Wacken Open Air is named after a tiny German village some 70 kilometres Northwest of Hamburg, which outskirts 75,000 metalheads invade every August. An endless sea of tents, camper vans and cars surrounded the village this year for the 22nd time. Driven largely by local volunteers, Wacken has maintained its homespun feel despite its gradual growth to gigantic proportions over the years. Most people arrive to Wacken by car, but there’s a wide variety of German as well as international bus tours taking you directly to the festival grounds, and a bus shuttle going frequently between the nearest train station Itzehoe and the W:O:A area. Some say Wacken is getting ‘too commercial’, while others see all the extensive services as just an added bonus. There’s no doubt that Wacken is way more packed than your cozy local festival, and the walking distances from one place to another and sometimes also the queues are big, but the festival is organized with exceptional German efficiency, and the fact that everything is SO big does come with a bunch of benefits.
To call Wacken Open Air ‘just’ the world’s largest heavy metal festival would be an understatement. Wacken is a phenomenom of its own kind; in addition to the biggest billing out of all other festivals, W:O:A features a number of ‘side events’ from Full Metal Poker Tournaments to roleplaying, and from wet t-shirt contests to wrestling matches and football tournaments. The official Metal Train with a metal disco car(!) transports hundreds of German fans to the festival grounds from all over Germany, the W:O:A postoffice lets you mail your camping needs from any corner of the world directly to the festival, there’s even a free W:O:A mobile app for iOS and Android users with festival news, running order on each stage as well as an interactive festival map.. and this is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also Wacken beer, Wacken water, Wacken radio and the Wacken foundation, a non-profit foundation to support metal. On the Wacken moviefield hundreds of people could see Lemmy The Movie, as well as Running Wild‘s show from Wacken 2009.
Several internet hotspots are offered throughout the festival area, and 3 days of internet access cost you 8 euros. The 130 EUR ticket price includes the use of the camping grounds (although each car is charged 20 EUR extra), as well as the “Full Metal Bag” goodie bag, filled with essential tools for any festival goer (Wacken rain ponchos, condoms, pens..), sponsor swag (cd samplers, promo flyers, wacken postcards, laminates, jägermeister hats, keyrings, sunglasses) and more..
The W:O:A area has three big stages, and a few smaller tent stages of various sizes. There’s always something interesting going on and it sometimes feels like the three days are almost too crammed up with all the program; you’re certain to miss something you want to see, but at least you’re guaranteed never to be bored.
Like most German festivals Wacken runs from Wednesday through Saturday, with most bands performing on the three latter days, Wednesday being a warm up day of some sort. The annual Wacken Metal Battle starts already on Wednesday, bringing one unsigned band per country to compete for a world wide record deal. This year’s winner was Israel’s Hammercult, claiming the throne from last year’s winners, Finland’s Battle Beast, who got some few hundred people in front of the W.E.T. Stage on Thursday as they played the traditional previous year’s winner’s show prior to Ozzy‘s headliner set at the True Metal Stage.
Seeing big bands in Wacken is definitely not a very intense experience. Unless you’re well in time, it’s extremely difficult to get even somewhat near the stage, but there are plenty of big screens to catch the shows from. Ozzy definitely still has it although his shows are fairly repetitive. The foam cannon is always there and the speeches between the songs don’t feel overly personal, but there is something heartwarming in seeing the prince of darkness still going strong. Gus G (guitar) plays flawlessly and was definitely a good pick to replace Zakk Wylde, although he could be more boldly bringing his own style to the songs rather than just replicating what his predecessors have done with the tracks. It’s certainly not a question of his abilities.
The village of Wacken lies just beside the festival ground, and comes to life with the locals opening their various kiosks to serve all the hungry and thirsty metalheads. Extensive amounts of drink and food stands with reasonable pricing, both for instant refreshment as well as for stacking up needs for the camping grounds, are widely available on the mainstreet of the village. Plenty of stands in the village as well as booths all over the camping grounds offer various breakfast options to start each day.
Cradle Of Filth had dropped out of the billing and were replaced by Triptykon. Thus, Friday’s undisputed crowd magnet was Judas Priest‘s 2+ hour show. Simply loved by Germans, Halford led his crew to an entertaining set, featuring all the sing-a-long classics from Breaking The Law to Painkiller, and of course ending with Living After Midnight.
0,4L beers are sold at numerous bars scattered all over the area, as well as by wandering salesmen at just 3,50 EUR. All drinks in Wacken come in branded Wacken mugs that come with 1 EUR deposits and make good souvenirs. Becks, Jägermeister and Relentless Energy Drink were this year’s main sponsors and their products were dominating the drink selection available on the festival grounds. The numerous food stalls in Wacken offer pretty much the most extensive range of meals on any festival for every imaginable diet.
Airbourne‘s Aussie hard rock has come a long way since their 2007’s debut “Runnin’ Wild”. I recall the band playing a few festivals as a fairly unknown name, and suddenly they had landed a good Friday slot at one of the Wacken main stages after the biggest bands had finished their sets. Their show washed away any doubts why. The band has grown to be a serious player and delivered one of the weekend’s most energetic shows, clearly determined to get the crowd convinced on their side, which they certainly succeeded with.
Sweden’s sleaze rockers Crashdiet pay homage to their role models in Skid Row and Mötley Crüe better than any other group today. They’ve got the songs, the looks and the charisma to make it really far, although their career hasn’t really (yet) taken off outside Sweden. With their third album “Generation Wild” the band is stronger than ever with their newly-found frontman Simon Cruz (vocals & guitar). Crashdiet delivers extremely catchy 80s heavy rock with all the necessary cliches (any badass encore starts with the singer coming on stage with a motorbike, right?) and certainly got a bunch of new fans with their professional showmanship on the early Saturday show at the True Metal Stage in Wacken.
The amount of Wacken merchandise made available is just mindblowing. You’ll find everything and anything from mugs, bags, flip flops, tents, grills, road signs, playing cards, lanyards, rubber boots, clothes and door carpets to shower curtains. The massive Metal Market brings together every possible German dealer of music, clothing or related accessories you can think of. Think of anything random, and one of the dozens of booths probably has it.
Prior to the farewell of the organizers to close the festival, Finnish metal giants Children Of Bodom played on the Black Metal Stage to an enthusiastic response from the crowd despite heavy rain showers during the show. While this was the band’s biggest show in support of their new Relentless Reckless Forever album, it was regretfully not the most energetic one. Perhaps worn out by extensive touring, the band strolled through a rather routine show with relatively low energy, yet still solid delivery despite some technical problems during the first couple of songs. The Germans had been treated with virtually the same setlist already during the band’s European tour a few months before, and COB‘s W:O:A appearance offered nothing new for those who had already seen one of those shows apart from some flame pyros and a slightly enhanced stage setup.
Wacken has been referred to the mecca of metalheads and that is indeed a fairly accurate description. Whether you’re up for watching the bands or just into partying around the clock at the camping area, Wacken provides a great setting for a fun time, and with an open mind you’re likely to find likeminded people to make new friends for life with. Some absolutely love Wacken, some can’t stand it, but it’s definitely something everyone should experience at least once.
In closing, here’s some useful tips for Wacken virgins:
-Get your tickets in time! Wacken is typically sold out several months before the festival. The pre-sale for 2012 is going wild already now, just few weeks after the festival ended!
-Bars and some some of the stalls accept only cash. While there are ATMs available at the premises, the queues are so long that it’s a good idea to bring enough cash for the whole weekend.
-If you’re coming with car, great. However, so are many others. Be prepared for extreme traffic jams on the way home.
-Choose camping instead of getting a hotel in Hamburg, or you’ll miss the best parties. If you don’t wish to spend the whole weekend walking long distances between your tent and the festival area. and want to get a spot even somewhat near the festival area, arrive already early on Wednesday.
LH / Photos: Amelie Lund*