70000 Tons of Metal 2018: Enter the Metal World

Scene: German dancy folk metal band In Extremo play on a stage built on the deck of a giant ship. In the hot tub in the audience, a woman wearing a unicorn mask headbangs. A conga line led by Jesus winds its way through the crowd. 1 Behind the hot tub, I spot the singers of Battle Beast and Amberian Dawn hanging out and watching the show. Welcome to 70000 Tons of Metal.

Most of you will have glanced at the byline at this point, and thought either “who the fuck is this guy?” or “wait, aren’t you the sysadmin?,” depending on how much attention you pay during list season. Those who are particularly on the ball may also be thinking “aren’t your lists usually about as brvtal as a basket of kittens?” These are entirely fair questions. I’ve been wanting to go for a while, so when the intrepid Mark Z. mentioned in the AMG offices that his cabin mate had canceled and he had a spare slot, and also that he wasn’t going to do the write-up this year, I volunteered. Due to a clerical error in an overworked HR department primarily engaged in endless disciplinary action against Dr. A.N. Grier, nobody stopped me, and so I soon found myself standing on the dock with Mark, notebook in pocket and feelings of inadequacy in heart. I shall warn you now: This is going to be a different sort of a post to the last two write-ups. I am a mild-mannered IT specialist, while Mark appears to be the earthly incarnation of some sort of lost Norse deity of mosh pits. You can partition the line-up fairly accurately into “bands I like” and “bands Mark likes” based entirely on how spiky the logos are. But it turns out that 70000 Tons caters pretty well to a lot of different sorts of people, and hopefully the AMG write-ups now do too.

I first started to get a sense of the international scale of this event when I showed up at the departure gate in London Gatwick airport to find a suspiciously large contingent of people clad in black and wearing band t-shirts. The next morning, having met up with Mark, our Uber driver to the cruise port commented on the “cruise with everyone wearing black” she’d already delivered some people to that morning. Sure enough, the terminal was overrun by black-clad metalheads (about 4.5 thousand, between guests and artists/crew), but everything proceeded in an orderly fashion, and we were soon onto the ship. I took a moment to gawk at the implausible scale of it, never having been on a cruise ship before: The Independence of the Seas is 340 meters long, and resembles a large chunk of a city block incongruously transplanted onto the deck of an aircraft carrier in a staggering act of hubris, and subsequently commandeered by an international army of metalheads.

Day 1

We had a few hours to kill before the music started, so we collected our press wristbands, had a beer on deck, and got some lunch at the buffet. It was mid-afternoon by this point, but mealtimes (and indeed sleep schedules, and any other sort of regular schedule other than the band schedule) rapidly blur into irrelevance aboard ship. Fortunately, the buffet is open almost all the time (I never found it closed), and there’s a pizza place that’s open 24 hours. Meanwhile, the regular bars are augmented with pop-up beer stands and improvised bars (constructed from laundry trolleys, much to my amusement), so you’re never far from a drink. If you do happen to be getting dinner at actual dinner time, there are some table service options as well.

An all-hands muster drill signaled imminent departure, and sure enough, soon I was stood outside one of the venues waiting for Primal Fear. (Mark had headed off in the other direction for Exhumed.) Time passed. Somebody complimented my Ayreon Universe t-shirt (this happened a lot – turns out there’s a lot of audience overlap, which is probably not a surprise.) 25 minutes after the posted start time I was still stood there, which was an inauspicious start, and scheduling issues continued through the entire evening. Given the scale of the setup required for the event, it’s hard to blame them for being a little behind schedule. Finally, the doors opened, and we flooded into the Ice Rink, one of four venues on board, set up like an arena show on a smaller scale. (Sadly, the actual ice is gone, so no Heavy Metal On Ice performances.) Primal Fear are nothing if not consistent in their Judas Priest cosplay, and much like their albums, they put on a show which is good but not going to blow any minds. Singer Ralf Scheepers does a decent job of psyching the crowd up, but he has to work at it.

Next up is Leaves’ Eyes in the Alhambra Theater (if you guessed that this venue is a theater, congratulations). I’m not particularly a fan of their third-rate Nightwish-core, but there’s nothing else on (the fourth stage is under construction until day two), so I show up and sit at the back. The singers seem like they’re having fun, but it can’t save the paint-by numbers songwriting. I head out a few minutes early to get a good spot in the Pyramid Lounge (the low ceiling makes it feel like a plusher version of a basement club). Triosphere, the first band I’m excited to see, are scheduled to play. Sadly, I discover that the show is postponed as vocalist Ida Haukland has a serious cold, so I wander off to get some dinner before Swallow the Triple Album play their first of three shows, each covering a disk from the aforementioned album (which I’m not that familiar with beforehand, having been put off by the length). The whole setup is as excessive as you might expect, including a string quartet and backing singers, but (at the risk of encouraging them) it’s good. This one is the first disk, so it’s classic death/doom done pretty well, with some standout moments.

Afterwards I meet up with Mark back in the Ice Rink for one of the few bands on board we’re both fans of: Insomnium, who combine glittering shards of guitar melody and occasional clean vocals with blast beats and death vocals into a package that appeals to both of us. This turns out to be a fantastic show, and one of my personal highlights of the entire event. They’re in fine form with a great setlist of classics, the arena is packed, and the crowd are wild, with a steady stream of crowdsurfers. We spot a literal giant in the pit, shirtless and towering head and shoulders over everyone else. At one point he too goes crowdsurfing. As an extra bonus, Mikael Stanne, charismatic and talented vocalist of Dark Tranquillity, joins them on stage for closing song “Weather the Storm.”

As the Ice Rink is still about half an hour behind schedule, after Insomnium I arrive halfway through my next show, [Luca Turilli’s] Rhapsody [of Fire] Reunion. 2 Their hyper-melodic classically flavored cheese is as good as I expect, and I’m annoyed I missed the start. Fortunately, one of the great things about 70000 Tons is that each band performs twice, so if there’s a schedule clash or other issues, there’s another chance, and I resolve to catch them again on day four. 3 I catch a few minutes of the end of Metsatöll’s set, which finishes fifteen minutes after Rhapsody. I hadn’t heard them prior to my pre-festival research, but I’m intrigued by their dark Eastern European folk (and the fact that they have a song about the best text editor 4), an impression which is borne out by seeing them play. They’re big fans of folk instruments and vocal harmonies, and it reminds me of a heavier Fejd. This is another one for the “see the other show” list.

By this point the jetlag is definitely beginning to set in, so I may be a little cranky and/or unfair to the remaining bands from this evening. However, I’m not ready to give up and go to bed yet as it isn’t even midnight, so I see a little of Enslaved, who I feel like I should like, but the bit I catch isn’t doing it for me. I wander off to see Belgian hard rock band Diablo Blvd instead, a decision I come to regret as, while catchy, something about the singer’s timbre and delivery grates. (I said I was cranky). I retreat for a morale-boosting snack and a shower. As a veteran of British festivals, this is a deeply confusing experience: I’m used to being cold and rained on non-stop, fed terrible, overpriced food from a van, sleeping in a tent slowly losing a valiant battle against the elements, shitting in Portaloo that violates the Geneva convention, and becoming ever more fragrant as the weekend progresses. Instead, the food is abundant, pretty good, and largely included in the ticket price, and I have a comfortable en-suite room, with balcony and sea view no less.

Somewhat refreshed, I head back out to see In Extremo, but schedule slippage seems to have got worse over the course of the night. By the time we’re half an hour past the scheduled start with no music in evidence, I surrender to my drooping eyelids and pack it in, wishing I’d just done that two hours earlier. Thus ends the first day. Fortunately, there are no more timing issues for the rest of the event.

Day 2

I’m briefly woken up about 7 by Mark getting up to go and queue for the merch store. I can’t quite bring myself to join him, but I later find out that if you want any of the exclusive band shirts on board, this sort of unreasonableness is required. I pick up my merch ticket a few hours later.

The first band I make it to today is Triosphere’s rescheduled set at just gone 12. (This does mean I missed Masterplan, but as they’re no longer fronted by Jørn himself I don’t really see the point.) Haukland gives a couple of songs a go on vocals, but she’s clearly struggling, and they announce that they’d like to perform a couple of songs instrumental instead. It’s a testament to the strength of the band’s writing and performance that they still sound really good deprived of Haukland’s unusual voice, and with a supportive and energetic crowd they end up playing four instrumental songs. This show also features my favorite (good-natured) heckling of the festival from one audience member, with contributions including responding to the band saying “we just need to think about which songs will be good instrumental” with “DON’T THINK, FEEL!”, and “You guys want me to do vocals? I’ll make them up, no problem!”

Next is my first set on the pool deck stage, a classic festival-style stage built over one of the swimming pools (but retaining the hot tubs). I’m not a massive fan of Alestorm – they’re fun in small doses, but I feel like they’ve milked one joke and one song for an implausible number of albums at this point. However, I’ve checked and it’s actually illegal to go to a metal festival on a boat with Alestorm performing and not see them, so I catch part of their set. It’s exactly as expected, though some extra hilarity is injected as the giant inflatable rubber ducks they’ve thrown into the audience keep getting blown back on stage by the wind, requiring the musicians to dodge and the crew to charge out to repel boarders. They’re playing the last set too, which I suspect is going to be more fun, so I scoot downstairs to see Japanese melodeath band Gyze instead. They are the prettiest melodeath band I’ve ever seen, with flowing locks, smoldering gazes, and sparkly instruments, and hyper-lyrical guitar lines to match. The vocals are surprisingly harsh in contrast, with no clean lines at all. It’s an enjoyable set, but I find the songs blending together a bit, and they’re a little let down by a small crowd.

With no other options, I find myself in the crowd for yet another lame symphonic metal band, Sirenia. I should clarify at this point that I actually like symphonic metal in principle, but the genre seems to have been utterly overrun with banal implementations of the basic template. Even the mighty Nightwish’s last album was an overly safe flop (but the album before Imaginaerum wasn’t great either, so I still have hope for them). As far as 70000 Tons goes, I take comfort only in the fact that I managed to avoid Amberian Dawn all festival. To be fair to Sirenia, they’re not as universally soulless as Leaves’ Eyes. Raiding their back catalog they produce a couple of decent songs, although they’re plagued by backing track abuse, to the point that even some of the harsh vocals are done from the backing track.

Where was I? Oh, right. Via a brief lunch break, it’s time for another band I’m excited for, Canada’s Aeternam. They play an excellently executed Middle Eastern-flavored melodeath with great songwriting, and I’ve been a fan since I heard 2012’s Moongod. Despite high expectations, I’m still seriously impressed by their live performance. Front man Achraf Loudiy’s vocals, clean and harsh, are a particular standout, but one of the strengths of the band is their deft combination of different elements and the entire group plays brilliantly. This is another of my favorite sets.

This turns out to be the start of a run of good shows. They’re followed by classic prog band Threshold, fresh from releasing a double album and switching vocalists. Fortunately, new/old singer Glynn Morgan is both talented and a charismatic performer, and drummer Johanne James is also a great stage presence. The set list is excellent, including classics from their back catalog and some of the highlights from their double album, and I particularly love catchy set finale “Small Dark Lines” from that album.

For a change of pace, death/doom band October Tide are next – not a particular favorite of mine beforehand, but I enjoy their set a lot. Gorgeous melody lines cut through their atmosphere of despair to great effect. A different flavor of mopiness follows with Evergrey, playing a perfectly timed show on the pool deck stage starting at sunset and spreading melancholy as night falls over the ship. As ever with Evergrey, Tom Englund’s emotive vocals steal the show. Their set covered their catchier output, with the band promising a bleaker set for their second show on board.

Wolfheart follows, playing eminently competent bleak, Finnish melodeath. They evoke a vague sense of loss, but sadly, this is a yearning for Before the Dawn and Black Sun Aeon rather than the feel of the music itself. It has its moments, and Tuomas Saukkonen is still clearly incredibly talented, but it just can’t hit the heights of either of his previous bands. Continuing along this theme, after a break for dinner I see most of Sabaton, notable for Carolus Rex and a bunch of albums that aren’t bad but make me wish they were Carolus Rex. Today’s set on a rainy Pool Deck just features the title track from that album, which is a bit of a let down, and at an hour and a quarter it overstays its welcome a little, but at the same time there’s little actively wrong with it – their big choruses, led by Joakim Brodén’s rich baritone, are perfect live fodder.

After that minor dip, the evening returns to top form with Meshuggah. This is my first time seeing them live, despite being a fan of the genre (I’m a big fan of ArcTanGent festival) and I am stoked. They don’t let me down, with a mesmerizing show that flies by, despite being the same length as Sabaton. I also get to indulge one of my favorite live music pastimes: watching a crowd trying to headbang in time to anything that’s not in 4/4. I catch a brief glimpse of Mark’s nemesis from last year, the enormous dildo, being waved at the band from the barrier, but it rapidly disappears from view and I don’t see it again. The giant from Insomnium’s show makes a return – maybe it’s his?

The final band I make it to tonight is Dark Tranquillity. The veteran Gothenburg act made a terrific return to form with 2016’s Atoma, and tonight’s setlist wisely draws heavily from that album, as well as an excellent selection of classics. As previewed at Insomnium’s set last night, Mikael Stanne is brilliant, delivering evocative clean and harsh vocals and charging around the stage, and the rest of the band don’t disappoint either. The remainder of the night features a number of bands I want to see, but jetlag is knocking again and I have an early start the next morning, so I go to bed. There’ll be another chance to see most of them.

Day 3

Wait, what? An early start? The ship docks at Grand Turk around sunrise, towering over the island implausibly (the highest point on the island is 20 meters: the ship is over 60). At 0830 I’m off the ship. Why? Because I’m going scuba diving. I don’t get to dive anything like as often as I’d like, so far be it from me to pass up an opportunity even if it means missing a couple of bands, and the absurdity of going scuba diving in the middle of a heavy metal festival amuses me. About 20 of us go, making two dives along the island’s reef drop-off, and it makes for a perfect relaxing interlude. Back on the ship for a late lunch, I chill out and read for a while until we’re back under way.

The first band of the day is Die Apokaliptischen Reiter, playing the Pool Deck under a brooding sky as we depart. I’m underwhelmed, though some of the heavier songs are fun. The hot tub takes to lifting people aloft and dunking them into the water until security orders them to knock it off, at which point they take up moshing instead. Things begin to look up almost immediately, as the next band is Battle Beast. I’ve been looking forward to them all day, having missed their 5am set a mere 12 hours earlier, and they rapidly make up for the disappointing first show of the day. The entire band are energetic and boisterous, but singer Noora Louhimo immediately steals the show, hamming it up to the nth degree and instantly becoming my favorite performer on the entire ship. She has one hell of a voice too, delivering more venom and power live than the recordings convey. Sadly, the songwriting still isn’t up to the glory days of Steel, but I’m having too much fun to care that much. (Annoyingly, asking around later, I discover that “Iron Hand” from that album was on the setlist for the first show, but not the second. Should have stayed up).

I catch another set from Wolfheart. It’s the same set and my opinion doesn’t really change, although I will say that “Aeon of Cold” is a damn pretty song. Next is Evergrey again, and as promised the setlist is heavier and darker. It’s interesting, but I find myself preferring the more unusual sound of the previous set – this one could be mistaken for the clean-sung half of any melodeath band’s output. I have to duck out halfway through anyway, as I’m meeting Mark for dinner in the ship’s main dining room. We’re seated with a pair of Canadians, who are fun, and the food is good. I also find out about the Vikings, who sit at the long table in the center of the hall, many in costume, and eat with their hands. Only at 70000 Tons.

After dinner I see the end of Sepultura, and it’s a lot more fun than I expect, despite not really being my thing. The band wisely sticks to mostly old songs, and the crowd are fun. Korpiklaani are next, but the band’s a bit of a one trick pony and I’m not really a fan of their songwriting anyway, so I bore quickly, especially as the vocalist seems to be struggling today. Meshuggah follow on the Pool Deck, with the moon hanging low over the stage. There’s not much to say about this set I didn’t say about the previous one, although I would like to commend the person who appeared in an inflatable T-rex costume and charged into the pit.

I leave a bit early to see intriguing young symphonic-ish band Seven Spires. They caught my ear beforehand largely because they don’t sound exactly the same as the other three symphonic metal bands on board, playing with a variety of subgenres. This ends up being a somewhat frustrating set, because when they’re good they’re really good, but some songs drift into mediocrity. Some of their best moments include hyper-melodic power metal and thunderous doom. Vocalist Adrienne Cowan is impressively versatile, with powerful death growls and a wide clean range, but much like the songs, has frustrating moments of not living up to her strengths. This feels like a band still finding their feet musically, and I’m really interested to see where they go from here.

Sirenia are next on the schedule, but I can’t face another round, so I take a break and come back for Sonata Arctica. Unfortunately I’m underwhelmed again – the setlist seems a bit weak, and while the performance is fine it’s not super energetic either, and they’re shown up in the on-board power metal stakes by Rhapsody. Next is another October Tide set, but at this point in the evening I want something a bit more energetic and struggle to pay attention.

Insomnium follows, playing Winter’s Gate in full. This show isn’t as epic as their first set, but Winter’s Gate is a very good album and it’s great to hear it live. My last for the night is Triosphere’s second set. I’m flagging, but I also don’t want to miss it, so I park myself on the barrier. Ida Haukland is still ill, so the set starts off much the same as the previous one, but the final two songs feature guest vocalists. The first is sung by Siri Fossum, who as far as I can tell is the girlfriend of one of the guitarists and sings in her own band. 5 She seems nervous, but she’s got a good voice and nails the song. She’s then completely upstaged by Noora Louhimo of Battle Beast, now on her third performance in 24 hours, and apparently just as comfortable with another band’s material as with her own (there’s a lyric sheet on the stage, which she barely glances at). I really like Haukland’s voice and it sucks she can’t perform, but Triosphere fronted by Louhimo is a rare treat I’m glad I got to see.

It’s now 4am, and the remaining bands for the night are Gyze, Psychostick and Aeternam. I wanted to make it to Aeternam after their first show was so good, but it’s not happening. Mark reports back later that Psychostick were surprisingly fun (“sound like System of a Down and they’re genuinely funny”) and that (not having heard the band previously) Aeternam are awesome.

Day 4

I haul myself out of bed at 7am, as my number in the merch queue is finally up. The limited edition shirts have been rinsed (no Meshuggah boat shirt for me), but I get everything else I wanted. And then I go back to bed.

The first band I care about today is Seven Kingdoms, playing just after midday. The seas are a little heavier today, and the ship rolls a little more obviously. The sheer scale means it’s still a fairly subtle effect, feeling unsettlingly like being quite a lot drunker than you think you are. I arrive at the theater just as the band are taking the stage, and notice immediately that singer Sabrina Valentine is, incongruously and without explanation, wearing a pair of novelty sub (as in the sandwich) slippers. This remains entirely unacknowledged for the duration of the set. Fortunately, nothing else about their set is unexpected: Valentine’s soaring clean vocals over driving thrash riffs, and catchy songs about A Song of Ice and Fire (the nerds) are all present and correct. The crowd feels like they’re suffering a little from it being the morning of the fourth day, but they soon perk up.

Colombia’s Revenge follow (not to be confused with the other half dozen bands called Revenge: this one plays pretty classic speed metal). I have little to say about this that doesn’t apply to any other speed metal band out there, except that the singer really can pull off that ridiculous high register for entire songs.

The next show is the All Star Jam, featuring assorted musicians from the various bands on board covering a setlist of metal classics. Mark warns me that this isn’t as fun as it sounds like it’s going to be, and he turns out to be right – it’s let down both by the time taken to change musicians after each song, and by the limited ability for any given musician to put their own stamp on any of the songs. Things that sound like they should be interesting, like Black Sabbath’s “Neon Knights” with Meshuggah’s Per Nilsson on guitar, end up as just completely faithful covers. The net result is basically like watching your friends play Guitar Hero, without the drama injected by a scoring system. This said, Battle Beast’s Noori Louhimo, back for her fourth consecutive performance at twelve-hour intervals, delivers a fiery rendition of “Hells Bells.”

Up next is Metsatöll again, and this time I see the full set, which bolsters my positive impression from the first set. I’m also close enough to the front this time to witness annoyingly talented folk instrumentalist Lauri “Varulven” Õunapuu playing the bagpipes and singing at the same time in a feat of breath control. He also plays an assortment of other folk instruments and the guitar. The finale is “Metsaviha 2,” which uses almost entirely folk instruments and creepy chanted/whispered vocals to build atmosphere over the course of the song, before the guitars return in a crashing crescendo. Somebody at the front of the audience parts the crowd as the song starts, standing in the center and holding his arms out, restraining the moshers through sheer force of will like some sort of Moses of the pit. As the crescendo hits, with impeccable timing he releases them.

For a different folk experience, they’re followed by Germans In Extremo (on schedule this time), playing an upbeat, dancy take on folk metal. I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about them recorded, and it takes a couple of songs to really get going, but once it does it’s a lot of fun (see the intro to this post, which I’m assuming you’ve forgotten about by now given how long it is). I then get genre whiplash from shifting to Majestic Downfall, but the contrast is good and I really enjoy their show and their raw, haunting brand of death/doom. Despite long songs, they hold my attention and the show flies by. Next are Witherfall, who I just don’t like as much as I ought to, recorded or live. There’s no denying their musicianship, with Jake Dreyer’s guitars a particular highlight, but something about the songwriting feels unstructured and meandering and it just doesn’t grab me.

We’re down to the final few bands now. I see Rhapsody’s full set this time, arriving on the pool deck to find myself stood next to Triosphere. As expected it’s a fantastic show, bombastic and OTT, replete with guitar acrobatics. Jesus crowdsurfs. There’s even an unexpectedly touching moment with a cover of Andrea Bocelli’s “Con te partirò.” A dash downstairs later I’m at Dark Tranquillity (both of their sets have had 15 minute overlaps with other bands I want to see, which is really annoying). It’s an even more intense show than their last, and Mikael Stanne spends most of it standing on the barrier surrounded by a sea of crowdsurfers. At one point I spy Mark, now dressed as the Big Bad Wolf, catching a high five from him as he surfs by.

I see Samael next – I’ve never really got into them before, but Mark mentions it’s worth seeing their performance regardless. He’s not wrong – they perform like they’re permanently in a cyberpunk music video, all makeup and exaggerated dance moves. It works brilliantly with their groovy, industrial music, which I find myself really enjoying as well. I’m a solid 20 years late to the Samael party, but better late than never? My penultimate show, with a little reluctance, is Sabaton again, but I end up being glad I went, as there’s more Carolus Rex in this show. Most of the Carolus Rex tracks are even performed in their superior Swedish versions. Finally, it’s Alestorm’s raucous closing show, and then that’s it, 70000 Tons is over. (There’s karaoke continuing on deck until we dock, but I don’t have the stamina.)

The next morning, we emerge, blinking, back in the mundane world, and go our separate ways. It’s been one hell of a ride. By my count, I’ve seen 44 shows by 32 bands (and a great lineup it was too). Thanks to the scheduling, I only missed a handful of bands I wanted to see (notably Voivod, Obscura and Beyond Creation). The crowds are great, the music is great (particular shoutout to the tech teams: the sound is almost universally excellent as well), and the weather is great. It hasn’t been 100% positive – for example, the “pool girls” thing is tacky and unnecessary and I wish they’d stop, and it would be nice if the Pool Deck followed the standard cruise rules of smoking on the starboard side only – but these are pretty minor blemishes on a very good experience. Will I be back? Definitely. Will I be back next year? Maybe – it’s not cheap, so I guess we’ll see how my schedule, friends’ plans, and the lineup shapes up.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. I did not manage to get a usable photo of any of this. My photography in general was terrible. Sorry. Maybe next year we’ll send somebody who has a proper camera and knows how to use it.
  2. There are now so many parallel iterations of this band that the AMG style guide’s mockery of it fails to do it justice. This is the classic 2000s lineup touring again.
  3. The downside of this setup, plus 70000 Tons’ all-night setlists (most nights only have a four-hour break from 6am to 10am with no music), is it takes quite a lot more planning to optimize one’s schedule to achieve optimum coverage of good bands.
  4. The handful of you who got that joke are my favorites. <3
  5. While trying to figure out who she is, I happened across this shot with somebody you might recognize…
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