After attending Barge to Hell in December, I had absolutely no idea that I’d be returning to Miami some five weeks later to the same port, the same ship, the same crew even, to cover the third annual 70000 Tons of Metal. But as anyone will tell you, when you have a chance to go on the craziest cruise around, let alone one of the very best metal festivals in the world, you don’t pass it up. So even though I had to go it alone, without the rest of Hellbound’s cruise crew (AKA Sean and Albert), I was more than willing to go on my third of four metal cruises the folks at Vancouver’s Ultimate Music Cruises have organized over the past two years.
There’s something to be said about attending these events several times in short succession. You know the best way to get to Miami Beach, where to stay, where to eat, the whole drill when it comes to checking in at the Port of Miami. And when you get on the ship, you know where everything is, you just walk straight to your cabin while everyone else is trying to find their way around the 14-storey vessel. So there was a nice routine to my 24 hours prior to departure, completely stress free, and I strode on to the Majesty of the Seas more rested than I had been the two previous times. And considering just how busy I would be on the cruise, it was a good thing I was well refreshed. Four days, 42 bands, with sets going from ten in the morning all the way to five in the morning. Let the madness begin…
Day One: Miami, Florida
Boarding the Majesty of the Seas for the second time in six weeks, the difference between 70,000 Tons of Metal and Barge to Hell couldn’t have been more obvious. While Barge was tremendous fun, its focus on extreme metal, primarily death metal, took away from the fun vibe these metal cruises are supposed to have. This time around, the beer was flowing, everyone was having a boisterous time, and an overall festive vibe was all over the ship. It goes without saying power metal and Viking metal brings an overall more cheerful kind of metal fan, and the ship was teeming with them. It sure didn’t hurt that this was the sunniest and hottest afternoon departing Miami that I’d seen in three cruises. After an hour of beer drinking, the mandatory muster drill – which is always comically chaotic when you have a couple thousand soused metalheads – and 30 minutes to decompress, it was time to kick off what would be an epic Day One of the cruise.
Helstar, Spectrum Lounge 5:30
Nothing like some top flight speed metal to kick things off. Led by the great screamer James Rivera, who performed with Agent Steel at the inaugural 70,000 Tons two years ago, the band tore into such faves as “Plague Called Man” and “Good Day to Die” as the ship left the port, the downtown Miami skyline shrinking in the distance. It was a memorable backdrop against which for the band to play. “Last time I played here,” said Rivera, “I had a hangover for like a month.”
Sabaton, Chorus Line Theatre, 6:00
The honour of being this cruise’s Exodus, official openers and closers of 70,000 Tons of Metal 2013 and unofficial hosts, went to Sabaton, and judging by how much fun the Swedes had on the 2011 cruise, it was a perfect choice. Two years ago I had a big problem with their strange combination of humour and songs about World War II – “Who are these clowns,” I thought – but their 2012 album Carolus Rex redeemed them somewhat in my eyes, and there’s no denying they’re a likeable bunch. They’re a very popular band, and the theatre was packed as “The Final Countdown” served as the overture, setting the stage for a rousing rendition of “Ghost Division”. The joy in the crowd was just as contagious as the band’s energy onstage. Two songs in, the boat started rocking – literally! – back and forth as it gained speed, that now familiar wooziness – part motion, part alcohol – setting in. Singer Joachim Brodèn, always a charismatic sort, led the crowd on big sing-alongs of “Carolus Rex”, “Primo Victoria”, and “The Art of War”. “The Carolean’s Prayer”, sung in Swedish, was a big highlight. “Last time on this cruise I did a little crowd surfing and you threw me in the pool. How about we make that a tradition?” he said, to a huge roar of approval.
While they set out to impress people two years ago, they returned to 70,000 Tons as one of the biggest power metal bands around, and it felt like it. A triumphant set, despite the synchronized jumping during songs about Nazi warfare, which still looks ridiculous. Seriously, the Allies didn’t hop up and down like bunnies as they stormed the Nazi line in 1944.
It was while I took a break and sat in my comfy seat midway through Sabaton’s set that I realized how funny it is seeing everyone around you sway in unison as the ship tilts to the left and right.
Delain, Spectrum Lounge, 7:00
I’ve always liked Delain. Prom dress metal? You bet. But the Dutch band, more Within Temptation than Epica, always specializes in good, catchy pop metal tunes. Playing immediately after Sabaton, many ventured upstairs to the smaller venue, making this one of the biggest attended sets I’ve seen in this room in three cruises. Whenever a band has a charismatic and attractive woman singer, the phone cameras come out, and many people were desperate to get a glimpse of Charlotte Wessels. And to her credit she brings a lot of warmth and personality to the stage, not unlike Anneke van Giersbergen, leading the band through “Get the Devil Out of Me”, “Mother Machine”, and “Sleepwalkers Dream”.
Nile, Chorus Line Theatre, 7:45
From the femininity of pop-oriented symphonic metal to pure, testosterone fuelled death metal. This is the kind of variety I love at a fest like this. The great Nile, a band that won’t ever tour Canada, came on and slaughtered with such pulverizing yet dexterous songs as “Kafir”, “Cast Down the Heretic”, “Supreme Hedomism of Megalomania”, and “Lashed to the Slave Stick”, guitarists Karl Sanders and Dallas Toler-Wade leading the way, trading deft solos and lead vocals. A metal cruise is never without its surreal moments, and hearing Nile, these ultra-serious performers of studious Egyptology inspired death metal, ask a crowd if they’re ready to party would be one of many.
Flotsam & Jetsam, Spectrum Lounge, 8:45
Doomsday For the Deceiver is one of my favourite thrash albums ever, and having never seen Flotsam & Jetsam live, this one was a biggie. As soon as I entered the Spectrum after a quick stairway dash up two stories, the opening strains of the classic “Hammerhead” could be heard, immediately taking me back to 1986-87. Erik AK‘s vocals were a little low in the already sketchy mix, but that hardly mattered as he and his mates tore into “Iron Tears”, “No Place For Disgrace”, “Hard on You”, and new song “Ugly Noise”.
Not even six hours of being on this boat, and I had already seen more Gotthard shirts being worn than I ever have in my life. People here seem to really like middling Swiss hard rock.
Helloween, Chorus Line Theatre, 9:30
If you’re a band playing a cruise, it might be a good idea to bring a drum kit that the stagehands can quickly put together instead of a garish, expensive rig that had the poor guys looking like they were ten year-olds trying to put together an intricate Lego model. As a result there was a 40 minute delay before Helloween started, which of course also meant that all theatre sets that followed would be delayed as well. After kicking things off with the awful “Are You Metal?” things improved with a passable “Eagle Fly Free”, but when they played “Where the Sinners Go” from their atrocious last album, I had to bail to grab a quick bite and go see Lizzy Borden. “And this is where Adrien goes,” quipped JP Wood of Metal Rules, who was watching the show with me. Touché. JP would later tell me Helloween’s set actually included a drum solo. Yeah, that’s why all these people traveled out here, to hear a time-wasting drum solo.
Lizzy Borden, Spectrum Lounge, 10:45
Having been a big fan of their ’80s material since that stuff was new – Love You to Pieces is an all-time classic if you ask me – I never had the chance to see Lizzy Borden live, so this was another big one for yours truly. And although the majority of people on the floor were grey haired, balding, or both, it was a spirited bunch as Lizzy strode onstage in a cloak, his face shrouded. He hasn’t lost his shock rock ways, donning various costumes, enacting a murder, and smearing fans’ faces with blood, but it was the music that held up best, the 45-minute set highlighted by “Red Rum”, “Me Against the World”, “There Will Be Blood Tonight”, and the great “American Metal”. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait for the band’s second set on Thursday.
DragonForce, Chorus Line Theatre, 11:30
Surprise, more delays. Thanks again, Helloween. DragonForce went on after a similar 40-minute wait, but the sound was dreadful, so all over the map that I couldn’t handle it. So with 15 minutes to spare before the first pool stage set of the cruise, I headed upstairs for a little Canadian metal.
Threat Signal, Spectrum Lounge, 12:15 a.m.
It was nice to see these Hamilton kids added to the cruise, and they played to a couple dozen stragglers who couldn’t bear DragonForce either. They weren’t given the best times in the world, opposite a popular band and at three in the morning on the last night, but they relished the opportunity and cranked out their thrash-infused metal with admirable enthusiasm. Good for them, and good for the few who went to check them out.
Metal Church, Pool stage, 12:30 a.m.
The one other time I saw Metal Church, opening for Metallica in 1986, they opened with “Ton of Bricks”. 26 years and one month later, what did they open with? Yep. Perfect.
Slight delay with this one, so as not to overlap too much with DragonForce, but once things got rolling at one in the morning, it was extraordinary, as the newly reunited Metal Church played a stunning greatest hits set that was voted on by fans. Smartly, everyone voted for tracks from 1986’s The Dark and 1989’s Blessing in Disguise, and we got a bevy of them, from “Start the Fire”, to “Badlands”, to “The Dark”, to “Fake Healer”. During “Watch the Children Pray” the skies opened and the big crowd got absolutely drenched as the ship opened the throttle (wait, do ships have throttles?) and sped through the bad weather. Even though the band would be playing their entire first album on Thursday, they dusted off a pair of classics in “Gods of Wrath” and “Beyond the Black”. The best set of Day One, it was the kind of performance that gives you goose bumps, although that also might have been because we were all soaked and shivering.
Tiamat, Chorus Line Theatre, 1:30 a.m.
After drying off I got to the theatre at 2:15, and Swiss goth greats Tiamat were doing their thing, playing slick, lushly mournful tunes including “Wings of Heaven”, “Children of the Underworld”, and the Wildhoney classic “Whatever That Hurts”. It was nice chill-out music, kind of like a metal Tindersticks, and had attracted a nice crowd of people willing to wallow in the band’s delightful misery.
Turisas, Pool stage, 2:30 a.m.
I’ve said it before, bands that use backing tracks at pool stage sets often fall flat, and that was the case again with Turisas. The music was spirited enough, but out in the open it felt even more artificial than it already is. Songs like “Holmgård and Beyond” and “One More” were fun, and a big three a.m. crowd ate it all up, but you knew that the theatre show would be even better. Hopefully they’ll cover “Rasputin” at that show.
3 Inches of Blood, Pool stage, 4:15 a.m.
Hats off to those steely folks who stayed up ridiculously late to see the Canadian faves do their thing. And it was the rowdiest set of Day One for sure, a good mosh pit forming as the band played “Destroy the Orcs”, “The Goatriders Horde”, and the ubiquitous “Deadly Sinners”. 3 Inches of Blood are never a letdown, and they earned some bonus points for the fantastic cover of Accept’s “Restless and Wild”.
It was also at this hour that the ship hit rough water, and the rocking and swaying kicked in for real. When I hit my bed at 5:15, the powerful but strangely soothing up and down of the ocean rendered me unconscious in mere seconds.
More on 70,000 Tons of Metal 2013 in the next few days…