70000Tons of Metal. For the public at large, it’s an unknown music cruise like any other, but for the fans of the metal genre, it is the Mecca of absurd music festivals. 3,000 passengers, 60 bands, 4 days on a boat to and from 1 excellent exotic location… For the repeat customers, boarding the Royal Caribbean ship is like coming home.
On February 4th 2016, after over 300 days of agonizing wait, my friends Steph, V, and Hunter joined me to board the boat that rocks for four days of pure metal debauchery.
The first stop of any respectful cruiser is, of course, the bar. As we boarded very early and the cabins were not yet ready, we went to the bar with the most room for all our luggage and settled in the plush pastel polka-dotted comfort of the Champagne Bar, where the seats are abundant and the white Russians are to die for. One hour and one drink turned into four or five of each and, before we knew it, the time had come to see our first show of the cruise.
Ultimate Music Cruises had scheduled two intense acts to kick off the cruise: Raven from England, and Carach Angren from the Netherlands. The four of us decided to head into the Egyptian-themed Pyramid Lounge to watch the masters of horror metal. The Dutchmen delivered a brilliant set that mixed favorites from all albums, and while the entire band played magnificently, it was the over the top theatrics of front man Dennis “Seregor” Droomers, and the live orchestrations of keyboardist and composer extraordinaire Clemens “Ardek” Wijers that made the show the worthy opener that it was.
After the show, with stomachs growling louder than the singer of the band we had just seen, we introduced our first-time cruisers to the majesty of free food at the Wyndjammer, the ship’s 11th deck’s buffet-style eatery. As we calmed our aching stomachs with dinner and marveled at the dark water stretching for miles around us as we sailed towards Jamaica, we put together a plan for the rest of the evening. Dragonforce, Twilight Force, Belphegor, and Týr were all scheduled for the night.
The amphitheater hosting Dragonforce was filled to the brim when we arrived, but due to technical difficulties, the power metal band was not able to play more than one song. Our group escaped the clutches of the jam-packed Alhambra Theater before the sextet even got on stage as we instead tried to catch the Swedish heroes of Twilight Force from the front row.
The Pyramid Lounge was near-empty when we arrived, so we settled in at the front barrier, completing our first quest of the night. The knights of twilight’s might drew a respectable crowd despite the fact that they were relatively unknown before playing their first set. Though singer Christian Eriksson did seem to have some vocal troubles preventing him from hitting the high notes he’s known for in the power metal community, the performance of the ensemble did not suffer one iota. The content of their only full-length album was enough to fill their 45 minute slot and the band became the talk of the boat thanks to their animated performance, crazy stage antics, and charming smiles.
Riding the high of Twilight Force, we chose to stay in the sarcophagus-sized venue room to support V in her quest to catch Belphegor. Though their black/death hybrid music is not what you would find on my iPod on any given day, I have to give them credit for being entertaining. Corpse paint and fake blood set the mood perfectly for the Austrian band’s heavy set, and I found myself invested in pointing my camera at every band member but the front man, whose strangely erotic yet frightening gaze seared my skin every time he seemed vaguely aware of my presence in the photo pit. When the band left the stage, I felt the need to take a very hot shower to wash Belphegor off of me. Considering the band has an entire album inspired by the work of the Marquis de Sade, I would say that was mission accomplished on their end.
Following the perverted set of the blasphemous band, I resisted the urge to scrub myself raw, choosing instead to return to our old stomping ground, the Champagne Bar, and indulge in a few more cocktails before venturing into the cold bowels of the ship to the ice rink where Týr was to play.
Though I love the albums of Týr, I am generally not a big fan of their live shows. They are very serious, static musicians, and while I appreciate how much they can make their live songs sound like their studio versions, I do like some crowd interaction. However, Thursday’s Faroese extravaganza was different. The two usually fairly boring guitar players seemed to take their task of entertaining the crowd as seriously as their bass-playing counterpart, who runs around the stage with the unwavering enthusiasm of a golden retriever from start to finish. With a healthy mix of Faroese and English songs including the dirty yet awfully catchy “Mare of my Night,” Týr won me over.
The only acceptable way to end our day was to introduce V and Hunter to metal karaoke. Located in the gothic bar by the casino on one of the lowest decks of the ship, the nightly event is both amazing and cringe-worthy. The highlight of this year’s first night of karaoke came from Koyi K Utho’s Ze Ro who gave a rendition of Killswitch Engage’s “Rose of Sharyn” that would have made Howard Jones himself green with envy. Other notable performances included a man who made every song he sang sound like it was sung by Cookie Monster, two people who sang Steel Panther’s ballad “Community Property,” and Týr’s own Terji Skibenaes singing a hilarious rendition of “Just a Gigolo.”
As the night slipped through our fingers and night turned into morning, V, Steph, and myself retreated to our cabin to sit on the balcony and watch the most breath-taking sunrise before grabbing breakfast and catching some well-deserved sleep for a few hours.
Our second day on board started with an easy trek down to the casino for the Turisas meet and greet. I hadn’t planned on attending any signing sessions this year, but I do love the Finnish band, so we went and I presented them with my silly Star Wars wallet to sign as it was the only thing I had that was acceptable. Gold on one side, silver on the other, it’s a hit wherever I go, and the Turisas meet and greet was no exception. The closet and not-so-closet nerds enthusiastically signed it and violinist Olli Vänskä even went as far as vandalizing one of the many C-3POs embossed in the gold side of it to transform it into C-3POlli.
We had no shows to catch that afternoon so most of us went back to sleep. I ended up at Alhambra Theater to catch Moonspell, a band I was only seeing because they came highly recommended, and found myself glad I ventured out of my comfort zone. From the keyboard cleverly made up to look like a pipe organ to the singer’s werewolf chic aesthetics, the Portuguese band looked as cool as it sounded. The sometimes HIM-sounding act had the people in attendance in a dancing frenzy, which only got more intense when they welcomed Mariangela Demurtas of Tristania to sing “Raven Claws” with them. The duet became a highlight of my trip.
Wasting time is easy on the ship. From the strange art hanging on the walls to the array of shows going on at any given time, you can go on a walk and end up losing hours, which is effectively what happened to me between Moonspell’s afternoon set and Eluveitie. I completely lost track of time until I walked back into Alhambra Theater followed by my three favorite people in the world and got us engulfed in a sea of screaming fans watching the end of Stratovarius’ first set.
Eluveitie climbed on stage an hour later to deafening cheering from drunken and enthusiastic cruisers. Permanent members of the band as well as temporary replacement such as Shir-Ran Yinon, Krampus’ Matteo Sisti, and Skálmöld’s Snæbjörn Ragnarsson all delivered a performance that exceeded all expectations. Their set introduced a lot of slower songs, and yet a constant downpour of crowd surfers rained down on the front row, threatening the structural integrity of my coke bottle glasses on more than one occasion. I can never get sick of seeing Eluveitie live. Every set is a new adventure, and this one was no exception. I sang my heart out during “Inis Mona,” received a battered and splintered drumstick from Merlin Sutter (thank you!) and was on cloud nine until the next band graced us with their glorious presence.
I’ve been into Children of Bodom since I was 13 years old. I had my first kiss to one of their songs and got broken up with to another. Children of Bodom has been a constant in my life equation full of variables for nearly a decade and a half. However, up until that night, I had never seen the Finnish legends in the flesh. Snow storms, bad timing, cancelled tours… every attempt to see Children of Bodom had been in vain. Therefore, when the pint-size guitarist and front man walked on, I cheered louder than ever before and ended up losing my voice during “Hate Me.” By the time they played their beloved anthem “Lake Bodom,” my vocal cords were completely refusing to cooperate. The frenzied crowd screamed for the quintet until they played the very last note of the night, making the spectators ravenous for their show the following day.
To continue with the evening of excellent Finnish gentlemen, we ended our night (or morning) on the pool deck to watch Turisas play their first set of the cruise. Visually stunning, musically enthralling… from “March of the Varangian Guard” to “Rasputin,” the body-painted sextet was flawless. The musicians were impassioned and the songs flowed effortlessly like the Bosphorus. Every interaction with the crowd, every synchronized headbang and military march was perfect. The sound of the crowd roaring behind me chanting the band’s name long after they had vacated the stage echoed in my ears for hours after I returned to my cabin to try to get sleep.
Though most people disembarked early in the morning to go to Jamaica to see the sights and take in some sun, the gross girls and I decided to sleep, a wise decision since we had a big day ahead of us. Our alarm ended up going off around noon. It was with a rested head that we went to grab food and hashed out a plan for the day. We settled on doing nothing. With everyone in Jamaica, we chose to head to the pool, which in the end was far busier than we anticipated. Hunter and Steph elected to get pruny in the hot tub while V and I settled on the chaise lounges by the pool and sipped on very strong Jack and Cokes while I reapplied my SPF 100 sunscreen every 45 minutes to shield me from my dear enemy the sun.
The afternoon was wasted spectacularly and, after a quick shower and some food, we were ready to start our evening. Our plan all along had been to go park our asses at the front of the pool deck stage and to spend the night watching shows. The schedule for the evening: Lacuna Coil, Eluveitie, Children of Bodom, At The Gates, Týr, and Carach Angren.
We arrived there only to find a troop of off-duty security staff from Event Operations Group occupying a large portion of the front row. The Alabama-based company provides most if not all the security for 70000Tons of Metal and employs some of the nicest, most considerate men I have had the pleasure of meeting on board. We joined them at the front and watched in bewildered amazement while Cristina Scabbia and her band of happy troubadours performed for us.
I don’t listen to Lacuna Coil on a regular basis, but Scabbia’s work with acts such as Apocalyptica and Ayeron have made her one of my favorite voices in metal. To see her in the flesh was a treat, and the high winds blowing her layered skirt in the wind made her look like a mermaid/witch hybrid. Lacuna Coil also surprised the gently swaying crowd with Epica’s own Simone Simons for a song. The duet was soft yet powerful and helped cap off Lacuna Coil’s energetic and enchanting set nicely.
A lot of our EOG pals left after Lacuna Coil but Andrew, a favorite among our group, stayed to watch Eluveitie with us after hearing our vehement love proclamations for the Swiss group. Much like the night before, their performance was magnificent. I was surprised to see Bibbi of Skálmöld fit in so well with the established group. Their performance was, once again, seamless. Anna Murphy sang “The Call of the Mountains” in Swiss-German as opposed to singing it in English like the night before, and the band once again finished their set with “Inis Mona” though the song was much more bittersweet that time. Eluveitie is amongst my favorite bands and knowing that I had no idea when the next time I would see them perform would be made it much harder to say goodbye.
The rest of the night made the Eluveitie blues easier to deal with. Children of Bodom proved once again why they are one of the highest grossing metal acts to come out of Finland, At The Gates delighted their fans and drew one of the biggest side-stage hot tub crowds I’ve seen this year, Týr played a majestic set in high winds, but it was Carach Angren that truly took our collective breaths away.
The Dutch band’s second set started at 5:15 am. The wind blew their long hair in the wind as they played one song after the other. The starry night sky turned green, then blue, and as the band played “Blood Stains on the Captain’s Log” to close their set, the most stunning sunrise painted the sky shades of purple, orange, blue, green, and pink. Though they played the exact same songs as the first night of the cruise, the scenery that served as Carach Angren’s backdrop made for a truly bewitching experience.
We climbed the stairs up to the 12th deck after the band finished playing and we watched the spectacular sunrise from up high. Exhausted, exultant… we were ready to collapse.
We didn’t sleep much between Saturday and Sunday. An hour or so separated us from the end of our breakfast to the time we had told ourselves we would be back out on the pool deck stage to catch Twilight Force’s set on a real stage in the daylight. Unfortunately, due to hazardous weather conditions, the band’s set was cancelled, throwing off our entire schedule.
Little did we know, we were about to sail through a small storm. The boat got increasingly rockier and I lost my footing more than once during the very rock and roll set of Skálmöld, which featured Anna Murphy of Eluveitie on the hurdy-gurdy for one song.
The winds and the rain got so awful that the entire pool deck stage was closed permanently, leaving all bands and spectators in limbo. Cruisers congregated on the promenade, filling every bar and restaurant to capacity and then some, all waiting to hear when and where shows would be rescheduled. We decided to pass the time by playing a truly inappropriate game of Cards Against Humanity at one of the ship’s quietest lounges, a game that Steph won hands down. We bowed down to her superiority all the way to the dining hall where we were given the new, revised schedule.
Twilight Force ended up playing their second set where they had started at the Pyramid Lounge. I desperately wanted to take pictures of the high-energy band, but as they are not likely to come back to North America for a while, I decided against it and just sang at the top of my lungs instead. The band from Falun surprised the spectators who had filled the small Pyramid Lounge to the brim with a new song named “Power Wind.” Twilight Force played with heart and passion and delivered the set of their life that night.
I could say that it was the incredible voice of Christian Eriksson that made me fall in love with Twilight Force on the cruise. I could say that it was the crazy wizard voice of the keyboardist who somehow sounds like he’s using a voice modulator, or the fancy finger work of the elf and the thief who razzled and dazzled the crowd with their intricate guitar licks, or that I was sold on their drummer’s speed and precision, but it ended up being the low-frequency Samwise Gamgee-like adventurer, with his bass lines that gave me cardiac arrhythmia, his constant blitheness, fervor, never-fading smile that stole my heart ruthlessly.
All members of Twilight Force were smiling from ear to ear as the ebullient crowd sang with fiery passion during the band’s anthem “The Power of the Ancient Force” and chanted the band’s name over and over again as the Swedes saluted the frenzied crowd. Twilight Force won the hearts of the entire boat that night with their high energy songs and their Sabatonesque antics.
We left the Pyramid Lounge feeling a little miserable and ended up making the most heartbreaking decision of the cruise: Skipping Dragonforce’s last set to catch Turisas from the front row.
Alhambra Theater was already packed when we arrived, thanks to Moonspell’s electrifying, but as luck would have it, our friend Gaby and her brother Danny who were there to watch Moonspell front row and center. We managed to weasel our way to the front just in time to see Turisas’ ludicrous Byzantine-inspired masterpiece of a backdrop get hoisted up.
Turisas lived up to their larger than life backdrop and played a set worthy of their stellar reputation. We were treated to “Hunting Pirates,” which the band doesn’t seem to play very often and was more than à propos on the cruise ship, and for the first time since I started listening to Turias, I got to see and hear the epic “Miklagard Overture.” Their insane and intense stage presence and their immaculate set list tied a neat little red and black bow on top of the gross girls holiday.
We peeled ourselves from the front barrier after Turisas” hour-long set. Our sweat-drenched clothes clung to our skin, our throats were painful and overused, but as we collapsed onto the banquettes of the Champagne Bar for the last time, we all agreed that Turisas had delivered the best show of the entire cruise, and I proclaimed that I could never tire of seeing “Battle Metal” live.
So what was left to do on the last night on the boat that rocks (and whose rocking was increasing exponentially thanks to the storm)? One last round of metal karaoke, of course! The crowd was strange, sort of pitiful and a little bit pissed off that the cruise was ending. A group of drunk metalheads decided to be assholes and destroyed a cautionary Wet Floor cone while people sang along to some of their favorite songs around them.
All was forgotten for a brief moment when our beloved friend Gaby and a cruiser who went by the name Ravioli sang a beautiful, heartfelt rendition of “Time to Say Goodbye” originally by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. Their operatic voices fit perfectly together and the beautiful moment put a temporary bandage on our sad, bleeding hearts.
It wasn’t long after Gaby stopped singing that we said our goodbyes to the Labyrinth before heading up to the English pub on the promenade to get our last drinks of the cruise. Andrew, the group’s utmost favorite security guard walked by our table with a cup of coffee and pastries and we couldn’t help but accost him to wish him happy birthday and a safe trip home.
“Last call for alcohol” was heard throughout the ghost town that was the promenade at 6:00 am. We downed the last of our stiff drinks, said goodbye to our cruise friends and slowly, surely, and drunkenly headed to the 11th deck for one last breakfast. The sun rose on the horizon as we tried to pretend it wasn’t over, but reality settled in. Before we knew it, we were waiting in line to go through American customs still inebriated.
We took the shuttle to our hotel and watched sorrowfully as the Independence of the Seas became but a speck in the rearview mirror of the annoyed driver who picked us up. We collapsed in the opulent beds of our cool and pleasant hotel room with only one thing in mind… Only 359 days before the cruise!
For more epic pictures, quest over to http://www.goblinphotography.com/