By Jason Koszowski
Wacken: 72,000 people united by a love of metal. Four of whom have outdone themselves, covering the entire festival, from start to finish, for UM. In the first of a series of features from the festival UM’s Jason Koszowski reports on his experience, from the good to the painful, and everything in between. At UMHQ we want to thank our four attendees for all their efforts, which are linked at the base of this feature. The full story can also be found in photos at Britt Lowney’s photo blog. So, over to Jason – RG
From three points of a triangle in the western world, a journey of epic proportions would take place. It was a journey that would take us across oceans both physical and temporal, to a far away land where the holy grail of metal festivals can be found. It is a place where the heaviest of magic has been happening for over 17 years. It is a place known simply…. as Wacken.
Wacken Open Air is not an easy festival to get to; and that is part of its mystique. It is as much about the journey as it is the destination. It is a pilgrimage like no other. Multiple plane connections from Florida (Jason - myself), Illinois (Britt) and New Jersey (Greg & Paula) followed by rental car journeys through foreign roads were just the beginning. You should always plan to spend a few days absorbing some local culture to acclimatize yourself to new surroundings. Our plan took us through the popular tourist destinations of Amsterdam and Hamburg before ultimately settling into the town of Itzehoe - the main portal for daily ventures to Wacken Open Air.
UM’s Team Wacken – L-R Paula, unidentified SPV label worker, Britt, Jason and Greg. All drinking. You’ll see a pattern emerge as the report goes on…
Amsterdam is a beautiful city, surrounded by waterways and graced with a system of canals through the city centre. It is filled with a vibrant culture that is at once both environmentally conscious and…. well…. “open” in every sense of the word. Everywhere you look you see bicycles and more bicycles. This is the main form of transportation as cars take a back seat to more efficient means of getting around. The tram is also a popular way of accessing all there is to see; this is how we ventured back and forth from our hotel on the outskirts of town and the main walking areas.
In town there are many unique tourist attractions such as the Van Gogh Museum, the Anne Frank House and even a torture museum. Many of these experiences should not be missed; however, given our short timeframe as a group, we preferred to go straight to several of the many small cafes for some local beverages. This is a great way to mingle with local townsfolk as well as not feel like part of the tourist trap crowd. After a few hearty ales our crew gathered ourselves up and headed for the one of the entertainment capitals of the world – the Red Light District of Amsterdam. To say this area is filled with tastes that run to the excess would be an understatement. Let’s just say there are certain shows and “coffee shops” that will surpass any image a first time visitor could conjure up. And the window shopping? Simply the greatest in the world for any normal red-blooded adult male. Indeed sex permeates the culture in Amsterdam and it is up to every individual to create their own experiences based on whatever their limitations may be. And so, after a night of eye-opening entertainment, it was off to Hamburg, Germany…
Amsterdam’s Red Light District
Upon procuring a rental car, we experienced a relatively smooth ride across the Netherlands over to Germany, with - of course - a few exceptions. Our first assumption in Germany was that all roads lead to a mythical place called “Ausfahrt”; that is, until we realized that’s simply the German word used on road signs for “Exit”. Upon this realization, every time we were on the road for longer than we anticipated we would proclaim how much we all needed an “Ausfahrt” to provide some relief. Slowly but surely, we finally found our way to a nice hotel in the center of Hamburg and the second phase of our adventure began.
Hamburg is a port city on the Elbe River in Northwestern Germany and has a vibrant and lively culture. Beautiful architecture and parks are widespread throughout the city, as well as many lakes and trees. After a brief walk and a long day of road travel, we found an authentic German beer garden to unwind and fill up on some traditional meat-dominated platters. The main course was more than hearty and gave us the fuel we needed to enjoy the night at The Headbangers Ballroom, a great heavy metal club in the heart of the famous “fish market” district of Hamburg.
I ask you, we send them along wanting some serious investigative journalism, and what do they do?
Now this was a welcome sight – wall to wall metal t-shirts with a lively bar and even some familiar faces. We instantly met up with one of the “metal Amy’s” from our earlier adventures at the Heathen Crusade festival. We were on common ground here, relaxed and ready to party the night away. And party we did, to a selection of classic metal jukebox tunes from such varying acts as Iron Maiden
, to some of the more prominent bands of today such as Amon Amarth
, Dimmu Borgir
and Iced Earth
. During this time, we befriended several metallers from the United Kingdom, Scotland and others as well. Challenging each other to drinking contests, toasting to the classics and trying to sing along in a horrible, but deliciously fun choir to Metallica’s ’One’
capped the evening as our hunger for the adventure that was just two days ahead grew ever stronger.
And so it was off for four nights in Itzehoe, a small town about 50 kilometers north of Hamburg that was alive with metalheads from all over the world, coming together for the most legendary of festivals. An ominous sign upon entering town was the sheer volume of attendees that had arrived by train and were waiting for their chance to travel out to the festival area. For some reason, it seemed as if the shuttle bus was not running with the efficiency we would have expected. The main train station was literally overflowing with black t-shirts, backpacks and leather outfits. Upon checking into our hotel, we decided to take a trip out to the festival area to get our bearings and become familiar with what would lie ahead in the coming days. About two kilometers into the trip, we quickly realized why the number of stranded people at the Itzehoe train station was too voluminous to count. A caravan of parked cars littered the fabled A-23 (the main highway that leads from Itzehoe to Wacken). Apparently, the volume of people coming to the festival area is so great that an annual traffic jam is a common occurrence as these roads are not built to handle the sheer numbers seen only once a year. We were taken aback by witnessing several people on the road literally setting up camp next to their automobiles, complete with grills and cases of alcohol for the long night ahead. Fortunately, one of our best decisions of the entire trip was to turn around and get off at the nearest exit, which thankfully was directly behind the caboose of the major traffic jam. Back to Itzehoe it was, along with one of the most relaxing evenings I’ve spent in some time.
Beer drinking in Itzehoe. Those Germans certainly know how to do their beer. Screw it, I’m getting one right now.
Itzehoe is a nice place to walk around once off the main roads. Beautifully landscaped homes and small businesses are proudly displayed, along with a general carefree feeling and atmosphere. The people we ran into here seemed very friendly and happy to earn our business. Our walk took us to a very nice little outdoor café that had a fantastic hefe-weizen beer on tap. It was on this little excursion that we introduced our friend Britt to this style of beer and he didn’t look back the rest of the journey. Sipping our fine brews, conversing and watching the traffic go by in the twilight of a lazy mid-week Itzehoe afternoon was the perfect way to rest up before the hustle and bustle to come. We enjoyed the setting so much that we went back to the hotel, picked up Paula (fresh from a beauty nap) and headed back out to the café for a nice dinner. It turned out to be the best meal on the entire trip and I’m sure most if not all of my colleagues would agree. Superb bistro-style Italian food served in a dimly lit room with a warm and friendly atmosphere. I may have had the best lasagna I’ve ever tasted as we continued to toast to our experiences. The staff seemed genuinely affected by our appreciation and I found myself wishing that circumstances would’ve allowed us to come by this way again; however, it was still a fantastic memory that I will carry with me for a long time. After relaxing with a few more drinks at the hotel bar, it was time to turn in for the evening and prepare ourselves for an event which is like no other….
Wacken – popular as ever.
Wacken can be an overwhelming experience for those visiting for the first time. One can never be fully prepared to take in the grandiose surroundings and sheer number of people. The festival grounds themselves are situated on vast, old farming fields; which is an idyllic setting for noise concerns and allows ample space for camping. The camping areas themselves comprise what is like a miniature city. A veritable ocean of tents, flags and thousands upon thousands of partying revelers surround the main areas. A first time visitor could easily lose their way, so gathering as much information as possible beforehand or traveling with a festival veteran is absolutely advised.
Wacken from above.*
Upon entering the main festival gates, you are greeted with the sights of a giant beer garden (easily the biggest I have ever laid eyes on) and the first of what seems like an endless strip of food and merchandise huts. If arriving on Thursday before 16:00, the gates to the concert areas are locked and therefore the majority of people are confined to the outer areas resulting in endless lines for t-shirts and generally crowded conditions overall. After securing four massive commemorative mugs filled with hefe-weizen, we decided to spend the time wandering the grounds and shopping areas without worrying about buying too much early on. Familiarization with the grounds was our primary objective here and after a few hours we were ready to enter the concert areas.
The beer consumed by UM’s writers alone.*
Our first goal was to take in the backstage area and we were more than impressed with the layout of the private bars, sitting areas and press tent. After hanging out for awhile we decided it was finally time for some action so we headed over to the Wet stage (indoor tent) to catch Tyr
. This was a band that easily could’ve landed a spot on the Party stage, as the indoor stage was absolutely packed to the brim with sweaty metalheads ready to unleash hell. And unleashed it was as Tyr
brought their brand of pagan metal to the masses. Having not been familiar with the group, I had no idea what to expect, but they whipped the crowd up into such a flurry that Britt and I were whisked into separate areas by the crowd surfing mob. It was a frenzied experience that made it difficult to concentrate on the music, but what I was able to catch sounded quite good - an experienced band with plenty of energy. Fortunately, Britt and I survived and met up at the backstage area after the show.
That’s bull. Hohoho. Ok, I’ll get my coat…*
It was here that I made a terrible mistake that took away my ability to truly enjoy the majority of the rest of the festival… but not before a glorious final night of partying to excess. It was here I started pounding Jägermeister and Red Bull (otherwise known as a Jägerbomb), and it allowed me to party well into the evening but left my body an absolute wreck. However, I still had time to enjoy the hell out of Saxon
. What an incredible show they put on – absolute top notch sound and lighting had the masses swaying their arms and raising their fists well into the depths of the German night. Traditional heavy metal played with passion and precision. Blistering through classic songs like ‘747 (Strangers in the Night)’
(featuring a really fun guest vocal performance from none other than Tobias Sammet!), ’Strong Arm of the Law’
, ’Red Star Falling’
(possibly the song of the evening), ’Let Me Feel Your Power’
, ’Denim and Leather’
and many more, Saxon
had the crowd eating out of the palms of their collective hands, and showed the leadership qualities of a band that has been around over 30 years. It was a fantastic headlining performance on the first night of the festival that had everyone in the mood to celebrate. It was also our first exposure to the phenomenal double main stage setup, large high definition video screen, the flaming Wacken Bull logo as well as the flawless technology and stage crew behind the scenes that provided the foundation for first class production in practically every conceivable way.
Much of the rest of the first evening is a bit of a blur to me as the Jägerbombs were delicious, the women were out in full force, the backstage hot tub was flowing (leading to a few memorable and now infamous pictures of our friend Britt) and the press crowd was raucous. Many new friends were made during the festival as there is a true spirit of camaraderie among not just the general crowd, but from journalists all over the world. We met up with Mark Gromen and our friends from over at Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles, who were gracious as always and joined us for a beverage and several pictures. This process was repeated throughout the remainder of the night as we laid all proverbial partying cards on the table, which would ultimately prove to be the downfall of yours truly.
Metal Journalism. It’s a hard life…*
Wacken Open Air can be an endurance test for even the most jaded of rock ‘n roll partiers. The bands come on quite early in the day and continuously play until the wee hours of the morning. The drinks flow free and the boisterous revelry is a constant fixture. For the general fan, there is not much by way of refuge from the summer heat and long hours of standing in the open fields. Pacing yourself for this challenge is one of the best pieces of advice I could give anyone attending the festival; and unfortunately, even as a festival veteran, I did not follow these simple guidelines. Upon waking up on day two of the festival, I had the devil’s hangover coupled with a horrendous case of the flu that would only get worse as the day progressed. My arms and face were completely numb almost to the point of paralysis and the only place I could spend most of the day was laid out in the backseat of our rental car. It was such a deflating feeling not to get to see some of the bands that motivated me to make the trip. Amorphis
, Grave Digger
…. one by one I would hear the distant sounds of each band’s thunder, helpless and alone with my thoughts in a faraway land. I could hear the famous ’Tunes Of War’
bagpipe intro from Grave Digger
and the frenzied crowd cheering on the march into battle. It sounded like an absolute blast. Hour after hour passed and I began to fear hospitalization might be needed, until suddenly I felt a small burst of a second wind; it was slight, but it was just enough to meet my friends backstage and muster up enough strength to try and catch some of my most anticipated bands. It was a dark evening on the fields of Wacken, but it was time to forge ahead…
More of UM team Wacken
At this point I needed something that was at once both a kick in the ass as well as something I could study from a distance and enjoy alone at a slower pace, where expending copious amounts of energy was not a prerequisite. Enslaved fit that bill perfectly. This was the first act I witnessed on the Party Stage, which was situated in a separate isolated area to the right of the main stages. The setlist focused heavily on material from the last two albums RUUN
which for some reason haven’t clicked with a number of my colleagues, but have definitely worked for me, and provided a softer and more progressive, yet extreme backdrop for my reintroduction to the festival. Songs like ’Fusion of Sense And Earth’
, and ’Path To Vanir’
filled my senses with both tranquility and a slow building energy that would allow me to last the rest of the evening. Songs like ’The Voices’
(amazing) gave fans of mid-era Enslaved a nice treat while ’For Lenge Siden’
harkened back to the earlier more extreme black metal sound. While still very much under the weather, my batteries were now as recharged as they could possibly be, and it was time to rejoin my colleagues for what would be some of the most memorable performances of the festival...
Wacken’s two main stages.*
It was now time for one of my most anticipated shows of the weekend, Blind Guardian
. Having witnessed an uninspired performance by the band previously in the USA at the ProgPower III festival, I’ve always heard and was convinced that the band simply had an off night and are actually a very tight live act. I’ve been waiting a long time to witness them again and what better way than in their native country on one of the grandest stages of them all, at Wacken Open Air. Well, the moment the band tore into ’War of Wrath/Into the Storm’
in front of a capacity crowd as darkness descended upon the land, I knew I was in for a treat. I couldn’t have asked for a better opener and the band was just shredding with lead singer Hansi Kursch in top form. Song after song of most of my very favorite Blind Guardian
tracks were churning out left and right, and the new songs sounded like they were made to be played live. The incredible high definition monitor captured every detail of an inspired, energetic and purposeful set. The crowd expressed their adoration every step of the way and I was highly moved at having the privilege of witnessing something so special. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard so many people singing in unison in my entire life as I heard during ’Valhalla’
. It was a moment I’ll never forget and sent chills up and down my aching but soldiering spine. There is a bond that exists like no other between many of the bands in our community and their fans, and this was an example of that relationship at its zenith. Flags were flying, fists were pumping and the earth was shaking. For myself this was total redemption in every sense of the word. This was the type of magic that I traveled halfway around the world for. This was the essence of everything I love about heavy metal.
Full Blind Guardian
‘War of Wrath’
’Into the Storm’
’Born in a Mourning Hall’
’Script for My Requiem’
’Welcome to Dying’
’Traveler in Time’
’The Bard's Song’
’Time Stands Still’
’Imaginations From The Other Side’
’Lord of the Rings’
’This Will Never End‘
Shortly after Blind Guardian’s
magnificent performance, it was time for Dimmu Borgir
, a band that I’ve always liked on some level, but for some reason never fully clicked with me. Fantastic production values once again were the star of the festival as the band came out to a menacing and eerie intro before marching into ’Progenies of the Great Apocalypse’
, an apt opener based on its MTV airplay and dramatic elements. From here, the show basically delved into an area that has always been my problem with Dimmu Borgir
. I can’t seem to be able to distinguish the songs enough to hear anything truly memorable. All the elements are in place, I just seem to hit the proverbial wall when it comes to my attention span and I found myself quickly losing interest even though the crowd was very hot for them. I was able to make out some songs from the new album such as ’The Serpentine Offering’
and ’The Chosen Legacy’
which sounded very cool, and the remake of ’Sorgens Kammer’
was excellent; but overall we decided as a group to head back to the press area to gather our thoughts and prepare for the next band, a band that has been waiting a long time to resurface at the one and only Wacken Open Air…
haven’t played at Wacken for almost 10 years. Their last scheduled performance at Wacken 2003 having been canceled at the last minute, and replaced with Twisted Sister
(who rose from the ashes to put on a spectacular show that year). On the cusp of a career defining double album release, Iced Earth
are a band with plenty to prove and needed to put on a very special show here to prove to tens of thousands of metal fans that the fire still burns. And prove it they did, as the band tore through a fairly short but amazing set that included cuts from all their eras. ’Burning Times’
got the band off to a no nonsense and rousing intro that had everyone in our group singing along from the word go. Tim “Ripper” Owens was more than adequate covering the older material and kept everyone glued to their…. well…“feet” with his incredible range and showmanship. Jon Schaffer was shredding, the stage set up and lighting were downright sensational, the large Wacken Bull logo was burning up the night; and the one band that united our entire group in terms of anticipation was truly on fire.