I don’t agree with my dad on everything, but there’s one thing we do agree about: cruises are the best way to vacation. Free all-you-can-eat buffets, breezy tropical weather, alcohol and entertainment available everywhere, and – most importantly – you’re always within walking distance of your room, so you never have to worry about getting a DUI or throwing up in an Uber on your ride back to the Red Roof Inn. But a cruise with 60 metal bands and over 3,000 fans from all over the world, making a four day round-trip to Jamaica with bars that never close? That’s a whole different beast entirely!
And indeed, 70,000 Tons of Metal lives up to the hype in every way. Like all great festivals, bands go all-out in their performances and fans go absolutely nuts, and it’s made all the better by featuring the amenities of a typical cruise. It’s been written before about how amazing of an event it is, and although this year’s festival – the sixth iteration since the inaugural trip in 2011 – was a tad light on the extreme metal for my taste in the first lineup announcements, I had such a great experience in 2015 that booking again was a no brainer. Plus, the late additions of Incantation, Ghoul, and Fallujah made the initial lineup of bands like At the Gates, Vader, Paradise Lost, and Rotting Christ that much sweeter.
And so, with a suitcase stuffed with band shirts and sunblock, I made my way down to Port Everglades, Florida earlier this month to accelerate my cirrhosis and bring you a firsthand account of the world’s finest floating metal festival!
Day 1 – Embarkation
I arrived with a few friends in the area the day prior, which I’d recommend to future attendees to avoid the stress of traveling day-of. Embarkation begins at noon, but – as I learned last year – arriving early is a must. By my 11:00 a.m. arrival there was already a sizable horde of black t-shirt-clad attendees lined up, smoking cigarettes and taking their final swigs of beer before passing through security. Moving through check-in, I had to chuckle at the impressive collection of liquor bottles that had already been confiscated from carry-on bags.
Fortunately embarkation was a breeze, and in less than ninety minutes I was at the poolside bar partaking in some adult beverages. (Funny anecdote: most cruises offer an unlimited drink package, where you prepay a set price before you cruise and order all the alcohol you want throughout your trip. Royal Caribbean apparently stopped offering this for 70,000 Tons after the first year, as by the second day they had supposedly already broken the record for most alcohol ever served and had to restock at their port call).
After some relaxing, we took a couple hours to explore the ship and familiarize ourselves with the different venues. 70,000 Tons features four stages – the Pyramid Lounge (roughly the size of your local metal bar, but with more class), the Ice Rink (a mid-sized venue that is – you guessed it – a repurposed iceskating rink), the Alhambra Theater (a massive indoor venue with plenty of seating), and an open-air Pool Deck stage whose construction isn’t complete until the morning of Day 2. Each band plays two sets between 45 to 75 minutes in length, with each set at a different venue. Like most festivals, multiple bands are often booked for the same time slot, but having two performances helps ensure you’ll still be able to catch most of the bands you want to see.
After a muster drill, the Independence of the Seas was finally underway at 5 p.m., leaving just a few minutes to enjoy the sailaway view before the first band: NWoBHM legends Raven! Though I was unfamiliar with them before the fest, I was immediately impressed with the band’s spirit. In addition to performing their classic speed metal with vigor – especially impressive given the group formed in 1974 – Raven did a great job drumming up the crowd, encouraging lots of clap-alongs and call-and-response “whoa-ohs.” By the end of the set the audience was chanting their name, and closing anthem “On and On” remained stuck in my head for the rest of the trip.
After a couple of Vallenfyre songs and a quick dinner, I made my way back to the Ice Rink for one of my most anticipated performances: At the Gates. There was lots of popular demand for Gates after many 70K forum-goers suspected they would be a late add last year, and the band certainly capitalized on this energy, ripping through a diverse setlist of melodic death favorites like “Slaughter of the Soul” and new songs like closer “The Night Eternal.” Whatever you think of their newest album, the band’s performance was still tight as always, with Tomas Lindberg and the rest of the group sounding just as furious as their nineties performances on the Flames of the End DVD.
The extreme metal continued with Belphegor at the Pyramid Lounge, who mesmerized the crowd with their dribbly corpse paint, maniacal stares, and relentlessly blasting that sounded like massive bouncy balls were ricocheting around the venue. The band pulled in the audience well with an extended instrumental intro and outtro, and the ferocious blackened-death and doomy bits in between completed the goatmeat sandwich of a great metal performance.
Next up was Katatonia, whose set I admittedly only caught about half of before the excitement of the day (and the early afternoon Long Island Iced Tea) had finally caught up to me. Nonetheless, before I passed out in my room, I saw Katatonia deliver a solid performance of mostly modern tracks, including “The Longest Year” and “Leaders.” Though Jonas Renkse’s voice was a bit less tuneful than on the record, it was surprising how heavy the group sounded given their depressive rock style.
Sadly, I missed Vader, Insomnium, and Fallujah, whose sets were scheduled very late that night (Fallujah didn’t play until 5:15 a.m.). Fortunately, their second sets were scheduled at earlier times later in the trip, and I woke up somewhat groggy and hungover but ready for Day 2!
Day 2 – First Day At Sea
With everyone already onboard, performances began bright and early at 10 a.m. Nonetheless, I used most of the morning to check out the coveted 70,000 Tons of Metal t-shirts and band merch, before catching Tsjuder at the Alhambra Theater. As the only ‘pure’ black metal group on the trip, this Norwegian trio burst forth like a wall of mayhem, opening with a cry of “true Norwegian black metal motherfuckers!” before a torrent of blastbeats and flashing lights pulverized the audience. Though I’m not too familiar with the recorded output, the scorching, vaguely thrashy riffs and tempo-diverse setlist kept their 45-minute performance wholly engaging. The drummer – whose corpse paint and short frizzy hair made him look something like a demented clown – also kept things entertaining by standing up and beckoning the crowd beween songs.
Next were two Brazilian bands back-to-back: first, Nervosa, an all-female thrash trio whose energy and fiery riffs won over a packed crowd at the Ice Rink. Though the mix seemed a tad bass-heavy, their performance more than made up for this. Death metal staples Krisiun followed, who delivered a terrific show as always. The group’s furious guitar work and tight militant rhythms translate perfectly to a live setting, and new songs like “Scars of the Hatred” were just as well-received as hits like “Blood of Lions” and “Combustion Inferno.” The performance was made all the better by an “Ace of Spades” cover and bassist Alex Camargo leading a chant of “Lemmy! Lemmy! Lemmy!” It’s great when a band delivers such a tribute, and one can tell Krisiun truly care about their fans by the heartfelt ‘thank yous’ at the end of the their set.
After catching a few songs of Bloodbath, U.K. doom icons My Dying Bride were next. The first performance I saw on the Pool Deck stage, Bride had a great sound, with violins, keyboards, and Aaron Stainthorpe’s melancholic crooning wafting perfectly over the melodic, crunchy guitars. Keeping with the norm of varied setlists, the band played an excellent mix of old and new, nailing “To Shiver In Empty Halls” from last year’s Feel the Misery amidst some Turn Loose the Swans cuts before closing with an excellent rendition of “She Is the Dark” from 1999’s The Light at the End of the World. For one of the only doom bands on the bill, the crowd seemed remarkably receptive, and it was one of my favorite performances of the trip.
The larger-than-life feel continued with Rotting Christ, whose bombastic, cinematic feel from the records was perfectly captured live. “Athanati Este” seemed a crowd favorite, and though I was hoping for a bit more songs from Sanctus Diavolos and Theogonia (not to mention “Demonon Vrosis”) my friends felt the group was one of the highlights of the cruise.
The night continued with a great performance from cult heavy metal favorites Manilla Road (“just a couple cowboys from Kansas!” vocalist Bryan Patrick declared), who delivered a fun, no-BS show at the Ice Rink to an enthused crowd. From there, I made my way to see the death-grind party animals Ghoul. Though I’m indifferent to their recorded output, Ghoul’s live show is something to behold, with Gwar-like stage antics, copious amounts of fake blood, and hilarious between-song banter. I was initially concerned the blood would be absent, but the band quelled my fears immediately when they opened their set by eviscerating a bloated Creepsylvanian refugee and spraying red fluid from his intestines all over the crowd. (As I chose to stand right in the front in a plain white shirt, this had the unintended consequence of people asking me if I was the guitarist from Bloodbath for the rest of the night.) After 45 minutes of catchy shout-along death-thrash, the group ended with a comical ‘cliffhanger’ ending after being bribed to stop playing by one of their characters, scooting off stage and encouraging fans to attend the next show to find out what would happen (spoiler alert: it involved a lot of fake organs and more blood).
After Ghoul it was back to the Pool Deck for British heavy metal titans Paradise Lost, who delivered an enjoyable mix of obscure hits like “Pity the Sadness” and “Widow” alongside cuts from The Plague Within like “No Hope In Sight” and “Terminal.” The band sounded great live, particularly on colossal closer “Beneath Broken Earth,” and while Nick seemed a bit irritated (late flight perhaps?) their sound was awesome.
As it was already after 1 a.m., the booze was flowing strongly through my veins, and the following two bands – the mid-paced industrial black metal of Swiss quartet Samael and the thrashy power metal of Firewind – were admittedly a bit of a haze. Nonetheless, Samael sounded both massive and groovy, and the crowd responded with a never-ending circle pit. Firewind kept things lighter, but still wooed the audience with flashy guitar antics, terrific sharp riffs, and soaring singalong vocals that made songs like “Head Up High” really come to life. I’d actually seen this band before back in 2008, but this show was both more fun and may have sounded even better.
After Fleshgod Apocalypse’s set was ended early due to sound issues, I was fascinated by an empty Foster’s can I found discarded in a urinal (a subtle statement on the taste of its contents?) before stumbling back to the Pool Deck for the final performance of the night: the 5:15 a.m. show of Incantation. They seemed unfazed by the early hour, and their doomy-death was a terrific closer to a day of fun. Even the crowd somehow still had the energy to mosh. By the end, I shuffled back to my room and lapsed into a comatose state, ready for Day 3.
Day 3 – Jamaica
This year’s port call was in Falmouth, Jamaica, a smaller town than Ocho Rios from last year. After a late night of heavy metal, my group decided to take advantage of the late setlist times by sleeping for most of the day and staying onboard. When I finally roused myself, I caught another set of Belphegor and Krisiun, who both performed great shows with similar setlists from their first performances.
My first new band of the day was Dead Cross. The freshly-formed project of former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, Cross’s description as ‘West Coast hardcore punk’ in the ship’s program enticed me. Sadly, the group was the type of band you could tell was formed by a drummer, as though the intense United Nations-style screeches and static-blast guitar riffs were imposing, it was clear Lombardo was the real star of the show, as the rest of the music grew dull by the second or third track. Nonetheless, the punk attitude carried into the vocalist’s banter, as he mocked the “old people sitting down in the back” (inspiring a loud “fuck you!” from someone behind me).
I next caught progressive doom-death metal quintet Novembers Doom at the Pyramid, who floored the audience right from opener “Rain.” A mix of smooth clean vocals, reverberating riffs, atmospheric clean picking, and terrific basswork made it a great overall performance; and these Chicago natives earned a well-deserved positive reaction from the crowd.
After Belphegor’s and Krisiun’s sets earlier, I was pleasantly surprised when Paradise Lost played a largely new set at the Alhambra, featuring goth-rock tracks like “Erased” alongside doom-death anthem “As I Die” and closing with a rousing rendition of Draconian Times’ “The Last Time.” The band sounded even better than the previous night, and Holmes’ seemed in a better mood, with his snarky British humor making a few appearances (“This is from our new album – it’s available now on PirateBay and other great torrents”).
After Lost, I was delighted to finally catch the pummeling Polish death metal of Vader after missing their first set on Day 1. The group’s performance was forceful and overwhelming, and their terrific grooves inspired one of the cruises’ wildest mosh pits. In addition to people riding on each other’s shoulders, a large group started performing push ups in the middle of the circle pit, and my participation in the antics left me sore for days. (My friend and I coined the term “Vaderized” to describe our condition). The show was exceptional, and the group sounded great through live essentials like closer “Helleluyah!!! (God Is Dead)” and newer cuts like Tibi et Igni’s “Triumph of Death.”
Another set of Firewind and Incantation followed, the latter of which featured an intense enough crowd that I was left limping for the remainder of the cruise. Nevertheless, after drinking the pain away with vodka tonics and gorging myself on pizza, I caught an amazing set from the melodic death/power quartet Starkill in the Pyramid later that night. Each year, one relatively unknown band is voted on by attendees to receive the ‘Cripper Award’ – so named because of the incredible performance of the previously under-the-radar group Cripper on the fest’s inaugural voyage in 2011. Though the verdict is still out, I suspect Starkill may be the recipient’s of this year’s award, as their performance was one of the craziest of the cruise. Amidst blinding melodic riffs, the guitarists left the stage and darted through the crowd, shoved their guitars in audience member’s faces during solos, and in general kept people thrashing right along.
As the night was getting late, I barely made it to Ghoul’s second set, who featured more blood and guts and even a crack at Dragonforce for having to reschedule due to technical issues earlier in the cruise (“Ugh – my guitar sounds funny!”) The show was just as much fun as the first, and closer “Gutbucket Blues” had me wishing it went even longer.
After somehow limping up eight flights of stairs, I caught a few minutes of Tyr from a hot tub at the back of the Pool Deck venue, before retiring to my room to call it a night.
Day 4 – Finish the Trip, Whatever It May Take
As the final day was a day at sea, sets once again started early. Though my body felt like I’d been beaten with a crowbar and my head had a perpetual ache that only cheap beer seemed to quell, I somehow managed to rouse myself for the 10:45 a.m. set of Dia De Los Muertos, a Latin American death metal band who delivered an enjoyable, if fairly nondescript, performance of hardcore-tinged death metal.
The next performance, however, was in fact not a band at all. Patrons packed on the open decks to witness the cruise’s infamous belly flop contest, where concertgoers fling themselves in the pool in an attempt to get their bellies as red as possible. Notable this year was the participation of someone in a penguin costume, a ten year old kid, and the Pink Power Ranger.
I didn’t stick around to see who won, however, because I had to catch the second set of Fallujah at the Alhambra. For such technical music, the group was a tour-de-force live, with older songs like “Cerebral Hybridization” fitted alongside some Cynicy new tracks from the group’s upcoming Nuclear Blast debut. The guitarists were particularly impressive, tapping through complex melodies without missing a beat and perfectly capturing the dreamy atmosphere of The Flesh Prevails in songs like “Sapphire” and “Carved From Stone.”
After watching a few cover songs at the Jamming with Waters in International Waters event – where Jeff Waters of Annihilator recruits different band members to play covers of classic heavy metal songs – I could feel the last few days catching up to me. My eyes were growing heavy. The venue floors were growing sticky. Parts of me hurt I didn’t even know could hurt. I left, laid down for a bit, and pressed on.
Catching a front row position for Aura Noir proved to be a good choice to regain my energy, as the group’s black-thrash performance was absolutely killer. Amidst frantic riffing and chanted raspy choruses (“The Stalker! The Stalker!”) the Norwegian quartet’s groovy thrash breaks inspired more than a few crowd-surfers. The riffs were great and the band’s sound was scorching, and it proved to be one of my favorite sets.
As happens with outdoor festivals, the ship ran into a bout of bad weather right around this time, causing the the outside decks and the Pool Deck stage to be closed off – especially disappointing for me, as I was hoping to catch Sodom after missing them the first night when I opted to see Belphegor instead. My group took advantage of the time to have an extended dinner with a friendly German couple we met. Afterwards, we were delighted to find a “Fuck the Storm” schedule posted – even with the Pool Deck stage closed, every band would still be playing two sets after all!
From here, we caught Iced Earth and Sodom back to back, both who delivered terrific shows. Though I’m not a huge fan, I even managed to catch Dragonforce’s last set, whose sound fortunately had no technical issues. Despite rumors the band “can’t play their songs live,” I found the opposite to be true – singer Marc Hudson soared through tracks like “Heroes of Our Time” without missing a note, and the guitarists were equally proficient. Most impressive, however, was closer “Through the Fire and the Flames,” during which guitarist Herman Li performed his entire solo atop a bar at the back of the venue, before being crowd-surfed to the front to finish the song. This is what metal festivals are all about.
Afterwards, Samael filled their 3:15 a.m. with a full play-through of their classic 1994 album Ceremony of Opposites. I left early to catch the final band of the cruise: Finnish melodeathers Insomnium, who had been cursed with two late-night time slots and whose second set had now been pushed back by two hours due to the updated storm schedule. Fortunately, the group proved a great way to end the night and the venue was surprisingly packed. I used to love the band, but I stopped following them closely after Across the Dark, and was worried they would now play mainly newer songs. The opening one-two of “The Gale” and “Mortal Share” proved my worries were for naught, however, and deep cuts like “Bereavement” and “The Killjoy” were awesome. The band’s melodies rang clear and crisp, and the closing track “Down with the Sun” was a fitting ending to an incredible set and an incredible festival. At almost 5 a.m., I stumbled back to the room for the last time, dreading my wake up in less than 2 hours.
Overall, the trip proved just as fun as last year for me, and 70,000 Tons once again lived up to its hype as one of the best metal festivals in the world (my buddy even overheard some people saying it was better than Wacken). Though a few bands experienced technical issues and the storm caused the schedule to be re-shuffled, nearly every band delivered an astounding performance, and sound quality never seemed much of an issue at the shows I attended.
For a group of over 3,000 (mostly drunken) metalheads, the crowds were great as well, with no moshpit karate and a general easygoing vibe that made the trip both fun and welcoming. Even the cruise employees were friendly, though I guess they know their patrons by now: we’re here to drink, listen to metal, and have a great time. We don’t care if the butter on the Escargot is a little too salty. Sure, some more underground or extreme bands would be nice, but I get it – Cradle of Filth is going to draw more people than Cripple Bastards, and the fact that this cruise was completely sold out indicates the organizers must know what they’re doing. If you’re on the fence about attending for whatever reason, I say go for it. I can’t recommend 70,000 Tons of Metal enough, and I’m already planning for next year’s trip in February 2017! Maybe I’ll see you there.