Review: Wacken Open Air 2014

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WOA 2015 (Copyright David Hartl)

Wacken Open Air is one of those experiences that can be best described excessive; over-flowing beer, a vast multitude of people, searing heat and an onslaught of all genres of metal, day in day out all through the length of the festival. Not that I’m complaining. Just like the 24 editions before this one, the 2014 edition of the festival continued to draw metalheads from all over the world for a fantastic display of excesses, and the Headbangers India crew was on site to witness the madness first hand.

Day 0 (30th July 2014) began with the Wacken Metal Battle. Having reached late in the morning from Hamburg, I ended up missing Plague Throat from India and Mutank from Canada, the two bands I was interested in, so I spent the reminder of the day at the Beer Garden, tanking up on 1 litre mugs of Heferweizen (wheat beer) while trying to drown out the sounds of German comedian/musician Mambo Kurt whose synth versions of ‘Seasons In The Abyss’ and ‘Killing In The Name Of’ just sounded ridiculous. He is very popular with the local crowd though, so I got to give him credit to doing something right. After wallowing in the 35deg heat, I found my way back to my tent to prepare myself for the official start and the long list of bands on my watch-list.

Just like the previous editions of WOA, Skyline kickstarted proceedings on Day 1 (31st July 2014) at the Black Stage, playing covers of Iron Maiden and Ozzy Osbourne (among others). The band was pretty standard; nothing special to write home about. The band I was really waiting for though was Swedish power metal band Hammerfall. Playing an exclusive anniversary show to celebrate their debut album ‘Glory To The Brave,’ the band belted through the album and invited ex-members of the band (Patrik Räfling who played drums on the ‘Legacy Of Kings’ album, Jesper Strömblad, ex-In Flames guitarist and ex-Hammerfall drummer, and Stefan Elmgren, ex-lead guitarist who played on 5 studio albums from 1997 to 2008) to support them on a few tracks. While I’m a massive Hammerfall fan, ‘Glory To The Brave’ isn’t one of my favourite albums by the band (save for the title track). The highlights of the set though, were the live premiere of ‘Bushido’, the new track from the upcoming Hammerfall album (r)Evolution, which frankly sounded great and gave me a very good feeling about the upcoming album, and Blood Bound. The band ended their set by setting a few ‘Hearts On Fire,’ after which I moved a few feet to the right to catch Steel Panther on the True Metal Stage.

Disclaimer: Prior the set, I’d never heard a single song by Steel Panther, nor have I heard anything about the band’s reputation at shows. I knew they played LA glam metal and I thought, “this might be fun.” That could not have been a bigger understatement. Steel Panther revel in the classic adage, “sex, drugs and rock n’roll,” words that are made explicitly on almost all their tracks, namely ‘Gold Digging Whore,’ ‘Just Like Tiger Woods,’ ‘Fuck All Night & Party All Day’ and ‘Asian Hooker.’ The music by itself is a throwback to the 80s glam movement in the USA, and Steel Panther augment the sound by adding comedic value and living up to the part. Case in point, through the entire 75 minute set, the band managed to convince atleast 20 women to go topless on camera, as well as invited a bunch of women from the crowds on stage to take their tops off and make out which each other on stage as the band played on. Ralph ‘Michael Starr’ Saenz and guitarist Russ ‘Satchel’ Parrish possess an abundance of confidence to pull off the act without any hiccups or embarrassments. One of the most fun bands of the festival, and a band I will definitely be looking to catch on their next tour in Europe.

British heavy metal legends Saxon followed Steel Panther as the sun started setting on Day 1. Saxon are Wacken veterans, having played last at WOA 2012. Beginning their set with ‘Motorcycle Man,’ the band played 6 tracks, ending with 747 (Strangers In The Night), after which they invited an orchestra section to accompany them on the remainder of the tracks. Midway through Saxon, I retired to the press bar to rest my legs and caught the reminder of the gig on one of the many TVs there. German heavy metal pioneers Accept who went on after Saxon was listened to from a comfortable lawn chair at my campsite with a beer in my hand. As much as I wanted to watch Wolf Hoffman and Mark Tornillo live, the heat from the day had caught up with me, though hearing the band in the background was not a bad end to a long day. I’ll sure I’ll catch Accept on tour at some other point in Germany.

Day 2 (1st August 2014) began early with Taiwanese metal band Chthonic taking the stage at 11am on the Black Stage. I’ve never really cared much about the band, though I must say, they were quite impressive live. Their brand of symphonic death/black metal with Asian overtones was quite impressive, though it felt to me that the band’s music is more suited to a club or a small open air venue, not a big stage where the sound tends to lose intensity over a distance. Chthonic as well had a small orchestra troupe on stage, which really added to the ‘oriental’ sound the band exudes. Skid Row played next and a series of smart steps led me right in front of the True Metal Stage. Skid Row is a band that used to be one of my favourite metal bands growing up (‘Slave To The Grind’ is still one of my favourite albums of all time), although they fell of my radar many years back, around the time ‘Thickskin’ came out. I had no idea what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised. Apart from a bunch of tracks from the new albums ‘United World Rebellion’ chapter 1 and 2, the band belted classics like ’18 And Life,’ ‘I Remember You,’ ‘Slave To The Grind’ and ‘Youth Gone Wild.’ The set also included a special tribute to Johnny Ramone in the form of a cover of ‘Psycho Therapy’ with bassist Rachel Bolan handling vocals. Dave ‘The Snake’ Sabo and Scotti Hill had great guitar tones and Johnny Solinger has the pipes to do Sebastian Bach justice. Like Chthonic and Steel Panther earlier, their live act has convinced me to go out and check out their newest releases.

An extended break in the shade caused me to miss black metal band Endstille, Five Finger Death Punch and Bring Me The Horizon, though I don’t really care much for either of them. I came back to check out Heaven Shall Burn, seeing that they’ve got a great reputation for exciting live shows. The stage set up to resemble a warzone with soldiers and snipers in the background, vocalist Marcus Bischoff stepped up to the microphone and the band exploded into ‘Counterweight’. Heaven Shall Burn arrived. Heaven Shall Burn delivered. Despite a few issues with the PA in the soaring Wacken temperatures, the German metalcore band displayed a strong powerful performance, brought to an end by a very speedy heavy rendition of Blind Guardian’s Valhalla.

Childeren of Bodom Live At WOA 2015 (Copyright David Hartl)

Directly after HSB was Children Of Bodom; another band I grew up worshipping (Alexi Laiho was my childhood guitar god) which fell off the radar a few years ago. Although for my first COB experience, I had no complaints. Alexi, Roope Latvala and Janne Wirmen ripped through the set with ease and supreme style. Despite standing way back in the shade, a good distance away from the stage, I hear and watch the band rip through the classics ‘Needled 24/7,’ ‘Kissing The Shadows,’ ‘Angels Don’t Kill’ and ‘Downfall.’ I took a long break after COB, drank a few energy drinks and rested my feet, because my highlight of the festival had arrived.

I’ve been a fan of Carcass for many years now, and their 2014 release “Surgical Steel” is an absolute belter of a release, a fitting comeback album for the masters of death metal. Beginning with ‘Buried Dreams,’ the band played a fine mix of classics, and threw in a few tracks from the 2014 release as well. It was a very disheartening scheduling error by the organizers; Carcass, Motörhead and British heavy metal band Hell all playing simultaneously at multiple stages. Jeff Walker said it right, “when we were kids, we never thought we’d be playing the same show as Motörhead, and as adults, we never wanted to play at the same time as Motörhead.”

Wacken headliners Slayer were up next, with fire and smoke surrounding the stage, and for a first time watcher of the thrash titans, I was severely underwhelmed. Despite playing a classic setlist that included ‘Hell Awaits,’ ‘The Antichrist,’ ‘Captor of Sin,’ as well as the standards ‘Raining Blood,’ ‘South of Heaven,’ etc, the PAs were extremely weak and lacked any punch. I felt like I was listening to the music played on a distant radio. The sound improved marginally through the concert but my experience was already ruined. The highlight of the concert though was ‘Angel of Death;’ when Araya began the intro scream, the backdrop fell to reveal the Heineken logo, the name replaced with Hanneman and the words “Angel of Death – Still Reigning – 1964-2013.” That was very cool.

King Diamond, A Pale Horse Named Death and W.A.S.P followed Slayer on that Friday night but I was way too battered from the long day in the blazing heat to hang around for any of them (is age catching up to me?) After a few more beers at the camping ground, I retreated to my tent to get some rest before the longest and hardest day of the festival.

Wasp Live At WOA 2015 (Copyright David Hartl)

Day 3 (2nd August 2014) began early with Arch Enemy, fronted by the new vocalist Alissa White-Gluz. They’re another band I grew up on and Alissa did complete justice to ex vocalist Angela Gossow’s work. Despite never having the chance to have watched Michael Amott with Carcass, I’m glad to have seen him play live with Arch Enemy. Beginning with ‘Yesterday Is Dead And Gone,’ Arch Enemy served as the “morning headliners,” playing to a massive (albeit slightly hungover crowd) at 12pm in the blazing sun. I did miss the last two tracks of Arch Enemy to head to the W.E.T. stage to watch Indian metal represents Demonic Resurrection at their Wacken debut. Squeezed between Arch Enemy and Sodom on a Sunday afternoon at the Bullhead Circus is never the most optimal time for a band to play at Wacken, although Demonic Resurrection made the most of their chances. Coming off a UK tour with Onslaught and Artillery, the band played a 30 minute set that included material from the 2014 release ‘The Demon King’ as well as from the older ‘Darkness’ trilogy. I’ve always believed that Demonic Resurrection’s music was a little unidirectional and at times, cheesy, although ‘The Demon King’ changes that. It is a breath of fresh air in the right direction and breaks the mould that Demonic Resurrection that built themselves around with a lot more mature songwriting and an infusion of new ideas in the form of new members Ashwin Shriyan (bass guitar) and Nishith Hegde (lead guitar). Their live set did get a few people talking, and I hope to see them play the bigger Wacken stages in the future.

Sodom Live At WOA 2015 (Copyright David Hartl)

Watching DR caused me to miss Sodom at the True Metal Stage, though I did catch Polish blackened death metal Behemoth up next at the Black Stage. The only 2 words I can use to perfectly describe Behemoth’s set are “satanic ritual.” The 4 hooded men, dressed in black with corpse paint against a white backdrop, emblazoned with occult symbology complete with incense pots, fire pits and torches played an absolutely devastating set in the afternoon sun. Beginning with the ‘Blow Your Trumpets, Gabriel,’ Behemoth went on to play classics such as ‘Antichristian Phenomenon,’ ‘Conquer All,’ ‘Slaves Shall Serve,’ ‘As Above So Below’ and ‘Christians To The Lions.’ I spent most of the set in awe of the sheer force and aura with which their music emanated to the crowds.

Behemoth Live At WOA 2015 (Copyright David Hartl)

Devin Townsend has always been an entertainer more than a rockstar. He is always likeable, no matter where he plays and to whom he plays to. The DTP performance at Wacken was nothing short of phenomenal to say the least, and the band making good use of the campaign started by lots of fans to get them to the main stage instead of the smaller indoor stage. Circle pits were started for fun by the fans, prompting Devin Townsend to call for a group hug right in the middle of the set, with almost everyone obliging. Having branded themselves as nerd metal, Devin Townsend Project never stopped short of making an inappropriate joke or simply smashing earth to smithereens with songs from ‘Ziltoid the Omniscient’ and ‘Deconstruction.’ Overall, a very lively and fun show, quite different from the other “serious” bands on the billing that evening.

As Norwegian black metal grandmasters Emperor took to the Black Metal stage for their 20th year anniversary ‘In The Nightside Eclipse’ concert, I made my way to watch American hardcore band Hatebreed at the Party Stage. A thoroughly entertaining set, the band belted songs from ‘The Rise of Brutality’ and ‘The Divinity Of Purpose,’ including a cover of Slayer’s ‘Ghosts of War.’ Meanwhile, The Ocean were on at the W.E.T stage. The Ocean and “tight set” are synonymous. However, this time around, the vocals could have probably been a tick louder than they were, as the rest of the setup happened to drown (no pun intended) the vocals. There was a rumour going around that Loïc Rossetti may actually not sing, as he was apparently missing in a previous show. That rumour was put to rest however, when he came out enthusiastically and belted track after track of Ocean awesomeness. Robin Stap was spot on as was the new drummer Paul Siedel, which just made watching The Ocean a pleasure, minus the Slayerneck after the show. The set was very well chosen, with tracks highlighting their latest record ‘Pelagial,’ certainly one of last year’s best albums. Apart from the small letdown of the vocal volume, the show was certainly without glitch and impressive.

Emperor Live At WOA 2015 (Copyright David Hartl)

After Emperor ended their set with a cover of Bathory’s ‘A Fine Day To Die’, Swedish Vikings Amon Amarth took to the True Metal stage. The stage was set up with two fire breathing sea serpents spitting fire and smoke from their mouths as Olavi Mikkonen, Johan Söderberg and Ted Lundström began with ‘Father of the Wolf.’ Amon Amarth have always had great live shows and this was no different. The 75 minute set ended with ‘Twilight of the Thunder Gods’ and ‘The Pursuit of Vikings,’ and included ‘Guardians of Asgaard,’ ‘Cry of the Blackbirds’ and ‘Victorious March,’ as massive pyrotechnics, smoke and thunder played host to the Swedes. Definitely among the highlights of the festival.

As the day (and the festival) drew to a close, a series of well placed steps brought me within reaching distance of the front barrier of the True Metal stage as American thrash legends and Wacken debutants Megadeth hit the stage. Megadeth is among my favourite metal bands of all time and Mustaine’s lyrics have got me through many a hard time in my life. Watching the band right up front was a dream come through, though the absolutely abysmal sound reminded me that it was too good to be true. It took me until the end of the intro riff of ‘Hanger 18’ for me to even realise that that was the song being played. Still, unlike for Slayer, the sound didn’t mess the experience up and I watched Dave Mustaine, Chris Broderick, Dave Ellefson and Shawn Drover pound classic after classic, including ‘In My Darkest Hour,’ ‘Sweating Bullets,’ ‘Tornado of Souls,’ ‘Trust’ and ‘Peace Sells,’ with just one track from the 2013 release Super Collider. Being right in front meant that almost every minute, I needed to ferry a crowdsurfer to the bouncers in front of me. Still, definitely an experience I won’t forget soon. Unfortunately, I had to leave to return to Hamburg and head home to Frankfurt immediately after Megadeth, which meant that I missed Avantasia and German thrashmeisters Kreator, although I can live with that.

Wacken Open Air 2014 was largely a success, not including the scheduling snafu with Motörhead, Carcass and Hell, and the ridiculous camping facilities for the press – a distant spot away from the festival grounds with a highly erratic shuttle bus service to ferry journalists to and from the camping grounds. A huge drop in convenience from WOA 2013, and something I hope will be rectified by WOA 2015. In any case, thank you for the memories Wacken. I’ll be back to watch Savatage, In Flames, Judas Priest, Black Label Society, Cannibal Corpse and many other heavy metal bands in 2015, come rain or shine!

Drunk Guy At WOA 2015 (Copyright David Hartl)

All pictures copyright David Hartl and Rock-pix Media

Written with inputs from Manaswi Gundi

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