Saturday, August 8, 2015

Festival Review: Wacken Open Air 2015

It has been three years since I attended Wacken Open Air for the first time. To say it was an incredible experience is an understatement. North America has absolutely nothing on this scale in terms of the number of fans, bands, or quality of organization. Initially I had not intended to return to the festival for a variety of reasons; however, the initial confirmation of a Running Wild reunion show and a Savatage reunion show was enough to convince me to return. As the announcements kept coming, the lineup continued improving, and ended up being considerably stronger than the 2012 lineup was. 

The last trip I did started in Frankfurt, Germany, and worked north until hitting Hamburg. This time, I started in Amsterdam and travelled east on my way to Wacken. In the days preceding the event, it rained a lot (quite a bit more than normal for that time in Amsterdam/Germany). It was clear this was going to be a muddy affair. While arriving on Wednesday (after getting lost in the town of Wacken for about 30 minutes) traffic moved slowly because the campgrounds were already pretty much destroyed and some cars were getting stuck in the mud. Fortunately, however, I made it to the festival and got my wrist band in time in order to see the first band on my list: Vesperia!

Vesperia is a Canadian melodic death metal band that is local to me. They were added to the festival as a result of winning the Canadian Wacken Metal Battle. As with the previous times I've seen them, they absolutely destroyed everything. The audience for this show was really cool because the entire front-row was filled with people from Canada, which I would guess was the case for most countries involved in the Wacken Metal Battle, but it was great to see so many hometown supporters of the band. Though it would not be a little bit later until everyone found out, Vesperia ended up winning the competition, making it two out of three years that Canada has won since they first entered the competition in 2013 (also the second win for Vesperia frontman Morgan Rider, pictured left).

The remainder of my afternoon was spent browsing the Metal Market. Wacken has two Metal Markets: the first one is outside and has plenty of vendors selling patches, t-shirts, and other related metal-styled merch. As my battle jacket is pretty much full at this point, I skipped out on buying patches, but there was a lot of very cool stuff. The other Metal Market has a 2.50 Euro entry fee and contains CD and vinyl sellers. After my luck there last time, I'm convinced that this place is as enjoyable as the rest of the festival itself, and several trips there led to an unbelievably successful haul (pictures are at the end of this post).

As night fell, the rain returned with no real end in sight. Fortunately nearly all of the bands on Wednesday play inside of a tent, so the only effect the rain had was making the grounds worse for the rest of the festival. One of the bands I was most excited about was Grailknights. They play an enjoyable brand of power metal and melodic death metal, but what really makes their shows great is that they dress up as superheroes and fend off a villain throughout the show. Though I'm not too familiar with their music, the set was incredibly entertaining.

One of the main acts for the night, Uli Jon Roth, hit the stage shortly after 10PM. His set had a number of Scorpions songs, and he played them all with ease. Uli is an incredible guitar player, and although I don't really listen to a lot of his material, his set was easy to enjoy as someone who really appreciates great guitar playing.

The other headliner of the night was Europe. Although I have many of their albums, the only one I really love is The Final Countdown. As a result, it was a bit disappointing that they packed the early part of the set with songs from other albums. I ended up taking off relatively early because I was not well prepared for the mud on the first day, and figured it was better to get some rest to prepare for day 2. 

Thursday opened with another trip to the Metal Market, as well as watching a few of the Metal Battle bands. Highlights included China's Dream Spirit, who incorporated traditional Chinese instrumentation alongside a standard metal sound, as well as the UK's Metaprism. As good as those bands were, things really got started on the mainstage, where Skyline kicked things off with a great set of covers including Manowar's "Metal Warriors" (an all-time favourite of mine). The next band was legendary German U.D.O. playing with an orchestra. I stayed for a few songs, but there's only so much non-Accept U.D.O. that I can take.

Returning back to the tent for Dark Tranquility proved to be a great choice. I'm not a big fan of these guys, but my brother is, and so it seemed easier to see them than Rob Zombie, who was playing the mainstage at the time. The band gave an incredible performance, and vocalist Mikael Stanne seemed genuinely amazed at the crowd's reaction. The tent was so packed that it took 10-15 minutes just to leave afterwards. While I didn't know any of the songs Dark Tranquility played, I wouldn't hesitate to see them again, or even buy one of their albums after that set.

Chris Caffery (Savatage)
Up next was the band I was most excited for: Savatage. The details about their set with Trans-Siberian Orchestra were somewhat vague prior to the show. My expectation for the 2 hour and 15 minute set was a 30 minute Savatage performance followed by an hour and 45 minutes of TSO. Fortunately, what the bands delivered was much better: 40 minutes of each band, and then an hour of both bands playing simultaneously (those numbers don't add up, but Savatage started a bit early). Savatage opened the show with "Gutter Ballet" (quite possibly my favourite tune of theirs), and never slowed down. Every single second of their set was incredible. When it was TSO's turn, the excitement definitely dropped a lot, but it was cool to see them play "The Hourglass" with Zak Stevens joining them on vocals. The combined portion of the show was an incredible sight because I really didn't know how they'd be able to coordinate everything and have no issues with sound quality. All things considered, this show went much better than it could have gone. I've read a lot of things after the show suggesting that the pro-shot footage of Savatage won't ever be released and this show existed to gain TSO popularity in Europe while basically burying Savatage. It wouldn't surprise me, and would be incredibly disappointing if true, but at least we got one final show from the band.

Things started early on Friday (11 AM) with Brazilian legends Angra. They had a short, but high energy set. As much as I enjoyed the band (and particularly the older classics like "Nothing To Say" and "Angels Cry"), the real treat for me was getting to see Fabio Lione (Rhapsody of Fire) live. This is a band I've really grown to enjoy recently (as my CD haul will later show), and I think he's easily among the best singers ever. His performance with Angra was incredible, but really, everyone in that band is so talented that it turned out to be one of my favourite sets of the weekend.

After moving back to the mainstage, Ensiferum began their set. The crowd was huge for them, and it's easy to see why they're a mainstage group despite not being around as long as some of the other smaller bands I was watching. Their set was very energetic, and included some of my favourites off of "From Afar", as well as lots of new songs. Following Ensiferum was the only band I would consider disappointing: Falconer. Their set was plagued by tech problems, but the band's lack of stage presence and Mathias Blad's awkward dialogue between songs did not help. It was still great to hear "The Clarion Call", "Mindtraveller", and even a few other songs, but relative to the other bands playing, Falconer came off as less professional.

After a short break (the only one for many hours), Stratovarius took the stage. They have not played North America since I became a fan, so this was my first chance to see them. After watching them, I think Jens Johansson might be the best keyboard player in all of metal. Timo Kotipelto was likewise on fire, as was everyone in the band. The set was a bit on the short side, as they had an extra 5 minutes to spare even after the lengthy version of "Hunting High and Low", but they definitely left everyone in the audience wanting more. This was the best set of the weekend and reinforced my frustration at the fact that European power metal bands never tour over here. Their set also included the single from their new album, which I definitely appreciate more after seeing live. It would have been nice to see some material from "Elysium", but Stratovarius is a band that could songs from about 10 different albums and it would all be great.

Returning to the mainstage again, I saw Queensryche. This was my second time seeing them (though only the first time when I actually knew who they were), and it demonstrated that this is a very well-rehearsed band that has plenty of touring experience. The band was absolutely on-point, even Todd La Torre, who was filling some monstrous shoes. Their performance can best be described as reliable, but not mind-blowing. The best way to improve it would have been a few more songs from "Operation Mindcrime". After them, I saw the second Canadian band of my weekend: Annihilator. Lately I've started to appreciate their post "Never, Neverland" material, and it actually made this set pretty enjoyable. Of course, I would have loved more songs from those first two albums, and the songs that did come from those records were the highlights, but Annihilator has a surprisingly deep and enjoyable back catalogue, and I definitely would not skip them if they play nearby.

It's worth pointing out that Friday was the day when the rain finally cleared up for good, and to this point in the day, it had been incredibly hot. Fortunately, I was making a return to the tent where I could hide from the sun as I watched Death Angel and Armored Saint. Much like Queensryche before them, these are two bands that know what they're doing and they do it well. Unfortunately I was pretty dehydrated for both bands, which diminished my enjoyment of them, but their performances were on point. I took a short break to recharge before one of my favourite thrash groups: Nuclear Assault. Their sound was a bit muffled at the start, but got better as the set went on. John Connelly's voice seems to be more ridiculous over time, but it's still really good. I only watched about 25 minutes of this because I needed to see the headliner of the night, but I wish I could have stayed, as the band was really on fire.

At midnight, the German pirates Running Wild took the stage. Looking at the setlist, I can see how a lot of people would be disappointed, but much like with Stratovarius, the great thing about Running Wild's music is you could pick almost any song from most albums and it would be great live. I've never even heard the new albums, but I thought those songs went over decently. Rolf sounded really good, and everyone in the band was giving a good amount of energy. I would have liked to hear some tunes from "Masquerade", but I knew that was wishful thinking. In any case, Running Wild was really good.

This brings us to Saturday, the final day of the festival. The first band on my radar was Powerwolf. Though their music is quite repetitive on record, it is really easy to get into live. Everyone was singing along to pretty much every song, and there was a good stream of crowdsurfers. The best song for me was "We Drink Your Blood", which is definitely the band's most interesting track. After their set, I took a final trip to the Metal Market tent where I found a bunch of great thrash CDs.

Later in the afternoon, Rock Meets Classic played the mainstage. When this got announced, I looked it up and still didn't understand what it was. I thought it would be a bunch of old guys playing Deep Purple covers. In reality, it consisted of Oliver Hartmann and Mat Sinner (ie: gods), with guest singers Dee Snider and MICHAEL KISKE!!!!! among others. I never thought I'd see Michael Kiske live once in my life, let alone a second time (I saw him with Avantasia in 2013), and even rarer that I'd get to hear him sing "I Want Out". I almost skipped this to watch Cryptopsy, and that would have been a huge mistake, as this set was the best surprise of the weekend. Dee Snider was great too. He was really energetic, and clearly just saying whatever he wanted, including a great rant against selfies. "The Price" is one of my favourite Twisted Sister songs, so it was a treat to hear them play that.

The next set was Bloodbath, which admittedly didn't go over well live as I had hoped. It's a bit surprising that these guys were considered a mainstage evening headliner, while the legendary Cannibal Corpse was relegated to a sidestage, and going up against Sabaton (more on them later). Definitely a bit frustrating as I would have preferred to see Cannibal Corpse, but at least Bloodbath was a good rest before a doubleheader of great bands.

Crowdsurfing during Sabaton
Sabaton took the stage at 8:30 and performed the craziest set of the weekend. To this point, Sabaton's audience was bigger than any other band I had seen. I was near the front (as I was with most bands), but the crowd suddenly closed in on me just before they started. There was no getting out of that crowd. I always knew Sabaton was bigger in Europe (I saw them in a bar holding 100 people in 2012), but not this big! The band announced they were filming the show for a live DVD, which naturally only made people more insane. Crowdsurfing was occuring non-stop, and you had to look behind you every 10 seconds to avoid getting hit in the head by a foot. The band's drummer was set up on top of a tank, which was awesome, and they had a lot of great stage banter throughout their set. Though I didn't actually "see" much of this set (because there were so many people), it was another great highlight.

There was really only one band that could have followed Sabaton, and Wacken's organizers must have known that, as Judas Priest was the next band up. Though I was considerably further back for them than any other band (only because I couldn't handle so many crowdsurfers again), this was still awesome. It's great to hear so many of your favourite songs with 70,000 other people, especially as I had never seen Judas Priest before. This was the perfect ending to the best experience of my life. If you're a metal fan, you have to go to Europe for a festival at some point. I obviously cannot speak to all of them, but a festival like Wacken is definitely something you cannot experience in North America. 

CD Haul:

Blame the Metal Market for the lack of reviews; these CDs are keeping me busy!

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