Celebrating 25 Years Of The Wacken Open Air - BraveWords' 2014 Report
August 11, 2014, a year ago
The beast that is the Wacken open air celebrated a milestone when the 2014 edition ran from July 31st - August 2nd. What was an 800 club show 25 years ago has become this surreal mecca of heavy metal where people from around the globe gather to prey at the altar of steel! Once again, BraveWords' Mark Gromen and "Metal" Tim Henderson made the overseas pilgrimage to be among 100,000 raging metal maniacs and have survived to file the following report below.
Thursday, August 31st
On paper, this evening was something of a metal timeline, featuring HammerFall, who, love them or hate them, you can't deny resurrected traditional metal in the late '90s (in part thanks to Death's Chuck Schuldiner legitimizing them), Steel Panther who embody the excesses of the eighties, Saxon, who never wavered throughout the difficult years and Accept, the odd reformation that rivals (surpasses?) the original incarnation.
Hammer Fall offered a special rendition of Glory To The Brave in its entirety (non-sequentially), complete with some guests. Had seen Warlord just a couple of weeks earlier, but they failed to sound as dynamic as the opening rendition of their "Child Of The Damned". Stefan Elmgren, who left after '06's Threshold, to become a pilot, joined the band for "Stone Cold", proving airline staffers eat better than passengers. Although it gave Pontus Norgren a break, when former In Flames guitarist Jesper Stromblad (drummer in the Hammer's formative years), dropped by for "The Dragon Lies Bleeding", they performed as a triple guitar threat. How cool is that? Short-haired skinsman Patrik Raffling also sat in for a (literally) explosive "Unchained". It was not their lone use of pyrotechnics/fire. The titular ballad was predominantly sung by the audience, before the band's signature track (more "German Heavy metal from Sweden," as bearded, and suddenly potty-mouthed frontman Joackim Cans calls it), closed the proper set. The encore debuted the "Bushido" single from the forthcoming (R)Evolution album. Good old school, hits laden festival set. Mark spent some time over the next two days talking with founder/guitarist Oscar Dronjak, who was busy conducting interviews, as well as Sanctuary/Nevermore singer Warrel Dane.
Saxon are like the Wacken house band, managed by one of the festival's big wigs, Thomas Jensen. Thus, they've played there a lot! This time, to change things up, they brought along a quartet of female violin players, a tympani man and keyboardist, all of whom appeared later in the show. Things started well enough, Biff Byford entered on the back of a Harley, leading into the "Motorcycle Man" opener, with drummer Nigel Glockler wearing a hand drawn signed ("Gill, This one's for you") pinned to his chest. Byford and always animated bassist Nibbs Carter were jumping in place during "Solid Ball Of Rock". Classics "Heavy Metal Thunder" and "Wheels Of Steel" and '747 (Strangers In The Night)" were all up early, in the initial 25 of a 70 minute set. The remainder of the night featured the guest performers. Would have preferred to have the ratio reversed. The first track with orchestration, was "Crusader", as they dropped the Sacrifice backdrop, to reveal the guests and multi-level stage, the girls situation on a platform atop Glockler's second drum kit, The symphonic angle has become the rage at Wacken (next year going full blown, with TSO and even U.D.O. augmented by an orchestra). Having heard some of these tunes for more than three decades, the accompaniment, especially the synth flourishes added a (dare I say) cheesy, pop element. As evidence, see "The Eagle Has Landed", even with Paul Quinn's guitar slicing through, "Power And The Glory (loses both), "Dallas 1PM", "Princess Of The Night, which became an Irish gig and especially the closing "Denim & Leather". Saw it. OK, next time just play things straight.
30 minutes of Steel Panther would have been entertaining enough. Mugging for the cameras/video monitors and the endless parade of comments about cocaine, sexual conquests and requests to see female anatomy probably plays better in a repressed nation like the USA. Hell you can see more, for free, on late night German television. At one point Michael Starr asked "How many people have never seen Steel Panther before," to which the majority of hands raised. He then added, "How many are never going to see Steel Panther again?" To which nearly every hand remained airborne, launching a tirade of obscenities from the stage, all the guys having access to a mic. Don't ask the question, if you can't handle the answer, boys! In a country that still reveres icons of the hair era (witness Stryper at Bang Your Head, a few weeks earlier and every festival's desire to secure the elusive Cinderella), a parody only has so much relevance.
As one of my contemporaries emailed me, upon watching the live stream "Accept really have to be just about the best band on the planet these days. No sign of aging, no sign of slowing down,absolutely full power and energy in the live arena, and writing some of the best music of their careers to boot." You'd get no arguments from this corner, as all ten of my live experiences since Wolf Hoffmann and Peter Baltes got together with Mark Tornillo can attest. A full review of the Accept set can be read here:
Friday, August 1st
Lest you think we only stare at a stage for half a day, rest assured there's plenty of diversions at Wacken. Chief among them is an adult beverage or two. Beer (bottled Becks or same size sampling of local Hamburg brew Asta, on tap) runs $4, mixed drinks higher, but don't mindlessly discard the empties, as each is worth a Euro. There's a myriad of multi-national food choices, merchandise stalls (including the ever shrinking metal market) and the conversations with fellow attendees. In the VIP section, in addition to the aforementioned, that included producer/Hell guitarist Andy Sneap, COB guitarist Roope Latvala, members of Apocalyptica, Dew Scented singer Leif Jensen and assorted photographers, writers, record execs and management people. Sometimes you get carried away and miss all/part of some bands onstage.
Although it had rained for about an hour at our hotel, the Wacken grounds showed no signs of moisture, in fact, some wore a protective bandana around their nose/mouth, to filter out the dust kicked up by thousands stumbling/trudging across the now grass-less top soil. Weather-wise (while many of our Northern European brethren may disagree), this was the most pleasant Wacken weekend: no precipitation, sunshine, balmy temps, but not unbearable. Arrived onsite to a bunch of death/metalcore acts. No loss, as Tim prepared to host an Apocalyptica press conference, Afterwards, Mark watched a bit of Children Of Bodom. In the early-evening heat, a massive sea of humanity gathered in front of the Black Stage. Beginning with "Needled 24/7" it was predominately a greatest hits affair, although somewhat surprised by the inclusion of "Kissing The Shadows" and "Scream For Silence", neither definitive COB in my book. Initially with sunglasses, but by the end, topless, his tattooed, pasty white skin beneath a backwards baseball cap, frontman Alexi Laiho seemed barely coherent, punctuating each rap with profanity. He rarely left the safety of his encircled bunker of monitors, frequently propping his guitar on his knee and strumming it vertically. Don't know if they were worried about the time, but "Towards Dead End", "Hate Me" and "Bodom After Midnight" were delivered virtually non-stop. The band begins a North American tour in October, alongside Machine Head, should be killer.
While there are eight stages housing live music/entertainment, in reality, only three or four feature name acts and with walking distances and schedule overlaps, can only see a portion of those. so we tend to focus on the alternating main stages. Shame, would have really liked to check out the '70s rock of Iceland's The Vintage Caravan. Backed by a small orchestra (strings, brass, tympani) the three Finnish cellists (and drummer) of Apocalyptica, symphony-on-steroids, included a pair of audience recognized Metallica covers: "Fight Fire With Fire" and "Nothing Else Matters", the latter coming right before the closing rendition of Edvard Grieg's "Hall Of The Mountain King". 75 all instrumental minutes, standing, rather than seated, the stringed musicians move about (as if with guitars) and even headbang, pinwheel hair and throw horns. Wacken continues to branch out with such forward-thinking artistry and the fans certainly lap it up despite the fact that the band sit on the fence between the classic and rock worlds. Quite stunning actually in this environment, although the curtain of dark would've benefitted their set.
It was a year ago that Lemmy became incapacitated at Wacken. In the past year, he's been recuperating and even managed a couple of shows, but man, he still doesn't look or sound good. In sunglasses, despite the setting sun, he walked onstage and croaked, "Wacken has been going 25 years, the longest running metal festival. I say good luck to em." Dropping last year's introductory (and nearly prophetic) "I Know How To Die", it was an identical set, as they began with "Damage Case", surely Kilmister's wry, tongue-in-cheek poke in the eye at his own expense. Followed by "Stay Clean", there was no doubt an underlying message. His sense of humor, however, remains intact, the bassist offering, "1000 years ago we did any album called Another Perfect Day. It went nowhere. I thought it was a good one. Here's a song to try to convince you, 'Rock It". Guitarist Phil Campbell is left with the unimaginable task of filling the mammoth stage, what with Lemmy frozen stage left, Four plumes of fire shoot perpetually skyward to start "Metropolis", Although slotted for 75 minutes, there are tricks to utilize some of that time and there's nowhere near that much music on offer. Prior to "Over The Top", Campbell tries to get the people to scream. He's given a solo that leads into "The Chase is Better Than The Catch" (their last song before the premature ending, at Wacken 2013). Mikkey Dee gets a solo drum spotlight during "Doctor Rock" and there's an obligatory encore gap, before returning for "Overkill" (which sees them off to repeated flashes of fire), even though there's time remaining when that one's done. "Going To Brazil" sees Campbell finally venture to Lemmy's side of the stage, while "Killed By Death" features Doro Pesch adding to the choruses, along with more blazing pyro. I appreciate him trying to fulfill obligations, but hopefully the man will take a little more, to get physically stronger, before undertaking anything like a full tour.
Arguably Slayer's biggest fan (!) is "Metal" Tim and it's hard to dis the band no matter what line-up is present. Of course we all want the original, but even with a "piece" missing, they still crush all competition. However when two pieces are missing, there is a bit of a flag raised, despite the abilities of Gary Holt and Paul Bostaph. Slayer powered through their unstoppable catalog of "hits" like "Captor Of Sin", "The Antichrist", "South Of Heaven", "Mandatory Suicide" and the grand finale of "Angel Of Death". Seriously, no band had a better set-list than Slayer and there wasn't a throwaway track in the mix, but the spirits of the late Jeff Hanneman and departed Dave Lombardo seemed to reign on their parade.
Every year, some of the best acts get pushed to the latest slots. Remember, some of these people have been there half a week before the festival really starts and the weekend shows start at 11am daily, So having King Diamond at midnight and/or W.A.S.P. onstage until 3am takes super human strength to witness it all. Man, the glory days of W.A.S.P. are missed, so we didn't regret being at our local pub while Blackie and his tribute act stumbled through their catalog. While on the way out of the venue, we caught "The Candle", "Welcome Home" and the glorious "Sleepless Nights", but sadly missed the Mercyful Fate frenzy and the epic closing, "Black Horesemen". We'll catch the real "king" on the road this fall.
Saturday, August 2nd
The final day was, from most viewpoints, the "heaviest" of the three: Arch Enemy and Sodom before 2pm! Behemoth were next, Wearing a cowl (hood) Nergal beginning with back to the crowd, a flaming torch each outstretched (overhead) arm. As he faced the crowd, flashpots either side of drummer Inferno ignited, as did the band, right into "Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel", then a fiery (multi-directional streams of flame) "Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer". Following that double-shot of the new Satanist disc (four in all, including the title track and "O Father O Satan O Sun" encore), it was the more frenetic, old favorites like "Conquer All", "Slaves Shall Serve" and "Christians To The Lions", Next up was a comical interlude from crazed Canuck Devin Townsend. Playing against stereotype, in white suit and asking for a group hug instead of Wall Of Death (to which a portion of the crowd obliged, resulting in Devy calling it a Wall Of Goo), he often cracked wise about metal, its fans and Canadians. "There lots of girls here, for a metal crowd, which means there's six!" There's something disconcerting about a giant bald head on a Jumbotron, like the Wizard Of Oz.
We were quote privileged to witness Emperor in the photo pit courtesy of our friend/photo guru/Scream maniac Håkon Grav. Watch for a more in-depth synopsis of the show celebrating the 20th anniversary of In the Nightside Eclipse, which included the entire album and a few gems tacked onto the end for that satanic icing on the cake!
If, like annual New Year's Day parades, there were awards for most decorative, Sweden's Amon Amarth would certainly be in line for a commendation, given their set design. No full length Viking ship this time around, but rather, a pair of dragon heads, mouths agape, fangs dripping blood, either side of drummer Fredrik Andersson, who's perched upon a stone edifice, complete with stairs. Better yet, each beast offers burly frontman Johan Hegg a platform from which to sing atop ("As Loke Falls"). Nice! Two years ago they played to roughly 50,000. Today, it must be the largest sunlit crowd ever at Wacken. Enormous. Musically, about half the set is the same, although they kick off with a triple play of Deceiver Of The Gods material. "Varyags of Miklagaard" has the bearded singer instructing the crowd to pogo up and down. Apparently working up a thirst (Sneap claimed the thermometer read 33 C backstage, the day before, and today was even hotter) after "For Death Or Victory" Hegg removes an alehorn from his side, for a hearty gulp: "Skoal! Prost! Cheers!" Plenty of fire for "Guardians Of Asgard" and a multi-directional firestorm onstage for "Asator". Waves of crowd surfers (including cheerleaders with pom poms, kid you not!) traverse the odd circle pit, like some human current and whirlpools at sea. The omnipresent "Victorious March" gives way to "Twilight Of The Thunder God",during which smoke cover the stage, as a piggy back (girls on top) circle pit develops! It ends, much as it began, with blazes and explosions. Can't wait for the fall tour with Sabaton. Definite can't be missed!
An inauspicious start for Mega Dave Mustaine and Co, as at 8:30, a giant screen shows the band's logo being built from sheets of steel, then lights highlight Shawn Drover's drumkit, but no band! An extended period, still no musicians. After about five minutes, they all run onstage, playing "Hangar 18" but no stage volume. The Megadeth mainman/guitarist/singer could not have been happy! He does still posses a great head of metal hair: long, thick ginger nut curls. In addition to the electronic backdrop, there were a pair of smaller screens, either side of the drummer. For instance, during "Wake up Dead" they flashed EKG impulses. "In My Darkest Hour" and "Skin O' My Teeth" continue the classic material. "Tornado Of Souls" saw a flurry of intermixed images (as if in the eye of a storm) onscreen, but the next third of the set was utterly forgettable and as cool a song "Cold Sweat" (Thin Lizzy) is, why? "Symphony Of Destruction" and ubiquitous "Peace Sells" end the proper set, before returning of "Holy Wars."
While a huge Edguy fan, apart from the initial two-part Metal Opera concept, really haven't been able to get into a full Avantasia record. Love Tobias Sammet's sense of humor, which is all but missing during his two-hour Broadway, by way of Berlin, star-studded musical stage production. Individually, I also enjoy much of the output by the various participants, but as a sum versus the parts debate, give me the individuals. Best moments (for metalheads) featured Pretty Maids frontman (boy does that guy get around!) Ronnie Atkins and ex-Helloween/Unisonic singer Michael Kiske (doing "Reach Out For The Light" and the band's signature tune).The man's got to have made a little money recently, what with numerous guest appearances and the Unisonic deal, so why wear the exact same red leather jacket/stage outfit he did at Bang Your Head? Other guests, always in duet with Sammet, included Mr. Big's Eric Martin, Amanda Somerville and Magnum's Bob Catley, another holdover from when Avantasia appeared, in the rain, at Wacken 2011.
Why Wacken 2014 seems like a blur is either due to the immensity of the event or our age … but more like a combination of both! And the ladder keeps getting higher. In 12 hours, 75,000 tickets for next year's event are gone, sold out! Promoters around the world are watching and shaking their head. Wacken could announce an event without naming a band and it would sell out! But next year's spectacle is fuelled by the reunion of Savatage (along with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra), a Running Wild celebration, Amorphis - Special Tales From The Thousand Lakes Show, In Flames, Sabaton, Cannibal Corpse, Sepultura, Death Angel and U.D.O. who will play a special show with the support of the Musikkorps der Bundeswehr. Contact your local scalper folks!
Complete festival details at Wacken.com.