70000 Tons of Metal Diary, Day 1, February 4, 2016
Although embarkation wasn’t scheduled to begin until 12 noon, several hundred metal heads had already gathered at the port by 10 am when I arrived. It was a virtual sea of black T-shirts and tattoos amassing outside the doors and filling up the sidewalks in front of Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas… the boat that would be our home for the next four days. We had all opened up a pathway through our group to allow the mostly geriatric crowd of people disembarking the boat from the previous cruise to pass. The people looked at us with a lot of trepidation, obviously fearing they had to run through a gauntlet of death to make it to their taxis and airport transport vehicles. But little did they know, they had nothing to fear, because, as we all know, metal heads are some of the friendliest music fans in the world. We a truly just one big, albeit, dysfunctional family. With 60 bands, and 3000 attendees from 72 different countries, all trapped on the same boat, it was going to be an incredible experience!
Pre-embarkation began early, before 11am, and we were all ushered through security into an air conditioned waiting area. It was all very organized and the early risers actually got on the ship well before noon. Those fans that arrived later reportedly had a much longer wait… but I’m not sure how long. We were unable to access our rooms until 1 pm so most of the early morning fans gathered in the upstairs buffet dining room to wait and have lunch. One could already tell this wouldn’t be a typical cruise as metal music was being played through the ship’s sound systems, in the halls, the dining rooms, and even the elevators. Musicians were walking freely amongst the fans, eating lunch and waiting for their rooms like everyone else. It was like the entire ship was one giant “backstage” area. Fortunately for the artists, most of the fans were respectful of the private space.
Once I dropped of my luggage in my room, I began exploring the ship and the venues where the bands would play. On the first night, only three of the four stages were operational. The large outdoor stage was being built on the pool deck and was not scheduled to be operational until the following morning. The Alhambra Theater was the largest indoor venue. The theatre was mostly seated with the first several rows of seats removed to allow for a pit area in front of the stage. There was also a seated balcony. The theater had good acoustics and all the seats had a good view of the stage. The next smallest theater, although still of decent size, was Studio B. Studio B was actually an Ice rink with a stage set up at one end. The ice rink itself (sans ice) served as the pit area, with arena style seats on three sides. The Pyramid Lounge was the smallest indoor venue. It was truly a lounge that had been converted into a concert hall. The ceiling was low so the stage had to be almost at floor level. Although the sound was decent, it was very difficult to actually see the bands unless you were right up front. If you were further back then the first few rows, you could only see the performers heads.
Each of the sixty bands in attendance was scheduled to play two different sets, on different nights, improving fans abilities to see as many bands as possible. But as 3 to 4 stages were all running at the same time, with shows going all night, it was logistically impossible to see every band. You had to pick and choose… and you had to sleep sometime (well, I did anyway). The shows on the first day began at 5pm (shortly after the ship disembarked) and ran until 6am the following morning. The bands had either a 45 or 60 minute set depending on the popularity of the band. I managed to stay up until 3 am the first night (an almost impossible feat for me)… which allowed me to see 10 of the 22 bands that played that night.
The first band I saw was Carach Angren, a Dutch symphonic black metal band that started up the cruise. They played in the Pyramid lounge. They were very theatrical and put on an impressive set. Next it was down two flights of stairs to the Alhambra to see another Dutch band, the symphonic metal powerhouse Delain. Delain is currently on my short list of favorite bands and I’ve never seen them put on a bad show! Well, this night was no exception and their set was great. We got a special surprise when they brought out the infamous Dutch growler George Oosthoek to perform on “Tell Me, Mechanist”! It was only the second show of the cruise, but Delain’s first set was in the top 5 performances of the cruise for me! The third band on my hit list was the British power metal sextet, Dragonforce… and this is where the first glitch of the cruise occurred. Now, it is certainly understandable that, when you put 60 bands on the high seas and ask them to perform 120 shows in four days, some things are going to go wrong. Unfortunately for Dragonforce, their monitors were not working and they couldn’t hear themselves play. After trying to fix the problem for almost an hour the band attempted to play one song. Although the song didn’t sound that bad, it was certainly not up to the quality that Dragonforce normally delivers… and the band elected to abort their set rather than give the fans a subpar show. Their show was later rescheduled for 3am on the third night… which was unfortunately too late for me to stay awake.
A quick run back up the stairs brought me back to the Pyramid lounge for a unique set of adventure power metal from Swedish band, Twilight Force. This band pretty much looks like the Fellowship of the Ring gave up their quest to destroy the One Ring and started a heavy metal band. A good choice in my book, because they were musically very good with great vocals and awesome guitar riffs. Back downstairs, the “Gothfathers” of Italian metal, Lacuna Coil, re-energized the fans in the Alhambra with a stunning hour long set of their unique brand of melodic metal. Lacuna Coil is also on my favorite band short list and I thought they sounded the better than ever! After that, I was running up the stairs again to the Pyramid lounge for another round of black/death metal from the Austrian band, Belphagor. Iced Earth was up next in the Alhambra, so back down the stairs I went…. are you seeing a theme here?… 70000 Tons of Stairmaster! Now Iced Earth was a band I’d heard of and even listened to before, but I’d never had the opportunity to see live. So I was totally unprepared for the powerful and dynamic crushing set of metal being hurled from the stage. I left the theater exclaiming, “Holy @*#^! … and I also left a huge fan!
By now it was after midnight, and I was wondering how much longer I could go… but there were so many good bands still on the roster for the night, I decided to see how far I could push myself. Some other fans headed for bed, while others headed to the Labyrinth lounge for 70000 Tons of Karaoke that ran until sunrise. Me… I was up for more live music, so it was up the stairs again to the Pyramid for some classic old school British metal from Diamond Head! And…. then back down again for another impressive, crushing show in the Alhambra, this time from the Italian symphonic metal powerhouse, Rhapsody of Fire. Finally, it was up the stairs, across the ship, and back down a different set of stairs to my first show in Studio B for some Viking style metal from the band Tyr.
At this point in the evening I was so exhausted, I wasn’t sure if my vertigo was due to the motion of the boat or my dizziness from lack of sleep. So, despite the fact that there five more bands left to play, I decided it was time to crawl to bed. As I headed for my cabin, I realized for the first time that, with all the great bands playing, I had forgotten to eat dinner! The dining halls had closed at 10pm, but, fortunately for me, and a ton of other fans that had also neglected to eat…. there was an all night pizzeria and an all night sandwich café on the main promenade of the ship serving some mediocre yet strangely satisfying pseudo nutrition. After a quick snack, (I chose the pizza), I hit the bed with a smile on my face… I needed sleep… Day 2 was looming!