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Different Sheets of Music: Walking the Plank on the Heavy Metal Cruise

Justin Pearson of The Locust and Retox set sail on 70,000 Tons of Metal, the metal cruise so weird even he didn't belong.

Photos by Becky DiGiglio

It’s one thing to figure out that Santa or the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist. It’s another thing to realize your parents don’t like you or even themselves. But it’s a trip to fully realize that something you grew up with, something you obsessed over for a good portion of your younger years, and was supposed to hold some sort of meaning and merit to you, is soaking in bullshit and is just outright goofy.


Whoever thought up the idea of a cruise ship dedicated to the concept of heavy metal music is a complete genius or a total bastard—I’m not entirely sure which one is accurate just yet.

As our Uber approached the harbor, where this massive white ship was docked, we noticed all these old(er) regular people exiting the ship, brightly dressed in pastels, flip flops, and with nice looking luggage all moving away from the boat. At the same time, there were all these sort of “degenerates,” dressed all in black, all heading into massive lines to get on the vessel. It was amusing and by all means less threatening than what previously had transpired there on the boat. As awkward as things could have been from the start, they were. We were uncertain as to where we should put our luggage, which also included gear and a huge box of t-shirts—which we were bound to not sell—for our band, Dead Cross. Since no one on board knew what Dead Cross was, and since I barely understood it myself, let me explain.

About three months ago, through an odd series of circumstances that I’m still unclear about, I found myself roped into a band with Slayer founding member Dave Lombardo. It was for utilitarian purposes, really. One of Dave’s bands had recently broken up and he had to somehow fill these three southern Californian dates that the band had booked. Oh, and the dates for the show were about two weeks away.


We corralled my friend Mike, who plays guitar in my band, Retox, and who also has a giant Slayer tattoo on his arm, and my other friend Gabe, who I have played with in The Locust, Head Wound City, and Holy Molar.

I think it was originally presented as being short grindcore songs, like Infest, Crossed Out, etc. etc. etc. All under 30 seconds each. Of course I agreed to take part. I came up with the name Dead Cross after hearing a piece on NPR about some increasingly common US mishaps bombing innocent people in parts of the world, and over the next couple weeks we threw a handful of songs together, tacked on a Bauhaus cover, and managed to play a few shows to save Dave’s friends from losing a bunch of money that was spent on flights. All in all, it was a success, except for when we couldn’t get through the songs properly. The saving grace was that people sort of understood that we just pulled everything out of our asses in a very short amount of time and still the material and performances were fairly brutal and abrasive, just as we were aiming for.

Over the next couple weeks, a few more shows were added and we jumped right into the studio to track an album and hopefully make sense of what material we threw together, as well as write a couple more tracks to round out what is about to become our full-length album. Fast forward through a couple more weeks, a short Retox tour, my dog almost passing away due to cancer, me getting hit by a drunk driver, and then going out to the desert to film a video for the upcoming Head Wound City album, and I got this random text asking if Dead Cross wanted to play on a cruise ship the following week.


I was told I had to confirm right then and there, as I was out in the middle of nowhere, with hardly any cell phone reception, dressed like a hick in oversized clothing to make me look like a typical Palmdale, CA resident while having a shotgun pointed at my head on camera for a good part of the day. Everything seemed practical, yet still made no sense. Sounding about right, I agreed to do it, not fully understanding what I was getting into.

Surprisingly, all our stuff made it on the boat and into our cabins, even the box of t-shirts that Gabe and Mike ended up carrying through the lines of metalheads and Slayer fans who would yell out at Dave and demand he take selfies with them. The fact that the guy who played on the good Slayer records was the drummer for Dead Cross, which pretty much nobody had heard of, was the reason that I was about to take a cruise to Jamaica for six hours and then head back to the wet dick of America better known as the state of Florida was totally fine by me. Dave is extremely humble, a ripping drummer, and well, he was open to what some of us in Dead Cross have spent the better part of our lives doing, which is bumming people out.

Once on the boat, one of the craziest and fairly simple things I could not get over was the fact that every time I would open my door to my cabin, I heard metal music blaring. I kept thinking it was someone’s phone blasting some run-of-the-mill metal, but alas, it was coming from the overhead speakers throughout the hallways of the boat. Every single hallway. Twenty-four hours a day. For five days. Not once was it recognizable or even decent, with the exception of a couple Slayer songs and a Black Sabbath song. It’s safe to say, I can pretty much never hear metal music again and be fine with it. And at that point, the ship set sail and we were in for some of the best people-watching I had ever seen in my entire life.


Granted, I have never been to one of those ICP festivals or a white supremacist rally, but this was certainly up there with the things that make you question how others have made it as far as they have, as well as made me wonder if I’m even meant for this planet. I had arrived in a white t-shirt with some pink and blue print, so I was feeling a bit awkward about 30 minutes into the excursion, submerged among every single dude wearing a black t-shirt, some of whom were drinking beer out of animal horns, some with braided goatees, and more pasty guts and ass cheeks being exposed to the sun than a nudist colony would warrant, both male and female, respectively.

As confused as we were with our surroundings on the ship, people seemed equally as confused with Dead Cross. Most of the people we talked to asked if we were punk, metal, or hardcore, and seconds later completely checked out when I tried to explain what I thought of musical genres or musical influences. “I just think it sounds like thrash-goth, if that is even a thing. But none of us really care too much what sort of reaction we get, if any.” That much was apparent when we played our sixth and seventh shows to an extremely small crowd of Lombardo fans. See, Dave was pretty much the mayor of the cruise and ironically the bulk of the people who were there could not have given a shit about seeing us live, which is pretty understandable to me. I’m a total music snob and it takes something pretty fucking magical to get me to come out to see a band play live these days, so I don’t blame the other 4,800 people on the metal cruise for not bothering to see some random band with no music available for people to hear aside from a handful of shitty live YouTube videos shot on cell phones.


Admittedly, I had only heard of a couple of the bands on the lineup, just as almost nobody had heard of Dead Cross. I caught a couple acts here and there such as a jam thing that Dave did with the singer of Iced Earth, which was a cover of “Painkiller” and completely ruled. Oh, and the drummer of Raven looked exactly like Warf from Star Trek, which sort of bridged my warped perception on metal and sci-fi fantasy. To some of the metal purists out there, the stuff that I can relate to in the metal world probably is the furthest thing from what “true metal” is, and that is fine. But my reference points are based off of my life experiences. I had wished a band like Cattle Decapitation were on the cruise, which I think are easily one of the best metal bands out there today. I have this standard based off of a band like Cattle, or Dillinger Escape Plan, or maybe even something like Narrows, or Earthless. That stuff all seems metal to me, or at least rooted in metal, so please give me a little slack if this is coming off as uneducated.

My point is this: I witnessed some of the weirdest shit I have even seen humans partake in and prescribe to—capes, tons of campy patches sewn everywhere, stupid lyrics and slogans printed insanely large on the backs of black t-shirts, fat dudes passed out everywhere only a couple hours after being at sea, and even a full on Stormtrooper with a vocal processor that sounded like he was talking on an intercom. The mohawk-beard thing was a trip, as was the balding long hairs that could not save the top of their head from burning in the sun. There were a couple little kids and babies sprinkled among the crowd, which confused the hell out me. Why anyone would bring a kid there was beyond anything I could comprehend. Among all the breathtaking stuff I set my eyes on, I only saw one or two dudes in legit corpse paint. Nothing seemed just evil enough for my taste. I was seriously disappointed in the actual sheer level of metal, and well, if I had paid for a cruise called 70,000 Tons of Metal, I would expect some sort of evil, menacing shit. I was more shocked with the cost of the drinks, the number of people who were hammered from start to finish, and the math I did trying to figure out just how much money was made off of booze alone.


So back to the music. Look, I get it. I highly doubt I’d go see my band if I wasn’t playing in it and had in fact paid to be on the damn cruise ship. Plus there was a non-stop buffet of garbage to eat, which was constantly needed to soak up the amount of excessive alcohol that was being pumped into the blood stream of about 5,000 people. But the music… I mean, what was I not getting? Cradle of Filth had no amps on stage, playing outside on top of a cruise ship in the middle of the blue sea, which was set sail to Jamaica. I was fairly certain there was nothing metal at all going on. Not a mosh pit, no blood, no stagediving, nothing. It sounded like shit, and I’m not even talking about the actual music written by the band. I just kept looking up at the clear sky, as we floated around the sea, totally confused about everything.

And then there were all the other metal bands that have melody, harmony, and were catchy. Granted there are some epic songs by bands like Judas Priest or Iron Maiden, who possess all of those elements, but I’m talking about bands with six-string bases, auto-correct vocal processors, extremely soft-hitting drummers, and some of the goofiest antics I had ever seen, not to mention Dragonforce canceling their set due to their in-ear monitors not working properly. But fuck, the cruise happened, bands played, people were stoked, and they all partied their bank accounts to empty as we made a brief stop in Jamaica for about six hours and headed back to Florida, all of which I could not and would not pay to do. However, at one point, shit got real when we hit a storm and they had to close the top deck down, cancelling a handful of acts from playing out to the open sea, somehow pushing a few into the other smaller venues inside around the boat. That storm was pretty metal. It was then and only then that I understood that sort of pirate power metal beer-drinking type of sound.


Before we even left the airport to arrive to the cruise, Gabe and I spent most of our time pondering how we could pull off one of the oldest and best pranks to make cinematic history… the Baby Ruth in the swimming pool scene from Caddyshack. I scrambled to find any sort of candy bar in the terminal that we were about to take off from, just before the whole cruise started and well, I was not about to spend $5.50 on a fucking Snickers just to toss it in a jacuzzi full of metal dudes.

Gabe concocted a much-needed replica of a turd out of one of his Clif Bars that he brought along with him. And when I say replica, I’m talking about a prop master, making what appeared to be a full fledged deuce that would fool anyone who set eyes on it. We stood on the top deck as we pondered the best place to plant the poop. I was pushing for just a swift toss into the pool and walking away, but Gabe wanted to make a spectacle for people who were to walk by, which was why he opted to casually drop it on the weirdly colored green-blue astro-turf and walk away. We all stood there on the top deck, as drunk and blissed out longhairs almost stepped on the turd. One after another, no reactions as nobody even glanced down to see the awkwardly placed shit on the ground, which if real, would have had to just fell out of someone’s shorts and onto the floor as the poopmeister walked away. I was hoping so badly that someone would have stepped on it, just to see the reaction. I mean, the thing had pieces of peanuts in it, and was even lathered in coconut oil, it was perfect. Then, as we were about to reassess the situation, a gangly looking woman grabbed her boyfriend in disgust. Her dude was fully enthralled with the power metal that was taking place, but his lady was adamant to point out the only real sign of evil at that point. He grasped his chest as she covered her mouth, as if it was a dead dog on the road or one of those stupid signs that those anti-abortion protesters hold up at progressive rallies.

And then the inevitable happened, as one of the poor cleaning crew members came by sweeping up all the endless trash off the ground, and sort of pondered the perfect looking piece of crap on the ground. He paused for a brief second, knowing he was supposed to act fast, but was most likely trying to process just how a piece of shit was so strategically placed out in the open. He then quickly swept it into his dustpan and whisked it into the trash. Fun and games were over for us, and it was back to trying to figure out what the hell was generally going on with life at sea. Some of us stole the overpriced internet access to communicate with the real world, and made arrangements for our departing flights, and realized that we easily survived everything that was “pure metal.”

Justin Pearson is on Twitter - @pearson_justin