70000 Tons of Metal: One Man’s Journey

The world is pain. My arms and chest are throbbing, riddled with dime-sized bruises and other minor abrasions. I’m lying shirtless on my cabin floor, half-drunk and wondering why the hell I thought it was a good idea to spend the entirety of Demolition Hammer’s 45-minute set charging around the moshpit like a lunatic. My friends ask me what happened, but my ability to verbally communicate has been reduced to moaning and a weeping noise that sounds something like a baby panda crying for milk. I wonder how I’m going to make it through the final day of this floating festival. I wonder when the aching will subside. I wonder where my life went so wrong. How did I end up here, on the 7th annual 70000 Tons of Metal cruise, weak with exhaustion and feeling like my body has been bludgeoned with a sledgehammer? My mind drifts back…

Introduction (Back to the Madness)

It all began last July when my friend messaged me asking if I wanted to do 70000 Tons of Metal with him for the third time. Quick recap for those who haven’t heard of it: 4-night Royal Caribbean cruise, 60 metal bands from all different genres (61 this year with the late addition of Overkill), 4 stages with performances going essentially round the clock, bars that never close, and 3000 wild metalheads from all over the world. The whole concept sounds more like an episode of Metalocalypse than a real event. Band members walk around amidst fans, death metal blares on the speakers at the buffet, moshpits erupt in jacuzzis. Experiencing 70000 Tons is like experiencing an alternate reality where metal is the only music that exists.

Every time I’ve gone it’s been a blast, though the hangovers can be rough. But this year, I thought it would be different. With my late twenties just a few short months away, I thought I’d be more responsible with alcohol, stay out of the moshpits, and actually behave now that I was being given an official press pass. How wrong I was.

Day 1: Boarding (No Sleep ‘Till Psycroptic)

I step outside at Fort Lauderdale International Airport and am immediately greeted by the dense Florida humidity. It’s almost midnight on February 1st, and the cruise departs tomorrow afternoon. My excitement builds as I think of all the bands I’ll be seeing over the next few days: Anthrax, Dying Fetus, Revocation, Arch Enemy, Cattle Decapitation, Demolition Hammer. Even with Nile and Gojira recently dropping out of the lineup due to circumstances beyond their control, it was hard to be too upset considering their replacements were Carcass and Cryptopsy. Maybe I’d even catch some of the less extreme bands like Therion or AMG’s personal favorite, Amaranthe.

I take the shuttle to the hotel where I meet up with my two college friends who I’ll be sailing with. Fortunately, the gas station down the street is still open, so we grab a six-pack of cheap beer and head back to the room to catch up on everything we’ve missed in the year since we’ve seen each other. As is always the case with good friends and alcohol, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to devolve into farting and dick jokes. I love it.

The next morning, we wake up and Uber to Port Everglades, where we’ll be boarding the Independence of the Seas. I have to laugh at the discarded beer bottles already on the ground in the terminal security building. The line of metalheads seems shorter this year, probably because the boarding process seems to be going so much faster. In just over an hour we’re already onboard, sipping 25 oz cans of Fosters and taking pictures on the top deck.

Sailing time isn’t until 5 pm, so there’s plenty of time for booze before the shows begin. I take a look at the running order and remind myself which bands I’d like to see. Every band on 70000 Tons plays 2 sets over the course of the trip, each on a different stage: the Pool Deck (an open air stage on the top deck), the Alhambra Theater (large concert venue), the Ice Rink (medium sized venue), and the Pyramid Lounge (roughly the size of your local dive bar). Generally, the popularity of the band dictates which venues they’ll be playing at. My goal today is to do something I haven’t been able to do for the past two years: make it to the final set of Day 1. In this case, that’s the 5:15 am performance of Psycroptic.

After a brief muster drill, my friends and I are off to catch Scar Symmetry in the Ice Rink. The Swedish melodeath band kicks things off with their trademark clean/harsh vocal attack, crunchy guitar riffs, and cyber world melodies. While I’m happy to hear “Reborn” and the performance is enjoyable enough, I find myself missing the fun of Raven’s opening last year.

Cattle Decapitation in the Pyramid Lounge is next, serving up a much-needed dose of brutality. With Travis Ryan missing the cruise due to a last-minute emergency, David Davidson from Revocation is filling in on vocals. He’s apparently only had a day’s notice and hasn’t had time to learn all of the songs, so the band calls on audience members to fill in during certain tracks. Props to the guy who stepped up for “Your Disposal” — he killed it. Though the pit was vicious and the drumming was inhumanly fast, I still don’t think the band’s songwriting is quite my thing.

Moonsorrow deliver a triumphant set of engulfing folk melodies, bellowing cleans, charging black metal riffing, and piercing synths in the Ice Rink before I make my way to the Alhambra Theater for Testament. Apparently, things are running late here, and in my inebriated state I start ranting about the band being a bunch of “fuckin’ rock stars.” Everyone ignores me. I look around and see that my friends have abandoned me. I get another drink.

Forty-five minutes after their published start time, Chuck Billy and friends burst onto the stage with a bass drum sound that seems loud enough to rupture my eardrums. Nevertheless, the quintet delivers a tightly performed, energetic set of Bay Area thrash that mixes new cuts off Brotherhood of the Snake with old classics like “Into the Pit.” The crowd gets progressively rowdier during the band’s hour-long performance, and in minutes I’m tossing myself around the moshpit like it’s 2009 and I’m watching Whitechapel at the Rockstar Mayhem Fest. In the insanity, I don’t even notice my sneakers come ripped apart. When it ends I stumble back to the room with the soles of my Vans flapping against the floor, almost entirely detached from the rest of the shoe.

With sweat dripping down my body and alcohol coursing through my veins, I decide to change my attire. I remove my shirt, put on a flat brim hat, and look at myself in the mirror. I look like a complete poser. I look like I haven’t heard a note of real metal in my life. I look like the kind of guy you’d see at an Eskimo Callboy show.1 I shrug and depart to see Arch Enemy.

Enemy are also experiencing a delayed start at the Alhambra, but all is forgiven when they take the stage and tear into “Blood On Your Hands.” I’ve always found the band a little sterile live and on record, but even with their “pop metal” sensibility, it’s hard to deny the energy of Alissa White-Gluz’s vocals or the alternately saccharine and sharp melodic riffs of Michael Amott. I stay for a few of their songs and depart for Unleashed’s show at the Ice Rink. By now it’s past midnight, I’m buzzed and I still have no idea where my friends are. After an evening of mostly melodic bands, the driving tremolos of Unleashed are like biting into a finely cooked steak. I stay for the remainder of the set, with tracks like “Hammer Battalion” and “To Asgaard We Fly” being the highlights. After they finish, I head back to the room and see both my friends snuggled in their beds.

“Get up bitches!” I shout, turning the light on. “Pain is coming on in 15 minutes!” After some groaning and moaning, my buddy and I are off to the Ice Rink to catch the performance of Peter Tägtgren’s side project. Unlike his main band Hypocrisy, Pain combines rocking guitars with steady, thumping beats and swooning hooks. “Dirty Woman” and “Coming Home” are highlights, but at this point, I’m too tired and inebriated to be particularly observant.

My friend departs, I catch a few minutes of Marduk and the entirety of Demolition Hammer. The grooves are tight, the pit is vicious, but it’s late and at this point, I’m just trying to stay conscious. The set ends and Psycroptic are still 45 minutes away. I have no desire to watch Trollfest, who are the only band playing at this hour, so I go to the top deck and chill in the hot tub before making my way to the Ice Rink.

I’ve done it. I’ve made it to the final band. “No sleep ‘till Psycroptic!” I shout as I enter the venue swigging a Miller Lite. No one pays me any attention. The band takes the stage, I hear a bunch of people with Australian accents and wonder if I’m the only American in the room. In seconds the band roars to life. The combination of Joe Haley’s bouncy, technical fretwork and Jason Peppiatt’s barked growls make for a rousing performance, and several people start riding a “Slippery When Wet” sign around the venue like a skateboard. It’s a blast, and when the set ends at 6 am I still feel like I’m ready for more. I head back to the room, crawl in my bed, and pass out.

Day 2: First Day at Sea (Suffocation for Breakfast)

It’s only Day 2 but I feel like it’s already Day 4. I spend the first 45 minutes trying to rouse myself and fighting the urge to puke. I head to the Pool Deck, grab a couple Pina Coladas, and watch as Suffocation takes the stage. I’m excited that Frank Mullen is here instead of their touring vocalist, and his imposing roars along with the band’s intricate riffs and crushing lurches prove a great start to the day. It’s fitting that the ship goes through a random rain squall during “Jesus Wept.”

Revocation in the Ice Rink is up next, where David Davidson and bandmates deliver a tight performance of technical death/thrash, featuring lots of cuts off new album Great is Our Sin before closing with my personal favorite Deathless song, “Witch Trials.” David’s guitar playing is dexterous and impressive, half the time he’s not even looking at the fretboard when soloing.

After a couple hours spent sunbathing with my friends, we head to the Pyramid Lounge to catch Ecuador doom metal band Total Death. This is the first band I’m seeing that I’m completely unfamiliar with, but the frontman’s emotionally gripping delivery immediately makes me take notice. Employing an electric violin for some cuts, the band sounds like Incantation combined with the faster parts of My Dying Bride, polished off with a few anguished clean vocals and slick, soulful melodies. I see a few Total Death shirts around and it’s immediately apparent why this band seems to have such a devoted fanbase.

We relax for the remainder of the afternoon before heading to the Ice Rink for Dying Fetus. Kicking off with “Praise the Lord (Opium of the Masses),” the crowd immediately responds by surging forward and erupting into a giant pit. The dual vocal attack is relentless, John Gallagher’s sweep picking is a sight to behold, and the only thing that takes my attention away from the pummeling double bass and hardcore-tinged death metal riffing is when someone chucks an 18-inch dildo on stage. I see some of the security guys holding it up in the back and laughing while the band continues undeterred. With classics like “Kill Your Mother/Rape Your Dog” and a few cuts from their upcoming album, the Maryland trio’s set ends up being one of my favorites so far.

After a formal dinner where I accidentally shit-talk Kalmah to a table full of Kalmah fans, I head to the Alhambra for U.K. death metal staples Carcass. Jeff Walker delivers a vicious snarl as usual, and Bill Steer’s diverse riffing keeps the crowd engaged. Sitting at the back of the theater, I notice the dildo from Dying Fetus’ set being swung around above the crowd.

“Look!” I proclaim. “It’s the dildo again!” Little do I know I have yet to see the last of it.

After getting tired of waiting for “Unfit for Human Consumption,” we leave early and head to the Pool Deck for the cruise’s flagship band: Anthrax. Arguably the biggest band 70000 Tons has yet pulled in, Scott Ian and crew deliver a rollicking set of New York thrash composed of new cuts from For All Kings along with older classics like “Caught In a Mosh.” My friend drags me into the pit before I’ve had too much and take shelter in the hot tub near the back. But the jacuzzi proves just as wild, and my fellow hot tubbers begin christening individuals by lifting them a few feet in the air and dropping them one at a time in the water.

The set ends and I remain in the tub for a few Annihilator songs before heading to Alhambra to catch the final songs of Draconian’s set. At this point, it’s almost 2 am, and the alcohol and lack of sleep are catching up with me. My body feels like a shuffling bag of flesh and bones that I’m slowly losing the energy to drag around. I head back to the top deck and hear a few Vreid songs from the jacuzzi before heading back to the room for the night.

Day 3: Labadee (Return of the Dildo)

The most merciful thing about this cruise is that they decided to put the port call on the third day. The ship pulls in, you can choose to walk around in an exotic locale, go on a shore excursion with one of the bands, or just sleep in. The performances don’t begin until the ship gets underway at 5 pm. For someone like me, the respite couldn’t come soon enough.

After finally waking up and getting some food around noon, I decide to walk ashore for a bit. This year the port call was Labadee, Haiti, which basically felt like a Royal Caribbean resort town. I was happy to get some compliments on my Revenge shirt as I walked along the beaches and took in the gorgeous scenery, but after being swindled into buying some cheap souvenirs by a few locals, I decide to head back to the ship.

After sailing at 5 pm, Mors Principium Est takes the Pool Deck stage by force with their jumpy melodic death metal riffs and loud raspy vocals. During the set, I catch sight of a dude in a cow mask drinking a Corona, which I guess is better than the black man-thongs I’ve been seeing around. After Mors’ set we head to the Pyramid to catch Grave, whose battering drums and churning Swedeath riffs prove one of the most revoltingly aggressive shows yet.

At this point, my group splits up again, with me heading topside to catch Overkill on the Pool Deck. Their urgent, aggressive thrash, colored lighting, and overwhelming stage fog prove quite a display, and the inclusion of tracks like “Ironbound” and new songs like “Our Finest Hour” make for an enjoyable setlist.

After Overkill, I rejoin my friends for a quick dinner, before heading to the Pyramid Lounge for another pounding from Demolition Hammer. Reinvigorated by my day of rest, I dive right into the moshpit as the band takes the stage with a shout of “Come on! Let’s sink this fucking ship!” Riffs buzz in my ears, the battering drumming, and explosive chords become my entire universe. I bounce from one body to the next as the New York thrashers tear through classics like “.44 Caliber Brain Surgery” and “Skull Fracturing Nightmare.” The grooves are monolithic, sending bodies whipping around the pit like tissue paper. I’m vaguely aware of a growing pain in my ribs and arms, I ignore it and continue shoving and bumping until I’m left soaked in sweat and wheezing. A few onlookers see the maniacal gleam in my eye and come up to me between songs to ask me if I’m okay. I ignore them and pace back and forth like a caged tiger. While being flung around during one of the songs, I notice someone holding the giant dildo from yesterday. I grab it and pretend to jerk it off in someone’s face. When the final squeals of guitar feedback signal the end of Hammer’s set, I rush to the front and begin drunkenly shouting “What? That’s it? You’re tired already?” I stumble out of the venue and back to the room.

While fumbling for my keycard, the adrenaline wears off and the wave of pain finally hits me. Before I go any further, let me say this: I have run two marathons in my life. I have gone through basic training in the military. Aside from those two experiences, the aftermath of spending 45 minutes in a Demolition Hammer moshpit was the most physically painful experience of my life. I enter the room, collapse on the floor, and begin weeping.

My body is sore from the waist up. My friends chuckle and photograph me. I’m too weak to do anything.

After a few minutes, I feel a bit better. My friend looks at my bare torso and tells me I look like I got hit by a truck and then dragged on the ground for a hundred yards. I shrug it off and we head out to catch Marduk’s set at the Ice Rink.

Marduk spend most of their set playing Heaven Shall Burn… When We are Gathered in full, which proves to be an exhilarating choice. The trebly attack of the guitars reverberates throughout the room. Mortuus’ spitfire vocal attack sounds demanding, as does the relentlessness of the Swedish group’s blast beats. By set’s end, I’m sitting in my seat at the back of the venue throwing up the horns, my spirit lifted by songs like “The Blond Beast” and the sight of someone in the crowd putting the giant dildo on their forehead like a unicorn.

After Marduk, it’s back to Pyramid for Psycroptic. Immediately upon starting, a swirling moshpit erupts along with an endless sequence of crowd surfers. “Carriers of the Plague” has people going wild, and soon people are throwing panties on stage and jiggling their jockstrap-clad asses. During a break between songs, Jason asks if we’re ready to hear something fast.

“Ob(servant)!” I shout. He points at me. “This guy knows it!” he says. “I want you to be the craziest motherfucker here!”

“I won’t let you down!” I shout back. This is the greatest moment of my life. I head to the pit, people patting me on the back as the opening riffs blare forth. I bounce around like a madman and crowd-surf over the barricade.

The set ends and I grab some ice water before heading back to Pyramid for another dose of tech death: Allegaeon. From the back, it’s hard to see anything, but the fluttering synthy melodies of this Colorado outfit burst forth with such force that I’m fully engaged anyway. A Rush cover of “Subdivisions” has me dancing around like a fool, before a few guys in crab costumes take the stage, prompting the band to shout “Let’s see it! Put those crabby claws in the air guys!”

I stick around for Revocation, who deliver another terrific show with a similar setlist to their first. It’s the wee hours of the morning now, but I’m determined to stick it out for Striker’s 5:15 am Pool Deck set. But first — another dose of Dying Fetus.

Fetus is playing on the Pool Deck this time, and though their setlist remains the same, the sheer brutality of their performance keeps the crowd wild. As “From Womb to Waste” blasts over the deck, I jump around in the pit once again, stopping only when I feel something rubbery touch my lower back. I turn around and there it is: the giant dildo. It has returned once more. It seems I cannot escape it.

I swat it away and continue bouncing around, before retreating back to the hot tub and then going downstairs to grab a sandwich. While sitting at the table, one of the security guys from Pyramid comes up to me, shakes my hand, and tells me I’m fucking insane. I thank him for the compliment.

After relaxing for a few minutes I head back up to the Pool Deck and go straight to the front for Striker. After days of extremity, the Canadian heavy metal group’s hyper-melodic, 80s-tinged sound feels gleefully uplifting, and the soaring vocal harmonies of tracks like “Too Late” have me taking note for my Spotify playlists. The band is awfully energetic considering it’s almost 6 am, and the lead singer talks about how he’s going to keep drinking because his sleep schedule is all messed up. As the set ends and I return to my cabin, I’m happy to remember the first band I want to see tomorrow doesn’t play until 1 pm.

Day 4: The Final Hours (Far Beyond Shitfaced)

I feel like death. My head hurts and my nose feels like it’s stuffed full of tissue paper. For some reason, my rectum hurts every time I fart and I briefly wonder if I did something I shouldn’t have with that giant dildo. I have reached the point where I don’t even want to consume any more alcohol. On the way to breakfast, I see the giant dildo hanging from the ceiling in the elevator. My fellow passenger tells me that he’s delivering it to his friend and that the dildo is named “Gef” — short for “God’s Eleventh Finger.” The mysterious sex toy has been de-mythologized.

The first set of the day is Colombian thrash trio Witchtrap, who kick in with their strained vocals and classic thrash riffs, recalling a blackened version of Kreator. Songs like “Winds of War” incite lots of headbanging, and the set proves a great kick-off for the day.

While everyone else seems to hit up the All-Star Jam, where members of onboard bands perform covers of metal classics, my friend and I catch a few songs of Trauma before heading back to our room. There’s a long stretch of bands I don’t care much for seeing, and the exhaustion from the past few days has caught up to me. After a few songs from Unleashed and a unicorn sighting on the Pool Deck, I pass out in bed for a few hours before grabbing some dinner.

It’s almost 8 pm and I feel like the cruise is sputtering to an anticlimactic finish. I’m still exhausted and for one of the first times in my adult life, I have no desire to drink. With my last bit of remaining energy, my friends and I head to the Ice Rink for a show by up-and-coming Canadian rockers Touch the Sun. While they have a competent vocalist and some interesting rhythms, it’s not quite enough to drag me from my lull.

In search of a pick-me-up, my friend and I head to Pyramid to catch Stuck Mojo. There was some speculation in the cruise forums as to why a so-called “rap metal” group were even included onboard, and I’m curious to find out as well. After three songs, I think I figure it out: they’re required by law to play in international waters because a live performance of their music is classified as a human rights violation in most countries. Imagine the Beastie Boys mixed with Limp Bizkit in a bucket full of vomit. The small crowd seems to be enjoying it, but it’s definitely not my thing.

Fortunately, the Ice Rink performance by Suffocation reinvigorates me. While the set seems to be the same as their Pool Deck performance from days before, the frantic riffs and bludgeoning drumming in songs like “Entrails of You” and “Effigy of the Forgotten” immediately make me forget how tired I am. As the Super Bowl is now in its fourth quarter, Frank goes on a rant about how much he hates Tom Brady and asks the audience for updates between songs.

I next catch Vreid in the Pyramid Lounge, whose gusting black metal is punctuated by chunky rhythmic breaks. The former Windir members even offer a performance of “The Spiritlord” from their old band, to much audience acclaim. Afterward, I catch Irish folk metal band Cruachan, who proclaim themselves a bunch of “dirty old bastards” and share an anecdote about how they overheard someone describe them as “Dropkick Murphys getting raped by a bear.”2

It’s almost midnight and I’m dead set on staying up for the final show of the cruise, the 1:15 am Death Angel performance. In the meantime, I head to the Pool Deck and sip a Pina Colada while catching the final songs of Therion. Their cinematic goth metal draws one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen yet. As they near the end of their set, festival organizer Andy Piller comes onstage to thank the attendees and announce that the cruise has once again broke their record, with 74 countries represented amongst this year’s attendees. After taking his annual picture with the crowd cheering in the background, I head to the Alhambra for the final set of the fest: Death Angel.

I’ve done it. I’ve made it the end. I’m congested, tired, and hungover to the point where I don’t want anything to do with alcohol. I tie my sweatshirt around my waist like a 2nd grader at recess and prepare for the assault.

The band takes the stage and immediately tear into their searing Bay Area thrash attack. Vocalist Mark Osegueda shouts with a snarky dose of attitude, taunting the crowd between songs and reminding us this is our last chance to go crazy. What starts as an energetic but fairly standard crowd response grows progressively crazier and crazier, until the moshpit grows to the point where I’m nearly engulfed by it. I headbang up front for a while and toss crowd surfers over the barricade, but by the time the group launches into “Thrown to the Wolves” I get thrust into the pit along with several others. There’s no turning back now. I jump and bounce around for the remainder of their set, hooping and hollering as the band closes with “The Moth.” I cheer and embrace my fellow metalheads, throwing up the horns and chanting. Even for a band I’m not particularly familiar with, Death Angel definitely made sure things ended on the best note possible. Bruised and aching once again, I stumble back to my cabin for a few hours of sleep before debarkation.

Conclusion (Coming Home)

It was tough to say goodbye to my friends at the airport, especially because I had no idea when I’d see them again. Just like previous years, 70000 Tons of Metal had brought us together and given us a chance to drink, celebrate, and headbang along with thousands of other metalheads from all over the world. While the lineup this year didn’t have the same heavy hitters as previous iterations — including Paradise Lost and At the Gates from last year — the experience of being on a Royal Caribbean cruise with 61 metal bands performing 123 different shows is something I’d recommend any metalhead try to partake in at least once. The thing I love most about 70000 Tons, however, is how relaxed it is. No one tries to break things, start fights, or give the cruise staff a hard time (on the contrary, I’ve heard from several sources that the Royal Caribbean workers consider 70000 Tons attendees far easier to deal with than their typical cruisers). Everyone is there to have a good time, and the organizers seem to know exactly how to make that happen. While I’m not sure my liver can handle another trip onboard, I can’t recommend this event enough. The cruise may only last four days, but the memories — and the battle scars — last a lifetime.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. I later learned that at least one of the bands on board used to vehemently despise posers — good thing they’ve chilled out over the years.
  2. Admittedly, in my delirious state, I may have mistaken the word “bear” for some band I’ve never heard of, but it was amusing nonetheless.
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