Wacken 2017 – Review

Wacken is more than a festival. I know that this is exactly how I opened the review for last year’s edition, and I can imagine that this creates the impression (and perhaps a warranted one at that) that I’m just taking the easy way out and just copying and pasting the same introduction for every review. It’s not that simple though, and that’s because, at its core, Wacken is, indeed, much more than just a festival. After almost 30 years it continues to be the gold standard for metal festivals, and still shines as the brightest start in the firmament of music events for this genre of ours.

Getting There

Having spent July looking at the forecast and hoping for the best, I was well aware of the fact that rain would, once again, be the common denominator throughout the 2017 edition. There was no way to escape what would, once again, be an absolute chaos of water and mud, besides hoping that (as they has promised) the Wacken organizers had actually improved the overall conditions of the field.

In any case, just getting to Wacken and meeting old friends (and making new ones) made it all worthwhile… even if it meant risking the upcoming rain.

Wednesday

We took Wednesday pretty easily, deciding to save our energies for the “real” festival that would start on Thursday. We prioritized (as, I think, most people should) spending time with our friends (some of whom we hadn’t seen in over a year) and to just do our usual stroll through the village.

Walking through Wacken is always a treat because there’s always something new (or just downright bizarre) to witness. Although the village is a lively German town in its own right, during the festival everything goes up to 11, as demonstrated by the enormous influx of people and businesses that start to pop up everywhere. Wacken, all of a sudden, has it all.

Of course, we were not going to limit ourselves to simply wander around the village on this first day of Wacken, and made sure to check out the fantastic show put up by Ugly Kid Joe. 

Thursday

This was definitely a big day for me, as I was working with not one but two bands: Ross the Boss and Status Quo. Two fantastic bands that, in their own right, have influenced thousands of people. In the case of Ross the Boss, by his role in Manowar, while, in the case of Status Quo, by simply sticking around for decades.

Ross the Boss put up a terrific show, as they showcased not only their own material, but also the incredible Manowar songs that he had been a part of. Nothing really prepares you to see tens of thousands of people singing “Hail and Kill”, and screaming at the top of their lungs  for more music.

We stayed put at the main stage to see the great Europe deliver what can only be described as a show for the ages, revisiting their decades long career. The crowd went wild as hits like…. and,of course, The Final Countdown blasted through the amps. Joe Larsson was particularly energetic (and the audience knew how to reward that) as he kept interacting with the audience and playing around the stage.

Although this was only the first day, and therefore the main stages were running only for some of the day, that didn’t mean that the quality of the music would be any less amazing than any of the following days. Indeed, our next stop was Status Quo, a band I had the privilege of actually working for as their photographer (for some, for now, undisclosed project). It was an enormous privilege to be part of such a fantastic show, and it really shines as one of the brightest moments of my photographic career.

Following Status Quo, and playing in their home turf, where the teutonic warriors of Accept, who delivered a fantastic set accompanied by an orchestra. Although, granted, this kind of approach to metal has been taken a few times in the past (Metallica‘s S&M being the best example), it is always great when you see a band move away from their comfort zone to do something like this… not to mention that there’s something particularly special about “Walls to the Wall” being performed with a backing of violins and cellos.

Closing the mainstage for the evening were the Danes of Volbeat. Even as I had walked through the pit throughout the day I had noticed how many people were holding on to the fences, looking like 50’s pinups, spending all day there (no idea how or when they peed or ate), just to be close to their idols. It’s really one of the most beautiful aspects of heavy metal, the absolute devotion and passion that you see among the fans, no matter their religious, ethnic or philosophical identity. If they love your music, they will be there for you through thick and thin (and no matter how much it rains on them!).

What I saw of Volbeat’s show was fantastic, although I had to leave early as I had to go do my third photographic appointment for the day. This was frustrating, since I knew that Napalm Death‘s Barney Greenway would be there to perform “Evelyn” with them, but… duty called!

I slowly made my way to the Headbangers Stage, where I was in charge of shooting Nile’s entire show and to do some photo shoots with them. As I prepared for the shoot I caught a glimpse from the sidelines of Mayhem’s performance, which looked absolutely amazing (as can be expected from the granddaddys of black metal).

Even though they were only hitting the stage past midnight, and that the fans had spent all day just walking through the mud and putting up with the rain, Nile’s stage was absolutely packed. Having seen their entire show I can, of course, understand why: They absolutely know how to put up a show and how to absolutely deliver the best death metal money can buy. Due to some contractual obligations, I can only show you a small selection of photos (for now), but more will be made available soon.

Exhausted from a day of mud, running around and, of course, working for three bands, I was about to collapse by the time Nile wrapped up their set. We said our goodbyes, I walked back to my tent and, after having a few drinks with some friends (hey, after all, it IS Wacken!) I collapsed in my tent.

Friday

Exhausted from the previous day, we started Friday with Grave Digger, another German band that was ready to kick ass at their home turf. They did so in spades, as the reapers delivered a fantastic show full of audience interaction and revisiting some of their greatest hits (and, believe me, there are many!).

Sonata Arctica were one of the bands that really shaped my musical tastes when I was younger, as they opened the door for my to discover power metal (even if, as Toni himself has told me, he doesn’t think that’s an apt description for his band). Because of this, I was really looking forward to seeing them perform once again, this time prioritizing some of the more “power” metal style of their earlier days. They did not disappoint, and I ended their show almost without being able to talk, having sang along their many hits.

Saltatio Mortis were another band that had created high expectations among the audience, as could be heard from the hundreds of people yelling “SALTATIO MORTIS!!!!!!!!” as soon as Sonata Arctica had finished their set. Though composed of a largely younger fanbase, it was obvious that these fans were eager to see them, and could not wait to honor their name by truly dancing to their deaths.

Being fully in starvation mode (I had eaten a pretzel for breakfast, and that was about it) I was now, at 6 PM,  in dire need of food. I skipped Trivium to get a burger somewhere in the press area, and then ran back through the mud to catch Prong at the Headbangers Stage.

From Prong I sprinted to the main stage (mud everywhere!) to catch the show of Apocalyptica. Although this is a band that I’ve seen many, many times, but that I simply can’t get enough of. What they have achieved as musicians, the level that they have reached despite starting out as a project that nobody would have guessed would go anywhere, is truly admirable. And, having moved away from merely covering others, and instead writing their own material, their shows are always fantastic. In this case, however, they were revisiting their debut album covering Metallica, and it was still a delight to hear those classics and to sing them at the top of my (already injured) lungs.

Although I had seen Emperor a couple of times already (both at Hellfest as well as at Wacken), it is always a pleasure to see such a seminal black metal band. True, I was furious about the lighting setup for this particular show, since it made my work as a photographer almost impossible, but I tried to remind myself that the show is not for us photographers, but for the fans, and they definitely appreciate the grimdark stage presence.

Needing absolutely no introduction, Megadeth, one of the strongest members of the Big 4 of thrash metal, took the Harder Stage and the crowd went wild. The reasons are obvious, of course, as no matter how old you are or how many times you’ve seen them perform, there’s basically no way you can listen to “Trust” or “Symphony of Destruction” and not sing along.

Since I grew up listening to Marilyn Manson, seeing him on stage for the first time was really exciting. Although I knew that his latest work hadn’t been really been to my liking, and that there were rumours about his live shows not really living up to the level of his fantastic Antichrist Superstar era, I was still excited. The results were… mixed.

Saturday

The last day is always a bittersweet moment for me. On the one hand, I’m too tired to keep up at the same pace for more days (I’m getting old, basically), but, on the other, it also marks the end of the best festival in the world, and the time to say goodbye to the many friends that I only get to see once a year. Because of this, I decided to prioritize spending time with them, sharing our war stories, our food (and our drinks), remembering exactly why we come to this festival every year, why we put up with the mud, the rain, the exhaustion. Sure, it’s the music, but it’s also the companionship, the friendship, the bonds that, somehow, end up lasting a lifetime.

Although I wanted to go to shoot earlier, a friend got violently sick (Jagermeister being the culprit for that one), so I had to first make sure she was adequately taken care of before I went to the festival.

I met with Thomas Jensen, the founder of Wacken, and discussed the plans for the future and the challenges that the water keeps posing for the festival. It’s amazing to see how Wacken, no matter how big it keeps getting, continues to be a gigantic work in progress, and to discover some of the many things that are being made to make this heavy metal wonderland even better. We will release this interview (together with some other goodies) closer to the 2018 edition, so stay tuned! 😉

The strong plate of the day was, undoubtedly, Alice Cooper, a musician that defies his age by delivering some of the most memorable shows ever. The crowd went wild as he went through his fantastic repertoire of music… and so did I.

Alice Cooper left a very high bar to reach for whoever had to follow their fantastic act, and it Amon Amarth who had to step up to the plate and deliver a good performance. With plenty of fire, dragons, and just good old fashioned Viking goodness, they absolutely managed.

Headlining the evening were Avantasia, whose show I could only cover for 2 songs (as opposed to the usual 3) as I had to run to shoot Steve Harris’ British Lion. As much as I love Avantasia, being a huge Iron Maiden fan, I think Steve Harris could have been selling cotton candy and I still would have showed up to photograph it.

Still, Avantasia did put up a fantastic show (as far as I could see) and, of course, were joined on stage by the usual gigantic array of incredibly talented musicians that made sure that Tobias Sammet‘s gigantic opus is delivered the way it’s supposed to.

Steve Harris’ British Lion performed a great show, even if their music isn’t exactly what I’m into lately. While I continue to be a loyal Maiden fan, his work with British Lion seems a bit unnecessary… at the same time, I understand that, just like anybody else with a job, there’s a moment where you just really want (and NEED) to do something different, so I applaud Steve Harris for having the testicular fortitude to give it a shot.

I finished the night (and, sadly, the festival) with Kreator. A fantastic thrash band that gets the entire audience going… and who seems to really hate photographers, as they choose to have the worst possible light to illuminate their shows. Still, you work with what you have…

In order to beat the traffic that, without a doubt, would soon start to leave Wacken, we made the tactical decision to sprint to our car and start the long drive back home. Hugging our friends (apologizing for what we were sure was a disgusting stench emanating from us), covered in mud and hoping that we wouldn’t fall asleep at the wheel, we started the trip back home.

Tired, sweaty and dirty (as always)… and yet, we knew we’d be back.