Photos by Al Bulmer
“SLAAAYERRRRR!” the cry exploded into the waiting area, ringing out with great gusto from the bearded lips of a large man in flip flops and an Exodus shirt. It was just past 11AM on Monday morning, and the bearded dude, myself, and a few hundred other rock’n’roll enthusiasts of various excitement levels were all clustered into a holding zone waiting to board the good ship Motörboat. Rock cruises are all the rage these days, particularly heavy metal-focused jaunts like Barge to Hell, 70,000 Tons of Metal, and Shiprocked (which caters to nu-er fans). These things bring in the big bucks, and it makes sense that bands from across every genre of music are trying to cut a piece of the pie. Starting last year, the great grandaddies of heavy metal bastardry threw their silver-trimmed captain’s hat in the ring with a namesake cruise of their very own, and boy, I’ll tell you, even at this early hour, people were stoked.
I’ve personally never been on a music-themed cruise before, and was awfully curious about whether the experience would prove to be as magical and ridiculous as it seems. The idea of being trapped on a boat the size of a very ambitious luxury hotel for four straight days with over a thousand soon-to-be-sunburned metal fans seemed just a little daunting, but ended up being nothing like I expected it to be. Also, I got to see Motörhead twice in one week.
So, on September 28, with visions of pasty Germans and puking thrash bros dancing in my head, I set off for the high seas on the Norwegian Sky armed only with a few cut-off shirts and what turned out to be a severe lack of sunscreen.
To start with, my mental image of a floating Maryland Deathfest parking lot was assauged almost immediately once I noticed a couple of things. First, the median age of the cruise-goers (“cruisers” sounds gross) must’ve hovered around 35-40—there were lots of tattooed dadbods and biker moms running around. Some of the attendees and a couple of the bands brought their entire families along for the ride, resulting in the appearance of a few ovary-explodingly cute little 'uns in itty-bitty Motörhead shirts. While the ages of the bands themselves varied quite a bit from the fresh-faced Dead Deads to freshly-shaven metal dad Tom Araya, the vast majority of attendees were settled comfortably into middle age, which resulted in a supremely chill, friendly vibe that was broken up with occasional drunken tomfoolery and periodic “SLAAYERRR!” howls. While the clientele was mostly American, there were people from all over the world in attendance, including a bunch of Liverpool lads who'd come prepared with the best T-shirts I saw all week.
The people on this boat paid a lot of money to come here and watch Exodus while drinking exorbitantly priced strawberry daiquiris, not to “fuck shit up,” and the lack of cheap beer and gutter whiskey cut down significantly on the number of staggering wastoids that usually haunt big music events. The brig saw its fair share of drunks and a certain comedian got busted smoking weed out on the deck, but overall, people were pretty well-behaved. Instead of rampant debauchery, I saw people playing shuffleboard while the Suicidal Tendencies guys shot hoops, and only overheard two racist remarks the entire time (which was nice, considering the flurry of Confederate flag shirts that sprouted like mushrooms once we left Miami). It was awesome—sign me up for the dad metal cruise every time!
The boat itself was beautifully appointed, decked out in Motörboat accoutrements and constantly playing classic metal tunes over the loudspeakers. Cruise ships as a rule are pretty plush, and the novelty of walking into a fancy restaurant while wearing an Ash Borer shirt and on the arm of a dude with a Satanic Threat tattoo never wore off. The service staff was excellent, and the entire crew was on point—helpful, polite, and totally respectful to the weirdos who’d overtaken their ship. At dinner one night, a server from India opened with a Motörhead joke, then after I mentioned that I’d been thinking of visiting, launched into a diatribe against his country’s sexual violence problem. He said that if he were ever elected Prime Minister, he’d throw every rapist in a pit and set them on fire, which was A. awesome, and B. hands down the most metal thing I heard on the entire journey.
Obviously, the bands were the Motörboat's biggest draw, but the cruise coordinators did their best to pack the days with fun/”fun” activities for those who crave constant stimulation. The comedians on board staged a prank that seemed to fool way too many people, doing their best Phil Anselmo impression over the ship’s loudspeakers to convince people that The Kid himself was hiding somewhere on board (he was not). A Drunk Spelling Bee, Drunk Bingo, and an actual motorboating contest were also on offer, as well a body painting booth, an on-hand tattoo artist, and a bunch of silly beach games on island day. Women in microscopic bikinis walked around handing out cans of Monster energy drink (who were apparently some kind of sponsor on the cruise, judging by their logo's omnipresence and a couple of painfully awkward onstage shout-outs). Back on the ship, the belly flop contest was a hit (heyooo!) and was won rather handily by a one-legged man with an impressive beer gut, though both the monster suit guy and the slim jim in the red, white, and blue thong put up a fight.
The nightly karaoke sessions were backed by a live band (the bassist wore skintight black gloves, which I assume was part of his Cool Rock Dude costume), and it seemed like every time I walked in, some guy onstage was mumbling Tool lyrics into his hair. I did catch a few gems, though, like the woman who lent her angelic voice to an Evanescence song, and the multiple, spirited renditions of Billy Idol’s big hits. I kept waiting for an all-star jam to break out given the talent amassed on the ship, but no such luck. There were several comedians on board, too, most notably the very funny and very vulgar Brian Posehn. I sat a table away from him at lunch one day, but was too scared to say hi; I'm sure he's super nice, but fangirling out on a comedian in a restaurant seemed like an excellent way to get told to fuck off, and as Posehn's later poolside "roast" of the Motörboat bands proved, comedians are really, really good at being mean.
As endearing as the myriad special little touches that the coordinators put into the cruise had been, the most important aspect was still the music. The lineup started out strong with Motörhead, Anthrax, Exodus, Corrosion of Conformity, and Suicidal Tendencies—a dream lineup for any thrasher, old or young—then got kind of… weird. The regular supergroup Motor Sister and supergroup cover bands like Death Dealer and Phil Campbell's All Starr Band made sense, and killer rock'n'roll bands like Fireball Ministry, Kyng, and The Shrine added some oomph (Crobot's sweaty, earnest rock and Others's serpentine swagger were nice surprises), but the bottom half of the lineup left plenty of time for bar breaks. The schedule had each band playing twice, and while a few bands chose to mix it up, most stuck to playing the same set. I was really hoping that Motorhead would change their set list around for their second show, but, alas.
I was very curious—almost morbidly so—to see how Motörhead would fare, but honestly? They smashed it. Lemmy sounded much stronger and cheekier than he had at the band’s New York show earlier this month. While one wonders how intentional the predominantly slow- to mid-paced tempo of their song choices was (like "Lost Woman Blues," "The Chase Is Better Than the Catch," "No Class"), the only moment where Lemmy’s breath seemed to get away from him came during the comparatively speedy “Ace of Spades,” and of course we all cheered our guts out anyway. The venue was tiny by their standards—about 1,200 capacity, I think—and the ability to elbow your way into incredibly close proximity to Lemmy, Phil, and Mikkey was enough to leave a proper fan giddy. You could get close enough to see Phil's guitar strap, which I'd never known until now was emblazoned with phrases like "Lord Axsmith" and "Welsh Wanker," Lemmy's black and white creepers, and Mikkey's muscle definition (dude is still an absolute beast behind the kit). To echo an earlier sentiment, it was awesome.
The other bands were a mixed bag, especially the oldie-but-goodie crowd. Suicidal Tendencies was an absolute delight during both their first set inside on the main stage and on the last night of the cruise, when they played out on the deck and inspired a swear-to-god circle pit in the pool. Mike Muir was an unstoppable ball of positive energy galloping across the stage, and drummer Eric Moore stayed just as hype behind the kit while their bandmates thrashed up a storm and the crowd ate it up. Anthrax was just as much fun and sounded fantastic, even when they hauled out that weird pop-punk song and their vintage rap-metal hybrid "I'm the Man" alongside the essentials like "Madhouse" and "Indians." With Joey Belladonna vamping like a long-lost Ramone and Scott Ian waggling his goatee, even the cognitive dissonance of watching successful, grown men sing songs like "Antisocial" couldn't take away from how much fun they—and the audience—had during both performances.
Exodus was the first band to play the deck stage as we were leaving Miami. With Steve Zetro's wail uluating majestically out over the waves, the veteran thrashers belted out a bunch of Bonded By Blood material and kicked up a toxic waltz in the mini-pit in front of the pool. Now that the prodigal son has returned to the fold after spending eight years concentrating on Down, Corrosion of Conformity's dynamic has shifted considerably from the loose, punk incarnation that I know best (full disclosure, I've toured with COC many times over the past three years). It was captivating to see them switch up the formula with a designated frontman, and watching Pepper Keenan get to stretch his legs behind the mic on 90s-era hits like "Albatross," "Wiseblood," and "Vote With a Bullet." Slayer fared the worst of the legendary bands; their set was note-perfect, Kerry King headbanged away like clockwork, and Tom Araya managed a few dad jokes and wide grins, but the energy just wasn't there. Slayer has never needed to jog around the stage or dress up, because their music provided all the intimidation and extremity they needed; now, watching a Slayer gig is like sitting through a watered-down game of Russian rouelette—will they play one of the good songs next, or one of the lame ones? The good ones are stil great, and the lame ones aren't that bad, but the fire is gone.
For all the "metal" imagery saturating the cruise, the majority of non-headlining bands were more rock'n'roll than anything else. Finnish glam squad Santa Cruz stood out by virtue of virtuoso guitar histrionics and sky-high hair, and Death Dealer engineered the most perfect, beautiful heavy metal moment of the entire trip by busting out "Hail and Kill" with Ross the Boss on guitar (I died). Now joined by half of heavy metal upstarts Holy Grail, Huntress impressed me by dint of sheer technical skill and attitude, especially after discovering that octave-climbing vocalist Jill Janus recently conquered cancer. Kyng's rendition of "Hot for Teacher" felt even more appropriate beneath the blistering Caribbean sun, and the new material they pulled out showed them leaning in a heavier direction—maybe all that time on the road with Megadeth had an effect.
As for the "cruise" part of the cruise, the ship spent one day docked at Great Stirrup Cay, a private island owned by Norwegian, and it was as paradisical as you'd want—warm, shimmering turquoise water, white sand, palm trees, the whole nine yards. A couple of bands played on the beach, hundreds of metalheads happily sunned themselves like beached seals, and the sound of "Trap Queen" came wafting out of a cabana, proving that there really is no escaping Fetty.
The next day took us to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas that was once a notorious pirate haven. Nassau was a bit gritty if you wandered outside the tie-dyed tourist trap part of the city, but was also full of stunning natural beauty, kind people, gorgeous old Georgian buildings like the prison-turned-library seen below, and ample opportunities to learn about the island's bloody colonial history if you are in fact a gigantic nerd like me (whatever, the dioramas at the Bahamas Historical Society Museum were adorable). It was a nice break from the nonstop metal onboard, even if the steel drums got old after awhile.
Being able to walk a couple flights of stairs and go hide in your room when the sun or the noise got to be too much was an absolutely brilliant luxury, especially if you've spent any amount of time sweating to death and splurging on overpriced bottled water at other metal festivals here or overseas, and the fact that each band played twice meant that the usual festival urgency was a nonissue. The lack of cell phone reception and internet access (assuming you didn't want to pay $0.95 a minute for the ship's computer) added an extra layer of protection from normal life.
It also meant that no one on board realized we were being followed by a hurricane until we landed—though the gnarly ship turbulence on the last night did make a lot more sense after reading my mom's texts about ol' Joaquin. Without any ominous weather systems to worry about, Motörboaters were free to eat, drink, and be merry until the bitter end, when the ship reached American soil and reality smacked us upside our sunburned faces.
So, would I go again? Obviously. Would I recommend the Motörboat to fellow friends, metalheads, and Motörhead fans? Obviously. Would I remember to sneak my own whiskey on board inside shampoo bottles next time? What do you think?
Kim Kelly's skin is peeling off on Twitter.