This was the year cruising became cool and music festivals took to the ocean wave. Jamie Thomson, writing for London’s Guardian joins thrash metal fans on the Barge to Hell – heading for the Bahamas. If you are tempted to join them, you can access travel information through the link below.
“This one’s called Return to Ygdrassil!” barks the singer of Norwegian black metal band Enslaved, while, a couple of miles away, a spectacular thunderstorm provides the perfect son et lumière for their pummelling evocations of Norse mythology. Only one thing jars – we’re on the deck of a luxury cruise ship off the coast of the balmy Bahamas rather than in a frost-bitten Scandinavian forest. This is the Barge to Hell, a floating four-day festival of extreme heavy metal music – and even more extreme alcohol consumption. It’s probably about the least pensioner-friendly cruise you could imagine.
The sister event to 70,000 Tons of Metal, a slightly less brutal celebration of all that is heavy and hairy in music, Barge to Hell is the latest in a new trend for luxury music festival cruises, appealing to the fan who has maybe grown out of slumming it in muddy fields but doesn’t quite want to hang up their partying hat just yet.
The organisers of California festival Coachella launched an ocean-going version this month on its own SS Coachella cruise ship. Holy Ship!, launched at the start of this year, takes dance-music hedonism to its logical conclusion with a jaunt around the Caribbean – it sails again on 4 January, with DJ Justice, Boyz Noise and Crookers among the performers.
Neither one will have the same kind of disconnect between form and content as Barge to Hell, however. In a quarter-century of gig-going, I have seen some peculiar performances in unusual places, but nothing can compare to watching Norway’s notorious Mayhem – a band with a murderous, death-haunted history – from the comfort of a sunlounger as friendly staff in Hawaiian shirts bring rounds of pina coladas.
The tone for the trip is set before we even leave port in Miami.
“OK, rockers, are you ready to party?” asks the enthusiastic, shiny young man as 1,200 metal fans crowd into one of the ship’s pristine bars for a mandatory safety demonstration. “Great! But first we have to make sure you guys know what to do during an emergency …”
“Metaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaal!” shouts one well-refreshed passenger.
“Ah, OK. Getting the party started early, huh? That’s great. But I just have a few safety tips for …”
“Met-AAAAAAAAL!!” The shiny man’s ebullient expression droops ever so slightly. It is going to be a long five days.
The party proper starts minutes after we’ve left port. It’s difficult to convey the beautiful juxtaposition of the occasion: grown men gliding up and down in gilt-edged glass lifts while headbanging to the piped-in music – Morbid Angel rather than Mantovani for this particular cruise; hirsute denizens of the night traipsing past gaudy Swarovski displays to a bar called A Chorus Line to see bands such as Possessed and Napalm Death.
All novelty aside, this is, of course, about the music and, as a concert-going experience, it could hardly be bettered. Seeing bands such as Sweden’s At the Gates – who could easily command an audience of 20,000-plus at some of Europe’s bigger outdoor festivals – in a piano bar with a capacity in the hundreds – is probably worth the £1,000 ticket alone for a lot of people here.
Almost all the bands seem to lift their game in these very un-metal surroundings, and they are rewarded by ingenious responses from the audience. A stage-diving competition into the outdoor pool is a given but an entirely sedentary moshpit using wheeled lounge chairs – as prompted by US thrashers Municipal Waste – is a moment of unscripted genius. At first it’s a free-for-all – like drunken Daleks at a Christmas party – but once co-operation and co-ordination creep in, the spinning, seated dancers create a kind of manic living sculpture. I don’t think anyone, least of all the band, was expecting this.
Recuperation is to be found on an excursion to Nassau’s beaches, where the local hair-braiders think all their Christmases have come at once, and a few of the more brazen members of the cruise are only too happy to enlist their services.
“Hammer time! Hammer time! You guys want to get hammered?” asks a beach hustler offering bottomless rum cocktails.
We speculate on whether he has amended his pitch for us, or whether he uses the same patter for Saga cruises, regardless of the customers’ vintage. We choose to believe the latter.
Miraculously, no one is so hammered as to forget to return to the boat. But, judging by the shared looks of weariness in lifts, the winces on gaunt faces in the breakfast buffet queue as yet another Cannibal Corpse song blasts out over the PA, the party is slowing down a little for the return trip to Miami.
When once you might have implored the barman to top up your drink with an extra dash of Grey Goose, now you are begging them to double the cranberry content; bands are to be enjoyed at a respectful distance rather than from the centre of the throng; the cabins, once just a place to catch a couple of hours’ sleep before heading back up on deck for the next round of bands and beers, are now a welcome sanctuary from the madness.
However, one young member of staff, looking bright and breezy despite overseeing four days of metallic bacchanal, seems entirely unfazed.
“Man, I love working on these things,” he tells me. “This one was great, but I did the one with [Miami rap artist] Pitbull a couple of weeks ago. He brought all his family and friends with him. Now that was crazy.”
Crazier than black metal and pina coladas? Sorry, I don’t believe it for a second.
For the original report go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2012/dec/28/caribbean-cruise-ship-thrash-metal