer before they even left port on the opening day. Seven years on there are no such issues and the drink flowed and flowed for four days straight.
Alongside the drinking, some are making plans for the days ahead. The concept of the cruise is a festival without headliners as such. Each band will play two sets, one on the way to Labadee, one on the way back. Sets vary between forty-five minutes and seventy-five minutes and the idea is that you can see every band at least once. However for two of the days bands play from 10.00am to 6.00am so if you want to see everyone a mammoth effort is required. Most attempt to choose what they most want to see, then try and fit in other bands, partying and maybe eating something occasionally in between.
On day one only the three indoor stages are available as the open air pool deck stage, the largest open air stage sailing the world's oceans is being built overnight. While US thrashers Trauma kicked things off in the cosy Pyramid Lounge simultaneously Swedish melodic death Metallers Scar Symmetry were strutting their stuff in Studio B which is normally an ice rink.
The first band in the 1,200 capacity Alhambra theatre are more Swedes in melodic Metallers Amaranthe and their 'Drop Dead Cynical' anthem showed that any kind of Metal was welcome in this environment. The bands come thick and fast here and racing back to the Studio B we managed to catch bay area thrashers Death Angel who made a real statement of intent. Aware that peers Anthrax, Annihilator, Overkill and Testament are also on the boat this seemed to fire them up and they grasped their first forty-five minutes and used it to full effect. Huge volume made their gritty tones feel like a punch in the stomach and absolutely no prisoners were taken. Hugely impressive.
Grave Digger flew the flag for traditional old school Metal well but back in the ice rink again Finnish heathen Metallers Moonsorrow fitted the environment perfectly with a set of epic Metal from the frozen northlands. Making our way back to the Alhambra we can already tell this will be a hectic trip. It seemed just about everyone on the boat tried to squeeze into the theatre for Testament's first outing and the place was ready to explode but it didn't quite happen for me. I thought Death Angel grasped the shortened format better and won the opening salvo in the battle of the old school thrashers.
Arch Enemy are one of the biggest bands here and packed the Alhambra out too with their melodic death Metal. Despite hailing from Canada singer Alissa-White Gluz seemed less familiar to the other western hemisphere attendees at this incredibly international festival but soon became one of the stars of the cruise with her high energy presence and take no prisoners style. At the same time over in the small club size Pyramid Lounge Ghost Ship Octavius made a good stab at transferring their theatrical progressive Metal style into a venue where only the first two or three rows can see you.
By the time we had caught some of Kalmah's black Metal stylings and then Pain doing their aggressive industrial Metal groove it was already 3.00am and although it was tempting to stay up for the folk Metal madness that is Trollfest the MetalTalk contingent decided some sleep was required. Maybe next year our folk Metal-mad Editor will make up for it. Meanwhile, our interview with Pain will be online soon.
Interview responsibilities meant a delayed start for us on the music front the next day so first up was our first pool deck action from American technical death Metal specialists Suffocation. The pool deck stage, famous for offering the chance to watch your favourite Metal bands from three convenient hot tubs has a nice little amphitheatre vibe to it and the volume was extremely impressive too. I am sure there were fisherman in boats miles away wondering what the rolling thunder in the distance was. Inevitably since it was our first open air action there was a brief flurry of rain but as vocalist Frank Mullen quipped: "Our music was just so brutal Jesus was weeping."
It was back inside again to catch some fine power Metal from Germany's Orden Ogan and the give peace a chance Metal of the superb Orphaned Land who really reached out to the hearts of everyone in the theatre and on the cruise. Their middle eastern origins and fight against hatred is easily embraced on a boat with over 3,000 people from seventy-four different countries joining together over a love of music. The UN was never this successful and certainly never partied like the punters on this boat can. Our interview with Orphaned Land will be online soon.
Uli Jon Roth
Uli Jon Roth seemed to be a strange addition to the cruise but I for one enjoyed his set of mostly 1970s Scorpion classics he unleashed on a pool deck bathed in glorious Caribbean sunshine. Vocalist Niklas Turmann did Klaus Meine proud while also covering for bass player Elliot Robinson who was absent through illness. MetalTalk has since learned that Robinson sadly passed away shortly after the cruise and our thoughts are with his family, bandmates and friends.
Xandria's symphonic Metal wowed them in the Alhambra and Haggard used an actual string section in a twelve piece band over at the pool deck before we headed in to check out hot Swedes Avatarium in the ice rink. There was a real buzz about their addition to the cruise and they didn't disappoint. They performed their seventies drenched atmospheric sounds to perfection and singer Jenny-Ann Smith is a rock star like no other. Roared on by a crowd of people drawn from Scotland to Puerto Rico this was one of the performances of the weekend. Our interview with Avatarium will be online soon.
No time to dwell on how good that show was though as it was straight back to the theatre for Therion. Founder member Christofer Jonsson has crippling back issues and it was so impressive that he made the cruise at all. Strapped in a neck brace he took the plaudits with a grimace but he and his colleagues turned in a terrific greatest hits type performance in their own unique style. Our interview with Therion will be online soon.
Angra gave a fine power Metal performance on the pool deck which was a big hit with the many South Americans among the crowd here. Full of drama and bravado matched with experience they strode the waves like they were born to it. Our interview with Angra will be online soon.
Day two is official meet and greet day. While you can bump into any musician anywhere on the ship at any time (breakfast with Anthrax, drinks with Therion, karaoke with Death Angel, anything can happen) if you don't want to leave things to chance you can go and stand in line for an autograph and a chat. As a result those of us dashing between shows get caught up getting around the long lines and then distracted seeing who's meet and greet it is. It is possible to get a cheery wave from Amaranthe as you pass by on your way to another show. No other Metal festival is quite this intimate.
All that had happened and it wasn't even 7.00pm yet. Overkill were next with a typically brash, in your face performance with vocalist Bobby 'Blitz' Ellsworth smiling at all the crowd surfers and even happy to challenge any one of them to a fight. "Grandpa could kick your ass," never sounded so curiously charming before.
Long waits to get into the lifts meant some of us pounded up sixteen flights of stairs to the pool deck after Overkill to catch Amorphis but it was worth it. A band with a big following on board, the Finns sounded terrific, crossing the bridge between progressive Metal, folk Metal and even a little death Metal effortlessly. By this time the hot tub action is in full flow too. You can headbang, mosh and even have a circle pit in a hot tub as was proved to me on this trip. Crowd surfing was a more precarious proposition though.
Carcass were last minute additions to the cruise and the only UK band on the boat but they did us proud, even if some of the crowd didn't totally get all of Jeff Walker's sardonic asides. Another trip up to the pool deck later it was Anthrax time. They were their usually ebullient selves but personally I decided a little Heavy Metal relaxation was in order and watched the set from the back on a sun lounger in the warm Caribbean air. Only on this cruise can you do that.
I was looking forward to Annihilator but late running of the pool deck stage meant we had to head down to the ice rink after just a few songs to catch Draconian. The Swedish doom masters were once again forced to perform with Lisa Cuthbert standing in for Heike Langhans on vocals but still managed to put in a terrific set. Cuthbert is excellent in her own right, even on the songs from last album, 'Sovran', where Langhans sounded just perfect. The band's melancholy beauty works even in the Caribbean. Our interview with Draconian will be online soon.
Omnium Gatherum was the final entertainment for the MetalTalk evening so more Finnish death Metal on the pool deck took us up to 4.00am and some very tired legs went to bed.
Day three is technically a rest day with the bands not starting until 5.00pm and everyone able to go ashore for a few hours at the Labadee resort in Haiti. It's a very, very beautiful place and many chose just to lie on the pristine white beaches and drink cocktails while others took advantage of excursions on offer. You could even have selected an option with a band involved such as snorkelling with Trollfest but most people, bands included, just enjoyed the tropical goodness of it all for a few hours.
Back on board the second round of sets started with an impressive performance from more melodic death Metal Finns in Mors Principum Est on the pool deck while Ghost Ship Octavius got an upgrade to the ice rink.
Now the decision making starts and you have to pick whether to see a band a second time or catch bands you missed first time around. For us, seeing excellent sets from Moonsorrow, Overkill and Draconian in different settings was irresistible. Most bands change the set up a bit however, probably due to rehearsal restrictions. After a late line-up change Uli Jon Roth chose to play almost the same set while Trollfest got missed again as they clashed with Testament who put in a dynamic performance on a packed pool deck, a mighty thrash leviathan on the Caribbean sea.
Haggard sounded even better in the theatre and Kamelot managed to get Alissa-White Gluz to reprise her guest spot with them to liven up an already excellent open air set. Amorphis packed the theatre with the promise of playing the whole of the 'Eclipse' album and went down a Caribbean storm once more.
Alissa White-Gluz with Kamelot
We had been ignoring much of the activity in the compact Pyramid Lounge as it's not the best venue to see anyone in but watching Allegaeon from the back was impressive. Driven by remarkably technical bass drumming from Brandon Park the Colorado death Metallers had the place going crazy. Seeing crowd surfers make their way to the front using the lights on the low ceiling for purchase was surreal; Spiderman Metal is born.
Equlibrium came over as more black/death in style than the folk Metal I expected but it still sounded good and then at the insistence of one of us it was more German/Dutch symphonic Metal from Xandria on the pool deck to finish off our day after 3.00am.
I had heard that day four was when things got really crazy but after the previous three days I didn't believe it. How wrong I was!
Out came a bunch of costumes ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous and the partying amazingly got harder. It wasn't unusual to find someone asleep or passed out somewhere on a chair or on the floor but while some food may have been knocked over I genuinely didn't see a single unconscious person with a drink who didn't still have it upright in their hand.
I started the day intending to catch Austrian symphonic Metallers Serenity but got distracted stumbling across Uli Jon Roth doing a guitar class in one of the foyer bars. Man, that guy really, really knows how to play guitar. The same thing happened to me later with Christian Vidal of Therion. So much going on.
When I finally got to Serenity singer Georg Neuhauser was leading the audience in a chant of "breakfast band". Their set did start at 10.45am ut they still managed to sound really good and full marks to Neuhauser for crowdsurfing at the end, probably the first one of the day on the whole boat.
Amaranthe had a fine groove on at the pool deck before the traditional Belly Flop contest. Judged by various band members and featuring contestants with and without the belly required to excel, it was a half hour of irreverent fun and a signal as to the vibe that surrounds this whole event.
From there we headed into the theatre for another final day tradition on this trip, the All Star Jam. Annihilator's Jeff Waters somehow manages to put together a dazzling variety of musicians to play classic rock songs of his choice. It must be under rehearsed but you wouldn't know as it was a fantastic show.
There were sublime unexpected moments like Overkill's Bobby Ellsworth doing a fabulous Rob Halford on Priest's Grinder and Death Angel's Mark Osegueda getting Bon Scott right down to his onstage stance on 'Riff Raff'. Even when it got a bit surreal with a duet on Motörhead 's 'Killed By Death' from Draconian's Lisa Cuthbert and Amaranthe's Elize Ryd it somehow worked with Ryd in particular really going for that vocal by the end.
The final delightful stamp on a boat filled with old school thrash Metal fans was a terrific version of Metallica's 'Metal Militia' performed by a line-up featuring members of Death Angel, Testament, Annihilator, Anthrax and Overkill. Thrashtastic!
Popping into the ice rink we caught some of French rockers Nightmare and very impressive they were too. Good songs, tight band and in singer Maggy Luyten they have a pocket rocket with attitude, a big voice and a big personality. Sorry we missed the first set. Avatarium wowed everyone again in the Pyramid Lounge despite the restrictions of the venue while Annihilator had fun with their technical thrash Metal in the theatre.
Interview responsibilities got in the way at this point and as one of us is an NFL fan we took in part of the Superbowl party too which is certainly the only one I've been to where a moshpit started.
As the cruise neared its climax the intensity of the shows from Angra and Suffocation just got deeper. Arch Enemy took over the pool deck stage and the place went absolutely crazy for them. Anthrax's turn in the theatre saw some of the biggest pits of the weekend.
Therion got to close the pool deck in an emotional show which everyone hopes won't be their last live outing with Christofer Jonsson and finally those with the energy left packed the theatre one last time for Death Angel to close the live bands out with another intense, crushing set, for us cementing them as thrash band of the cruise. Simply superb.
It's after 1.00am and the ship docks at 7.00am with passengers needing to be off the ship by 9.30am. So what to do? Have a big karaoke party on the pool deck, obviously. Another 70k tradition, it was a lot of fun. Not all Metal as Metallers have a fine sense of irony so much singing along was done to stuff by Journey and even Celine Dion, with obligatory crowd surfing of course.
Singing along in the crowd with Maggy from Nightmare while Fabio from Angra did a Scorpions tune in the karaoke was both surreal and a lot of fun. Eventually as dawn broke we called it a night and stumbled happy but bleary eyed off the boat about three hours later.
This is a fantastic festival with a really terrific, friendly vibe. It can be addictive and many make the trip every year. You certainly won't find a more intimate festival experience anywhere with venues where getting to the front is easy and the chance that you might find the guitarist from your favourite band headbanging behind you or across the dinner table. Add in the occasional surreal sight of Jesus crowdsurfing to Death Angel or a T-Rex headbanging in a hot tub plus all that Caribbean sunshine and it's an amazing package.
It's not cheap though. You will pay a premium on top of a normal cruise cost and the way this crowd drinks there are no all inclusive style drink packages like on normal cruises. So, should you do it? Hell yes, even if it's only once! Start saving.