There’s a word in the heavy metal music lexicon, shredding, which denotes exceptional mastery of a musical instrument. The decks of a Royal Caribbean ship are alive with the sounds of shredding on this warm February afternoon as I make my way around the 70000 Tons of Metal theme cruise that’s in full swing. I’m intrigued with the heavy 2019 focus on the musical collaborations with other music communities, explored through headline concerts and intimate sets, and topped off with metal-infused karaoke.
The four-day event utilizes four stages to host 120 events associated with the 60 music acts and their crews. Setting a course for metal-venture on The Independence of the Seas is an ethnically and generationally diverse audience of more than 3,000 hailing from 73 countries.
I chat with Detroit metal enthusiast and IT System Administrator Nick Haag. A four-time guest, he is among the ranks of white-collar professionals who count themselves among the devotees of this entertainment genre.
“Sys-Admins are all metalheads,” Haag says, laughing.
Haag notes that heavy metal, along with its black leather, has a “cheeky” sense of humor. This becomes apparent at an indoor lounge when Nekrogoblikon, a hard-driving Los Angeles ensemble, takes the stage. The band’s ominous mascot, a 5’5 man dressed in a green goblin costume, is met by jubilant cheers from the multinational crowd. Really.
“There is a time in every man’s life when he must choose,” the crowd is firmly instructed over the amplifiers. “Between human. And goblin.”
Plunging Through Purgatory
On a clear February day, the beaches of Labadee, Haiti are easily viewable from the festival. Its hammocks beckon me, but I take comfort in the knowledge that the palm trees can wait—the afternoon will provide lounging opportunities. Nearby, I’m following the cool waves of the German “thrash metal” band Sodom on an underwater excursion: “Snorkeling with Sodom.” Cheeky humor indeed.
After exploring the warm brines with Sodom, I nose-dive into guitarist Yorck Segatz’s thoughts.
“Any initial doubts about the cruise not being ‘metal enough’ were unfounded,” Segatz said. “It is surreal to enjoy the beautiful landscape and the traditional dances of Labadee together with a horde of metal fans dressed in band shirts.”
I never expected the words “beautiful” and “traditional” mentioned favorably by a member of a German metal band. Especially one named Sodom. Surreal it is.
“What a great experience seeing the beautiful beach and nature of this island,” Frank Gosdzik exclaims. “Yorck and I got to snorkel with people from all countries! It was so beautiful to see the coral reef with all the sea life. I was the last one who came back to the boat. I could have snorkeled much longer.”
Beautiful, guys? There’s that b-word word again. Waxing lyrical about nature? Doesn’t that go against the nature of metal?
I remind myself of the delightfully ironic nature of this art form, and conclude Sodom is as metal as they wannabe in Labadee. It’s this Yankee Girl who needs to cleanse herself of her stoicism.
Following the tour and the ship’s evening departure from Haiti, drummer Stefan “Husky” Hüskens does offer a decidedly metallic yet pleasant evaluation.
“It was too warm for a normal mid-European metalhead,” Husky diplomatically explains. “I was back onboard after one hour, but the island was nice with many attractions.”
A Metal Frame of Mind
Formerly disregarded as an artistic also-ran, heavy metal and its associated subgenres and mashups, such as “Viking metal” and “Celtic metal,” have slowly gained reverence since the 1970s. The 70000 Tons of Metal cruise is home to a vibrant music community. The experimental, old-school and hard-driving cultures here are flourishing, as evidenced by big stage concerts rocking the decks as well as well as a surfeit of intimate performances in the lounges and theaters. The ship shakes into daybreak in order to accommodate the 120 shows in its four days.
German businessman Wolfgang Rott is the scene’s biggest evangelist. In 2008, the helmed the first voyage and the cruise has subsequently received a plethora positive reviews in metal-oriented outlets. An amiable headbanger, he has only a moment to speak with me before he’s off to watch the band Napalm Death.
“So many events on our ship this time,” Rott declares. “Karaoke, Super Bowl party, band meet-and-greets.”
Among Rott’s many onboard tasks are interacting with the crowds and ensuring that ship employees understand the philosophy. New security guards who might otherwise be alarmed by the audience phenomena of deliberate shoving known as “moshing” are debriefed on the general harmlessness of it. Indeed, such activity on the ship ironically concludes with the jostlers hugging it out. A sociable African American passenger, with buckets of hair and known only as “Antoinne,” bouncily ambushes the faces of his fellow moshers with assorted rubber toys. He’s adored throughout the boat.
“We have a varied music scene with many acts such as Accept and Vicious Rumors,” Rott explains. “Fans and performers of all styles go to shows together.”
It all begs the question: What’s in the artistic water at 70000 Tons of Metal? Haag believes the nautical venue provides a superior platform for the heavy hurling.
“I won’t go to a multi-day land festival,” Nick Haag says. “The bands get short sets and you end up tenting in a pool of someone’s sick. I like the cruise because all the bands get full sets, they all play through the same sound system, so they are all equal. If I get tired, I can go back to my cabin.”
I could do without the “someone’s sick” visual, but it’s an effective one as I watch group Napalm Death. Sick name, in the vein that sick is used by Millennials to describe excitement.
Platform It, and They Will Come
Canadian ultrasound technician Marcus Smith concurs with Nick Haag regarding the comicality of the event.
“I remember the first time I heard about this cruise and I just laughed because it’s so absurd,” Smith said. “That’s part of the beauty of it, because metal is a little ludicrous. I love getting to see a fellow fan walking his stuffed plush dog around on a leash, and everyone loves Antoinne swinging his pointlessly large toys around in the mosh-pit. It’s all ridiculous and I think it’s good for the soul. Deep down, it takes wit to be a metal fan. No matter how dark and intense you are, if you don’t realize it is a bit silly, I think you just burn out on it. The thought of 60 metal bands, some of them the most extreme of the extreme on a cruise ship full of metalheads? This is one of the greatest jokes I’ve ever seen. It is an authentic cruise, with metal bands putting on metal shows.”
Smith echoes the sentiments of other passengers that anyone who is a fan of live music should take the journey. If you are dating or married to a metal fan but you are not one yet, he reasons, you will learn about your partner’s passion and it might start making more sense to you.
“To anyone thinking about trying out the metal cruise even if just for a taste of something that’s foreign and different, just do it,” Smith continues. “You’ll find yourselves more welcome than you’d expect. The fans bring the theme. If the ship tried to create the theme, it would come off as counterfeit. You can do that with an Elvis cruise because you’re just selling to people who aren’t much on the purist side. With a metal cruise, the wisest thing is to merely offer a stage. Provide a platform, the people will bring the theme.”
It’s Up to You, Yorck
The cruise winds down with a ship-wide viewing of the Super Bowl, followed by a hilarious karaoke session performed by headbangers. A couple of male European “gothic metal” band members sentimentally croon the 1980s Foreigner ballad, “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” while several longhaired men sidesplittingly waltz together. Antoinne emerges with a soft figurine, playfully throttling them all.
Perhaps the United Nations could learn a lesson in diplomacy from the 70000 Tons passengers. Antoinne could use a rubber gavel to mediate any deliberations over the merits of bluegrass metal.
I linger over lagers with Stefan Accola, a realtor from the ever-neutral Switzerland. He believes the Caribbean balminess contributes to the onboard congeniality.
“This vacation is Switzerland with warmth and sea,” Accola explains. “Nobody quarrels here. We’re not caught up in whether death metal is better than polka metal. Or Italy versus Spain. The musicians and fans enjoy the sun together and respect everyone’s music. Then we go back contented to Tokyo, Barcelona, New York, Rio or Tel Aviv.”
Sodom’s Yorck Segatz concurs.
“What an enjoyable experience to mingle with the fans throughout the cruise, during one of the many shows of other bands or just hanging out, enjoying a beer or two,” Segatz elucidated. “Multinationalism doesn’t matter, it’s one united family.”
“When people are on 70000 Tons, they are given the opportunity to experience metal on a level that makes them feel part of something special,” Smith said. “Metal is so raw that people can relate to on a personal level. The energy of this ship gives everyone the feeling that anyone can do something special and we’re all invited—no one is left out.”
The roster of performers at the floating festival changes annually. The 2020 voyage, “Round X”— befitting the event’s 10th year and a nod to GenX metal culture — will run January 7-11. To set your course on this metal-venture, visit 70000tons.com.
Copyright 2019, Sarah Wyatt