Friday, August 10, 2012

Festival Review: Wacken Open Air 2012

Like many metal fans, I have been hoping to go to Wacken (or any European festival) for several years. Due to a scheduling issue, 2012 was the only time I would be able to go for several years, so in September 2011, I bought my ticket!

A large part of the excitement of the festival is the announcements. Unlike other festivals, Wacken releases bands more often throughout the year, but in fewer numbers. In December, they announce one band a day and have a daily contest (which I won) that has plenty of cool prizes. A lot of people (myself included) complained about the lineup this year, but I think it was only the headliners that were lacking. I think everyone can agree that Scorpions is the only true headliner; Machine Head, Volbeat, and In Flames can’t be compared to Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, or Motorhead from 2011. Despite that, the rest of the lineup was quite good. There were a few bands I discovered from the announcements that turned out to be awesome (Insomnium, Gehenna, Sanctuary, Axel Rudi Pell). Once you see the running order, you realize that you can’t really see every band you want. I rarely had a break once the festival really got started, and was pretty tired for a lot of the bands.

My adventure started on the Saturday before the festival. After waiting on the plane for 3 hours, we found out it was delayed for another 7 hours.  Luckily, however, this did not mess up my plans too badly; if it were cancelled, then I’d be in trouble. The next couple of days were spent exploring small towns in Germany as I went from Frankfurt to Hamburg. On Tuesday night, I arrived in Hamburg and went to Remedy Records, which was supposed to be one of the best record stores in Germany. It definitely lived up to the hype. I came out with around 20 CDs (the merch haul will be listed at the end). I’m not sure if this is a European thing, but some of the CDs weren’t sealed, and some used ones were (I noticed the same thing at Wacken). I couldn’t really tell if I was buying something new or used because they went to the back to get copies once I brought them to the front. Also, 2 of them were really scuffed up, but I have tested them and they do work. The prices weren’t too good (12.99 Euros to 15.99 Euros for most CDs), but the selection was fantastic. I would definitely recommend coming here after Wacken if you can work it into your route. Since I had to come before, I bought a lot because I didn’t know just how good Wacken’s Metal Market would be (or if would be any cheaper). After that, I went back to my hotel and waited for the first day of Wacken to begin!

On Wednesday morning, I headed up to the small town of Wacken. Most cars had “W:O:A” written in the back windshield in tape and it seemed like everyone was, understandably, excited. After getting to my camper and unpacking, I went to the festival grounds. Before I cover that, it has to be said how crazy the campgrounds are. I was near the back, and it’s about a 20-25 minute walk to the festival grounds; it’s not really that bad, I was just amazed at how big the campgrounds are. Also, most people are running generators and blasting all sorts of music all the time. I heard everything from Metallica and Iron Maiden, to Gamma Ray, all the way to random German rock bands. It was amazing to see how people set up their own villages on the campgrounds, but it was equally amazing to see how much beer they were drinking (and how early they started!).

When you get your wristband, you are given the W:O:A full metal bag, which has some cool stuff in it (a patch, ear plugs, lanyard, poncho, poster, etc). After that, I waited for the Metal Market to open. I was unsure what to expect, but it was basically two extremely long rows of stalls featuring an unbelievable number of t-shirts and patches. At the first tent I went to, I must have bought 10 patches alone! The prices were surprisingly good, and it looked like most people bought quite a bit of stuff. I didn’t buy too many shirts, because I found that unless they were laid out on a wall or table, there wouldn’t have been enough time to go through everything. Still, if you really wanted to, you could have easily spent all day here.

I spent most of the rest of the day at the Bullhead City Circus, which was a giant tent housing two stages (W.E.T. Stage and Headbanger Stage) and a wrestling ring. Today’s bands all won a competition in their home country, and the winner at Wacken got a record deal. I watched 11 of the bands. They ranged from completely awesome to average. None of the bands were really that bad, but there’s no need to go over more than a few of them. The two best bands were easily Midnight Priest and Lord Shades. Midnight Priest is a catchy traditional heavy metal band. The only turn off is that the lyrics aren’t in English. Lord Shades plays black metal and they do it quite well. I was surprised to learn that they already have a couple of albums out, but I didn’t see them for sale anywhere. Another interesting band was Shredhead. They’re actually a decent thrash band with some metalcore influence, but the guitar player was phenomenal. It’s unfortunate that few people will hear his band, because he deservers to be in a bigger thrash band like Warbringer. Ease of Disgust was a deathcore band from Russia that I expected big things from. Even though I don’t like deathcore, I had heard really good things about them, but their performance was pretty disappointing. Other than that, it was definitely a solid day.

Thursday’s start was pretty similar to Wednesday. After waking up, I went to the metal market tent, which didn’t open until Thursday (a huge mistake in my opinion). This place has the greatest selection of CDs I’ve ever seen. There are numerous dealers who all have plenty of CDs and records. There were a couple of bands that you just don’t find easily in North America (Bathory and Running Wild in particular) that you could find most of their discography there. Prices ranged from amazing (several places had 5 Euro bins) to expensive. For the most part, it was pretty cheap, but you’d be paying a lot for rare items. One guy next to me bought a CD marked at 150 Euros. As hard as it is to believe, I think this is almost equally appealing as the bands are at this festival. If you put money aside in advance, you can really get CDs that have been on your list for a while. If it weren't for the fact that there were so many good bands coming up, I would have spent even more time and money there!

At around 3 PM, I went to the main stage area, which was just opening up. They only had 1 merch stand with different shirts that would be rotating often. I picked up a couple of shirts and waited for Skyline to start. At 4, the band came on and played some cool covers, including UFO and Rainbow songs. The guitar player was excellent, and even though the singer wasn’t too skilled, it’s always fun hearing those classic songs. Up next was Sepultura & Les Tambours Du Bronx. It was a great idea for a band like Sepultura to use so many drummers, but I personally thought their set was the most disappointing of the weekend. I don’t think they played a single song from the first four albums. I know they’re normally ignored, but they shouldn’t skip over everything. Also, I found that Andreas’ guitars were non-existent, except during solos. Definitely not a great start, but things picked up afterwards.

U.D.O. & Special Guests were the next act of the night and that set had exactly what I missed in Sepultura: guitars. The riffs were all there. While I’m not a huge fan of U.D.O. or Accept, this style really does well live. In addition, it was great to hear classics like “Head Over Heels” and of course, “Balls To The Wall”. My final band of the night at the main stage was the mighty Saxon. Opening with “Heavy Metal Thunder” was a great choice and set the tone for their whole set. Biff Byford commands everyone’s attention while he slowly strolls across the stage and the guitar work featured plenty of shredding (they were much better guitarists than I expected). The setlist could have used a bit more from the new album, but was still pretty strong overall.

I left Saxon’s set about 10 minutes early to see Circle II Circle’s special performance of Savatage’s “The Wake of Magellan”. I was right up front and glad to be there, as this was a truly special show. Zak Stevens sounded fantastic and was having a great time, while both guitarists were killing it. Even though the set was cut short, it was still pretty magical. It’s not often that an intro song (“Welcome”) is a highlight, but the band nailed it. “The Wake of Magellan” and “The Hourglass” were also some of the best songs. It’s clear that the band knows how much people love Savatage and I feel lucky to have seen it. With that show, my Thursday night was over, and the first full-length day of bands was about to begin!

My day on Friday started at 12:15 with Sacred Reich! They may be older, but they still thrash pretty hard. Their set comprised mainly of the first two albums and the Surf Nicaragua EP and it was awesome. Frontman Phil Rind was pretty funny between songs and the playing from every member was perfect. These guys are still definitely worth seeing. The next band, Sanctuary, was also pretty enjoyable. In addition to some new material, we heard all of the classics from the first two albums. Somehow, Warrel Dane still manages to hit quite a few of those high notes. They are worth seeing if they come to town, but I can’t imagine anyone being blown away by their performance.

The real trouble of the festival started during Kamelot’s performance. It started to rain like I’ve never seen before. I managed to get under the cover of one of the beer areas, but the entire field was turned to mud. From that point on, you couldn’t do anything without getting muddy. The amazing thing was that the rain came and went in pretty much all of Kamelot’s one-hour set. The band themselves sounded pretty good, but I’m not really a huge fan.

Luckily, things cleared up just in time for Overkill. I’d never seen the band before, but they killed it. Blitz sounded great, and lead guitarist Dave Linsk played faster than any other guitar player at the festival. The set was pretty even between new and old songs, but the festival set lengths don’t give too much time for deep cuts. I don’t think the songs from The Electric Age went over as well as the others, but then again, I’m not a huge fan of that album compared to Ironbound or the old ones. 

After a short dinner break, I went over to the Party Stage to see Switzerland’s technical thrash band, Coroner. I had heard they weren’t great live because they play a lot from Grin and the self-titled but I enjoyed their set. The only song I recognized was “Masked Jackal”, but I found even the slower material went over well. Ron Royce’s vocals sounded exactly the same as on the records. I left a little bit early to get a good spot for my favourite band, HammerFall.

The Templars of Steel came on at 7:45 and rocked us with hits for an hour. Vocalist Joacim Cans sounded far superior to when I saw them two years ago, which was my main complaint last time. They had a fill-in bass player, but that didn’t really detract from the set. As much as I love these guys, they have too many hits; “Hearts on Fire”, “Blood Bound”, “Any Means Necessary”, “Let The Hammer Fall”, and maybe even “One More Time” will probably be played at every show. With only an hour, there wasn’t any time for any songs rarer than “Steel Meets Steel”. Still, these guys rocked hard, and it’s too bad they are taking a break for a year.

The final band on the main stage for me was Dimmu Borgir, who was playing with an orchestra. I’m not a big fan, but it sounded good. I wish I could have stayed longer but I headed to the Bullhead City Circus for three cool bands in a row, beginning with Gehenna. These guys play some authentic Norwegian black metal. Their set was complete with corpse paint, bad production (I don’t know how they replicated this live and made it sound good), and mid-paced stomping that makes that style of black metal so effective. When their set ended, it was about an hour wait until Aura Noir hit the stage. While it was Overkill who had the fastest guitarist, no band played faster over the course of their entire set than Aura Noir. Every song hit breakneck speeds and most was somewhat indiscernible. As the set went on, it got much clearer, but it didn’t really matter, as their style of music sounds good as long as it’s loud.

While I was excited for the two bands just mentioned, I was much more interested in the band who closed my night, Insomnium. Melodic death metal is usually done terribly, but Insomnium manage to make it such an epic, yet depressive style. Their live show was a flurry of headbanging. Both guitarists literally did not stop headbanging, and vocalist/bassist Niilo Sevänen joined in whenever he wasn’t singing. They included the hits from their last couple of albums (“Down With The Sun” and “Through The Shadows”) in a set that was just too short. I would have loved to see “Weather The Storm”, but listening to Insomnium at 2AM was enough to put me to sleep, so it’s probably a good thing their set didn’t go on too much longer.

After yet another stop at the metal market tent, I was ready for the onslaught of bands on Saturday. Gamma Ray were up first and blew me away. Despite including a couple of disappointing song choices (“Empathy” and “Heaven Can Wait”), the band still impressed me. The last 3 songs (“Rebellion In Dreamland”, “I Want Out”, and “Send Me A Sign”) are some of the best songs ever written and were the highlight of the set. Kai’s vocals were spot on and Henjo Richter is a frighteningly good guitar player. It’s great to see a band that has so much fun playing on stage and yet plays so flawlessly. 45 minutes was not enough, but they managed to pack in plenty of songs.

Back in the tent, American death metal masters Massacre played a short, but brutal set. The band didn’t get as into it as the crowd, but it really helped me appreciate From Beyond even more. Also, having seen Slayer, and now Massacre, I can confirm that nobody abuses their tremolo bar more than Rick Rozz. I have never seen someone use that so much, and yet it sounded amazing. They played a couple of new songs, and they fit in perfectly. After their set, I had to rush back to the main stage to catch as much as Axel Rudi Pell as I could.

Even though I love the albums I’ve bought of his, I wasn’t too impressed with ARP (the band, not the musician). Vocalist Johnny Gioeli didn’t do too great of a job on “Nasty Reputation”, and I thought the new material sounded boring. On the plus side, “Mystica” was more epic and awesome than on the album, but overall, their set was nothing special. After another break, it was time for Testament. The timing of their new release wasn’t great for people coming from North America, so I hadn’t heard it, but Testament was still awesome. Unlike last time I saw them, the sound quality was great! Chuck sounded brutal and Eric Peterson even added his own harsh vocals. I couldn’t believe how effortless Gene Hoglan made the playing look. I’m sure it’s easier than a lot of the stuff he’s played, but he still looked like he wasn’t trying. There was a good mix of new and old material, and you really couldn’t ask for much more from the band.

During Cradle of Filth I decided to sit down and listen instead of watching them, but I wasn’t too impressed. Afterwards, it was the epic Vikings Amon Amarth. I’m only a casual Amon Amarth fan but these guys blew me away. Everything was so heavy and thunderous. Even though most songs sound alike, I didn’t get bored. I only really knew “Cry of the Blackbirds” and “Runes To My Memory”, but the other songs seemed pretty catchy as well. I wouldn’t hesitate to see them again.

Finally, it was time for the true headliner of the festival: Scorpions. After several hours of clear skies, it was starting to get cloudy, and after just a couple of songs, you could see lightning in the distance. I was told that lightning will delay bands, so I wasn’t too worried about leaving. After the 7th song, the lightning was getting quite close and the rain was seconds away from beginning so I bolted for the Bullhead City Circus. Unfortunately there was no going back at this point, but I don’t think they delayed the show anyways. I am definitely disappointed that I didn’t get to see all of Scorpions, but at least I got a few songs in there.

While waiting for Dio Disciples, I had to endure Suicide Silence for the second time in my life. These guys are terrible. Not only does the music suck, but their headbanging and attitude just doesn’t work for a metal festival. The crowd seemed pretty into them, but I don’t get it. Luckily, their set ended soon and I was ready for Dio Disciples.

I understand people having a problem with this band, but I loved it. They play tons of classics (and even some lesser known songs) and it was truly amazing to see Craig Goldy on guitar. He is a complete master and can shred any of Iommi’s, Blackmore’s, or even Vivian Campbell’s solos. Both singers (including the normally terrible Ripper Owens) managed to actually sound like Dio for a good portion of the set. I couldn’t believe just how similar they sounded. Seeing as how this is the only opportunity to hear many of these songs again from a somewhat authentic lineup, I would definitely recommend going to see them.

At this point, the rain had subsided (like a Rainbow in the Dark!) and I went back outside. I wanted to watch Watain at the Party Stage but figured it would take too long to get there and back before Edguy started. Ministry was currently on the Black Stage and they were nothing special. They sounded very mechanical, and the songs weren’t interesting. They had some cool pyro, but what I could see of Watain’s pyro looked better. At 2AM, the surprise act, Edguy, came on stage and rocked us through a set of old and new classics. My only complaint with their set is that Tobi talks a lot, and it was all in German. Otherwise, it was great to hear songs like “Babylon”, “Robin Hood”, and “Vain Glory Opera”. I’m a bit surprised they didn’t play “Mysteria”, but otherwise, it was a great ending to a fantastic weekend.

If you get the chance to go to Wacken, you definitely should. The size of the crowd isn’t a problem, and the lineups don’t clash anywhere near as badly as any of the other major festivals. Even when the lineup is worse than the year before (ie: this year), it still is a blast. My only major suggestion is to come prepared for the rain and the mud. If you can deal with that, nothing can really stop this from being the greatest weekend ever!

CD Haul:

Written by Scott