(Text and Photos: J. Salmeron, unless otherwise noted)
Wacken is more than a festival. It is a celebration of heavy metal. For 27 years (and counting) this little German town has become the Mecca of the genre, with metal fans from all over the world seeing it almost as a religious duty to visit the holy land at least once in their life.
Like many others, I had spent the second half of July repeatedly checking the weather reports, hoping that if I refreshed the page enough times the results for Wacken would be better. It was all for nothing, of course, as the forecast continued to show the same: Rain, rain, rain.
I still had nightmares about the chaos of the 2015 edition, when the rain had really done a number on the festival grounds. Although 2016 promised less rain, we didn’t want to take any chances and so we packed accordingly. Rubber boots, ponchos, extra clothing (since the rain at Wacken tends to coincide with freezing mornings), and enough plastic bags to pack anything that we didn’t want to throw away but that was too covered in mud to be put back with the rest of our stuff.
Although when we started our drive, on the 2nd of August, it was still a sunny day, the skies darkened more and more as we got closer to Wacken. There was no doubt in our minds: Although the music would be great, the weather would almost certainly be awful.
After a short night of sleep (we got to Wacken around midnight, and then decided to spend some time with our friends there), we went to get our press accreditation sorted out, hoping (like every year) that everything would be in order. Although I’ve never had a problem getting my credentials, there’s always a certain degree of fear that this will be the year when my name gets lost in the list, and I’m unable to enter.
Since it’s only Wednesday, and that true festival starts on Thursday, we decided to take things easy and just check the place out, something that is always worth doing before the whole Wacken madness takes hold.
Walking around the village is already a treat in and of itself. To witness a place that has, through the years, not only accustomed itself to the Wacken festival, but that has fully embraced the hordes of metalheads that descend upon it every year is something really amazing. It’s not a parasitic relation, in which the festival damages the village every year, but instead a kind of symbiotic bond in which metalheads and villagers benefit each other. The former by bringing a lot of business to Wacken, the latter by providing a welcoming environment to thousands of fans coming from all over the world.
Of course, part of the enjoyment that the inhabitants of Wacken get out of the festivalgoers is the opportunity to witness the freakshow that parades around the village. Here’s what I mean:
Beyond doing our own urban exploration, as well as checking some of the festival grounds (the parts that weren’t covered in water) we checked (from a distance) a few of the bands playing at the Wackinger stage and caught some of Henry Rollins‘ spoken word show. It was nice to see Henry share some of his memories of Lemmy Kilmister, as well as his experience in this messy music business.
Filling a tent at a festival is never easy, especially when what you offer is a monologue instead of music. People want to dance, to mosh and to headbang, so watching Rollins not only fill the room, but also push the right buttons to get the crowd excited was really amazing.
A big part of being at a festival is the opportunity to spend time with people you haven’t even seen for the last year, so that’s what we did for the first part of the day. Although we knew that there were plenty of bands we wanted to see (and this is a philosophy that we maintained for the rest of the weekend) we also wanted to have the opportunity to be with the people that make this yearly trip possible.
We went to the festival grounds, dodging puddles and mud, in the early afternoon. Our first band was Saxon which, as it’s almost mandatory at this point, were doing the festival rounds. It’s always a pleasure to hear “Crusader” and “Princess of the Night” being played live, so these English heavy metal veterans were definitely the perfect way to kick off our heavy metal holiday.
Since the True Metal Stage was inaccessible due to Iron Maiden‘s preparation for their show, we waited a bit before Foreigner took over the Black Stage. I had seen them earlier in the year at Hellfest, so I knew that the quality was going to be great. Indeed, they didn’t disappoint, as they played the classics that the audience was begging for, demonstrating a level of quality that truly defied their ages
The name of the WET stage, even if it’s just an acronym, was just perfect for the occasion, as getting there involved a slow navigation through the mud of the festival infield, doing our best to avoid the deepest puddles (or, by that point, ponds), protecting our gear as much as we could.
As annoying as it was to get to their stage (after quickly checking Vader nearby), Tsjuder definitely made the trip worthwhile. Although I had originally been attracted to their show exclusively for the visuals (which I correctly thought would look great in my photos), the music was really on the level. Powerful, blasphemous black metal, remorselessly blasting from the amplifiers.
As the night approached, we took a short break to get something to eat while watching Whitesnake from a distance, before marching back to the WET Stage to check out Marduk. Although, as I expected, the show was lit mostly with red LEDs, which made shooting it a pain in the ass, it was still an awesome show.
Although I had seen Iron Maiden earlier in the year, I still wanted to check them out for a bit. Despite my best attempts, however, reaching their stage proved to be almost impossible. After getting in the middle of muddy moshpit, trying to somehow keep my camera in one piece, I accepted defeat and, together with my friend, started to walk to the Headbanger Stage to catch Michael Monroe.
We closed the night with Blue Oyster Cult, surrounded by thousands of people singing “Godzilla,” “Burning for You” and, of course, “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” It was a real treat, as I never thought I’d get to see these guys live (let alone at a place like Wacken), and a great way to close the first night of this amazing festival.
After an unquestionably unhealthy Bavarian breakfast/lunch, made out of pretzels, beer and white sausages, we made our way to the festival to see Axel Rudi Pell at the True Metal Stage, followed by Girlschool at the WET Stage.
We had to carefully calculate our moves between stages, as we had to take into account the delays caused by the countless detours resulting from the floods and the mud that covered the place. It was a real shame, as it meant missing large parts of some shows. Still, we had no choice, since treks that in normal conditions would only take a few minutes, could take as long as 30 minutes due to the conditions of the ground.
Despite being a huge fan of Eluveitie, their show at Wacken left me very disappointed. They seem to be still trying to figure out how to continue without Anna Murphy, Merlin Sutter and Ivo Henzi, performing instead with an array of guest musicians. Liv Kristine joined them on stage to perform some of the vocal duties of Anna Murphy in, for example, “A Rose for Epona,” where she demonstrated that not only was she an inadequate choice for this, but also that she didn’t have enough time to learn the lyrics.
Since I had already seen Bullet for my Valentine when they performed at Hellfest, I left their show as soon as I finished photographing them, opting instead to recharge my batteries at the press area and get a bite to eat and something to drink.
We got back to the main stage with a bit of buzz, to shoot Tarja, who delivered a pretty good performance, all things considered. Although I’m not a fan of most of her solo work, there were more than enough of her hardcore fans in the audience, all of whom went crazy when she performed a medley of Nightwish classics, as well as when she was joined on stage by Alissa White-Gluz, with whom she performed “Demons in You.”
We left Tarja a bit before the end, in order to catch 1349, who were performing at the WET stage. In what was probably one of the best shows I saw all weekend, they delivered such an insane performance, full of pyros and evil-infused black metal, that I really cannot wait to see them live again. A truly amazing experience.
As much as I love Blind Guardian, I wanted to murder their light technician, who decided that a good way to illuminate the first 3 songs was to rely heavily on red LEDs and backlights, making the shoot a pain in the ass. Of course, this says nothing about the quality of the show itself, which was as great as always, and absolutely deserving of their position on the bill. I knew that some people were questioning their headlining slot, considering that the other bands on that level this year were Iron Maiden and Twisted Sister, and it almost felt like they were trying to prove the nay-sayers wrong. They came, they saw, they conquered.
I had the privilege of working as Unisonic‘s official photographer this year, and so I closed the night with them, at the Party Stage, shooting the entirety of their performance. While some people might believe that this means comfort and relaxation, in reality it meant spending 45 minutes running on and off the stage, jumping over puddles of mud, trying to avoid falling in front of the thousands of people who were watching the stage at that very moment. By the end of the show, when I shook hands with the band and went on my way, I was sweaty, dirty, and looked like an absolute embarrassment to the human race.
In other words, it was fucking amazing.
Although we were both pretty tired, we got up as early as we could, to catch Dragonforce‘s performance. This meant getting to the main stage at noon, on a day when the only thing that I really wanted to do was to just close my eyes and either fall asleep or die. I was absolutely OK with either option.
For a couple of songs, Dragonforce were joined on stage by Pellek, a Norwegian singer/Youtuber who had replaced singer Marc Hudson during part of their tour. I wasn’t completely on board with Pellek‘s performance, as he seemed to be way out of his depth on this one, but the fans didn’t let that get in the way. Pellek aside, their show was really terrific, and the energy that they demonstrated in their performance showed why they are such an important name in heavy metal right now (and how unfair their 12:00 slot really was!).
After Dragonforce, we went back to have lunch with our friends, before returning a bit later to catch Therion. Since, as luck would have it, Snowy Shaw‘s solo band was also performing that day, we were fortunate enough to see him join Therion on stage (as a former member of the band), and perform some tracks. Since he was the first Therion singer I ever saw live (during their Gothic Kabbalah tour), it was a nice trip down memory lane for me.
My friend Sonja had been waiting all week to see Steel Panther (and had even made me join her during their signing session), so she was more than ready to see them take over the True Metal Stage. Of course, they didn’t disappoint, as they offered a very fun show. Although theirs is a heavily scripted “variety” performance (comedy+music), their interactions with the audience, together with the clockwork precision with which they work, were really great. It’s always amazing to see how a band that is, at its core, a mockery of some of heavy metal tropes gets to engage people so much, but they always manage to do it…. as well as getting a surprisingly large number of topless girls to join them on stage.
After shooting Triptykon, who put up a very powerful show (although with very little audience interaction), we went to get something to eat to get ready for the big headliners of the evening: Twisted Sister.
If you want audience interaction, you need to go no further than Twisted Sister. A lot of banter back and forth, many singalongs, a lot of energy coming to and from the performers, this was a show for the ages. It is really incredible to believe that this, their final tour, marks their 40th anniversary as a band, since I’ve seen much younger bands, bands with only a couple of years on their belts, perform with less than a tenth of the energy that Dee Snider and co. exuded here.
With our voices sore from singing “WE’RE NOT GONNA TAKE IT! NO! WE AIN’T GONNA TAKE IT,” over and over again, and after shooting Arch Enemy‘s closing act for the night, it was time for us to lay back and enjoy the music.
Dirty, sweaty and exhausted, we only knew one thing for sure: We’ll be back next year.