Ft. Lauderdale, FL – Labadee, Haiti
February 2-6, 2017
Jen and I had never done the 70000 Tons of Metal cruise before. Oh sure, we’d been curious about it since the event’s inception in 2011. We had friends (fans and band members alike) tell us each year what an amazing and completely unique experience it was. But we had never pulled the trigger. Part of our hesitation was the hit-or-miss nature of the lineups. I’m a crotchety old-school bastard who finds comfort in a narrow niche and has precious little interest in or tolerance for the myriad other subgenres that have proliferated under the heavy metal umbrella. By that metric, roughly half to two-thirds of the bands announced for 70K each year do absolutely nothing for me. A fair number I’ve never even heard of. It always struck me as foolhardy to make that much of an investment of money and time for an event featuring so many bands I knew I would not enjoy. Then there’s the money angle. No two ways about it, the cruise is damned expensive. We could travel to Europe for what it costs to attend 70000 Tons, and then we’d be in glorious Europe, instead of trapped on some fake boat sailing to some fake resort somewhere. So we never went on the boat before.
Last summer, our good friend Megan (a survivor of each and every 70K cruise) approached us and asked if we were interested in sharing a cabin with her and her Belgian friend Niki. As repeat cruisers, Megan and Niki receive a discount on bookings that would apply to their roommates as well, plus they get access to the cheapest cabins. It was never going to be more economical for us to take the plunge. The catch was that no or almost no bands had been announced at the time we had to commit. We bit the bullet and told Megan to count us in. Last July, we plunked down nearly $1,000 each, not counting our transportation to and from Ft. Lauderdale, to participate in the seventh installment of the 70000 Tons of Metal cruise from February 2 – 6, 2017. Here is our story of what happened.
The basic setup of this event is that 60 metal bands representing all styles and subgenres are commandeered to play two gigs apiece on a floating heavy metal party attended by 3,000 fans from around the world. This year’s attendees spanned a staggering 74 countries, and we met very few Americans onboard, so it seems we Yanks were a distinct minority. The vessel in question is the Royal Caribbean Independence of the Seas, a 15-deck luxury cruise liner built in 2008 that is more than 1,100 feet long and carries a working crew of 1,360 employees. You board the ship on a Thursday afternoon, spend a day and a half rocking out on the high seas to each band’s first set, dock at a port of call (this year it was Labadee, Haiti) on Saturday morning and afternoon, then spend another day and a half rocking out as each band plays a second set while the boat sails back to Ft. Lauderdale. The ship includes four stages: the Alhambra Theater (a large indoor seated venue – with the first few rows of seats removed to accommodate a pit – typically used by the cruise line for musical productions), the Ice Rink (the ship’s indoor ice rink is covered with temporary flooring and a stage is built at one end of it), the Pyramid Lounge (a tiny, low stage in a room for which visibility is nonexistent unless you happen to be standing in the first couple of rows), and the granddaddy of them all, the Pool Deck Stage (a huge outdoor stage built over one of the ship’s swimming pools on the 11th Deck, allowing attendees to rock out in the sunshine, under the stars, and in hot tubs, with multiple tiered viewing platforms providing amazing sightlines). Each band performs on two different stages so that, for example, a band wouldn’t get screwed by having to play the lousy Pyramid Lounge stage twice. Most of the bigger acts (with a few exceptions) played once on the Pool Deck and once in the Alhambra Theater. Set lengths ranged from a low end of 45 minutes (for the smaller, lesser known bands) to an hour (for the mid-sized bands) to 75 minutes (for headliners Anthrax, Kamelot and Arch Enemy). There were almost always bands playing on multiple stages at any given time, so there were plenty of clashes in set times. That’s actually part of the reason the bands play twice. If you miss a band’s first performance because of an unfavorable conflict, you’ll have another chance. Music runs pretty much around the clock, beginning as early as 10:00 a.m. and running as late as 6:00 a.m. The days are long, and sleep is in extremely short supply.
Aside from the unusual surroundings and special ambience inherent in a floating metal festival, a major selling point of 70000 Tons of Metal is the essentially unrestricted access to the bands. There is no backstage. There are no green rooms or tour buses for the artists to use as private sanctuaries. The musicians you worship onstage spend their offstage time walking around amongst you like regular joes. There is no separation between bands and fans, no B.S. paid meet-and-greets, no phalanxes of security guards to keep the riffraff away. I wondered how that would play out, and it was actually really cool. For the most part, the fans seemed respectful of the musicians’ time and privacy, and weren’t constantly haranguing them for autographs and photos. After all, it’s a vacation for the bands as well, and most attendees allowed the artists to enjoy their holidays without being pestered mercilessly by punishing fans. I tried my best to be polite and respectful, but when I passed Chuck Billy in a deserted hallway, you’re damn right I said, “What’s up, Chuck?” Or when I saw Jeff Waters hanging out by an elevator, I went over and shook his hand and told him how excited I was to be seeing Annihilator for the first time since 1990. Or when I saw Frank Bello from Anthrax hanging out at the casino bar, I went over and asked if he remembered accompanying a radio contest winner to Fenway Park for a Yankees/Red Sox game in 1993, because I was that contest winner. At one point, Jen and I helped a lost Michael Amott (Arch Enemy) find his way to the Ice Rink to watch a performance. At another point, we were excitedly debriefing Jen’s first Overkill gig over a meal when Derek Tailer (Overkill guitarist) and his female companion sat down two feet away from us. Minutes after Death Angel’s second set closed out the festival, we were going upstairs when we literally ran into a sweaty, exhausted Will Carroll (Death Angel drummer) carrying some gear back to his room. Stuff like that. It was cool as hell. There were chance encounters with musical heroes to be had at every meal, walking down every hallway, or just hanging out on the pool deck or in the coffee shop. That’s an amazing, unique feature of the 70000 Tons of Metal cruise that I have never witnessed at any other music festival on this scale.
There were many things to love about this fest, and we did. But I don’t want to oversell it. There were also some really annoying aspects. First and foremost, you have to make your peace with the fact that this is a corporate event. The organizers are there to make money, and Royal Caribbean is there to make money. You want to buy a festival shirt? That’ll be $35. You want a crappy 12-ounce Budweiser? That’ll set you back $6.50, plus a mandatory 18% gratuity. (The drinking tip that my friend Mark Gromen clued me in on from the start was to stick with the 25-ounce Fosters oil cans, which run just $7.50 plus 18% gratuity, or $8.85 total. The beer’s pretty shitty, but at least you don’t feel like you’re getting your pocket picked each time you buy some suds.) The stage setups were not ideal. The schedule would fall behind at one stage or another because of technical issues during changeovers, and then your carefully constructed plans for which gigs to catch would be all shot to hell, forcing you to miss bands you really wanted to see. The sound was very much lacking at times, especially in the Alhambra Theater where especially the more layered, symphonic bands (Therion, Xandria, etc.) lost all guitars in the mix. On Day 3 after dark, the Pool Deck Stage was obscured by stage fog that was so thick it was often impossible to see anything onstage. Chill out with the fog already, guys. Another issue was the ridiculous set-up for the central merch area, which Jen and I never even got to see. To access the merch room, you were required to take a number from a kiosk, check the monitors for hours and hours to see when your number was called, and then go to the merch area right when your number was called. The monitors broadcasting the merch numbers weren’t anywhere near the stages, so I guess you were supposed to quit watching gigs and just sit in front of a TV in a lounge waiting for your number. Screw that. I will say, though, that none of this awful system was the fault of Merch Queen Robin, who is the very best in the business. She did not devise the plan, but was responsible for implementing it.
And then there were the fans, most of whom seemed to be very nice, welcoming people who sail on the boat every single year. Everyone I met was kind and friendly, and many of them talked about the cruise with a kind of evangelistic zeal. What’s bad about that? Well, I’m accustomed to attending niche true metal festivals where people go because they’re really, really into seeing the bands play. Here, by contrast, a significant minority of the festival goers seemed like they were just here for the party, like Gretchen Wilson says. Nowhere was that more evident than in the elaborate costumes many attendees were wearing. There were pink bunny rabbits, a Star Wars Stormtrooper, a guy the security staff dubbed “Fat Vader” for obvious reasons, some dude dressed like Jesus, a chick looking like Mary (as in the Blessed Virgin, not the Suite Sister), a guy in a full business suit and tie, a giant red lobster or crab or some shit, Day of the Dead celebrants, an 8-foot tall Tyrannosaurus Rex costume, and even fucking Gumby, for crying out loud. There was also somebody I called the “shit-on-a-stick” guy. He spent all four days of the festival walking around holding up a stick with a plastic poop emoji attached to the top. He carried it in the dining room. He carried at the gigs. He probably carried it to the loo. You get the idea. This wasn’t just a few lunatic fringe outliers. This was dozens and dozens of attendees. Look, I don’t have anything against Halloween or cosplay or whatever. If that’s what floats your boat, then rock on, man. Live and let live, I say. But it underscores the see-and-be-seen vibe that definitely seemed to permeate the mentality of a significant portion of the guests. I’m sure those last few sentences read like I’m a judgmental bastard with a superiority complex, and maybe I am, but it rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t go to gigs to play dress-up games and show how ironic I can be. I go because this music is in my heart, it’s in my blood, and it’s in my very soul. Again, apologies if this comes across as an asshole arrogant rant. I know it was all harmless fun, and I never begrudge anybody having fun. That’s the whole point, right? But it seemed like a decent chunk of folks were here for very different reasons than I. In a way, there are parallels to the ProgPower USA crowd, who are also mostly lovely people with an agenda that strikes me as foreign. I don’t feel that way when I go to an underground festival like Up the Hammers or Frost and Fire or so on, but then again, I’m more of an underground guy. The vignette that sums it all up perfectly was when my friend Mark Gromen was asked by somebody what band’s music was playing over the speakers. It was Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye.” The guy, who presumably paid the same crazy money I did to attend this heavy metal cruise, had never heard the song or the band before. There ya go.
Finally, a factor that could have been a drawback for some people, but wasn’t for me, was that most of the bands (especially the bigger bands) tour the United States regularly. The 70000 Tons roster isn’t built around exclusive performances, rarities or one-time only events the way so many underground festivals are these days. Hell, bands like Anthrax, Overkill, Kamelot, Arch Enemy, Carcass, Death Angel, Testament and so on are proven road dogs who tour all the time. For some attendees, that fact might have been a disappointment or a deterrent. Not for me. Here’s why: I live in a remote, isolated part of the USA, hundreds of miles from anywhere any self-respecting metal act would want to play. I don’t get to see touring bands unless I drive a long way, take vacation time from work, etc., etc. So the idea of experiencing two sets from a bunch of touring bands that I enjoy all at one time was actually a major part of the festival’s appeal to me. It was also fun to poke my head in for a few minutes to check out a band that I was interested in seeing, but didn’t care enough about to drive, say, five hours to Atlanta on a Tuesday to see. So this aspect of the fest worked out splendidly for me, but your mileage may vary.
By now, I’ve duly laid the groundwork for the event, and probably put most of you to sleep. For the rest of you, you presumably came to read a review of a bunch of metal gigs, so that’s exactly what you’re going to get from here on out. Here we go …
Thursday, February 2, 2017
The Independence of the Seas pulled up anchor and headed for the open seas at 5:00 p.m. A scant 15 minutes later, the live music began. Jen and I kicked off our first 70000 Tons of Metal experience by checking out TRAUMA on the tiny Pyramid Lounge stage. Trauma’s booking was a real surprise, because they’re a true underground metal act that even played Headbangers Open Air in Germany a couple of years ago. Trauma is most often remembered as the band from which Metallica plucked Cliff Burton, but there’s a lot more to them than a historical footnote. I had never expected to see the band live, so it was a wonderful surprise when they were booked. Right out of the chute, they played five songs in a row from their seminal ‘Scratch and Scream’ album released on Shrapnel Records in 1984. Although vocalist Donny Hilliard is the only remaining member from those days, and he’s hard-pressed to hit those high notes today, both he and the band sounded great. It was a treat to hear songs like “Bringing the House Down” and “The Day All Hell Broke Loose.” Those were part of the soundtrack of my teenage years back in the glorious ‘80s, and it was cool as hell to hear them delivered with style and class. The newer songs also sounded strong, especially set closer “When I Die.” Talking to the guys later that night when Jen and I bumped into them on the Royal Promenade, I was impressed by their warmth and genuineness. True metal festival promoters, what are you waiting for? Go book Trauma now! Setlist: Scratch and Scream, The Day All Hell Broke Loose, I Kill for Less, Bringing the House Down, Lay Low, Egypt, Disengaged (brand-new song), The Warlock, Too Late, When I Die.
We had some time to kill before Death Angel’s set, so we meandered over to the Alhambra Theater to take a gander at AMARANTHE. Their first album was a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, sort of pop music meets power metal with dirty guitars or something. With each successive album, however, Amaranthe moved more into realms of dance music or some shit that I don’t care about, so I’ve lost track of their career and their music. I gave ‘em three or four songs tonight, and it didn’t work for me at all, even though I actually recognized one tune (“1,000,000 Lightyears” from the debut). The focal point of the music seemed to be those accursed dance beats, with easy-on-the-eyes singer Elize Ryd doing an aerobic workout in time with the beat. It’s not even really fair for me to critique this, because it’s so far out of the realm of anything that I would listen to that I’m not qualified to comment. To my ears, it had nothing to do with heavy metal, or what I think of as heavy metal. But don’t tell that to the rabid throngs in Alhambra, who seemed deliriously happy with Amaranthe’s showing.
By 6:45 p.m., it was time for the intensity level to be raised several notches with DEATH ANGEL playing on the Ice Rink stage. Death Angel are one of my very favorite veteran thrash acts still going today, so I’m always fired up to see them. But I was particularly stoked today. You see, last night, Jen and I had flown into Ft. Lauderdale at 10:00 p.m. and checked into a nearby Ramada Inn to get a bit of shuteye before the cruise. We couldn’t sleep, so we headed to the poolside Tiki Bar for a Yuengling, While there, we ended up meeting and having a long heart-to-heart talk with Ted Aguilar of Death Angel. It was one of those rare moments when, without even meaning to and certainly without expecting to, you somehow make a connection and forge a bond with another person. Ted rules, and has some of the most amazing insights into the music industry and life in general that I’ve ever heard from any musician. Given this contact with Ted, we were extra-stoked for the gig. Death Angel killed, just like they always do, with vocalist Mark Osegueda whipping up the crowd to a frenzy and guitarists Aguilar and Robb Cavestany putting on a clinic in Bay Area thrash done right. The entire band seemed fired up to be there, with Osegueda saying how stoked they were to be on the boat for the third time and reminding us, “this is Day 1,” the implication being that no one should be tired and energy levels in the pit should be peaking. “Seemingly Endless Time” surfaced early in the set as a welcome blast from the past, but it was the one-two punch of “Thrown to the Wolves” and “The Moth” (I swear, I’m obsessed with that song) to close out the gig that really pushed it over the top. The crowd went nuts, there were surfers galore, and I headbanged and sweated and sang from beginning to end. It’s amazing how much intensity and power Death Angel were able to cram into a criminally short 45-minute set. Wow! Setlist: Ultraviolence (intro only), Evil Priest, Claws In So Deep, Seemingly Endless Time, Left For Dead, Father of Lies, Caster of Shame, Thrown to the Wolves, The Moth.
Once Death Angel’s set ended at 7:30 p.m., we raced over to the Alhambra Theater trying to catch the beginning of the 7:30 p.m. GRAVE DIGGER gig. The walk took about 10 minutes because of both the distance involved and the extreme congestion in this area of the ship – because the Pool Deck stage would not be completed until tomorrow, all of the activity tonight was concentrated in one section of the boat, which made for slow passage between concert venues. I expected Grave Digger to be in full roar when we reached Alhambra, so it was odd to be greeted with silence. Unfortunately, we had reached our first major technical hiccups of the fest. The crew spent about 30-40 minutes after we arrived working on the monitors and stage sound. This was most unfortunate, because it fouled up our timetable for the rest of the night and effectively prevented us from making it over to the Pyramid Lounge to see Nightmare and Serenity. Oh, well, I guess that’s a reason to be thankful for the two-set format of the cruise. Finally, Grave Digger took the stage approximately 45 minutes late. Vocalist Chris Boltendahl apologized and assured the crowd that the delays weren’t the band’s fault. The delays also seemed not to have been productive. Guitarist Axel Ritt was obviously having severe issues with his monitor. A crew member kept coming out on stage to check on things during the show, with Ritt ruefully frowning and shaking his head. Sadly, then, the technical problems persisted. Between those issues, the loss of momentum caused by the delay, and the cutting of two songs from the setlist, Grave Digger had a rough go of it tonight. They did the best they could under the circumstances, and I was certainly ecstatic to hear the likes of “Killing Time” (an unappreciated gem off the ‘Tunes of War’ album), “Ballad of a Hangman” (with its mighty “HANGMAN” shouted chorus), and “Dark of the Sun.” But unfortunately it seemed like Grave Digger were playing with the deck stacked against them on this night. Setlist: Healed by Metal, Lawbreaker, Killing Time, Ballad of a Hangman, Season of the Witch, Dark of the Sun, Excalibur, Highland Farewell, Rebellion, Heavy Metal Breakdown.
Because the schedule had been thrown off, we elected to stay put in the Alhambra Theater to await TESTAMENT. Jen and I both secured nice spots on the rail on Eric Peterson’s side of the stage. Now, anyone who knows me will not be shocked to hear that I was on the rail. But Jen? That’s something unusual. She decided she was feeling adventurous, it being the first night of the cruise, so she wanted to see what it was like to be up front at a thrash gig. It’s fair to say that Jen soon regretted the decision. As expected, the pit was rough and violent and there was no way to get out. So she toughed it out with sheer stubborn determination and lived to tell the tale. As for Testament, they put on an excellent show. Performing in front of their ‘Brotherhood of the Snake’ backdrop, the band ripped through a set focused heavily on their later material, with just two songs total culled from the first six albums. Now, that choice may have disappointed the most dedicated old-schoolers, but I like all eras of the band, so I didn’t mind at all that the set was tilted so heavily toward more recent songs. I will confess that I was surprised to hear two songs from ‘The Gathering’ aired during this relatively brief 50-minute gig. For my taste, “More than Meets the Eye” and “DNR” and “Rise Up” are all top-notch Testament bangers, although I will confess my favorite moments were, predictably, “Into the Pit” and “Over the Wall,” with the spine-tingling solo section that still gets me every time, even three decades later. Those were probably Jen’s least favorite moments, because the pit was raging especially hard during those tracks. (She told me later, “I’ve never prayed so hard at a show before,” haha.) Chuck Billy was in fine spirits, and made a few comments about how he could feel the boat rocking under his feet while they performed. It was odd, however, to see him without his trademark half-microphone stand that he uses for air-guitaring. Chuck just had a regular mike stand tonight. What’s up with that? It wouldn’t fit in his carry-on? Altogether, it was a totally pro, enjoyable new-school Testament gig. Setlist: Brotherhood of the Snake, Pale King, Dark Roots of Earth, Rise Up, More than Meets the Eye, Into the Pit, Over the Wall, DNR, 3 Days of Darkness, Formation of Damnation.
By the time Testament came off stage at around 11:00 p.m., we had exhausted our must-see bands of the day. It’s odd: Day 1 was slower for us, by far, than the other three days, from a musical standpoint. There was no way we were going back to our cramped four-person cabin (which featured two twin beds pushed together and two bunks that pulled down from the ceiling, all crammed into a tiny space). So we stayed out, wandered the ship, and hung out until 3:30 in the morning. Some of that time we devoted to watching ARCH ENEMY play their headlining set in the Alhambra Theater. We only watched about half of it, and went up the balcony to get a good view away from the fray. I’m not much an Arch Enemy fan these days (and really haven’t been since ‘Wages of Sin’), but I was happy to check them out for the first time with the blue-haired Alissa White-Gluz on vocals (I saw them several times in the Angela Gossow era). The stage looked really cool, with the four black flags in the back all boasting the Arch Enemy symbol. And as expected, it was a treat to watch Michael Amott and Jeff Loomis play guitar. They’re both magnificent players and their styles complement each other quite well. I will also say that White-Gluz is an outstanding frontwoman, as she’s simply an expert at working the stage. I’m still not convinced by the vocals, by and large, but I did enjoy checking out Arch Enemy for a while in the context of the cruise.
The only other act we witnessed on Day 1 was the last 15 minutes or so of EDENBRIDGE in the Pyramid Lounge, playing before a very small, tired audience as 3:00 a.m. approached. The band seemed quite pleased to be onstage and we got to hear them do a couple of older tracks that I actually recognized, “Shine” and “Higher.” Not really my thing, overall, but they’re certainly talented at this symphonic, female-fronted, layered style. Other than that, we hung out at the Casino Bar for a good while, yukking it up with the Brave Words team, some of the Death Angel guys, and my brief chat with Frank Bello (who told me he was trying to stay awake long enough to watch the Demolition Hammer gig beginning at 3:45 a.m.) about the Fenway Park radio contest in 1993. We drank a couple of oil cans, had a few laughs, watched some bad karaoke, and finally turned in for the night roundabout 4 a.m.
Friday, February 3, 2017
Day 2 of 70000 Tons of Metal was far more ambitious for us than Day 1. Today, we had a stretch of nearly 13 hours of nonstop live metal, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 a.m., with only the briefest of pauses to go grab something to eat, get a drink, or find a bathroom. It was a long day of rock’n’roll, to be sure, but we were up to the task. We felt like we were shot from a cannon to begin the day because STRIKER was first on our agenda. The nutty Canadians may have complained a bit from the Ice Rink stage that they’d never gone on this early before, but they drew a sizeable crowd and delivered a breathtaking set of old-school, speedy melodic metal with occasional glam tendencies. Their songs are so much fun and their performances were so exuberant that it was easy to love Striker on this day. Although they only had 45 minutes, they managed a fine best-of set that included four songs from last year’s superb ‘Stand in the Fire’ and even a pair from their forthcoming self-titled disc. The closing run through the aptly titled “Full Speed or No Speed” and the singalong anthem “Fight for Your Life” left everyone with a smile on their face. Hilariously, as we worked our way to the Alhambra Theater for our next gig, we encountered sweaty Striker vocalist Dan Cleary already at a bar two decks away from the Ice Rink, ordering a beer. How’d he get there so fast ahead of us? I joked with him that he must have teleported, Star Trek-style, to get to the bar that quickly. Priorities, I guess. Setlist: Crossroads, Former Glory, Locked In, Lethal Force, Phoenix Lights, Out for Blood, Too Late, Born to Lose, Full Speed or No Speed, Fight for Your Life.
Up next were German power metallers ORDEN OGAN, who are making quite a name for themselves in Europe with their catchy songwriting and a sound that has drawn favorable comparisons to Blind Guardian. Frankly, I was surprised to see them get such an early timeslot (12:15 p.m.) and only 45 minutes’ playing time. Nonetheless, the Alhambra Theater was packed, and the band made the most of their time, performing some of the strongest material from their latest ‘Ravenhead’ album as well as a couple of well-chosen older cuts. Imagine how a song like “We’re Pirates” would go over both lyrically and musically (it’s the most Running Wild-influenced number in their repertoire) on a boat sailing in the Caribbean with 3,000 metalheads. Yeah, it was pretty awesome, with the entire room shouting the titular phrase in unison at the appropriate moment. I like this band a lot, though I do find their extensive reliance on backing tracks a bit distracting in the live setting. The crowd seemed to love the band as well, so it seems a matter of time before Orden Ogan gains traction in the USA. They’re very good at what they do, and the Mad Max-type costumes they wear onstage take the whole thing to another level. Setlist: Ravenhead, Here at the End of the World, We’re Pirates, Deaf Among the Blind, (song I didn’t recognize), F.E.V.E.R., Things We Believe In.
The next band for us was Israel’s ORPHANED LAND, again in the Alhambra Theater. Orphaned Land are a special band to whose music my dear, late friend Curt Meisner introduced me many years ago via cassette tape in the mail. Curt never had the opportunity to see Orphaned Land before his untimely passing, so it’s always emotional for me to see the band. At the beginning of their set, Jen and I toasted Curt’s memory and also saluted our good friend Hayley Meisner. Orphaned Land’s blend of exotic Middle Eastern melodies, progressive metal, doom, death metal and so on always works brilliantly in a live setting and this time was no exception. It’s a shame that the traditional, non-metal instrumentation has to be piped in because of practical constraints, but even so there’s a certain magic to songs like “All Is One,” “Birth of the Three,” and of course the spellbinding “Norra El Norra.” It’s the sort of music that doesn’t inspire people to bang their heads as much as it does to dance and jump and sing the mysterious melodies even when they have no idea what they’re saying. The 70000 Tons of Metal crowd took to Orphaned Land like a fish to water, and things reached a fever pitch when the band brought out a belly dancer and violin player. No, this isn’t the sort of music I listen to at home or in my car, but in a live setting with the right audience, it is magical. And it was today. My buddy Curt would have loved it. Also endearing were the words of OL frontman Kobi Farhi, who explained that they come from a place where everybody hates everybody. The Jews and Muslims hate each other, the Christians hate them both, and they all hate the gays and lesbians. Kobi said that they were here to celebrate music and bring people together. Mission accomplished. Music can be stronger than hate.
After Orphaned Land’s set, we wolfed down a quick lunch, then marched up to Deck 11 to take in a show at the Pool Deck for the first time. To walk out on that deck and see that stage was a breathtaking experience. This isn’t a little rinky-dink stage, nosirree. It’s a full-sized stage with pro lighting and a large electronic video board behind it depicting the 70000 Tons of Metal logo or the logo of the band on stage. There are countless amazing vantage points of the Pool Deck Stage. You can watch the gig from the floor, from one of several nearby hot tubs, from the 12th deck looking down, from behind, or from little balconies between the two decks. There’s the sunshine and blue skies overheard, and the clear blue water all around, with the wind blowing and a band rocking onstage. It’s really hard to put into words exactly how cool an experience it was. Anyway, the purpose of our first visit to the Pool Deck Stage was to watch the elder statesman ULI JON ROTH weave his guitar magic through a batch of ‘70s Scorpions tunes. It was a pleasure to hear the likes of “Catch Your Train,” “The Sails of Charon,” “In Trance,” and “Fly to the Rainbow,” especially in this environment. With his flowing mustache, bandana and wizard-ish wardrobe, Uli looks like a man whom time forgot, but he’s still an amazing player and these songs are timeless. That said, things did get a bit “jammy” for my tastes at times, and I sure didn’t need to hear Uli sing “All Along the Watchtower,” but that’s just me. Interesting side note: While Jen and I stood on a balcony enjoying the gig, I looked to my right and saw Therion mainman Christofer Johnsson standing literally right next to me, mesmerized by Uli Jon Roth’s performance, despite Johnsson’s serious health condition (more about that soon) and the fact he had a gig of his own to play in less than two hours. Cool. I didn’t say anything to him, of course, but just let the man watch the concert in peace.
Sometimes on the boat, you find yourself with extra time on your hands. In those circumstances, we would typically go check out a band, even if was somebody we didn’t particularly know or love, just to keep the music flowing. Such was the case after Uli’s set, as we made our way back down eight flights of stairs (we sure got our exercise climbing those stairs this weekend – didn’t get on an elevator even once in four days) to the Alhambra Theater for German symphonic goth rockers XANDRIA. I don’t know much about them, but it quickly became clear that they’re good at what they do, which is a slightly more muscular take on the Nightwish sound. Raven-haired vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen won big points from Jen for her classy yet very metal attire and also for her skills as a frontwoman. She interacted with the crowd masterfully, playfully cajoling singalongs and blowing kisses and smiling. Although the predominantly operatic vocal stylings and buckets of backing tracks aren’t really my thing, I enjoyed Xandria’s performance quite a bit. My main complaint (not the band’s fault, but an epidemic on the Alhambra Theater stage for bands with lots of layers to their sound) was that the guitars were inaudible, no matter where you stood on the floor. We resolved then and there to catch the band’s second set in hopes of a more balanced sound where you could actually hear the guitars. Anyway, the crowd received Xandria’s set quite favorably, and the closing number “Valentine” ended things on a high note.
Continuing our marathon day of pinging from stage to stage, we beat feet over to the Ice Rink in time to catch the enigmatic AVATARIUM, a side project of Candlemass mastermind Leif Edling (who was not with the band today and I guess doesn’t play live at all anymore because of health issues). Avatarium just might have been the most esoteric band of the festival. The backbone of the band’s sound is, of course, guitarist Marcus Jidell’s towering doomy riffs coaxed from his red Gibson SG, straight from the Candlemass/Edling playbook. But Avatarium cannot be so easily pigeonholed. They’ve got a female vocalist, the talented Jennie-Ann Smith, who sings in much more of a 70s rock style than anything approaching doom metal. Smith strummed an acoustic guitar from probably a third or more of the set, lending this weird singer/songwriter vibe to some of the quieter, trippier passages. I don’t know how one would classify this doom-meets-hippy stuff like “Moonhorse,” but it just works live. The riffs have this sort of hypnotic quality, and Smith’s smooth voice over the top manages to sound comforting and melancholy all at the same time. Of course, the band also have more straightforward material in their arsenal, like the pummeling, ultra-catchy “The Girl with the Raven Mask,” which came across way heavier and more crushing live than on record. It was interesting to watch Smith during Avatarium’s set because she seemed uncomfortably shy at first, with a black jacket pulled up around her neck and her long blonde hair tucked in the back. After a few songs, though, the nerves wore off, she ditched the jacket, let her hair down and rocked confidently. She also said the band are on the verge of releasing their third album this spring. At the end of set closer “Avatarium,” I still didn’t know what the make of the band, but Jen and I really enjoyed them for what they were and made a pact that we would also attend their second set, come what may.
Our next stop was the Alhambra Theater to see THERION. We were apprehensive about this gig going in. You see, Therion bandleader Christofer Johnsson announced a week or so before the cruise that he had been experiencing serious back/neck pain that nearly incapacitated him and rendered it quite difficult for him to play guitar. He didn’t want to cancel these 70000 Tons shows but could not receive immediate care from the Swedish health care system, so Johnsson flew to Moscow to see a specialist, have his neck shot up with cortisone, and be fitted with a heavy plastic collar to immobilize his neck and upper back, all so that he could get through these two gigs. As he stood on stage with his trademark round mirrored sunglasses and top hat, with a scarf pulled around his neck to partially conceal the hulking white plastic apparatus, Johnsson looked immensely uncomfortable. I give him massive props for soldiering through these shows when he had every reason to cancel. That said, if truth be told, it wasn’t one of the better Therion gigs I’ve seen. Oh, sure, the set included some of the band’s best-loved songs like the haunting “Lemuria” (God, I missed Mats Leven’s voice here), “Son of the Staves of Time,” and of course the mighty closing ‘Theli’ salvo of “Cults of the Shadow” and the magnificent “To Mega Therion.” And it was cool to see ex-Amon Amarth drummer Fredrik Andersson playing with Therion. But I missed Lori Lewis on vocals (didn’t realize she wasn’t with the band anymore) and Thomas Vikstrom wasn’t having one of his better nights, missing cues and just sounding off at times. Add to those factors the once-again inaudible guitars (not the band’s fault) and the fact that I involuntarily winced every time I looked in Johnsson’s direction given his obvious discomfort (poor chap). I applaud Therion for making this show happen, against all odds, but things really didn’t break their way today.
The plan was to go back topside to watch Angra on the Pool Deck. They were supposed to start at 6:00 p.m., just as Therion’s set ended, so we raced up those eight flights of stairs again to see them. Alas, there were now technical problems on the Pool Deck Stage. We waited around for half an hour or so to see if they could be fixed and we could catch at least the beginning of Angra’s set, but to no avail. Finally, we gave up and walked back down to the Alhambra Theater in time for OVERKILL’s first set of the weekend. Amazingly, Jen had never seen Overkill before tonight. It’s a real failing of mine as a husband, but I remedied that omission bigtime. Overkill did what they do, delivering an attitude-laden, high-energy, 60-minute set that was evenly balanced between the old classics and their really strong recent material. Surprises? Well, I didn’t know they’d be using a fill-in drummer, whom Blitz introduced as “Irish Eddie Garcia.” Garcia did just fine, and the set went off without a hitch. In terms of song selection, I hadn’t expected to hear them pull out their Thin Lizzy cover, “Emerald,” a bonus track on the forthcoming new record, ‘Grinding Wheel.’ For what it’s worth, the Overkill version of “Emerald” is excellent, though I suspect they might have included it just so Blitz could tell a mischievous lead-in story about Thin Lizzy inviting the girls to see the drummer after the set if they wanted to get a little Irish in them. Speaking of Blitz, what can I say? The guy’s a legendary frontman, and he was in fine form tonight, even with his new handlebar mustache. His trademark moves – like sprinting from the wings to reach centerstage just in time to hit his mark, balancing his mike stand against his leg so that both hands are free to gesticulate, and perching atop the monitors while using the mike stand for balance – were on full display. So was his wicked New Jersey sense of humor. Before new song “Our Finest Hour,” Blitz announced, “You best pay attention or grandpa’s gonna kick your fucking ass.” When there was a lull in crowd enthusiasm, Blitz proclaimed, “I can smell you but I can’t hear you.” As the intro to “Ironbound,” he cackled, “Let’s move some mountains, sail some ships, run through some brick walls.” And during the crowd participation bit in “Fuck You,” he deadpanned, “I’m gonna throw every one of you motherfuckers overboard.” That’s our Blitz, and God bless him for it. Overkill always rule, and tonight was no different. Setlist: Armorist, Rotten to the Core, Electric Rattlesnake, Hello from the Gutter, In Union We Stand, Our Finest Hour, Hammerhead, Emerald, Ironbound, Elimination, Fuck You.
We took a little break after Overkill to sit down for a few minutes in the cafeteria on Deck 11, hydrating, snacking and comparing notes about the Overkill gig. A few minutes later, amazingly, none other than Overkill guitarist Derek Tailer and his female companion sat down literally two feet from us. I didn’t want to disturb the man while he was eating, but I did interrupt him long enough to say that we really dug the set. He seemed to appreciate the gesture. After we got something to eat, we worked our way back down to Deck 3’s Alhambra Theater to catch part of CARCASS’s set. I’m not a death metal guy or a grind guy, by any stretch. The only Carcass album I own is ‘Heartwork.’ But I know the band are highly revered and respected in the metal scene, so here was a golden opportunity to check them out. We joined their set in progress, and shortly after we walked in, they played “No Love Lost” off the aforementioned ‘Heartwork’ record. Killer! Then it was back to noisy extreme metal that didn’t do much for me, though I certainly could and did appreciate the outstanding guitar work on display. And Jeff Walker’s got a feisty sense of humor, complaining about how there was no beer, that Carcass’s selection as a last-minute replacement for the festival must be because they work cheap (no beer), and then, “Aren’t you supposed to be upstairs watching Anthrax?” Gotta say I enjoyed my 30 minutes watching Carcass, even though they’re not my thing.
Back on the Pool Deck, things were still running nearly 40 minutes behind schedule and it had become windy as hell. Thanks to a nice chap from El Salvador, I was able to squeeze in a spot on the rail over on Frank Bello’s side of the stage and now it was time for ANTHRAX. It felt really surreal at this moment, standing on the deck of a cruise ship, in front of a stage built over a swimming pool, with the moon and the stars overhead, the wind whipping by, and hundreds of metalheads all around to witness the occasion. As a headliner, Anthrax were afforded a 75-minute set and they used it well. I was astonished when they opened with “A.I.R.,” the first track from my favorite Anthrax album, ‘Spreading the Disease,’ and not one I believe they play too often. I was even more surprised later when they delivered a blistering run through “Aftershock,” complete with Scott Ian playing the outro solo and Joey Belladonna absolutely nailing that high scream at the end. Speaking of Joey, the man doesn’t receive nearly enough credit. His voice doesn’t sound like it’s aged in the last 30 years. He possesses his full range, power and depth, and he doesn’t cheat on any of the notes. Sure, he’s got a teleprompter at the front of the stage to help with lyrics, and he’s kind of a goofball, but Joey rocks. I loved it when he ran offstage during one instrumental break, and returned eating an ice-cream cone that he’d fixed for himself at the self-service soft ice cream stand behind the stage. Scott seemed in good spirits too, saying how awesome the boat experience was and comparing it to “heavy metal jail” because we were all a “captive audience.” That said, it had to have been difficult for the band to contend with the elements. The fog machines on the sides of the stage were useless because the wind blew away the fog as fast as the machines could generate it. The wind had Joey, Frank and John Donais’s hair constantly in their faces, and looked strong enough to nearly blow over some of Charlie’s cymbals. At one point, Joey muttered, “It’s windy as a motherfucker up here,” haha. Then he started talking about how fun the cruise was and how maybe he’d see us later in the dining room for a hamburger or something. The dude’s unhinged, and I love him for it. I guess the only other particularly noteworthy part of the set was that Anthrax performed the live debut of the track “Blood Eagle Wings,” which I guess is the latest single off their fine ‘For All Kings’ opus. I don’t think the song is particularly strong, but hey, a live premiere is a live premiere. At the end of the gig, Scott promised us “a completely different set” indoors on Sunday. Can’t wait! Setlist: A.I.R., Madhouse, Caught in a Mosh, Monster at the End, I Am the Law, Fight ‘Em Til You Can’t, Evil Twin, Aftershock, Blood Eagle Wings, Antisocial. Encores: Be All End All, Indians.
We had intended to make a beeline from the Pool Deck down to Alhambra after Overkill’s set to watch Kamelot, but with the delays on the Pool Deck stage, we’d already missed most of Kamelot’s performance. So we stayed put on the Pool Deck awaiting the arrival of ANNIHILATOR, who were one of the bands I was most looking forward to. The last time I’d seen Annihilator was on the ‘Never, Neverland’ tour in 1990 at the Paradise in Boston. Shortly after 1:30 a.m., the freshly-mohawked Jeff Waters and the boys took the stage in severely windy conditions for a killer 60-minute set. The band had good stage presence and good energy, with guitarist Aaron Homma and bassist Rich Hinks sprinting across the stage, while Waters does this funny duck-walk thing. Waters was funny in general, offering up unassuming stage raps where he laughed at all the ways people mispronounce his band’s name (his proudest, he said, being “Anal Eater”). Before “Alison Hell” (which was aired surprisingly early in the set), Waters said they wanted to play a new song they’d just written on the bus called “Alison Hell,” haha, then he insisted that the audience do the screaming “Ahhhh-lison hell” parts because he’d shredded his voice trying to do it over the years. And before “Phantasmagoria,” Waters gave props to Exodus mainman Gary Holt as providing guitar inspiration for that song. Classy. It was an oddly constructed setlist in parts. I wouldn’t call “Syn. Kill 1” a highlight on the ‘Refresh the Demon’ album from 1996, much less a highlight of Annihilator’s 15-album discography, yet there it was in the setlist. “Second to None” was also a bit of a headscratcher, and I was super-bummed that “Nozone” was scratched for time constraints. Still, Annihilator were great fun tonight and I was so happy to see them again after so many years. Setlist: Suicide Society, King of the Kill, Creepin’ Again, No Way Out, Set the World on Fire, W.T.Y.D., Alison Hell, Second to None, Syn. Kill 1, Phantasmagoria.
After Annihilator’s set ended at around 1:30 a.m., we went to the cafeteria to get some food, wandered around the ship for a while, hung out and people-watched. There was some thought of trying to stay up until 4:00 a.m. to see Witchtrap play the Ice Rink, but we were both pretty gassed so we decided the better plan was to hit the hay for a few hours so that we could be refreshed to explore Haiti in the morning.
Saturday, February 4, 2017
We awakened to find the Independence of the Seas docked at Labadee, which is a private island (or peninsula) owned by Royal Caribbean. It’s technically Haitian soil, but it didn’t feel like Haiti (which is probably a good thing, given the impoverished, embattled status of that third-world nation). No live music happens while the ship is docked, so Jen and I enjoyed a leisurely morning before heading ashore for a few hours to have a look around. It was hot in Labadee, certainly above 90 degrees, with bright sunshine cooking all the pasty white metalheads. Labadee felt like a fake resort area, but the water and foliage were beautiful. In terms of activities, there was a roller coaster and a lengthy zip line over water that lots of 70K Tonners were riding. The folks we talked to who did it said it was a blast, but we weren’t willing to fork over $100 each for the experience, so we contented ourselves with walking the beach, eating a nice free lunch buffet that Royal Caribbean brought ashore, drinking Fosters oil cans (me) and fruity rum drinks in a cored-out pineapple (Jen). We hooked up with the Brave Words team and spent hours in the shade, drinking and talking metal. What an awesome way to spend an afternoon. I enjoyed our time ashore in Labadee way more than I had anticipated.
As the Independence of the Seas headed back out to sea at 5:00 p.m., the live music commenced in earnest; however, there was nothing of interest to us for until 6:30 p.m., so we just hung out at the Pool Deck talking, drinking and laughing from behind the stage where Mors Principium Est were playing. Not sure I’ve ever watched a gig from above and behind the stage where the band was playing. Definitely a cool vantage point. Then I found a lovely spot on the left-center side of the rail that became my home for the next seven hours. First up was OVERKILL. What struck me immediately was how different the visuals were between set #1 and set #2. In their first set in Alhambra Theater, Overkill had the huge banner, scrims and lights. In their second set on the Pool Deck, there was no banner, no deluge of green light, just the electronic sign bearing the band’s logo and a mostly barren stage. The operative visual was stage fog. A shit ton of stage fog. Unlike last night’s Pool Deck proceedings, there was no wind, so there was nothing to dissipate the product of the fog machines working overtime onstage. I swear, half the time you couldn’t even see the band members performing 10 feet away. This was an unfortunate effect that persisted with all the bands on the Pool Deck tonight. Anyway, Overkill’s second set was much the same as their first, with just two substitutions (“In Union We Stand” was jettisoned in favor of “Infectious,” and “Hammerhead” was replaced by the awesome “Feel the Fire”). I preferred the first Overkill gig, not because of song choices (although “Feel the Fire” rules tremendously), but because the energy seemed off somehow today. Everybody had spent today lounging on a beach all day, so it was difficult for band and fans alike to transition back into full-on metal mode so quickly. In contrast to the exuberant attitude of yesterday, things seemed a bit more perfunctory on the Overkill stage today. But I’m certainly not knocking the band or the gig. If last night was an extraordinary Overkill show (which it was), today felt a little bit more run-of-the-mill. I’ll take an average Overkill gig anytime I can get one. Setlist: Armorist, Rotten to the Core, Electric Rattlesnake, Hello from the Gutter, Infectious, Our Finest Hour, Feel the Fire, Emerald, Ironbound, Elimination, Fuck You.
At 8:15 p.m., it was time to hear from the lads in TESTAMENT again. I actually thought Chuck and the boys were better the second time around. You see, they made the genius decision to mix up their setlist considerably. Whereas their first show had been focused on more recent Testament tunes (with just a couple of early songs thrown in), tonight was all about the oldies. Hell, the band made the statement loud and clear by opening with “Practice What You Preach.” Elsewhere, the set included evergreens like “Raging Waters” and “The New Order” and mighty closer “Disciples of the Watch,” none of which were aired the first time around. Much as I enjoy new Testament, the old Testament is always going to be closest to my heart. I like my Testament like I like my Bible. Also, unlike many bands who pre-planned their sets ahead of time, I think Testament made this decision more or less on the fly. Their setlist (which included “DNR,” although that song was cut for time purposes) was xeroxed from Independence of the Seas stationery, and Chuck said they had just been talking and thought it might be fun to go with a set skewed more toward the old stuff tonight. Excellent call. There were only four overlapping tunes between the two gigs. Plus, unlike for set #1, I was over on Alex Skolnick’s side of the stage tonight, so I was able to sit back and watch the master at work. Amazing! This was one my favorite second sets, hell, one of my favorite sets period, for this cruise. Setlist: Practice What You Preach, Rise Up, Pale King, Raging Waters, Into the Pit, The New Order, Stronghold, 3 Days of Darkness, Alone in the Dark, Disciples of the Watch.
I used to be a huge fan of KAMELOT, back in the Roy Khan days when they were putting out albums like ‘Fourth Legacy’ and ‘Karma’ and ‘Black Halo.’ Over time, however, I lost interest, particularly as their sound veered away from classic power metal toward gothic/modern realms. Then Khan left, and honestly I haven’t paid much attention to the band ever since. Still, I was curious to see them and the reviews of their first set last night (which I had missed because of delays on the Pool Deck Stage) were quite favorable. So I resolved to check them out tonight. My initial reaction was that these guys are still immensely good at what they do. Singer Tommy Karevik is, if anything, a more skilled version of Khan, whose vocal performances were notoriously uneven toward the end of his tenure in the band. Guitarist / mainman Thomas Youngblood has both the chops and the gravitas to pull it off. And I liked how they had two road cases positioned in the middle of the stage for band members to climb on during key passages in order to get some elevation. A rare treat (and a byproduct of the cruise environment) was that Kamelot were able to bring out both female guest performers with whom they have worked in the past, including Elise Ryd (Amaranthe) clad in white, and Alissa White-Gluz (Arch Enemy) clad in black. Each made several appearances onstage, and it gave the concert a very special feeling for band and fans alike. I honestly wasn’t familiar with most of the songs, but my ears perked up appreciably when they played “Center of the Universe,” “March of Mephisto,” “Karma,” and “Forever,” all from my favorite era of the band. Some of the newer stuff sounded quite good too, including final cut “Sacrimony,” even though I’ve veered far away from that frilly, pompous, melodic, symphonic stuff in my day-to-day listening in recent years. Good show, Kamelot. Oh, and the very large crowd went bananas for their entire set, so there were obviously a great many die-hard Kamelot fans onboard. Setlist: Rule the World, Ghost Opera, Veil of Elysium, The Great Pandemonium, Center of the Universe, March of Mephisto, Karma, Liar Liar, Insomnia, Forever, Revolution, Sacrimony.
By now, it was 12:30 a.m. on a beautiful night in the Caribbean. The moon shone benevolently overhead. The wind was not a factor. The crowds on the Pool Deck had begun to dwindle, but were still quite solid. And GRAVE DIGGER were hitting the stage to make amends for their rough night in the Alhambra Theater on Day 1 and hit us with a full, sharp dose of true German heavy metal. This was exactly the performance I had been hoping for, as Grave Digger sounded fantastic tonight and seemed to be in very high spirits. Early in the set, Chris Boltendahl started a happy little singalong to the tune of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song.” He sang, “The mighty Grave Digger is on the boat” (think the melody of “Daylight come and me want go home”). It was awesome. Then, in introducing the timeless “Witch Hunter” (part of this evening’s revamped setlist), Boltendahl dedicated it to Mark Gromen in the photo pit, calling him “the perfect Witch Hunter.” Not sure what that means, exactly, but I’m sure the honor is well deserved. We even got the Lemmy tribute, “Tattooed Rider.” This was a triumphant Grave Digger show that highlighted four tracks for the terrific new ‘Healed by Metal’ but also tossed in enough classics and rarities from the past to keep it fun for everyone. The only thing that marred Grave Digger’s set tonight was during “Heavy Metal Breakdown,” when a guy two people away from me on the rail passed out repeatedly, falling hard and hitting the deck. I asked security about it, and their theory was that he was high on mollies or something. Yikes. At the end of the show, the crowd spontaneously burst out in a repeated chant of “The mighty Grave Digger is on the boat.” The band loved it. When I spoke with Jens Becker and Stefan Arnold at the casino bar later that night, they confirmed that they were quite pleased with tonight’s show, although they wished the audience had been larger. Funny aside, there was a microburst of heavy rain that started just minutes after Grave Digger’s set concluded. How thoughtful of Mother Nature to wait until they were finished. Setlist: Healed by Metal, Lawbreaker, The Round Table, Witch Hunter, Season of the Witch, Free Forever, Tattooed Rider, Hallelujah, Excalibur, Highland Farewell, Rebellion, Heavy Metal Breakdown.
With that, my seven-hour ordeal on the rail of the Pool Deck Stage came to an end. Jen and I wandered over to the dining hall to have a nice 2:00 a.m. dinner, then returned to the Pool Deck to catch XANDRIA’s second set from one of the distant balconies. They sounded better tonight because, unlike in their show in the Alhambra Theater, the guitars cut through the mix loud and clear tonight. They seemed to have a bit less energy tonight (it was 2:30 a.m., after all), with Dianne thanking us all for coming out to help them stay awake. I’m not familiar with their material, so I don’t know exactly what they played or didn’t play, but it did seem that they had changed up a few songs from their first set. For Nightwish-style metal, Xandria is hard to beat.
It’s 3:00 a.m. on the boat. Do you go to sleep? Hell no. You find some band to watch and you go check ‘em out. So we made our way back to Alhambra Theater to catch DALRIADA, a mostly unknown quantity for us. This seven-piece band plays a kind of Hungarian folk metal, wearing animal skins and with a guy who plays flute and other folky wind instruments. The female singer is a spitfire of energy who looks like she’s less than five feet tall. Yeah, she was singing in Hungarian, and yeah, it was after 3:00 a.m. so the rather small audience was punch-drunk and delirious. But the gig was really cool. Songs were catchy and fun, performances were high-energy and intense, and the audience participated by dancing jigs and so on, which I guess is what you’re supposed to do when you’re listening to Hungarian folk metal. The most touching aspect of the whole thing was that there were three off-duty Royal Caribbean employees standing near the back of the floor area, still wearing their name tags. They were holding up a Hungarian flag. For those three, Dalriada was a little taste of home.
Our stretch goal for today had always been to last long enough to see STRIKER, who were going on stage on the Pool Deck at the ludicrous hour of 5:15 a.m. Dalriada’s set ended at 3:45 a.m. so we only had an hour and a half to kill. We strolled over to the Casino Bar, where we spent some time with Jens Becker and Stefan Arnold from Grave Digger. We got some coffee. We got some beer. And we waited. Remarkably, Jen never seemed to get sleepy and I felt wide awake and alert. Staying awake all night on the boat was easier than I thought. Despite the absurdity of their set time, Striker actually didn’t have a terribly small crowd tonight (or should I say, this morning?). There were dozens of people assembled on the Pool Deck to watch their gig. If you needed an antidote to exhaustion, Striker were it. They played the same 45-minute set as they had at the Ice Rink, and maybe the audience was on the quiet side, but Striker did a phenomenal job under the circumstances of delivering full power and full energy. I’ll always remember with a smile the time we stayed up until 5:15 a.m. for a Striker show. The most hilarious part of all was, when the final strains of “Fight for Your Life” died out and the gig was over, I looked around and saw the skies lightening to the east. It was almost daybreak. We couldn’t sleep because we were too fired up, so we wandered around the upper decks and watched the sun rise. It was a beautiful thing. Finally, at about 7:00 a.m., we made our way back to the cabin for a little rest.
Sunday, February 5, 2017
… but not much. I awoke with a start at 9:30 a.m. “Oh, shit,” I thought, “Axxis are about to start playing.” I tried to rouse Jen but there’s no way that was happening so I told her to get some rest and I’d come find her in a couple of hours. Then I threw on my glasses and my ridiculous floppy hat, grabbed a big steaming cup of coffee (unfortunately it was mostly grounds, yuck) and staggered bleary-eyed back to the Pool Deck Stage in time to see Germany’s AXXIS. I had missed Axxis’s first set on Day 2 because of a conflict with Anthrax, and I doubt I’ll ever have a chance to see them again in my lifetime, so dammit, I was going to catch this gig, sleep be damned. I could always sleep on the airplane tomorrow right? Axxis were a whole lot of fun, a great mixture of hard rock and German power metal. Despite the earliness of the hour and the already-sweltering heat of the sun, the band rocked hard and gave it their all. Two or three songs in, I was stunned to feel a hand on my shoulder, turn around and there was Jen! Against all odds, she’d forced herself out of bed on 2 hours’ sleep because dammit she wanted to watch Axxis too. That’s my girl. The gig slowly but surely brought me to a level of full consciousness and I was even able to pump my fist and rock out a bit toward the end. Jen compared singer Bernhard Weiss to a heavy metal game show host, and I guess there was something to that. He was funny, and even a bit creepy (in a Richard Dawson Family-Feud kind of way) when he called a Brazilian girl named Monica out of the audience and onto the stage to play tambourine for the acoustic “Touch the Rainbow,” even asking her, “Are you with anybody?” Weiss tripped and fell on the stage at one point, but carried on regardless. For smile-inducing, wake-me-up German rock/metal, Axxis fit the bill quite nicely. Thanks, lads. Setlist: Blood Angel, Tales of Glory Island, Heavy Rain, Little War, Touch the Rainbow, Living in a World, (song I didn’t recognize), Kingdom of the Night.
Seeing as how we were awake now, and it was Day 4, and this whole incredible voyage would be over in less than 24 hours, we pressed our advantage by going to the Ice Rink to see SERENITY, whose first show we had missed. I like the band, who are from Austria and play a sort of symphonic power metal with vocals that are, at times, a dead ringer for early Tony Kakko (Sonata Arctica). The show was good. If I’m not mistaken, bald vocalist Georg Neuhauser and the drummer are the only remaining members from the early days. I don’t really know their songs, but they were heavy on the symphonic elements, catchy and fun. Neuhauser also came up with arguably the best line of the entire cruise. Early on, he started riffing about how Serenity were “the official breakfast band” of 70000 Tons of Metal. Continuing on with the joke, he introduced “Muffin” on bass, “Sausage” on drums, and “Donut” on guitar. Very funny. But the punch line came two or three songs later, when the guitarist delivered a blistering solo, at the conclusion of which Neuhauser called out, “Give it up for Donut.” Haha, brilliant. Later in the set, he was predicting that the band would be headlining Wacken next year and then, just for fun, he took off his earpiece and crowd surfed for a couple of minutes. Watching Serenity was a pleasant and sometimes hilarious way to spend 45 minutes this morning.
After a short break in the action to shower, get some food, and find some more coffee, Jen and I returned to the Pool Deck in time to catch ORPHANED LAND’s second set beginning at 1:15 p.m. What we heard over the next 30 minutes or so closely resembled our experience in the Alhambra Theater two days ago, but the atmosphere was completely different this time around. Instead of the somber darkness of the theater, Orphaned Land were playing in the bright sunshine today, with the audience decked in swimming trunks and bikinis, dancing and splashing in hot tubs, and slathering on sunscreen that the 70000 Tons of Metal girls (official representatives of the fest clad in matching 70K bikinis) were distributing freely. There was an odd juxtaposition between the Middle Eastern gloominess of the music and the cheery pool deck surroundings. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, and by all appearances the band didn’t either. They still sounded great, though.
We cut the Orphaned Land experience short at about 1:45 p.m., taking the dreaded eight flights of stairs down to the Alhambra Theater to try to get a good spot for the All-Star Jam beginning at 2:00. Experienced cruisers had cautioned us that the Theater fills to capacity quickly for the All-Star Jam and that we had best arrive early if we wanted to get in. Thankfully, there were no issues in that regard, and we walked right in and took a spot in the second row on the floor. The concept behind the All-Star Jam (subtitled “Jamming with Waters in International Waters”) is that Jeff Waters of Annihilator organizes a 90-minute event on the fourth day of the cruise each year, selecting mostly well-known classic metal songs and inviting band members to participate. This is not an impromptu, spur-of-the-moment thing. As Waters explained from the stage, he picks the songs and asks particular band members to participate well ahead of time. (He takes a lot of pride in it too. When I bumped into him yesterday at the elevators, he said that if we had to choose between watching the All-Star Jam and watching Annihilator’s second set, we should definitely go with the Jam.) Hell, the official 70000 Tons of Metal Program handed out on Day 1 specifically listed which songs would be played in which order and the lineup of musicians on each song. So there really weren’t any surprises or improvisation to the event. That said, it was cool as hell. Several dozen musicians participated (I think Jeff said the total number was 34) with guitarists and bassists toting their own instruments and drums being quickly reconfigured from one player to the next in between songs while Waters acted as an emcee, introducing the songs and the players, and sometimes telling funny stories or vignettes (like the time Testament’s old drummer Louie Clemente gave him contraceptive advice while he was in mid-act with a groupie on tour in the ‘Alice in Hell’ days). Waters also managed to procure the involvement of many heavy hitters on board the ship, including three members of Anthrax (Scott, Charlie, Frank), two members of Overkill (Blitz and D.D.), two members of Testament (Eric and Alex), two members of Death Angel (Mark and Will) and so on.
As we watched the 12-song All-Star Jam, I had a number of observations. First, this never ever could have happened at a normal festival. At most festivals, plenty of bands arrive for their gig then depart immediately afterwards to go on to the next show. Only on a cruise ship would you have this many bands hanging out with nothing to do between/after their sets so they might be willing to participate in a Jam. It was a very unique and special part of the 70000 Tons of Metal experience. Second, it was fascinating to watch the Jam participants who weren’t playing at a given time hanging out on the sides and at the rear of the stage, watching, smiling and laughing with the rest of us. It reminded me, somehow, of Major League Baseball’s annual home run derby before the all-star game, where all the all-stars who aren’t participating sit around watching and being entertained just like the fans at home. That’s how it felt. These musicians weren’t hiding backstage waiting their turn (well, most of them weren’t), but were instead plopped down on road cases in plain view holding their guitars and watching the festivities like the rest of us. Awesome. And third, I can’t imagine how much work Jeff Waters must do to pull this event off so seamlessly. It’s a well-known fact that many musicians have egos and can be very particular about how the play, what they play, when they play, and with whom they play. For him to cut through the egos and politics and everything and make such a memorable event for the fans is a truly amazing thing, especially given that he was also trying to prepare his own band for two full sets of their own on the cruise.
I’d be lying if I said every collaboration during the All-Star Jam was magical. They weren’t. Some of them fell flat. But the cool parts were unbelievably cool. The combination of Linnea Vikstrom (Therion), Alex Skolnick (Testament), Charlie Benante (Anthrax) and bassist Steven Wussow from Xandria delivered a positively ripping version of Dio’s “Stand Up and Shout.” Hearing Blitz from Overkill perform Judas Priest’s “Grinder” with Eric Peterson (Testament), Axel Ritt (Grave Digger), Van Williams (ex-Nevermore) and bassist Rich Hinks from Annihilator was stellar. But my favorite Jam moments were, coincidentally enough, the ones where Death Angel’s Mark Osegueda had the mike. First, he came out to do AC/DC’s “Riff Raff” with the guitar duo of Waters and Skolnick, plus his Death Angel bandmate Will Carroll on drums and bassist Fabio D’Amore from Serenity. Before the song started, Waters started goofing on “Hells Bells,” prompting Osegueda to say, “I’m ready to do the Brian Johnson one too!” Then Mark started singing “Hells Bells” a capella, the other band members joined in and they did a killer spontaneous verse from that song before returning to the script and knocking out “Riff Raff.” For the grand finale, Osegueda returned to the stage to sing Metallica’s “Metal Militia” with a lineup to die for: Scott Ian and Annihilator’s Aaron Homma on guitar, DD Verni on bass, and Gene Hoglan on drums. Holy crap, that was awesome. Many thanks to Jeff Waters for making such a magical moment happen onboard the Independence of the Seas today.
To fill in one more gap for bands we’d missed the first time around, we headed immediately over to the Ice Rink, where France’s NIGHTMARE were already underway, playing to a relatively small, low-key crowd. It was my first time seeing this incarnation of the band, led by bassist Yves Campion who retooled after several critical lineup changes in the recent past. For the first time, the long-running French power metal act has a female lead vocalist, in the form of the diminutive Maggy Luyten. Unfortunately, despite the band’s best efforts, they seemed to be having a tough go of it this afternoon. They weren’t playing to a large crowd and efforts at inducing audience participation mostly fell flat. It didn’t help, probably, that everyone was tired midway through Day 4 and the band were playing a bunch of songs off the brand-new ‘Dead Sun’ album that most people haven’t heard yet. Despite the adversity, I liked what I heard. It was mostly dark, midtempo stuff, but Maggy’s got a powerful, unique voice and songs like “Dead Sun” and closer “Starry Skies Gone Black” worked well. I look forward to seeing Nightmare again sometime soon under more favorable circumstances.
I’ll confess that I have no comprehension of the decision to put ORDEN OGAN on the dreaded Pyramid Lounge stage. As I mentioned in reviewing their first gig, the band are making great strides in the European market and seemed extremely popular onboard 70000 Tons of Metal, so relegating them to the smallest room with the crappiest sightlines is a questionable decision, at best. By the time we arrived from the Ice Rink, the room had already filled in to a large degree, meaning that we could barely see the tops of the band members’ heads from our vantage point. Still, we could hear them just fine, and that’s the most important part, right? Orden Ogan were, once again, fantastic, with a setlist that closely tracked that of their Day 2 show. (It might have been exactly the same, but there’s one song I’m not sure about.) Songs like “We’re Pirates” made the assembled masses very happy, and Jen was now familiar enough with their stuff that she was singing along to the chorus of “F.E.V.E.R.” (“False believer / True deceiver …”) and the “Cold Dead and Gone!!!” part of “The Things We Believe In.” Goofy name notwithstanding, Orden Ogan are a band on the rise in Euro power metal circles. Keep your eyes out for them. Setlist: Ravenhead, Here at the End of the World, We’re Pirates, Deaf Among the Blind, Sorrow Is Your Tale, F.E.V.E.R., The Things We Believe In.
Next for us was AVATARIUM set #2, once again in the lousy Pyramid Lounge. I’ll be honest and say this is the one time all day long when I became really, really sleepy. Remember that we were going on two hours’ sleep because we’d stayed up all night to watch Striker as the sun came up, then were back on the Pool Deck before 10:00 a.m. for Axxis. My energy had been good all day, but then I just ran out of steam. Part of it was being in the Pyramid Lounge where we could see nothing but the tops of the band members’ heads. Part of it, to be sure, was the hypnotic quality of Avatarium’s music: all those slow churning doom riffs and ‘70s acoustic bits. I like the songs, I like the band, and I was happy to hear tunes like “Girl with the Raven Mask,” “Deep Well,” and “Moonhorse” again (no “Avatarium” was played this time), but man was I struggling to stay awake.
After Avatarium, it was back to the Alhambra Theater to ride out the last four bands of the festival. As side note, a little thing called the Super Bowl was happening right about now. It was on TV in the lounges and staterooms, but I didn’t watch a single play. I love the NFL, I am certainly interested in the playoffs, but right now I’m on the heavy metal boat so I’m going to focus on heavy metal boat things. My credo is to live in the moment, and right now the moment called for metal, not football. The security guys along the rail were talking about it, so I kept getting little snippets of updates from them throughout the night. Strange way to keep tabs on a Super Bowl game. In the meanwhile, I found a nice spot over to the right-center on the rail in Alhambra, and that became my home for the next nearly seven hours as we went through the final glorious run of bands of the weekend.
Fresh off the triumph of this afternoon All-Star Jam, Jeff Waters marshalled his boys in ANNIHILATOR for an ass-kicking second set tonight. He seemed more relaxed now, perhaps because the stress and chaos of the All-Star Jam was successfully in the rear view mirror. Nonetheless, Waters did have his tech come out between songs to make the announcement to the lighting director to keep the front lights on at all times, which seemed a little odd. Anyway, during “King of the Kill,” Waters duck-walked over to the area of the stage directly in front of me, reached out and gave me an impromptu fist-bump. Cool. He also took a few liberties with the setlist. “Annihilator” off 1996’s Refresh the Demon was an unexpected surprise, and I always liked the cool, bass-heavy groove of that song. Then it was hilarious when he introduced “Brain Dance” by saying how metal newcomers get so upset when they first discover Annihilator and assume their music must be super-heavy death metal or something, only to encounter a weird, tongue-in-cheek song like “Brain Dance” or “Kraf Dinner” or “Chicken and Corn.” Speaking of which, halfway through “Brain Dance,” guitarist Aaron Homma segued neatly into the classic “Chicken and Corn.” I’ll be damned. Never in a million years I thought I’d hear that silly tune played live. Only disappointment of this set was that “Human Insecticide” was on the setlist as an encore, but they ran out of time and didn’t play it. Bummer. Still, Annihilator were great fun and I count myself fortunate to have been able to see them twice in three days after not seeing them at all for 26 years. Setlist: Suicide Society, King of the Kill, Annihilator, No Way Out, Set the World on Fire, W.T.Y.D., Alison Hell, Brain Dance, Chicken and Corn, Phantasmagoria.
We had missed ANGRA’s first performance because of stage delays on the Pool Deck, but made a point of catching them tonight. I had mixed feelings heading into this show because it had been billed as a complete performance of the ‘Holy Land’ album. I’d seen them do that once before, at ProgPower in 2015, and really hadn’t enjoyed it because I didn’t think Fabio had sung particularly well and there were too many lame/boring parts. I’m glad I gave the band another chance tonight. First of all, Fabio Leone has settled into his vocalist role in Angra brilliantly, and now sings Andre Matos’s classic lines in a way that captures the emotion and spirit in a way that he did not do at ProgPower. Second, a pleasant surprise was that the band opted *not* to play the full ‘Holy Land’ album despite the billing to the contrary, and thankfully skipped the painfully boring “Deep Blue” and “Lullaby to Lucifer.” This condensed version of ‘Holy Land’ worked far better for my tastes. Stuff like “Nothing to Say,” “Carolina IV” or “Z.I.T.O.” still holds up really well and was wonderful to hear. Third, I expected it to be strange seeing Angra without Kiko Loureiro (now in Megadeth) for the first time, but it actually wasn’t. New guitarist Marcelo Barbosa (also of Almah) is a truly monster player in his own right, and replaced Kiko seamlessly. Fourth, Angra ended their set with the awesome “Nova Era,” one of the best power metal songs ever written. Nothing wrong with that. So while I don’t particularly love Angra these days, I’d be the first to admit they delivered a bang up performance at 70000 Tons tonight. Setlist: Nothing to Say, Silence and Distance, Carolina IV, Holy Land, The Shaman, Make Believe, Z.I.T.O., Newborn Me, Nova Era.
During the ANTHRAX changeover, it was cool to see that the entire front section of the Alhambra Theater stage can be lowered seven or eight feet below floor level to facilitate equipment changes. So the techs lowered that part of the stage, loaded all of Benante’s drums and other gear onto it, then raised it back up to floor level. Cool. As fun as it had been to see Anthrax on the Pool Deck stage the other night, it was better to see them indoors with their huge ‘For All Kings’ banner, their scrims, a full light show, and no accursed wind. The band’s demeanor seemed more serious tonight too. If they were having fun, joking and eating ice cream onstage the other night, this time they were all about kicking ass and taking names. And did they ever. True to Scott Ian’s word, the setlist was drastically different tonight. They opened with “Among the Living,” which I always thought was the greatest Anthrax opening song ever, with its gradual build-up to pure thrashing mania. But the undisputed highlight for me was hearing “Lone Justice” off Spreading the Disease. It’s my favorite deep cut off my favorite Anthrax record, and I never ever ever thought I’d get to see the band perform it live. Yeah, Joey was having to stand in front of the teleprompter when he sang it, but he hit the notes brilliantly and the song just ruled. Maybe my favorite moment of the entire cruise. The other big surprise in Anthrax’s set was when they played “I’m the Man” as one of their encores. I didn’t think they did that anymore, as I’d always heard they laid that novelty song to rest many years ago. Definitely unique. I’d be remiss not to mention the crowd surfers. Holy shit, there were a lot of crowd surfers during Anthrax’s set. Being right up front on the rail, I got kicked in the head more times than I can count, and it’s a miracle I didn’t lose my earplugs or get concussed. Poor Jen was in a safe place where she could see the rain of human bodies pounding my head and shoulders, so she spent a lot of the Anthrax set worrying. Fortunately, I’m a tough bastard and I’ve survived way rougher pits than this, haha. Setlist: Among the Living, Caught in a Mosh, NFL, Lone Justice, Fight ‘Em Til You Can’t, Evil Twin, March of the S.O.D., In the End, Medusa, Antisocial. Encores: Breathing Lightning, I’m the Man, Indians.
At last, it all came down to this. It was 1:15 a.m. The boat was almost back in Ft. Lauderdale. The final performance of the entire cruise was placed in the capable hands of DEATH ANGEL. If I’m not mistaken, Mark Osegueda and the boys took it as a badge of honor, a sacred trust. They didn’t play this gig as much as they attacked it, seemingly bound and determined to squeeze every remaining drop of energy, power, metal and might from the assembled sailors. The Death Angel set was super-intense, the band members mostly illuminated starkly by deep red lights, whiplashing about the stage frenetically, and ratcheting the energy levels in the room higher and higher with each successive song. What little sweat and vocal cord utilization I had remaining in my body, I expended during this 45 minutes. Here’s an interesting tidbit: I caught a setlist at the end of the gig, so I know they had planned to make “Lost” their penultimate song tonight. “Lost” is a cool track, but it’s more of a slow burn, not the kind of high-intensity rager you want to send all the punters off happily into that good night. Recognizing that the vibe called for something more vicious, the band dropped “Lost” on the fly, replacing it with the “Ultraviolence” intro into “Thrown to the Wolves.” Everybody went ballistic. Yeah, that’s more like it lads. Near the end of “Thrown to the Wolves,” the band stopped, with Osegueda exhorting the crowd that they only had one and a half songs left to go, so they’d better make it count. And they did. Energy levels reached the boiling point during the latter part of “Thrown,” which then yielded to the sheer majestic glory of “The Moth.” I can’t think of a better way to end the 70000 Tons of Metal cruise. Death Angel brought the house down and left us all completely exhausted, gasping for air, battered, bruised, sore, and deliriously happy. This is how it’s done, boys and girls. Setlist: Son of the Morning, Father of Lies, Let the Pieces Fall, Claws in So Deep, Mistress of Pain, Breakaway, Ultraviolence, Thrown to the Wolves, The Moth.
For our last few hours on the boat, Jen and I walked everywhere one last time, hung out at the bar for a while where we got to see our friend Robin (the Queen of Merch!), mustered two or three hours of sleep, and staggered bleary-eyed off the gangway at around 7:45 a.m. True to form, the Arch Enemy band was right behind us and Xandria were right ahead of us in the queue through customs at Port Everglades. After shaking hands with Ted Aguilar and thanking him one last time, we walked out into the Florida sunshine, hopped a cab, and went to the airport to catch our flight home. What an amazing experience. I don’t know whether we’ll ever do the cruise again, because (a) it’s still crazy expensive and (b) I’m definitely more comfortable in the underground than at something like this. But we had a great time and I recommend every metalhead find a way to attend 70000 Tons of Metal at least once. I don’t care how many hundreds of gigs you’ve attended. You’ve never been to one like this.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~