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Festival Report: Wacken Open Air 2015

A look into what keeps the world’s biggest metal festival going strong in its 26th edition

Anurag Tagat Aug 04, 2015
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Wacken Open Air – July 29th – August 1st, 2015 – Wacken, Germany:

Almost 70,000 tickets for the Wacken Festival sell out on the day that sales open up, every year. This is the 26th edition of the festival in Germany. Photo:  ICS Festival Service GmbH

Every year, almost 70,000 tickets for the Wacken Open Air sell out on the day that sales open up. This is the 26th edition of the festival in Germany and tickets for W.O.A. 2016 have sold out already. Photo: ICS Festival Service GmbH

Do festivals have a quarter life crisis? Speaking as someone who’s completing 25 years of age with more contentment and hope for the future, it was interesting to hear that Wacken Open Air founder Thomas Jensen too is optimistic about his festival, which is in its 26th edition this year.

In the 26th edition of the metal and rock festival that was set up in Northern Germany in 1990, Wacken Open Air have got everything they need – the biggest crowd turnout, the top metal bands and Germany on the metal map, all under the festival slogan, “Come rain or shine!”

Jensen told me he’s toiled a lot of years with his team, defended the festival’s ethos to book the best in metal even when the genre was taking flak by politicians and society in the early Nineties. For a man who ran around managing six stages at one point, it’s certainly heartening to see Jensen and even Wacken vice president Miriam Hensel more at ease during the four-day festival, while their crew, which includes over 1,000 members, hold fort at the venue.

From the moment you enter the area of Schleswig-Holstein and get into the village of Wacken, which has a population of just over 2,000, you’re greeted with Wacken Open Air flags perched on houses not unlike national flags seen flying high outside embassy offices. Residents in the area turn entrepreneurs every July when the festival rolls around, selling food and beer and merchandise.

But Wacken Open Air did have its own village, within the sprawling festival grounds. Perhaps Wackinger village where you see two themes running parallel – Mad Max and Medieval – is the village that the festival wanted for a home. From all the wasteland motifs borrowed from action film Mad Max, the Wackinger’s village also includes a stage for upcoming German metal bands and tons of shops for those interested in medieval fashion accessories. No surprise to find people walking around in fur coats and dueling each other with swords.

If you consider the 80,000 festival goers who attend Wacken from Germany, Europe and the rest of the world, there’s something in every corner of the festival grounds that attracts an audience. Whether it’s the Wackinger village, parody bands like Steve N Seagulls doing bluegrass versions of metal hits like “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath at the Beergarden stage, or a marching band called Blaas of Glory serenading the Press area with “The Final Countdown” by headliners Europe or the merch market. The main attraction of course are the five stages hosting the likes of Judas Priest, Cannibal Corpse, Obituary, Rob Zombie, Opeth, Dream Theater, Cradle of Filth Skindred and at least a hundred more.

With the lineup including a mix of traditional heavy metal bands and a few modern and extreme metal bands, Wacken organizers know what their ticket buyers like. Unlike most festivals in India, Wacken is attended largely by couples and metalheads over 30 years of age who have got used to the vibe of downing beers, eating meat and pretzels, and raising the horns to pretty much any band.

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India at Wacken

(from left) Ravi Singh, Ribesh Gurung, Trivinesh Subba and Gautam Singh of Darjeeling metal band Sycorax Photo: Paras Limbu

(from left) Ravi Singh, Ribesh Gurung, Trivinesh Subba and Gautam Singh of Darjeeling metal band Sycorax Photo: Paras Limbu

While India was only represented this year by Metal Battle winners, Darjeeling metal band Sycorax – who played to a small crowd, opening the proceedings on July 29th with an 11 am set – both Mumbai extreme metallers Demonic Resurrection and Bengaluru old school metal band Kryptos have represented India in the past. Both bands were the invited to perform here even though they weren’t associated with Metal Battle.

Past winners of Metal Battle who have played at W.O.A. include Shillong death metallers Plague Throat, Mumbai thrash/groove metallers Zygnema, death/thrash metal band Devoid and Bengaluru prog metallers Eccentric Pendulum.  This year’s metal battle was won by Canadian death metallers Vesperia, although even catching a few bands competing from 30 countries showcased top notch talent, with each band experiencing what playing to the best metal audience in the world feels like.

Savatage at Wacken Open Air. Photo:  ICS Festival Service GmbH

Savatage at Wacken Open Air. Photo: ICS Festival Service GmbH

 Trans Siberian Orchestra and Savatage on Day 1

The best acts on July 30th, officially the first day of Wacken, with more stages being opened up, included rocker Rob Zombie who braved a few sound issues and threw in surprise covers of songs such as “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones and the Metallica hit “Enter Sandman.” His own hits that won him loud cheers included “Dragula” and “More Human Than Human.” Prior to Rob Zombie, German hero Udo Dirkschneider, formerly of heavy metal band Accept, took the stage all guns blazing, with a full Orchestra decked in military camo playing everything from the Star Wars theme to “Thus Spake Zarathustra” before bringing out some heavy metal songs of his own.

The love for grand, epic symphonic metal is very much evident in Wacken’s lineup from smaller local bands such as Harpyie at the Wackinger stage to Trans Siberian Orchestra’s (TSO) headline set on July 30th at the Wacken Black Stage. The real show-stealer on that day however, was the return of German heavy metallers Savatage, which shares members with TSO. By the end of day one, fans saw a fiery performance (pyrotechnics included) from TSO and Savatage using both main stages.

Queensryche, Opeth and prog takeover on Day 2

Photo by Dirk Behlau/Flickr

Mikael Akerfeldt of Swedish prog metal band Opeth. Photo by Dirk Behlau/Flickr

Among the veteran bands performing, Queensryche’s set was probably most enjoyed by hardcore fans, while Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider seized the chance to have audiences rocking to AC/DC hits such as “Highway to Hell” as part of another symphonic metal collective on the main stage called Rock Meets Classic.

Swedish metallers Opeth started off with material such as “Cusp of Eternity” from their latest album Pale Communion but their set was a mix of both old progressive death metal material and newer classic prog rock sounds. They were playing surprisingly dark songs as the sun hit down on Wacken, including the haunting “To Rid the Disease” and the temperatures dropped when they launched into “The Devil’s Orchard.” Akerfeldt joked  about “The Grand Conjuration” being a shitty single that got them no limos or money in the bank, but you can tell there’s a certain humility in him even after all this time, thanking the crowd for checking them out.

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The prog takeover on day two also extended to the Wacken debut for American prog rockers Dream Theater, who played a career-spanning set from songs such as “Panic Attack” to “Constant Motion” and newer material like “The Spirit Carries On,” being their self-indulgent selves, solos galore although only James LaBrie seemed to be the only one straining to reach the right notes at times.

John Petrucci of Dream Theater. Photo courtesy Dirk Behlau/Flickr

John Petrucci of Dream Theater. Photo courtesy Dirk Behlau/Flickr

Judas Priest reigns over Wacken

Judas Priest, however, took over the last day of the festival with a 90-minute set that included all the theatrics, all of frontman Rob Halford’s costume changes (including riding in on a motorbike for “Hell Bent for Leather” and donning a badass silver trench coat for their 1978 ballad “Beyond the Realms of Death”). His vocal range that made him one of the first best vocalists in the genre, remains to be impressive and Halford  navigated deep growls and high notes 40 years on, with songs like “Breaking The Law” and “Painkiller” to “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’.”

An aeriel shot of the swamp that  Wacken village turned into during the fest. Photo:  ICS Festival Service GmbH.

An aerial shot of the swamp that Wacken village turned into during the fest. Photo: ICS Festival Service GmbH.

Cannibal Corpse in the swamp

The one prominent sound apart from metal at Wacken was that icky stomping of boots on mud. The festival grounds looked more like a swamp, with knee deep mud that could put Glastonbury to shame. Of course, the regulars couldn’t care less, moshing about, and mucking their faces up. One of the dirtiest sets in that regard came from American death metallers Cannibal Corpse, who nailed every bit of their 75-minute set with songs such as “I Cum Blood,” “Make Them Suffer” and “Skull Full of Maggots” as audience members  crowdsurfed their way through the set at the Party Stage on day three. Cannibal Corpse were an odd choice, being straight up, no gimmicks death metal to headline a party stage, especially since earlier in the day, UK reggae metallers Skindred had brought the party to Wacken, including the signature move Newport Helicopter, which had audiences swinging their shirts in unison.

Cannibal Corpse were among the heavier, more extreme metal bands that delivered important sets at Wacken, including British band Cradle of Filth, who had just released their new album, Hammer of the Witches and drew in a big crowd on day three at the Black Stage, despite a big exodus following Judas Priest’s set at the adjoining True Metal Stage. The same day, veteran Swedish death metallers Bloodbath made the most of a big stage. There was a rumor going around that their former member Mikael Akerfeldt – from prog metal band Opeth – would make a guest appearance, but the frontman had already left after charming Wacken with one of the best sets the previous day.

There’s a lot to take in at Wacken, and even three or four days are certainly not enough. Rightly so, since this is one of the world’s biggest and oldest festivals dedicated to metal. Wacken Open Air has something to captivate an audience in every corner. The festival has crafted an experience unlike any other with its clockwork organization and respect for fans and bands, earning the distinction of selling out over 70,000 tickets on the same day of opening sales every year.

 

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