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Calling the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival a mere concert is like calling the tour's namesake beverage "kind of sticky."
The Mayhem Festival is more than just a selection of public performances by thrash titan favorites Slayer and Anthrax, legendary British speed-punks Motörhead, and Iowa's heaviest export, Slipknot. It's an endurance test, where scantily clad day-drinkers sweat out triple-digit temperatures, and drenching fire hoses try to offset the pyrotechnic displays flaring from stage.
As far as festival populations go, metalheads are more extreme than peace-loving Coachellites, and far less impressed by glitter-spewing cannons than those at EDM showcases. The rowdy folks at Country Thunder get close on the insane scale, but they don't match it. Metal fans are there for testosterone and perilously over-driven amps. Mayhem seeks to comply.
"You knew we'd be back," Slipknot vocalist Corey Taylor says. "I can't wait to see the States again from behind a mask."
Taylor's enthusiasm is indicative of the overall spirit of the tour. For a heavy metal tour, there's an awful lot of love going on. But the goodwill is natural. The bands share a rich history together, says Motörhead vocalist/bassist Lemmy Kilmister, who's particularly excited to see Slayer.
"I haven't seen 'em since we toured with them years ago," he says.
It seems like the heavy rock mutual admiration society.
"Slipknot will attract the biggest crowd of the day. It's just a fucking massive carnival of freaks, is the only way I can explain it," Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian says. "All the bands are pretty intense . . . Slayer gets on stage and is a bit more angry, where we have kind of a more, dare I say, 'fun' attitude?"
Though younger bands like Devil Wears Prada, As I Lay Dying, Asking Alexandria, and more will grace various stages, the headliner lineup leans toward classic, with Motörhead leading the pack in seniority. The crew has been going since 1975, fusing punk and speed metal and influencing dozens of bands, but Slayer and Anthrax (formed in 1981) aren't far behind, and even Slipknot is nearing the two-decade mark (the group formed in 1995). With a cast of veterans this seasoned, it raises the question: Whose fans are the craziest?
"Our fans are pretty wacko," Slayer vocalist/bassist Tom Araya says. "I think the generation we came from is a little more crazy than the younger metal generation."
Not deferring to modesty, Araya ranks the crazy scale: "Slayer, Slipknot, Motörhead, then Anthrax."
For Anthrax, the tour offers a chance for the band to shake up its routine. Instead of sticking to the main stage, the thrash metal architects are playing a tight 45-minute set on the side Jägermeister Stage.
"We wanted to pattern the Mayhem set on the kind of the shows The Ramones used to do," drummer Charlie Benante says. "A high-energy, nonstop barrage of hit, hit, hit."
"A lot of our records produced in the '80s are great, [but] they sound like they're from that time," Ian says. "Live, the songs are timeless. We've picked the songs we like playing, that the audience will get into, and that are shorter — not over — six minutes. All kill and no fill."
Not all performances will be quite as sweet. Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman, a founding member of the band, was infected with necrotizing fasciitis via a spider bite in 2011. The flesh-eating virus made it impossible for him to join the band for live performances. Guitarist Gary Holt (known for his work with Exodus) will be filling in on tour.
"I miss jamming with [Hanneman]," Araya says. "I wish he would get better. We need him, period. He's a big part of this band. I'm sure fans appreciate the fact that we're out there playing, but I'm sure they'd appreciate it more if it was all the members."
The members of Slipknot understand the art of adjusting, too. This is the band's first U.S. tour since the accidental overdose that killed bassist Paul Gray in 2010. The band has employed original Slipknot guitarist Donnie Steel to play bass from a spot backstage, which allows the fans to focus on the music and Gray's memory rather than a new mask. Gray's jumpsuit sits nestled on stage during the band's performance as a memorial.
"[Donnie Steele] was actually the original guitar player for Slipknot way back, before I was even in the band. It just makes sense to have someone from the family come in and help us pick up the pieces," Taylor says. "But I don't see us ever replacing Paul."
"We chose to tour for one reason — to share the tragedy, pain, and grief of what happened to Paul with our fans instead of going through it alone," percussionist Shawn M. Crahan adds.
"We aren't working on a new album yet, but it will happen," Taylor says. "The band took a pretty big hit with the loss of Paul, and we're just doing what we can to carry on in his memory. And part of that is coming back together."
Which isn't to say the band is taking it easy: A 19-track best-of collection, Antennas to Hell, comes out July 24, and features two bonus discs (including the band's performance at the 2009 Download Festival, one of Slipknot's most memorable, says Crahan, due in no small part to the absinthe he drank beforehand with Marilyn Manson).
Mayhem's strength is intertwined with the strength of heavy metal music. Electronic dance music may be all the rage in the industry, and pop rules the FM dial, but metal fans are passionate and dedicated consumers. And the Mayhem roster is full of bands that have kept at it for decades. Last year Anthrax released Worship Music to thunderous acclaim, and Slipknot, Slayer, and Motörhead are all readying releases.
"We plan on releasing a two-song single, if that makes sense," Araya says of Slayer's new material. "We're hoping it gets released while we're touring on Mayhem!"
Kilmister says new music is coming along, but he's been keeping busy between tours: "I'm reading Game of Thrones for the second time," but he adds that he's got about six songs worked up for the next Motörhead record.
It's this dedication that keeps fans showing up, and keeps decades-old bands on the stage.
"We'll deal with the heat and suck it up," Araya [laughs]. "And Kerry [King, lead guitarist] will put on a lot of sunscreen. On his head."
"It's going to be one of the few times I can say there's a band closing that people are still going to stay for after seeing Anthrax, Slayer, and Motörhead," says Ian about Slipknot. "There are not many bands that could follow all those acts, and maybe even top it still."