The first date of a big rock tour will always have its share of technical crises, but if metal fans noticed many glitches at Saturday's opening of the Mayhem Festival in San Bernardino, California, they hardly showed it. Even when Rob Zombie's roaring headlining set had the sound cut out during "Never Gonna Stop," the crowd just kept shouting along to the lyrics: "Never gonna stop me, never gonna stop!"
As always, there was a relentlessness to the metal tribes gathered for 10 full hours at the San Manuel Amphitheatre, from the mosh pits and dust clouds in front of three side stages to the brutal roar of Five Finger Death Punch and Mastodon on the main stage. Zombie closed the night with his all-American trash-horror menagerie of robots, monsters, hot rods and go-go girls. There was lots of pyro, but not nearly as much as he'd planned. He promised more fire next time.
"It was a little crazy. The first night is always me doing a mental checklist of everything. That is the sickness that I always deal with," Rob Zombie told Rolling Stone the day after Saturday's 14-song set. "Then you lock into a groove and it really becomes a well-oiled machine. I like the mechanics of the show to be perfect. The more perfect that is, the looser the band can be."
Mayhem is Zombie's first tour since the April release of his fifth solo album, Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor. From the new album came the churning horror riffs of "Ging Gang Gong De Do Gong De Laga Raga," as images of the Manson Family flashed on the big screen and Zombie rolled out on a giant mechanical beast. There was a danceable grind and groan to "Dead City Radio and the New Gods of Supertown."
Later, the band began White Zombie's signature hit "Thunder Kiss '65," but stopped after teasing the crowd with a few seconds of the distinctive opening riff. "Backstage, I said fuck that song," Zombie joked with the crowd. "It's fucking tired. It was all right back in the day . . ."
When the band finally ripped into the full song, guitarist John 5 unfurled a wild solo, alternately slashing, crashing, melodic and noisy, as Zombie ran through crowd waving a spotlight. By the time he returned, a giant demon marionette was hovering above the stage. John 5 closed by plucking out "The Star-Spangled Banner" Hendrix-style with his teeth.
Co-headliner Five Finger Death Punch played an hour of songs spanning their five years as a band, but the band revealed nothing from their upcoming two albums other than the already-released single "Lift Me Up." Recorded in their base of Las Vegas, The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, Volume 1 is set for a July release. Volume 2 arrives in the fall.
Backstage before their set, guitarist Zoltán Báthory told Rolling Stone the rising, gold-selling band would slowly roll out other new songs during the tour.
"At this, you can't make mistakes. Everything has to be flawless," Báthory said of opening day, escaping Saturday's triple-digit heat on a tour bus. "We grew up with Mayhem. We were a side-stage band in the very beginning. Then a couple of years later we opened the main stage, and now we're co-headlining. There is an expectation from them toward us. We have to earn that. They have become the biggest-touring rock festival in the world."
With a stage decorated with gargoyles and altars made of real laser-cut metal, FFDP played its bone-crushing take on Bad Company's "Bad Company," dedicated to service members and delivered with throat-ripping rage definitely not found on the original. Then singer Ivan Moody invited kids in the crowd onstage, as they do every night.
"This is my favorite part of the show," Moody announced as young fans lined up behind him. "You kids ready to have some fun? You ready to watch a bunch of grown-ups act fuckin' stupid?"
Moments later, a circle pit erupted during the opening speed-metal riffs of "White Knuckles." The singer then led a chant of the song's "Taking back control! Fuck you!" as white geysers of fog fired into the air.
Earlier, Mastodon had few special effects other than the cosmic depth of their critically acclaimed hard rock, opening their afternoon set with "Black Tongue." Behind them was a blood-red backdrop with the triple-jawed minotaur head from the cover of 2011's The Hunter.
Also in the set was "Oblivion," with a soaring instrumental wind-out section led by guitarist-singer Brent Hinds. The Atlanta-based metal act first played Mayhem in 2008, opening on the main stage. "Every five years we move up a notch," bassist-singer Troy Sanders told Rolling Stone with a laugh before the set. "In 10 more years, we might be co-headliners."
On that first tour, Mastodon were in the final stages of making Crack the Skye, a creative breakthrough for the band, and they brought members of Slipknot and other Mayhem acts onto their bus for a preview. "We were excited about where we were at. We had this little secret with us," said drummer-singer Brann Dailor. "We'd take different band members, get a couple of beers and get in the back of the bus and crank Crack the Skye for different people. It was a fun memory."
While Mastodon has another album in progress this summer, that remains in the demo stage, making it too early to share either backstage or onstage. Fans will have to wait. "It's definitely an art form, building a set list," said Dailor. "You can't put too many slow jams in there. These guys are ready to rage."
On the second stage, the Butcher Babies arrived earlier in the day to two mosh pits at full boil. The Los Angeles band is named after an old Plasmatics song, and singers Carla Harvey and Heidi Shepherd were initially inspired by the provocative punk-era frontwoman Wendy O. Williams, down to the strategically placed electrical tape.
The Butcher Babies show much less skin now in favor or more headbanging. They found a ready audience at Mayhem. "Today was a different feeling than any other show we've ever played because they are metalheads," said Shepherd after their set. "They feel the music. They're just screaming with you. I couldn't think of a better place to be."