What Happens When You Put 3000 Metalheads On A Boat?

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Put on your oven gloves, I’ve got a hot take for you.

I like a clean toilet, a nice place to chill out, and an edible meal. I’m crazy like that.

Why am I telling you this? Consider it a declaration of a conflict of interest: when I got a chance to join the sixth 70,000 Tons Of Metal cruise on board a luxury cruiseliner, sailing from Fort Lauderdale in Florida bound for Falmouth in Jamaica, my appraisal was already pretty bloody positive. This is a different league.

We played it last year, and it turned out to be one of the unlikeliest gigs of all time: 5.30 in the morning, on the windswept deck, playing to a few hundred frighteningly committed thrashers.

I already appreciated the weird, compelling incongruity of 70,000 Tons. It’s strange enough to see legions of denim ’n’ leather heads in the polished confines of a cruise ship, but when they’re tipped onto the even more absurd setting of a sun-kissed Caribbean beach, it feels like some cosmic higher power pressed copy and paste at the wrong moment.

(Image: © Derek Bremner)

The 3007 guests are kept entertained by almost a thousand artists and festival staff, and kept happy and alive by an even larger number of crew. I briefly meet the captain, a charmingly windswept Danish man of 65 whose last gig was The Three Tenors. He gives zero shits, so is immediately one of us.

For punters, one of the perks of 70,000 Tons is that fans get real proximity to their favourite bands. There’s no well-guarded VIP area here: everyone eats, drinks and hangs together. You’re likely to be lining up at the breakfast buffet with Lacuna Coil, rooming next to Dragonforce or taking the lift with Epica (my own highlight on this front: singing Britney’s Baby One More Time with members of Emperor and Scandi black metallers Tsjuder joining in. There was some real commitment to the lyrical content, there).

There’s a lot of repeat custom. I see a shit-ton of 70,000 Tons t-shirts and tatts, people bringing their kids, even hear stories of the odd on-deck marriage proposal. Survivors - that’s what they call themselves - keep coming back, and have grown their own traditions and habits.

When I meet the festival’s owner Andy Piller he admits he’s not even aware that Sunday features a punter costume competition. He books the boat and the bands: the fans give it a life of its own. He’s still keen to know who won, though.

The belly flop contest is something of an institution. On the one hand it’s very metal, very adult - a line of girls in bikinis, a throng of horn-throwing fans, repeated screams of ‘Fuck yeah!’ as each diver takes the plunge. On the other hand it’s good, clean fun - there’s collective cooing as a pair of plucky kids line up to participate, everyone’s PG mode instantly snapping into action. Our judge Cristina Scabbia looks like her head might explode from the cuteness. If you’ve got an image of a metal cruise in your head, this ain’t it.

(Image: © Derek Bremner)

The festival is a behemoth, and like the birds that live on a hippo’s back, there’s a whole world of symbiotic 70,000 Tons Of Metal communities. The ‘Pool Girls’ are probably the most notable: they’re all very young, very female and very in their skimpies. They fly in from all over the world to pose for promo shots, hand out sunscreen to punters and generally give the impression that bikini babes like the music of Belphegor. They do it all with a knowing, self-deprecating verve that makes them even more charming. Don’t you just hate people like that?

The Pool Girls room together in small, clothing-strewn cabins, eat together, and when their shifts are over, drink as many cocktails as they can together. On the first night there’s a giant mouthwash bottle full of Jack Daniel’s passed around, which I gamely help out with. I reckon it’s too spicy to drink neat but I keep my mouth shut because:

  1. I’m a boy
  2. It’s whiskey
  3. I’m Irish

And those are social conventions you just don’t fuck with.

In the end, I deliver a baffled version of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance in the ship’s karaoke bar, streaking about like there’s a wasp in my pants. Yes, I am too old for this. No, I won’t let it stop me.

(Image: © Derek Bremner)

Each onboard scene has its own hangouts: older bands and wives are often midships, lounging at smaller bars that do cocktails. Industry heads, young bands and Pool Girls go straight to the casino, a windowless, smoke-filled room that feels suitably racy.

It’s here where I attempt to play roulette, pretending I know how maths works as I place random bets. I win a few small stacks of chips. I nod sagely at other players. I lose all my money. I nod less convincingly this time. I think the croupier feels sorry for me. She’s right to.

Fighting jetlag and Jack, I take an early walk the next morning. There’s a thousand foot-long atrium in the heart of the ship: a mock street with marbled flooring, housing quaint-looking shops, pubs and restaurants. Michael Kors concessions. Partied-out metalheads snoozing in the oxblood leather booths. Grindcore softly replacing the usual shopping music.

(Image: © Derek Bremner)

Down the middle of all this a huge line has formed. There must be five hundred people waiting patiently, the queue snaking along the entire length of the ship’s main drag. Evidently, some of these people have been staking their place for hours: one woman is snoozing fitfully on a chair, gripping a pillow like a life jacket. They’re queueing for the merch store.

I ask an American father and daughter team for their story: they’ve been in the line for over three hours, hoping to snag some exclusive 70,000 Tons Delain merch before it’s gone. They have the steely-faced commitment of people who got up early in the name of metal. It’s a repeating pattern on this boat.

Over the course of three days there are something like 120 shows, with bands rotating through two sets each as live music stretches from ten AM to the following six AM.

In between there’s half a day spent in Jamaica. I drink a bottle of Appleton rum on a private beach while a man who sounds like a chipper van driver sings Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. Someone makes a giant pentangle from seaweed, studding it with Red Stripe cans, a neat cypher for this ‘metalheads in paradise’ moment. I talk to a painter, a fashion designer, a marketer and a girl dressed as an elf. Everyone is super interesting. Also I’m rummed up. Sand gets in my drink. We bundle into taxis back to the ship with salty hair and no socks. Take that, other festivals.

(Image: © Derek Bremner)

Headliners take place on the pool deck, the ocean winds causing a historic amount of hair tangling for fans and bands alike. It’s here that you see the real, frenzied beating heart of 70,000 Tons.

There’s one guy in a chainmail shirt and a Santa hat. He’s as brown as a bean, battered by the caribbean sun, viking drinking horn glued to his hand. I see him again and again. I suspect he never sleeps. He probably just transitions from standing drinking to lying down drinking.

There’s also a British woman. Maybe it’s because this is superbowl weekend, maybe it’s not, but she’s permanently dressed in a ‘Left Shark’ costume. Someone asks her where Katy Perry is.

‘Who gives a fuck?’ is her answer. Correct.

(Image: © Derek Bremner)

There are hot tubs everywhere on deck. People mosh in them, drink in them, even crowdsurf into them. Even when, on the last day of the cruise gale force winds force organisers to close the pool deck and reconvene sets indoors, the hot tubs are still full. One of the Belly Flop competition runners-up is repeatedly goaded into repeating his performance in three feet of bubbly water. He looks like the king of the world - big, shirtless, shit-eating grin from ear-to-ear, defiant against the Caribbean sea with only metal and a stomach full of beers for armour.

Once we left the ship in a tangle of matted hair and bloodshot eyes, everyone’s inner ear was confused. Even now, a day and a half later and several thousand miles away, my feet still are swaying with the phantom rocking of the ship. The new friends I’ve made are saying the same thing. Our bodies literally can’t accept it’s over. And with next year’s cruise - this time to Haiti - already confirmed, why should they?

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All pics by Derek Bremner. Follow Philly Byrne’s band Gama Bomb on Twitter.