If we as a united metal front needed any proof that our community is still very much alive and kicking, it lies an hour northwest of Hamburg, Germany. As Americans growing up listening to metal, we hear about the fabled mecca that is Wacken, but we never really grasp the concept of it and all that it entails. For the past seven years since I first heard about it, it's always seemed vaguely real but still very much an almost fairy tale to me. The magazine coverage of it, the bands proudly announcing they're on the bill, even my European friends shrugging it off more recently in favor of other festivals like Party San or Metal Camp or Hole in the Sky. I will preface the rest of this review of sorts by saying this: Wacken 2008 was more a journey I made to Wacken itself, to experience it. Transylvanian, Finnish and Norwegian festivals hosted more bands that I would kill to see. But no, this was ventured to simply experience Wacken, finally.
After rallying our local troops and discussing the travel arrangements, it was whittled down to just one friend and I making the trip. After a two week trek through the heart of Germany we arrived in Hamburg, which proved to be the base of operations and jumping off / rendezvous point for most of the international festival goers. We spent a week on the Reeperbahn (Hamburg's infamous but highly amusing red light district). We found the metal bars (yes Americans, real metal bars, owned and operated by our own). I'd like to say hello to and take a second to thank the entire crew at Night Light in Hamburg. More Astra and Jim Beam next year! Sorry, I digress. As dawn broke on the first morning of Wacken, we set off.
I made friends on the train with a guy toting Grand Belial's Key and Bestial Mockery patches on his vest. I know that's almost irrelevant, but it amused me to no end that I was finally meeting people like that in person. Not to knock my home and our metal scene by any means, but Americans are spread so far and few between that running into people with similar interests casually on public transportation at 9am is pretty exceptional. We arrived at Wacken to the 64,998 (or 69,998, depending on who you talk to) other people who had made the pilgrimage. We set up camp and promptly began exploring the controlled chaos.
First, Before I go into detail about the bands I saw, I want to explain the sheer awe the Metal Market instilled in me. For those who haven't been, it's a collective of booths and vendors selling band merchandise and metal odds and ends. I found shirts for bands I didn't even know had shirts. Thank you silkscreeners! Crates and crates of almost impossible to find black metal albums at beautiful prices. Without having to pay international shipping from distros. An original copy of _Hvis Lyset Tar Oss_ for €50! It was one of the few times that I really and truly, with every fiber of my being, wished I was filthy stinking rich. And I'll also say this as well: I've never fallen in love with so many men in one weekend. Actually, I'm not the amorous type at all. But the hordes of 1349, Negura Bunget and Deathspell Omega shirt wearing Viking man-beasts that were everywhere... I almost didn't come home.
Okay, enough with the self-indulgent and nostalgic banter. I promise I went for the music. We got settled in our campsite just in time for me to make it to the tent for Negura Bunget
. When I first found out they were playing Wacken, I couldn't contain my enthusiasm, and from that second on they were the band I cared most about seeing. And after months of anticipating, they didn't disappoint. Being one of the relatively lesser known bands afforded them just a thirty minute time slot, but it was an amazing half hour. Luckily my tiny stature and the gentlemen in the front helped me into the first row to experience it. I didn't know what to expect from them, for I've never seen an ambient, folk inspired black metal band live. But adorned in pseudo folk costumes and a minimal stage set, they made the experience purely and unapologetically about the music. Unpretentious and very true to their sound, I can say this as already a huge fan of theirs before seeing them, they put on one of the best live performances I've ever seen based solely on the quality of their live sound. Knowing exactly when to play their folk interludes, they didn't miss a beat or lose the audience. And closing out with "Þesarul De Lumini" in its thirteen minute entirety, I know they earned a lot of new fans.
Carrying on that same night was the band of the weekend, Iron Maiden
. Now I'm going to be quite candid with this portion. First, I saw Iron Maiden less than two months previous on their North American tour, which was the exact same set list. Second, there were far too many people in front of the stage, so we got our lawn chairs and set up camp in front of one of the remote screens. And third, I had been drinking tequila for six hours by then. I remember very little of Maiden's set, and the next thing I can recall is waking up at 5am in my tent to the sound of the portable toilets near our campsite being shot with a crossbow by some highly amused Germans. But the show Maiden put on when I saw them at home was legendary, and I'm sure their performance at Wacken was even more incredible just because of the surroundings.
The next day brought a half-day of recovery, but I woke up that afternoon in time to see half of Ensiferum
's set. Being the total sucker for Petri Lindroos that I am, watching them in the cold rain was bearable. But seeing them with 30,000 other people at Wacken was a stark contrast to the 300 I saw them with on this year's Paganfest in Houston. Alas, it points out the vast differences in the metal audiences on both sides of the pond. They're a wonderful live band, even compared to other folk bands. Strong stage presences coupled with the obvious enjoyment they have performing live keep the crowds captivated.
Later that evening brought Nifelheim
on. They're legends in their own right and they definitely bring blackened thrash to a powerful head. Their live show is as unique as their sound, stage covered in fog for the entirety of the set, only silhouetted by back lights, it's powerful. And it makes for exquisite picture taking.
At midnight, one of the main stages was cleared for the two hours it took to set up for Gorgoroth
. They are giants among men, and waiting in the cold, ankle-deep mud for the two hours just to get a good spot in the crowd was negligible and well worth it. During the wait, however, the next stage over was playing host to Avantasia, which made it pretty painful. But even that was quickly forgotten once the Norwegian hellions took the stage. To most American black metal fans, seeing Gorgoroth has an almost cult-like status (kvlt, if you will). It's an opportunity few of us get. Their stage set is legendary, lined with sheep's heads on wooden spikes, naked men and women in black hoods crucified on stage, occasional pyrotechnics. Gaahl said maybe five words on stage aside from singing and his absolutely piercing gaze focusing on certain audience members for minutes on end. An hour of them live was like nothing I've ever experienced. Absolutely perfect for who they are and their notoriety. Abruptly walking off stage without saying a word to end their set. It left a wake of confusion for most of the audience, but for those of us who know the band on some level, it was absolutely brilliant.
The first band I saw on the third day was Carcass
. Admittedly I'm not the biggest Carcass fan, simply for lack of listening to them. I do know _Heartwork_ and I really appreciate their capabilities as a live band. Plus the fact they brought out Ken Owen for a solo in front of tens of thousands of people, when he needed help simply getting onto the throne, brought most in the audience close to tears. The fact that was probably the last time anyone will see him behind a kit with Carcass makes the experience absolutely precious to me. And given the band's legendary precedence and the foundations they've helped lay musically for so many bands, on top of their ten year hiatus, all present to see them that day were lucky, to say the very least.
Next came the pride of America at Wacken: Warbringer
. Almost unknown outside of LA earlier this year, but helped along by tours with Exodus and Nile, these boys are doing it right. Always phenomenal live, my heart swelled with pride to see their reception at Wacken. The most staunch German and Japanese thrashers there went nuts for them. Their ability to hone the annihilating thrash sounds of their influences is pretty remarkable. Lead singer John Kevill's stage presence was glorious and heralded total chaos in the audience. They bore the biggest circle pit I'd seen at the indoor stage, the band calling for blood -- they know how to get audience interaction like few I've ever seen before. They played a track from their upcoming sophomore album, and the future sounds bright. As a matter of fact, upon returning to Hamburg, back at the bar I had an Englishman approach me and tell me that he expects Warbringer to be headlining Wacken in the future, so keep your eyes peeled.
Later that night I wandered back to the Wet Stage to get a good spot for Watain, little realizing I was front and center for Dream of an Opium Eater
first. I'll openly admit I'd never even heard of them before that night, but now... I'm most definitely a fan. Especially when I realized it was Ivar from Enslaved, and subsequently various members pulled from Killing Joke, Million Dead and Twin Zero, they have an exquisitely tight sound. They're a unique experience live. Completely instrumental, they provide soundtracks to short horror films that play behind them. They have a sludgy, very guitar laden sound. The entire performance was emotionally evocative and I really can't put into words what seeing them live is like. But seeing them live is, so far as I can honestly tell, the only way to really know the band. The music is fantastic on its own, emotional on its own merit, but accompanied by their live presence... it's a completely different world. And god only knows how fortunate I feel to have seen one of their enigmatic live shows.
Recovering quickly from Dream of an Opium Eater, it was time for Watain
to take the stage. Nothing short of Armageddon. Brutal, intense, absolutely brilliant live. Set covered in skulls, crosses, chains and candles, they're evil incarnate. I found out while I was in Germany that they're going to be on a US tour a few months after my return home, and I can't wait to see them again. Five days later and I'm still covered in bruises from the sheer intensity of their crowd. All present for their show were obliterated.
The last band I saw was Lord Belial
, and they honestly got the short end of the Wacken stick. They were the very last band to play the Wet Stage at the festival, and they had to compete with fucking Kreator for an audience. Many people had already packed up and headed home. Many others were simply passed out in the mud from three days of binge drinking and hell-raising. The others that were left around were in the crowd outside for Kreator. There was a small handful of very exhausted, wet and cold die-hard fans who stuck it out for Lord Belial. Despite their best efforts of riling the crowd, they couldn't get too much physical or audible enthusiasm. They were resilient, to say the least. It was an awesome set, but it was just under exceptionally difficult circumstances for the band.
Now on a plane on my way back to America, I recount my first Wacken. My words are really inadequate for conveying how lucky I feel for getting to see these bands and finally wear the prized W:O:A 2008 wristband. I made a lot of good friends along the way, got my hands on some very coveted albums, and have a ton of great memories and even more amusing stories to tell. The shitty camping and hordes of pretty awful bands can all be cast aside for simply having the experience. Upon reflection it's probably going to become a yearly tradition for this American. See you there!