Wacken Open Air 2008

author EW date 17/08/08

And so Wacken 2008 came and Wacken 2008 went. After a year of anticipation, four days properly to really enjoy myself isn't enough and so next year I shall finally do the business and drive there - flying out just doesn't provide enough freedom. But for this year there is much to discuss as ever. Despite the mammoth size of the festival nowadays, it still manages to retain its feel of a true Heavy Metal village, thanks largely to its wonderful acceptance by the local community, who come out to enjoy themselves and embrace what is truly a unique event. Anyone who's walked down the main high street during the festival cannot have failed noticing residents sitting in their front gardens chatting, smiling and drinking with the Metal tourists; opening up their houses/gardens to serve drinks and meals for whoever wants them; competitions being run on people's doorsteps offering prizes for those who can pull the most Metal pose or scream the loudest; and the list goes on. This is a real benefit to the festival and so unlike the situation that would exist if it were held in Britain.

Arrival and Set-up

Over the years I have honed my particular method of arrival, flying from London Stansted to Hamburg Lubeck on the Wednesday morning and then getting a taxi straight to Wacken, to a tee. Or at least I thought I had, as upon getting there this year, everyone I knew seemed to have been there a day already. I even had fellow writer AB texting me on Tuesday once he had got there asking if I was around. I was still sat at the desk at work and not best amused.

After the difficulties of getting on site last year due to the heavy rain before the festival, entry was very pain-free this year and seemed to have been the way for those driving in too. Having read PP's review of Roskilde and the fiasco with getting tickets/wristbands there I really can't understand what all the fuss is about. Dumped off the bags with camping mates, set off in search of my first beer and joined the queue for my wristband. Five minutes later, wristband is added to the collection and Full Metal bag is in hand (this year containing a rather splendid Wacken Top Trumps cards set, alongside the usual flyers, emergency poncho and of course the black condom).

The Wednesday of the festival week has always been the best day for me as one can sense the fever pitch excitement around the place, as crate after crate is dragged back to camp from the supermarkets in town and onsite, food supplies are stocked up, festival t-shirts are bought and friends not seen since the year before embraced. Sadly though, I have little else to report from this year's Wednesday as the combination of a 2am start to the day and non-stop drinking since I had arrived in the early afternoon effectively killed me, meaning I retired to (read: "collapsed in") my tent sometime around 8pm and didn't arise for about 12 hours. Shit. A better performance is of course expected next year.

The festival site

I cannot comment exactly on how camp-siting is arranged for those arriving by car but as it is largely first-come-first-serve, fans tend to be arriving each year in order to try and bag as good a place as possible. Luckily for me my mates arriving the day before secured a spot near what was the 'Christmas Tree Field', but now shorn to make the 'Activity Area'. Pity, as there's nothing quite like drunkenly pissing on a Christmas tree right in the middle of a Metal festival. Amenities are fairly well spread out through the camping fields, with adequate showering and toilet provisions, of course always insanely busy when you want them most however, and food stalls and breakfast tents all over the place. In the main area, new features (to me at least) such as cash points, a few internet points, the big screen and a massively expanded beer garden were always kept busy and could be deemed very successful additions/improvements.

Changes to the stages area included the removal of the hedgerow between the Party Stage and the Black & True Metal stages, improving access to and from this where last year huge bottlenecks had been the norm. This was good. What is not so good is features of the WET stage. Access at times can be horrendous. Trying to even get into the tent for Watain was a logistical nightmare when one considers the one side with the entrance is right next to some toilets and urinals that always overspill to create a stinking pissbath. And despite being a tent and therefore protected from the elements, large parts of the tent, especially towards the bar, are no go areas such is the level of mud and flooding. My solution would be to have entrance/exit to the tent on both sides with the bar at the back. I hope the organisers take heed. Finally, the addition of two giant screens, either side of the twin brother Black & True stages to compliment the central beneath the flaming skull, was a great idea as was having just the one sound/camera tower for the two, giving an unrestricted view of the stages from miles back. And finally, perhaps it was the greatly worsening £/€ exchange rate compared to last year, but beer prices seemed to be going the wrong way. There is no denying it, drinking the standard beer in the standard cups at Wacken is not cheap, a sad fact I’m afraid ladies and gentlemen for a festival the size of this.

And so for a run down of the bands seen by myself and AB. Of course with just two people covering a festival this size, drinks to be drunk, Metal market to be scoured and some sleep to be had (!), many noteworthy bands were not watched, but don’t let that disappoint you, take it as an incentive to come next year!

Thursday 31st July

Airbourne @ 1830 on the Black Stage

Aussie's Airbourne kicked off proceedings for me this year in some glorious sunshine and despite still feeling the effects of the previous days activities (see above) I enjoyed a rollicking good show from a band I knew no more about than that they are effectively an AC/DC cover band playing original tunes. Highlight was frontman Joel O'Keeffe climbing up the scaffolding of the stage to a perilous height of at least 40 feet before playing some classic rock solos high up there, causing a few heart palpitations to the watching legions not wishing to see the death of a frontman on the first day of Wacken. [7]

Negură Bunget @ 1905 on the WET Stage

My love for the Bunget necessitated leaving Airbourne half an hour early and despite an initial dodgy sound the Romanian's proceeded to amaze everyone watching with their ambient Black Metal style, a sound totally unique on record. A Negură Bunget show wouldn't be what it is without a collection of random instruments, this time topped off by what is effectively a large flat-looking wooden plank held up vertically from the ground which singer/guitarist Hupogrammos Disciple's (Edmond Karban) hit with a couple of drumsticks. Weird, but transcendental and just absolutely recommended to anyone who likes to explore ‘different’ bands – "'N Crugu Bradului" and "Om" are blinding masterpieces of the highest proportions.[7]

Iron Maiden @ 2130 on the True Metal Stage

It was most evident that from day one, before WOA 07 infact, that WOA 08 was going to be all about one band. Those venerable Gods of Metal, no, not Avenged Sevenfold, but my fellow Brits Iron Maiden who are loved by just about everyone these days. Not realizing the sheer mass of bodies passed through the wristband point for Maiden, my brother and I could simply not move passed a point beyond about 20-30m BEHIND the sound/light tower so we gave in and moved back towards food stalls, and even just moving away from the stage was a nightmare. Here I realised there were just too many people down there…

Anyway, to Maiden. As I had heard about previous performances this summer, the band opened with the famous Winston Churchill speech from World War II, "we will fight them on the beaches…we will NEVER surrender" with war-footage being played on the screens. Even 60-odd years after the year, being a Brit in Germany at this point still made me immensely proud, and I wondered what the locals thought about the bands audacity to use such an introduction. They didn't seem too perturbed however and Maiden came sprinting out, not looking at all their age to staggering adulation; you'd think noone in the crowd had seen them before! As expected classic after classic rolled out in spectacular form, with the odd break for Brucey song introductions (and one moment for him to launch an expletive-filled tirade at one of the cameramen simply doing his job - Brucey you went over the top here, you should be ashamed), there was little chance to notice the time flying by. The classics amongst the classics, "Fear Of The Dark", "Run To The Hills", "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" came out surprisingly early but you know the band have confidence in some many songs they needn't worry. "Fear Of The Dark" turned out to be my favourite, as it always has been simply because of the sheer singalong-ability of it. The electricity generated by 70,000 singing "Fear of the dark, fear of the dark/ I have constant fear that something's always near..." wouldv'e lit nearby Hamburg for a night if it could be tapped.

I need hardly add that the brilliant stageshow and theatrics, which have become bywords for an Iron Maiden performance, were a joy to watch, with the backdrop changing after every song, Brucey charging to every corner of the stage and of course the entrance of 'Eddie' come the end, all getting to the point where one almost forgets they are being blasted "The Number Of The Beast", "Aces High", "Two Minutes To Midnight", "Powerslave" and "Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son". It may not have been my favourite show of the weekend simply for never having been a massive Maiden fan, certainly in comparison to many here, but it is hard to find a fault with an Iron Maiden performance on an occasion like this. Had it not been for Brucey's unnecessary outburst we could've been looking at a perfect score, but I think they'd accept... [9½]

Friday 1st August

Primordial @ 1100 on the Party Stage

Preparing oneself to watch one of their favourite bands at 11am on a Friday is a strange feeling, and is a time not suited to the epic feel of Primordial's music but all in Camp England (ours) made sure hangovers and tiredness would be cancelled for the duration of their set. To watch the untouchable songs of "Empire Falls" followed by the likes of "The Coffins Ships", "Heathen Tribes", "Gods to the Godless" and "As Rome Burns" can't fail to be disappointing, and Primordial's performance was far from it, but an 11am start clearly wasn't to their liking and in comparison to their London show of February it wasn't the best of Primordial performances, despite all of Nemtheanga's admirable onstage passion. [7½]

Mortal Sin @ 1155 on the True Metal Stage

Never a band I intended to watch purely through not knowing them beforehand, Mortal Sin attracted me over following the conclusion of Primordial and the Thrashy-catchiness of their opener. Another Australian band, this re-formed Thrash outfit never quite made it back in the day but "Mayhemic Destruction" off their 1987 debut album of the same name garnered large audience recognition and participation, however the muddy sound which was to affect a number of the following bands, rendering the distinguishing of most riffs difficult, limited the overall enjoyment of Mortal Sin. [6]

Cynic @ 1250 on the Party Stage

Due to the excitement over Carcass' and At The Gates' inclusion on the bill, the addition of fellow-reformers Cynic never quite got the mention it deserved, for their, current, sole album, 1993's "Focus" is a technical masterpiece, which along with Death, Atheist and Watchtower, allowed more extreme Metal bands to increase musicianship levels to the skies whilst still being heavy and well, Metal. Despite being terribly un-Metal in their complete lack of pretentiousness whilst in the possession of a scene legends tag, Cynic's performance with a number of tracks from "Focus" and upcoming LP "Traced In Air" was mouth-watering in its technicality and musicianship and displayed an ambivalence from the band about being heavy for the sake of it, instead allowing the music to talk freely and lead them off into the realms of jazz and heaven-knows-whatelse. Look out for "Traced In Air" later this year. [8]

The Rotted @ 1625 on the WET stage

My hopes were sky-high for the Rotted, as I hoped for some material of their ‘former’ band, Gorerotted, as this is easily some of my favorite death metal ever. However, the Rotted apparently takes the name- and genre-shift seriously, as they only played the Rotted stuff, actually the whole new album! Even though ‘Get Dead Or Die Trying’ doesn’t come close to the older stuff, this didn’t bum me out though, as the (way too short) show was delivered with such energy and ferocity that everybody simply had to give in and enjoy the assault! Front man and super growler Ben McCrow (I don’t understand how that man can still talk) really had some of the best fan/crowd contact I’ve ever seen, making the gig a real joy to watch at all times. Starting out with ‘Nothing But A Nosebleed’, the band kicked off in brutal, total energy style, and it wasn’t before long before the crowd – and the band! – exploded. Beers and water bottles were thrown into the crowd, bass-player Wilson played half a track in the moshpit, moshing around and crowdsurfing, McCrow running around like a lunatic and demanding crazier behavior from the fans… Only bad things were the super short set, and (for me) the lack of some classic Gorerotted tunes. [8]

Massacre @ 1945 on the Party Stage

Massacre were never going to be the prettiest of bands on show in about every way you could imagine and Kam Lee hammered that point home with some pretty lurid song introductions and requests for breasts and pussy from the audience or about anything he could get hold of. He did eventually get his wish, with one woman in the crowd flashing her breasts before being subjected to a verbal humiliation by Lee, much to the amusement (I think) of everyone in attendance. Most of their classic "From Beyond" LP was aired and despite an average sound their show was excellent. Even after 20 years this kind of Death Metal demands to be headbanged to and enjoyed in it's simplistic brutality. [7½]

Nifelheim @ 2220 on the WET Stage

Purveyors of all that is evil and spiky (ok I know Gorgoroth are too...), Swedes Nifelheim performed in a cloud of dry ice, hammering out "Gates of Damnation", "Storm of the Reaper" and "Infernal Flame of Damnation" among others to a largely full WET tent. Nifelheim's Bathory-inspired Black-Thrashing style is more suited to the live environment than a lot of more conventional BM bands and the enthusiasm of the band pulled them from the brink of mediocrity with more un-Wacken-like messy sound. Frontman Per "Hellbutcher" Gustavsson may move around like an eccentric old man, which is basically what he is, but long may they return, as long as it's when the guitar play of the band is easier to hear in the wall of sound blasted towards us in the mudbath of the WET tent. [6½]

Saturday 2nd August

Holy Moses @ 1355 on the Black Stage

Amid much confusion, Exodus did not appear on the True stage when supposed to, leaving I and many others I'm sure to hang around during German Thrasher's Holy Moses set before the Bay Arean's were to finally appear. I've never known HM on record but have heard enough about them and on the basis of this performance, their reputation seems to have preceeded them, leaving their show to be the low point of the weekend. The poor sound of WOA 08 reached it's nadir for HM where nothing distinguishable could be picked from the barrage of noise. My confusion was only furthered by the presence of a keyboardist, in an old-school German Thrash band let me remind you, who made absolutely no presence musically until he grabbed a guitar and ripped out a solo, despite there are already being 2 guitarists. The Germans in attendance lapped it up. I did not, and couldn't wait for Exodus to come on and show Holy Moses how it is done. [3]

Exodus @ 1445 on the True Metal Stage

Appearing when the Stone Gods were scheduled to, to the disappointment of probably noone, Exodus finally came out and seemed genuinely happy to be playing in front of such a large crowd, despite being undisputed legends of the '80s Thrash scene and Metallica-contempories back in the day. Rob Dukes is a formidable frontman, yet lacks the charisma of a Chuck Billy (Testament) or Rob Cavestany (Death Angel) which has really prevented me getting into his era of Exodus. A massive pit there may have been, and I apologise for mentioning it again but by now it was really beginning to annoy, a crap sound and the unexcusable absence of "The Toxic Waltz" from the set-list left me slightly disappointed after what should be 2 hours of quality old-school Thrash. [6]

Obituary @ 1600 on the Party Stage

Obituary remind me of Massacre in the sense both bands offer no-frills Death fucking Metal that you can headbang and drink to - in essence a pretty good recipe for a festival performance. John Tardy has to be the happiest DM frontman in the world and he leads his troops to another enjoyable performance, including a surprise cover of Celtic Frost classic "Circle of the Tyrants". Informing us that en route some of their baggage got lost, leaving himself and bassist Trevor Peres with just the clothes they were performing in, was somewhat endearing given the commitment shown by the whole band, including ex-Deicide axeman Ralph Santolla who has fitted in to the band better than he ever seemed to with Glen Benton et al. Given Ralph is a Catholic that fact is perhaps not too surprising... [8]

Carcass @ 1820 on the Black Stage

My chance to finally see Death Metal ¸ber-gods Carcass had arrived after years of waiting. Would it turn out to be a let-down after all that time? Would they have become egotistical wankers given the enormous influence their back catalogue has had on countless others? Not a chance, Carcass were THE band of the whole weekend. The setlist was brilliant, with cuts from every record and more classics than you could shake a stick at - "Corporal Jigsore Quandry", "Incarnated Solvent Abuse", "Keep On Rotting In The Free World", "No Love Lost" and "Inpropogation" for starters. Jeff Walker turned out to be an unexpectedly brilliant frontman, displaying a real Northern wit and sense of humour - you can take the boy out of Liverpool but you can't take Liverpool out the boy an' all that. My personal favourite, after applauding Angela Gossow from the stage after her largely futile appearance during "Corporal...": "I still fucking hate Arch Enemy!". That when Mike Amott and Daniel Erlandsson were playing behind him! Genius.

On top of the sheer Death Metal brilliance of Carcass was without doubt the most touching moment I've seen at a gig, ever. It is generally well-known that Ken Owens, the Carcass drummer of old, suffered a brain hemorrhage around the turn of the millennium, putting him into a coma for a number of months and leaving him in a physical state today in which he can barely walk without assistance. Despite this mammoth disability in respect of drumming he got up behind the drumstool to delight us with a drum solo. It may have been relatively simple but he could still keep a beat and a sense of timing and to see him require the help of Daniel Erlandsson and one other to get down from the stool typified the bravery of the man in attempting such a feat, and my heart utterly goes out to him. On behalf of all at RF.net I'm sure, I wish him the best in his continued recovery from such a devastating condition that left him lucky to be alive.

As if my review of Carcass could hardly get better, the sound had finally hit greatness! Hooray! No more muffled riffs or mute vocals, it was a near perfect show, cementing Carcass' position as one of the greatest gods of Death Metal. [9½]

At the Gates @ 2115 on the Black Stage

Carcass were always going to be a hard act to follow but christ At the Gates put on a damn fine show in response. Having read before the festival of static performances from AtG at other festivals, and not being the most acquainted with their back catalogue I turned up more out of interest, and of course awaiting "Blinded By Fear". At the Gates too turned out to be brilliant as well, just not quite to the level of Carcass. This sudden turn of brilliance in the quality of bands was because the sound was now clear, audible and just perfect. Oh, if only that had happened earlier! With 'Tompa' stating their intention to play not only material from all four albums but some EPs too, At the Gates delivered a scintillating performance of Gothenburg Death Metal with "The Burning Darkness" and "Kingdom Gone" particular favourites and all this showing more energy on stage than I had been expecting. Of course by this point of the festival I was feeling the exhaustion that any festival-goer will know of after days of Metal partying and so watched from some distance. However once "Blinded By Fear" blasted out to close the set the headbangers ratio raised dramatically, including of course getting me going, such is the timelessness of that classic tune.

At the Gates' performance wasn't special for any fancy guests on stage or any other theatrics, merely for a brilliant performance of classic Death Metal, Swedish style, making it clearer in my mind why so many bands have raided the AtG riff-vault in their absence, yet never to produce the magic these guys created onstage in the darkness of Wacken on an Saturday night in August 2008. [9]

Watain @ 0000 on the WET Stage

And so it conspired Watain would be the final band I were to watch at WOA 08, upon deciding that I did not have the mental or physical energy remaining to catch the end of Kreator after these filthy Swedes. To complete a great end to the festival, securing the feat of my three favourite bands being the last three I watched, Watain produced a spell-binding 40 minute set on the heaving WET stage. Black Metal like this may attract a lot of opposers and denigrators but one cannot fail to be moved by the aura and mystique generated from watching a band like Watain, in the dark, at Wacken, surrounded by fellow black-clad hordes. Through cuts from "Sworn To The Black", which sounded more vengeful at Wacken than on record, and "Casus Luciferi", an underground classic of the 21st Century, Watain simply destroyed. As in Nifelheim, the dry ice machine was putting in a good deal of work and with a truly imposing light show, Watain were largely silhouettes against the background of varying lights that made the appearance created by the band so much more 'real'. With just the right level of fuzz in the sound to not make Watain sound 'clean', they came, they played, and they left, leaving myself and all those in attendance glad to have made the effort to secure a vantage point in the tent. Watain for the party stage next time?! Now that just wouldn't be right! [9]

Final thoughts

And so there we are. Wacken 2008 seemingly came and went faster than ever. Many of the changes described from 2007 were successful and whilst it is good to have more people there in general, the festival has definitely reached a limit that I hear the organisers are looking to keep to now. My own personal perspective was of another successful Wacken trip; the line-up may not have been to my taste as much as previous years but the camping and social side this scribe enjoyed was seemingly better than ever, proving if there was ever doubt, that a festival like this is more than just the music; it is a home-coming, the defining event of year; the holiday to end all holidays; the time to feel so full of energy yet achingly tired all at the same moment.

Strangely no bands have yet been announced for WOA 2009, but expect it to be special - it is the festivals 20th anniversary and rumoured to be a 'best of' show, whatever that means. Presumably it will mean Saxon are back though! Wacken Open Air didn't need to prove it was the best Heavy Metal festival in the world before this year's edition, everyone knew it anyway. However WOA 2008 went beyond any 'duties' to show that with an increasingly diversified line-up and more attendees than ever before, it has still managed to maintain that special feeling embedded in so many, and that is going to be hard to lose. I admit to not having sampled any other European festival save for With Full Force but there is simply no doubt Wacken Open Air is the mecca, the holy land, the spiritual home of the Heavy Metal spirit in festival form and long may that continue. All that leaves me to say is the obvious - see you there in 2009, rain or shine!

Written by Ellis Woolley, except The Rotted reviewed by Anders Bang

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