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Review: Wacken Open Air 2015

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“Blasting The North – rain or shine!”

Wacken’s slogan hasn’t changed in a long time. In the last two years that Headbangers India have been press partners at the festival, it was pretty much shine and shine as the sun beat down upon us from dawn to dusk for 4 days in a row.

2016 was different.

A day before the festival, I found myself at the city center in Hamburg and chanced upon a shoe store with gum boots for a measly 10€. The weather didn’t look good and I thought, hey, it can’t hurt to own a pair. Best 10€ I’ve spent in recent times.

The 26th edition of the biggest metal festival in the world was a rain and sludge filled affair – the worst storm in many years, said the organizers. And in those conditions, I watched some of my favourite bands put on the best shows I’ve seen in ages.

Day 0

The unofficial start was a generally slow day. We missed most of the Wacken Metal Battle, including Indian representatives Sycorax, because we took a while to get to the festival and set up our tents, but were lucky enough to catch Vesperia – the Canadian folk metal band, fronted by the ex-bass player of 2013 Metal Battle winners, Crimson Shadows. The Canadians must have something in their water that spawns such a tremendous display of metal, because for the second time in three years, the Canadians ran away with the show and were crowned the winners of the Metal Battle once again.

The day ended with Swedish 80s glam rock/metal band Europe, who played tracks both from the new 2015 release ‘War of Kings,’ and from earlier releases such as ‘Superstitious,’ ‘Let The Good Times Rock’ etc. The band ended their gig with, you guessed it, The Final Countdown. And while it was a rather cheesy affair, it was great to hear several hundred metalheads packed into a tent, fists in the air, singing “it’s the final countdown” at the top of their voices.

Day 1

We woke up on the first day of the festival to heavy rains. After deciding that hiding in our tents was evidently not the solution, we found our way to the press lounge where we looked through the lineup for the day. The rain had turned the festival grounds to a sea of slush and muck, and we decided that trudging out to check out the Metal Battle bands was not the best idea.

A few beers later, Skyline, the ‘original’ Wacken band opened up the main stages with their renditions of popular tunes like ‘Highway Star’ and ‘Smoke On The Water,’ and quickly made way for the denim and leather of ex-Accept frontman UDO, who with the German Armed Forces Orchestra, put on a fantastic display of old school heavy metal. From the intro of the Star Wars theme music to the to the Accept classics ‘Metal Heart’ and ‘Princess Of The Dawn’ with tracks from ‘Faceless World’ and ‘Dominator’ in between, the German metal legend showed us why he is still one of the premier voices of heavy metal.

We took a break once again after UDO while In Extremo played and missed Rob Zombie to catch a bit of Dark Tranquillity’s performance, but were back soon enough for a historic moment in Wacken’s and heavy metal history – the reunion of American heavy/progressive metal act Savatage,’ who along with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, played simultaneously across the Black Stage and the True Metal Stage at the festival. Savatage started with ‘Gutter Ballet’ and ran through the classics (‘Hall of the Mountain King,’ Jesus Saves’ etc) too soon and made way for TSO who started with ‘Madness of Men’ and went on to play both TSO and Savatage material with vocalists Zak Stevens and Criss Olivia. Definitely one of the highlights of the festival – the rain and the wind played their part in recreating the magic of one of the greatest bands in history.

Savatage + TSO
Picture taken from the Wacken Facebook page

Day 2

Where do I begin? The interview with Queensryche, that’s right! I got up and got out of my tent early enough for an interview with Queensryche founding member Michael Wilton. [Read the interview here]. After a comfortable chat and a short selfie-session with the band, I made my way to the main stage to watch Sepultura. With the sun peeking through the clouds, the Brazilian thrash metal band ran through an all classic setlist on the Black Stage to a sea of black tshirts. The heavy winds caused the sound to waver all through the show and I did not feel completely convinced with their performance, having seen them destroy Backstage (Munich, DE) a few days earlier with Kryptos, Death Angel and Dust Bolt. I’m also disappointed that I missed Falconer for the show. Falconer famously announced a few months back that the Wacken show would be their last live show in Europe and that they would stick to writing studio albums going forward.

Truckfighters at Wacken

Truckfighters, on the other hand, were one of the highlights of the festival. The Swedish stoner/desert rock band kicked off a storm at the Headbangers Stage with one of the most exciting live shows I’ve seen and definitely made up for the fact that I was missing Kvelertak on the main stage. However, I did come back for At The Gates, who were hands down the best band of the festival. A rich setlist of classics and music from ‘Death And The Labyrinth’ made for a great listen and I wish they could have played a longer set.

Queensryche were on the money and on the button. Having watched them three times in three years, I can say with much conviction that Todd La Torre has really moulded himself as a perfect frontman for the band. As Anarchy-X faded and as the double bass/riff for Nightrider kicked in, my heart skipped a few beats and I found myself almost in tears through their set. Yes, the band does that to me. Queensryche to me is years of memories and emotions all rolled up. Listening to ‘Arrow of Time’ from the new album Condition:Human was another highlight of the festival. For their first appearance at the festival, all I can say is that they have definitely made a lot of new fans.

I won’t say much about Opeth because I’m not a big fan of their newer ‘progressive’ material. What I will say, though, is that Opeth just are not a festival band any more. The acoustic stuff is great but not something I want to stand around listening to with a beer in my hand at a big festival. I did love the last three songs though – ‘Heir Apparent,’ ‘Grand Conjuration’ and ‘Deliverance.’

By this point, the sun had started shining and the weather report was starting to look a lot more positive. What did happen, though, is that the effect of the searing sun on the slushy mud caused the mud to get thick and sticky, which I’d argue is worse than the liquidey muck we had to deal with on the first two days.

Dream Theater’s debut Wacken performance was also nothing much to write home about. As a big time fan of the band, I felt that James Labrie just was not hitting the right notes and the overall mix was just not loud enough. I definitely need to watch DT in an indoor venue once again to gauge their live act better. Meanwhile, on the W.E.T stage, Death Angel ripped the tent apart with their furious mix of Bay Area thrash metal. Having watched them multiple times on tour in Europe, I must say that Mark Osegueda is a phenomenal frontman and the entire band is the epitome of thrash metal, both in their music and in their live performances.

The day ended slowly after that as we drowned ourselves in whiskeys and beers, listening to In Flames and Running Wild in the background. This would mean that we missed Ill Nino and Nuclear Assault as well, but at the end of the day, it was just too hard to convince ourselves to walk all the way for the bands.

Day 3

As the final day of Wacken dawned upon us, we started with packing our tents up, taking care as to not let water seep through. We were quick enough to catch the tail end of Powerwolf’s performance, which for all purposes, sounded as good as they sounded on record. Neither Amorphis nor Danko Jones interested us much and the Rock Meets Classic with the Bohemian Symphony Orchestra was a party band with Dee Snider, Michael Kiske and Joe Lynn Turner taking turns, playing popular covers from their respective bands.

Bloodbath, for all the hype surrounding the inclusion of Nick Holmes as frontman of the allstar death metal band, was a timid affair. The band sounded listless and lacklustre – the music seemed to sound like it was played without passion; like a radio running in the background at the biggest festival in the world. Cannibal Corpse though, was an altogether different affair. From ‘Scourge Of Iron’ to ‘Devoured By Vermin,’ they were all killer no filler. Absolutely skull-crushing riffs from the true masters of death metal in a performance that will go down in Wacken history as one of the best instances of “we came, we saw and we destroyed.”

Cannibal Corpse at Wacken

There was no band in the festival I loathed more than Sabaton and I used to time to capture prime real-estate in front of the True Metal Stage, for the Metal Gods Judas Priest were next. ‘Dragonaut’ on to ‘Metal Gods’ on to ‘Devil’s Child…’ It was a setlist of hit after hit, set up perfectly to end the 26th edition of Wacken Open Air. Richie Faulkner and Scott Travis are the modern day heroes of the band; there is no doubt about that. Ian Hill and Glenn Tipton seemed quite content to stay in the shadows, providing the soundtrack to the show, and Rob Halford showed signs of ageing with his waning voice but at the end of the day, it was a Judas Priest show and no one was disappointed at the end.

I’d have loved to stay back and catch Cradle of Filth and Within Temptation but it seemed like our time was up – 4 days of rains and cold weather, sleeping bags, and alcohol abuse was more than we could handle and with the thought of a 12 hour journey ahead of me, I couldn’t wait to get on my way and get into my comfortable bed.

All in all, Wacken Open Air 2015 was a success in terms of the bands and the music, and it was clear that the organizers and support start were working around the clock to ensure that the festival stayed largely fun and habitable for everyone involved. What the 2016 edition of the festival will hold, who can say?