“Wacken? Never ever again!!!”
That’s what I said after I had been to Wacken for the first time last year, because I totally hated it for various reasons (that you can read about here). I stuck to my resolution through every amazing band announcement… until they announced Ghost. I’m weak when it comes to Ghost, so I bought a ticket. End of story.
Do I stand corrected, after my second Wacken experience? No. I have to admit that I had a great time at the festival this year – especially the great weather and not having to pull your feet out of ankle-deep mud with every step you take made the whole experience so much easier and more bearable. Anyways I’m willing to endure a lot if it means I can see my favourite bands play, and there were so many bands I love on the bill this year it was impossible for me not to have a good time. However, many of the points I criticized last year still stand: Too big. Too many people. Too many annoying people. And most importantly, shitty sound for many bands on the main stages. On the other hand, I am (and admittedly was last year already) in love with the Bullhead City Circus (a large tent that holds two stages) where you can easily get a good view and the sound was insane! Also, walking around the different areas of the festival site, like the beer garden or the middle ages market can be nice if you’re into that kind of things. Whether you like Wacken or not, you might have to find out and decide for yourself… I usually decide solely based on the line-up whether I want to visit a festival or not, so who knows what the next years will bring.
So let’s talk about my highlights of Wacken 2018:
On Thursday, actually my birthday, my friends (a bunch of avid Ghost fans) and I took it easy, drove out to the festival in the afternoon, and under the burning sun we marched across half the county to get to the wristband exchange. Because that’s approximately how big the festival site is.
Finally wristbanded and hydrated, Behemoth was the first band we all wanted to see. It was my first time seeing them and I had high expectations, fuelled even more by a friend who had seen them before and promised huge things. Indeed, they did a great performance, driven by the energy of the musicians, especially Nergal’s captivating stage presence, and lots of pyros. Still it was not at all the mindblowing experience I had hoped for, because unfortunately the sound was thin, washed out and lacked any dynamics… Welcome to Wacken’s main stage. Also Wacken’s main stage: having a spot in the third row but not seeing shit, despite the size of the stage. In the end, it’s more than often better to move back in the crowd a bit because you will actually have a better view there (and get annoyed by less crowdsurfers).
(Side note: I finally had my mindblowing Behemoth experience a week later at Into The Grave festival in the Netherlands. They played at nighttime which lifted their show to a whole different level, because all the dark aesthetics and the light show appeared and added to the atmosphere. The sound was decent too and allowed the music to unfold. Overall the show was super impressive and definitely worth seeing again!)
Gamechanger: After Behemoth we went over to the Circus and were greeted by the blasting sound of Belphegor who were in the middle of their set, great visuals included. Like I said before, the sound in the tent was always magnificent, very loud and crushingly heavy but still clear and well balanced. It suited especially the black metal bands who played on these stages very well. Belphegor? Incredible! Watain after them? Equally incredible (and I didn’t even see much of their stage except lots and lots of fire…). Then there were Dying Fetus who smashed their technical death metal into our guts with especially the sublime bass lines standing out.
We ended the first day at one of the smallest stages of the festival to see Hellzapoppin, the crazy circus sideshow who had put their name on the map by touring with Avatar earlier this year. A 30 minute slot was far too short for these guys to showcase even a small percentage of the tricks they are capable of, so this was mostly about meeting up with familiar faces… and seeing how much pyro you can possibly blast out in half an hour. Lovely guys, those Hellzapoppins. Check them out if you get the chance!
Thursday might have been my birthday, but more importantly, Friday was Ghost day at Wacken! Ghost day means the German Ghuleh Gang is the first outside the gates and the first at the barrier, even if Ghost aren’t playing before 1:45 in the night…
The pain for me was that while I wanted to stick to the barrier all day with the gang at the Harder Stage (the ‘Ghost stage’), countless bands I really love played on the other stages today. I made up my mind that it would be okay to see Epica and Nightwish and some others from a distance or on the screens, I would at least be able to hear them (they played the Faster Stage right next to the Harder Stage).
Dark Tranquillity however… They played the Louder Stage, the third big open air stage that is at some distance to the other two. And I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself for missing out on them. The struggles of a barrier junkie… Fortunately, I found someone who unselfishly saved my spot at the Harder stage for a while (thank you, Tim!!) while I sneaked away to see Dark Tranquillity.
Confusingly, they played the set with only one guitarist; the mighty Chris Amott was missing. They played some guitar parts from tape, but still the sound was thin and completely lacked the heaviness and the impact it had had when I had seen DT on their tour earlier this year. (Considering though how many bands at this festival had similar issues, I’m not even sure whether the sound was a missing guitarist problem or rather the general Wacken problem.) I still loved Dark Tranquillity’s set, because even if everything else fails, there’s still Mikael Stanne to turn every DT show into a unique emotional experience.
He is one of those people who make you believe that they truly love what they are doing. He puts all of his heart into his performance and you feel that those songs mean just as much to him as to his fans who are passionately singing and screaming along in the first rows. Mikael lives and breathes his songs on stage, always with a smile on his face while screaming about misery and sorrow, and it makes him the kind of stage personality you would call very “real”, in the most positive way. When he comes down from the stage (quite a parcours at the size of Wacken’s stages) to thank his audience – he means it, and you want to grab and hug him just like Dark Tranquillity’s music gives you a warm hug whenever you listen to it. (You don’t do it though, because you are grown up and polite. But you want to.)
Dark Tranquillity were my last sanctuary of the day – back to the Harder Stage afterwards, after all we had a mission! Surviving at the barrier all day long works best when you try to make the most of it and party along to whatever band is going across that stage in front of you. Finnish folk with Korpiklaani, German folk with Schandmaul, German heavy metal with Doro – the day actually wasn’t that bad and nothing could destroy our good mood and our excitement for Ghost. At this point I have to give a massive shoutout to the security people who did an amazing job at getting all the crowdsufers down (without dropping them on the heads of the first row all the time like the secs at some other festivals…), provided us with water all day long and on top were relaxed and friendly guys.
Running Wild were the last test, and we feared for the worst, because they had a huge amount of very, VERY passionate fans at the front who promised us the sickest show of our lives… so we expected moshpits, pushing, infernos of crowdsurfing… but in the end, it all remained very calm, and to be honest the set was pretty boring.
Meanwhile on the Louder stage: seeing my favourite bands from a distance and side perspective was actually not as bad as I had feared. This way you focus a lot more on the details of the audible side of the show, which is nice for a change. I rocked out to Epica even though everyone around me was just chilling (so I must have looked totally weird), and was moved to tears by the sound of Floor Jansen’s voice during Nightwish‘s set, just as much as if I had been at the center of the scene. I have to admit I didn’t see Children Of Bodom, because as much as I wanted to – at that point of the day I urgently needed a nap, so I sat down on the floor and fell asleep leaning against the barrier. If you ever wondered where we get the energy from to stay at the barrier all day long: power napping between bands is always an option… 😉
The day ended of course with Ghost, and even though they were plagued by sound problems too (in their case, too much bass and drums and too little guitars), the performance was maybe my favourite from them this summer, because overall, everything was great, everything felt good. Obviously very much worth waiting 17 hours at the barrier. 😉 I’ve already written about Ghost’s festivals sets here!
There was an aftermath to that fucking long Friday. I was very tired when we started back into the day on Saturday, and in a terrible mood. Small incidents, like security taking my sun lotion from me, were enough to make me furious.
Fortunately there were Wintersun coming up first, being their lovely adorable selves as always. Due to the playfulness of their music, the weak sound didn’t affect them as much as the other, heavier bands, and even though I found their music a bit misplaced in the burning summersun (see what I did there), their set raised my mood a lot. It still wasn’t enough to give me my power back… I felt like collapsing during Knorkator, I couldn’t have cared less for Skindred, I just wanted to sleep. In a situation like that, you need the biggest possible energy kick, and fortunately right such a kick was available a bit later: Gojira! (Read in a lot more detail about their set here!) The frenchmen who simply don’t possess the ability to sound bad defied the Wacken sound, and after their set I was a different person. I was alive again, oh how alive I was!
I stayed in my spot for Arch Enemy who absolutely owned the Louder stage. Melodic death metal raised from Gothenburg’s underground to stadium level: I had found that a bit unfitting on their tour earlier this year, but at Wacken it worked perfectly, and Arch Enemy delivered a flawless show! (Not so flawless: the guy who thought that bringing his maybe 10 year old daughter into the first rows during Arch Enemy’s set was a good idea, even when crowd surfers were going over us and the little one clearly didn’t feel safe. Idiot! and poor girl…) I was told later that Arch Enemy’s audience filled almost the whole infield! They have come so far since Alissa White-Gluz joined the band in 2014, and by now it looks like they have made it to the top. Hats off!
Time for the darkness and black-metal-ness of the Bullhead City Circus again, to close the festival. I was happy to catch the last few songs of Enslaved, a band on my list of bands that I wanna see a full set from at some point…
Sólstafir came in just right to calm down a bit. Unimpressed by any Wacken madness they played their lovely kinky melancholic folk tunes, but singer Addi added weirdness to the show by balancing on the barrier and standing on the crowd for a bit. (Nothing weird about that in general, many frontmen and -women do that… it’s just that most of them look a lot more graceful at it than poor Addi…)
And then, last but not least, there were Samael. I gotta confess we didn’t know who they were, what kind of music they played or what we had to expect at all, but a trusted friend had told us we shouldn’t miss them, so there we were. And what can I say… it was insane! Their very straight forward songs, a mix of industrial and black metal with some electronical elements, were fueled by the overall vigorous sound of the tent, and the result was a volcanic blast that went right into our guts and made us bang our heads like crazy. Even though the majority of the audience stayed surprisingly calm (how??), this show was – strictly sound-wise – probably the most brutal thing I’ve ever witnessed (and yes, I have made my experiences with all kinds of death metal, death core and whatever else might be considered more violent than Samael on the records.. but live, none of them could keep up with this set). No matter how supercooled the performance of frontman Vorph was – actually, the contrast just made it all even more impressive – this show was mindblowing! It was bodyblowing too… After the show, we staggered out of the tent, hardly able to walk upright. The energy kick Gojira had provided me with had lasted up until this point, but I had put my last reserves into Samael’s set, and now I was done.
But that’s how it should be, right? When you are completely dead at the end of a festival, when you have used up all your physical powers solely by rocking out in front of the stages for three days, not by drinking even a single drop of alcohol… In my world, it means you have done something right. I love how our passion for music can make us go beyond ourselves and test our limits a bit. Totally would do it all over again… most certainly will do it again. Maybe at a future edition of Wacken?
(the gang in the title picture: fltr Verena, me,
Tim Papa Emeritus II, Laura, other Verena whose phone took the picture!)