So, I'm awoken by a knock at my cabin door at 8AM. It's my lovely steward from the Philippines telling me to get the hell off the ship (politely of course) cuz we've reached our home port of Miami. I shake my head, still dazed and drunk, and think to myself, has this been a dream? Heavy metal cruising? No, but my first urge is to grab another cocktail to aid this extreme cloudy feeling in my noggin. And wasn't I at the Karaoke Bar just a few minutes ago? Welcome to 70000 Tons Of Metal 2014, a surreal experience to say the least, where fans check off a crucial line on their bucket list.
My journey began on January 25th (the day after my 47th birthday and yes, next year the cruise will be ON my birthday!), leaving Toronto's Pearson Airport in literally a blizzard. Toronto doesn't get hit by the extremes of winter too often, but this season Southern Ontario has been hit bloody hard. And as I type madly, I'm still staring at six-foot snow banks and temperatures that approach minus 20, even minus 30 with the wind chill. So get me on a goddamn beach already. And that almost didn't happen, as I was surprised that airport authorities even allowed my Westjet to fly into something akin to the meteor shower in Star Wars. Once we arose above the cloud cover, it was smooth sailing into Florida and my feet went from trudging through mountains of snow, to the warmth of the sand in South Beach. It's always wise to give yourself a travel window, especially this season as North America as a whole has been bruised and battered by any number of different elements from the skies, which would even follow us on board (more later). It was time to get stocked up with supplies and lap up the location, as this part of Miami is famous for its eateries, night life and of course miles upon miles of beaches. My first urge is of course the liquid kind and I must say that the chain I Love (heart symbol) Liquor fits the bill quite appropriately, but pricing-wise, South Beach certainly ranks as some of the highest-priced swill in Florida, of course not even close to sickening liquor laws in this country. With a fridge full (beers plus bourbon mix), it was time to hit two of my highest recommendations; it's hard to believe that a burger place - appropriately called The Burger & Beer Joint - is Trip Advisor ranked at #6, but the menu features a vast array of unique combinations led by the succulent wagyu beef known for its intense marbling. And of course they have every beer on the planet, mostly in bottles, which will satisfy any thirst. Being a bourbon lover, the Yardbird - Southern Table & Bar is a dream and currently ranked #2 in all of Miami. With an intense amount of US whiskey selections, the menu is loaded with tapas-style dishes so you can take advantage of the varied flavours. But prior to that experience on the Sunday night (day before sail day), it was time for the annual beach party where all cruisers hang out, mingle and of course cheers the occasion! Rather strange to see hundreds of black t-shirts swarm South Beach, but it gets everyone into celebratory mode as in less than 24 hours we'd be doing this on water while watching some of the greatest heavy metal entities!
Recovering from the Yardbird, it was time to get any last-minute work done while the internet connection was stable and virtually free. Sure, you can buy the packages on the cruise, but the satellite system is slow and expensive. Most don't even bother, which adds to the appeal of 70K, as you don't have people focused on their devices, texting, tackling, FaceTiming etc… Of course people are filming, but for the most part all the social interaction is face-to-face and glass-to-glass! Kinda like festival season in Europe, you'll find people wearing the uniform (black t-shirts) wandering everywhere and South Beach isn't excluded, so when I left my hotel to grab a cab for the airport there were a pair lovely ladies doing the same. It's this human element and constant bond you find on this unique journey which is invigorating and unlike any other. We drop off our luggage to the usual 'can you donate to my kids' college fund' routine and make our way to the ID/ticket check and counters that eventually get us our SeaPass Card which works as room key/credit card etc…
Once on board you feel the buzz of the impending trip, a certain electricity that only fills the air on rare occasions in life. Most are return cruisers, which says a helluva lot about this experience. 2051 guests to be exact; 3378 people on board including bands/crew (458) and ship crew (869) from a record 61 countries. Think about it. No doubt aided by this thing they call the world wide web, its impact is immeasurable as people from all walks of life and geographical distances unite! Exhilarating to say the least and hard to put into words as you couldn't fathom such a thing a few short years ago. And Canada is #3 on board and I'm soon to find out by the flags being waved in the hot tubs!!
SOILWORK, OVERKILL, SYMPHONY X and OBITUARY led the charge at the main in-door "venue", the Chorus Line Theater. The Swedes are unstoppable in support of their new bruising double-dose called The Living Infinite. Speed (Bjorn Strid) and I connect numerous times on the cruise, as it was on Barge To Hell I was privy to an early listen to the album. And the connection is more local as he's spending more time in Toronto these days due to his current relationship. Let's see if he takes me up on my offer to throw on the blades!
Prior to sailing, Overkill singer Bobby "Blitz" Ellesworth and I (and his lovely wife) spoke at great lengths about another consistent in our lives aside from heavy metal; dogs. So we traded stories / photos about man's best friend in the glorious sunlight at the Port Of Miami. And you'll see soon during my formal chat with the singer in the upcoming weeks … but I don't know if even Overkill themselves truly are aware of how good they are on stage. Virtually effortless as the band pounded through their vast catalog, the filled theatre banged heads in unison to the classics 'Wrecking Crew', 'Rotten To The Core', 'Hello From the Gutter' and the fitting 'In Union We Stand'. Symphony X singer Russell Allen may be the metal world's most entertaining ring-leader, party animal and all-rounded lover of life. And it helps when he has pipes of steel.
But the true medalists of the moment were Obituary, the Floridians flowing style of guttural death metal moved to and fro moreso than the waves hitting the ship, singer John Tardy's mane flowing madly in the air as the band delivered a set dedicated to their landmark trifecta: Slowly We Rot, Cause Of Death and The End Complete. And I had to laugh, hanging out with the boys at the many bars I asked the frontman how he tucks all that hair in his ball-cap! And guitarist Trevor Peres and I had intense conversations about the importance of rhythm and where AC/DC's Malcolm Young fits in the mix! And stay tuned for a truly memorable chat with bass legend Terry Butler (also on board with MASSACRE) about his busy world including lotsa chit-chat about the history of DEATH and some riveting Chuck Schuldiner stories.
The first full day at sea (Tuesday, January 28th) saw the likes of Finland's SWALLOW THE SUN, a Fireworks set from BONFIRE (a bit misplaced on the cruise), LEAVES' EYES and THE CHURCH OF PUNGENT STENCH (hell has truly frozen over) until the first two highlights of the day. We had DARK TRANQUILLITY at the BW&BK 6-Pack Weekend III in 2005 and I recall telling the Swedes that they are truly one of the shining gems in the melodic death metal scene, so to witness them on the Pool Deck stage was indeed another highlight, but it was Burton C. Bell and company that upped the ante. You see, the FEAR FACTORY frontman and yours truly go way, way back to the early '90s when he was slogging CDs at the R.E.D. warehouse in California just before they would change the world of music with Soul Of A New Machine. Watch for an in-depth and personal interview with BCB soon at BraveWords! Fear Factory ripped through an exclusive Demanufacture set of industrial metal brilliance including of course 'Replica', 'Zero Signal' and the killer cover of HEAD OF DAVID's 'Dog Day Sunrise' (VOIVOD influence anyone?)
Back inside to the Chorus Line Theatre for some vicious black and grindcore. Another 'where were you when moment' when SATYRICON hit the stage with 'Now, Diabolical', 'Repined Bastard Nation', the epic 'To the Mountains' and infectious 'The Pentagram Burns'. Satyr told me during the one and only interview he did on the cruise (mostly about his wine) that rumors were true - Joey Jordison (ex-SLIPKNOT) was asked to replace Frost, but Soilwork's Dirk Verbeuren took charge last minute, showcasing the versatility of the skinsman. Sadly the band were cut off (time restrictions) during 'Fuel For Hatred' which was added earlier in the set for the band's second show which appeased us 'rebels'!
To witness CARCASS in support of their Brave Pick Of 2013 (Surgical Steel) was surreal to say the least, so when they kicked off with the Necroticism… classic 'Corporal Jigsore Quandary', 'Buried Dreams' the audience roared. Other highlights included newbie 'Captive Bolt Pistol', 'Keep On Rotting In The Free World' and 'Ruptured in Purulence'/'Heartwork' mash-up finale. Grind-elicious!
Stay tuned for Part II of the trip soon!
Check out an exclusive first peek of 70000 Tons Of Metal 2015 on BraveWords here
(All live photos by Håkon Grav)