August 2nd - August 5th, 2017

by Thrash-head

I knew I'd be back at some point. The greatest concert experience of my life occurred two years previous in the same location and I knew I had to make it out again to solidify in my brain if it was a fluke or legitimately a life-changing experience. Although many complaints abounded on the internet about this not being the best lineup they had booked for the annual 4-day fest (I'll get to that), I was confident that my hopes would not be dashed. 

My confidence was well-placed.

And so...

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

Officially, THURSDAY is the start of Wacken Open Air and Wednesday is just a teaser meant to get you pumped for the rest of the fest, but any idiot can see that there's usually some great bands booked on Wednesday and you can still have an incredible time if you arrive early enough. So, after traipsing around Europe for the previous week the wife and I made our way to the Enterprise in Hamburg and picked up our home for the next several days, the 2017 Toyota Rav4. We headed up the 23 to the tiny municipality of Wacken (typical population <2,000) and were immediately greeted by all the local residents decked out in their black shirts and bullhead gear. The signs pointed us to the campgrounds, we ended up in the "O" lot, and after surveying our surroundings and figuring out where the toilets and showers were (very close to our car, as it turned out), we made our way to the Holy Land to get our wristbands and care packages, something that every attendee gets at the front gate.

Made our way inside and to the Bullhead Circus tent to see Flotsam And Jetsam hit the Headbanger Stage. The lineup has changed a bit over the years, but Erik A.K is still fronting the band and still hitting every high note on tracks like the opening one-two punch of "Hammerhead" and "Me". Despite looking a little worse for wear - also in terms of his stage outfit, coming to the stage dressed as the demon/goblin from the cover of "Doomsday" - the dude has definitely maintained his voice through the years to be able to pull this off. Michael Gilbert is truly an underrated gem of a guitarist as he shredded his ass off all over these tunes right alongside co-guitarist Steve Conley. It was a cool nostalgic trip to start off the festivities.

Ugly Kid Joe followed up on the neighboring W.E.T. stage and we were given the - rare, these days - treat of seeing them perform with Dave Fortman, producer/engineer to the stars (Slipknot, Evanescence, Godsmack, etc). For a bunch of Southern California dudes now at soccer/surfer dad age, they can still tear it up onstage! They played many tracks from their seminal album "America's Least Wanted" and the follow-up "Menace to Sobriety," and although the songs themselves are a quarter century old, they actually did not sounded dated at all, at least not in this setting. Throw in a couple of obligatory covers like the band's biggest hit, "Cat In the Cradle" and their tribute to their friend, "Ace of Spades," and this was a goddamn fun and rock solid performance. 

Back over to the...well, it was really just turning my body to FACE the Headbanger Stage and I get to see Annihilator for the second time in my life. This time, although the set was fantastic, I found myself really wishing they had a proper frontman these days. Dave Padden was incredible and it's one of life's great injustices that I never got to witness him perform with them, and Jeff, for as awesome as he is in literally everything he sets his mind to, just does not stack up to Dave in that department. All the same, the guitar playing was sick! Jeff has always had the pleasure of being able to surround himself with stellar supporting musicians and his current lineup is no joke! There were many omissions from the set too as opposed to the Wacken set two years previous, as this set tended to be a little thrashier, but I still was pining for "The Fun Palace." Oh well, maybe next time.

So there's that...saw the bands I really HAD to see...but damn, was I tired. Took a moment to tour the Holy Land and see where all the booths were, but really it was time for a much-needed shower, a little rest, and then we'll get off to a better start tomorrow.

Thursday, August 3rd.

Got into the Holy Land only to jump right into line at the main merch booth. There was a particular t-shirt I just HAD to have and literally every other merch booth had sold out of it already. Thankfully though, this was the only time of the entire festival where the "not the best lineup they've booked" thing actually left me without a band I wanted to I just decided to chill in line for a couple of hours and get my damn shirt and a new hoodie since my last Wacken hoodie was literally the ONLY one I've worn for the last 2 years. As I was leaving the grounds to go drop off my purchases at the vehicle, organizer Thomas Jensen's Skyline band was opening up the festivities on the main stage with some badass, note-for-note covers...and even Doro herself got on stage and did some old school tunes! Very cool.

The rains started to come around this time as well, along with the breaking winds. Wacken is usually about some extremes in weather no matter which year you go. It's either bone dry and dust is getting kicked up the entire time, or like the years I've gone it's been super wet and muddy. This was nowhere near as bad as 2015 (a common line we heard through the weekend: "Oh, you think THIS is shoulda been here two years ago, man!"), but it still made traipsing through the countryside and fields a little daunting.

Anyways, the themes of this evening's performance were "A Night to Remember" and "A Night to Dismember." I'll let you guess which one was more traditional rock and metal and which one was more death/black metal. First band I got to see from the former was none other than Europe, those of "The Final Countdown" fame. It became very apparent very early on in the set that if that album is all you know from the group, than you are seriously missing out. Never mind the outfits or the poofy hair, this is a straight-up HEAVY band very firmly rooted in Deep Purple-esque thunder. It legitimately seemed like virtually every song was just this pounding, hard-driving riffage. Tracks like "War of Kings," "The Beast" and even "Superstitious" were some of the heaviest hits of the weekend. Do yourself a favor and check out this band's newer material, for sure!

Now it was time for A Night To Dismember in the Bullhead Circus tent. Imperium Dekadenz is a german-based black metal 2-some backed by supporting live musicians who are absolutely KILLER on record, and very lackluster live. I feel confident is saying that 100% of that blame can be directed at drummer/permanent member Vespasian. Jesus Christ, dude...either the man was so drunk he couldn't function or his double-bass skillset is horrendously limited. 

The next set was one of THE sets to beat for the entire weekend. Aborted is a band I've been a huge fan of for many years and have been fortunate enough to see them perform several times. This, by far, was the best set of theirs I've ever seen, and that is saying a lot considering they are a super-tight and powerful live band all around! Since about five years ago, Aborted kinda reinvented themselves as a slightly more tech band, but not in the sense that they are in the Necrophagist or Obscura vein, but just in that the songwriting has gotten more extreme. The riffage has just gotten more technical, the speed has gotten more breakneck, and zero punches get pulled. Sven is more active than many extreme metal frontmen this side of deathcore, and this is probably the best group of musicians he's ever assembled to be in this band. Mendal and Ian absolutely tear it up on guitar and their tone simply canNOT be beaten, especially in a live setting. And Ken Bedene is one of those drummers that is so tight and gifted at his craft he could literally be in ANY band he wanted to be in, so imagine how much power and precision he brings to this set. As crazy as it sounds, this set by a DEATH metal band was goddamn life-affirming; it was so amazing!

Moving on, I was able to catch a little bit of Witchery's set and was pleased to see the band tear through some newer material with new vocalist Angus Norder. Although I was a HUGE fan of Legion's contributions to the mindblowing "Witchkrieg" album, many would argue that he had too dissimilar a tone from his predecessor Toxine. Angus is more in line with the original Witchery sound and is a better fit, especially on older material. It was also super cool to finally see Victor Brandt perform live as he was filling in on bass for Sharlee D'Angelo, busy with his duties in Arch Enemy.

At this point I had to go though because I really wanted to see Accept perform on the newly-renamed "Faster" stage. It was very awesome to finally see these heavyweights tear it up, but then much to my chagrin the stage was reset to accommodate Wolf Hoffmann trudging through his metalized versions of classical masterpieces. I say trudging, because it just did not have the same impact as other bands who pull this off far better like Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the like. I dunno, I just would have preferred to hear more Accept classics, myself...or even newer Mark Tornillo-era material, as balls-out heavy as that is! Back over to the tent, where I catch the tail end of Brujeria. It's balls-out heavy, very primitive-sounding, and never really been my cup o' tea. It was cool to see them stick it to the man by closing with "Marijuana" (a play on Macarena) and dragging it out until the organizers had to pull the plug.

Following them, a crazy original band I was dying to see came onto the W.E.T. Stage. Batushka is a band that can best be described as slightly droning black metal mixed with monks chanting and it sounds so ridiculous and so awesome! If you haven't given them a listen, please do's original as hell and you can't help but be into it by the time that first song finally finishes.

Back to the main stage to see Volbeat, a band that polarizes a lot of heavy music fans I know. I really like them though. They get up there and they just do as straight-up of a rock performance as you can get. Tracks like "Sad Man's Tongue" (with a Johnny Cash intro), "Black Rose," and my personal fave to sing along to "Heaven Nor Hell" are just fucking fun, and it's the kinda thing that if you don't really get it, it might be because you're looking at it too hard. Just pump your fist and enjoy yourself.
Back to the tent to see the last couple of bands that had me frothing at the mouth, starting with the ever-dark Mayhem. A PSA played prior to the set asking to refrain from flash/cellphone photography, which I can go either way with. Look, people aren't going to give a fuck and they are going to take pictures no matter what, and with that knowledge you look like a dick asking for that, BUT...the message is something I agree with. Anyways, the band - for the most part donning black robes and corpsepaint - are these days a 5-piece supergroup with the longtime rhythm section of Necrobutcher and Hellhammer alongside vocalist Attila Csihar and more recent guitar additions Charles Hedger (ex-Cradle of Filth) and Teloch. They proceeded to plow/trudge their way through their classic "De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas" album which - if I'm being blunt here - has not aged well. One cannot deny the impact that album had on the scene and at the time it was revolutionary, but the band and this material actually seemed out-of-place at this festival to me. Many in attendance will disagree with me on this as they seemed to soak up the blasting raw noise emitting from the stage and headbang accordingly, but by the end of their - albeit very tight and well-performed - set, I felt like I was performing a duty by watching this classic band play through these tunes.
Last band of the night was a band I was very anxious to see. Nile have intrigued the hell out of me since the first time I saw them in '99. They have musicianship and technical abilities that are not easily matched, but it is all in the purpose of serving the vibe they create with their Egyptian imagery. I was eager to see the newest addition to the band, guitarist/vocalist Brian Kingsland, as he was was replacing someone who over the course of 20 years in the band had become virtually irreplaceable, that being Mr. Dallas Toller-Wade. Thus far - and I realize this is after seeing him perform ONCE so take my opinion for what it is worth - he seems like a suitable addition to the band, being a very skilled guitarist but also having a vocal timbre not too unlike the man whose place he is taking. The set itself was tight and precise, and had I not been bludgeoned by exhaustion I would have stayed until the end, but at this point I just needed to get to the car, take a shower, and pass out. 

Friday, August 4th.

Opening up the festivities today on the Faster Stage was a band I HAD to see, Memoriam from the United Kingdom. It's a damn shame that Bolt Thrower is no more, and according to frontman Karl Willetts this band serves as a tribute to his former BT bandmate Martin Kearns, whose death ultimately led to that band's disbanding. So here we have former/current members of Bolt Thrower, Benediction, and Cerebral Fix doing EXACTLY the kind of music you would expect from a lineup like that, old school death metal that lumbers rather than blasts, and relies more heavily on pummeling riffage than technical wizardry. It was a fun set to watch, they played most if not all of the debut album, and it was also fun to see Karl back onstage and you could tell he needed this about as much as everyone watching the show. Fantastic start to the day.

Lacuna Coil is honestly a fucking bore these days. When they first really hit with "Heaven's a Lie" back in '02 it was nice to see a hard-working band get some attention, even if it was on the heels of a different band with a similar sound. Over the course of the past few albums, the sound has gotten progressively more nu-metal at a time when that sound is just dead. New tracks like "Ghost in the Mist" and "Blood, Tears, Dust" are just tired. Downtuned nu-metal that feels forced and almost obligatory rather than inspired, and older classics like "Heaven's A Lie" and "Our Truth" don't hold up just by association. You know it's bad when my least favorite track they've ever done - their cover of Depeche Mode's "Enjoy The Silence" - was EASILY the best track of their set. 

On to the first band I get to experience on the former Party Stage, now renamed the "Louder" Stage. Clawfinger is a band that when they were first out I never gave a listen. I've struck up a friendship with Jocke after hanging with him at NAMM for a few years, so I made the difficult decision to miss Sanctuary in order to see my bro tear it up. Holy shit, I'm an idiot for never having listened to Clawfinger before. This band tore it the fuck up even with the rain coming down! The backdrop proudly states Rap Metal since 1993, but it's not at all like the rap metal we typically associate with the term. First off, if you dig any kind of industrial-metal that has come out in the last two decades, you kinda owe a debt of gratitude to this band. The tunes drive hard when they don't groove, and there's some crazy soundscapes going on here. Vocalist Zak Tell has a crazy vocal timbre that looking at the guy you can't believe is coming out of him, not even taking into account his crazy multi-colored suit. Tracks like "Two Sides," "Prisoners," and "The Price We Pay" hit hard, sure...but "The Biggest & The Best" and "Nothing Going On" were just downright some of the most infectious tracks you heard the entire weekend. Jocke and Zak being the two longest-tenured members of the band have a really unique interplay between them onstage, and you can tell that even after doing this for nearly two and a half decades that they were still having a blast up there...even through the wet stage spills that Zak took a few times.

Grave Digger were up next and they were a band I was honestly dying to see. Those who know the history know it has been tumultuous at best, with name changes, periods of selling out to try and flirt with mainstream success, and that revolving guitarist position. this was a set that had a decent amount of the best songs, of course including "Heavy Metal Breakdown," but this was a VERY tired band to watch live. Chris has never been the best-sounding vocalist live or on record and that's always been kind of his charm, but he's really starting to look kinda like how he sounds. At any moment I was terrified he'd fall over and just shatter. More than anything though, guitarist Axel Ritt drives me around the bend. If ever there was a band that needed a second guitarist, Grave Digger is it. You get this weird feeling from watching this throwback, Sunset Strip-wannabe guitarist that the reason why there isn't one is because he won't allow it. I know that isn't really the case, but damn does it come off that way watching his posing and prostrating onstage in between bouts of "ooooo, watch me tap this lick out. Ain't I just like Eddie?" That and his tone is super thin and phasey. Makes me seriously pine for Manni Schmidt.

Since the absolutely incredible "Silence" record, I am of the opinion that Sonata Arctica has been on a progressively downward spiral with their output. That record was a fantastic take on Stratovarius-esque Finnish power metal, but since then they've been cursed with the ability to put out the occasional good song here or there surrounded by a TON of lackluster filler on every record. So needless to say, I was not holding out high hopes for their set here today. I am happy to say that seeing them live is a much better experience than listening to them on record. The band is more lively, and even Tony Kakko's cat-being-strangled voice comes across much better in an open air arena. Songs like "Closer to an Animal" and "The Wolves Die Young" actually are pretty damn good in this setting, but when the band breaks out "Black Sheep" and "The 8th Commandment" is where they truly shine. And if I can never hear "Paid in Full" ever again I'd be thrilled. Whatever, moving on...

Grand Magus is another band today that made it very obvious how much of an idiot I am for having never given them the time of day. Wow! They absolutely laid waste to the Bullhead Circus tent. the sound is as unapologetically heavy metal as it gets. Not super fast, not technical, just metal for the sake of being goddamn metal! You cannot help but headbang to tracks like "Steel Vs. Steel," "Forged In Iron - Crowned In Steel" and others. Frontman JB Christoffersson doesn't have as gruff a timbre as someone like a Coverdale or a Dio, and he certain doesn't do histrionics to that same extent either, but it's damn entertaining all the same. You don't watch a band like this because they are the most extreme. You watch a band like this because of what they represent to you as a fan of heavy music. Very happy I finally got turned onto them. They made a new fan out of me.

If it was a choice between Trivium or Paradise Lost, I have to choose the latter, so over to the Louder stage I go. Nick, Gregor, Aaron, and Stephen have gone through several phases in their band's career, and the most recent is definitely my favorite as it seems they are genuinely trying to trying to do justice to their ENTIRE history with more recent material, and newer songs like "Faith Divides Us..." and "No Hope In Sight" set a great tone for the set, and BRAND new songs - as new album "Medusa" had yet to be released at the time of this performance - "The Longest Winter" and the downright ass-kicking "Blood and Chaos" we just flat-out enthralling! Nick Holmes is one of the most underrated vocalists in all of metal in my opinion, as he down everything equally well and with an incredible range, whether it be low-pitched droning, clean singing, or his exceptional death growl. Did not catch the last song as we had to hightail it out to catch a bit of The Dillinger Escape Plan on the W.E.T. stage in the tent. Crazy as it sounds, I have NEVER seen this band before this performance and with their disbanding imminent - so they say - it was kinda now or never. The stories of the bands live shows of the past have always been mired with more tall tales and fish stories of violence and aggression than can feasibly be true, but it is REALLY tough to find a band that gives it all out onstage quite like they do. Jumping off of anything onstage, whether it be risers, amps, each other, they throw themselves into, onto, and around their performance like epileptics and the crowd loves them for it. Having finally gotten to see it for myself, I will dearly miss these guys. It was cathartic to say the least.

It was NOT a tough decision to make to see Emperor over the absolutely incredible Architects that were playing two stages over, but it was still a bitter pill to swallow that I had to miss them. That said, there was ZERO chance I was going to miss Ihsahn, Samoth, Trym and co. blast out their seminal "Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk" album in it's entirety. This is the album that officially introduced me to black metal, and it's the standard by which a LOT of black metal is measured against. Live lineup rounded out by keyboardist/vocalist Einar Solberg from Leprous and extreme metal renaissance man Secthdamon (Myrkskog, Grimfist, etc) on bass and backing growls/screams, the lights dimmed to match the night sky and the mighty Emperor walked out to "Alsvartr" and we were treated to a downright incredible performance. Ihsahn is of course, Ihsahn...he has matured a LONG way from the angry kid that originally wrote this album 20 years ago, and he plays everything infinitely tighter albeit with less of the anger of the past. He and Samoth tore through everything like they'd never quit. Trym has had better performances for sure; definitely falling slightly behind the music a handful of times, including at one point causing "Ensorcelled By Khaos" to just completely collapse towards the end of the song. Thankfully that was the most major hiccup of the show, and they even managed to include a KILLER encore of "Curse You All Men," "I Am The Black Wizards," and the always enthralling "Inno A Satana" to close the set.

I managed to catch the beginning of Megadeth. Opening with "Hangar 18" and "Wake Up Dead" was a killer touch, but as soon as I heard the tired "The Threat Is Real," I knew I wouldn't stick around for the full set. Newest revolving door members Kiko Loureiro (Angra) and Dirk Verbeuren (ex-Soilwork, ex-Aborted, ex-...fuck, anyone you care to name from euro metal in the last decade and a half) are the glue that is holding the Daves together at this point. Ellefson is just happy to be here, and Mustaine is probably just happy to not be in a cocaine flashback at this moment. Kinda sad to watch, but I'm happy that Dirk and Kiko can at least get a paycheck and maybe be exposed to some new fans this way. Onward to the Wackinger stage to catch Icelandic metallers Skálmöld tear it up. That is one great thing about this fest. If you aren;t feeling the main bands performing on the main stages, there are tons of other stages throughout the festival grounds were you can check out something different, unique, or otherwise interesting that you maybe haven't checked out before. I'm not that familiar with the band's music, but it is definitely in the same vein as bands like Einherjer, Eluveite, and "Nattfodd"-era Finntroll. Folk-inspired metal that would be perfect to drink to. Despite Megadeth playing off in the distance, the Icelanders still gave it their absolute all. Kudos to them!

I made my way to the Bullhead Circus and caught the tale end of Wolfbrigade, who despite being a hardcore punk unit, definitely came off a bit more oldschool Swedish Death in this live setting. It was good, it was extreme, and I dug it a lot. But who I really came over here to see was Candlemass. I've never been the biggest fan of the band as doom is usually not my thing, but this is definitely my kind of doom! Way more into being epic and heavy than JUST slow and trudging. And epic and heavy this was...EASILY one of the heaviest sets of the whole weekend, another of those "this is the set to beat" moments that really only a few bands actually had. Besides being so goddamn heavy with some of the best tones of the weekend, singer Mats Levin has been fronting the band for the past 5 years and fits the band so goddamn well! Definitely more of a power metal guy, but he is more than a fitting replacement for the likes of Messiah and Robert Lowe. 
And with that, Friday came to a close. 3 down, one to go.

Saturday, August 5th

A band I was anxious and curious to see was the new lineup of Rage. I was a HUGE fan of the Victor Smolski era of the band, so I was very saddened when that came to a very bitter end two years ago. The new lineup is said to be performing metal more akin to the bands more traditional speed metal they were performing in the '80s and '90s. Much of the set was comprised of music the new lineup has written in the past two years, which was definitely not bad music by any stretch, it's just disappointing to not hear more classics. That being said, of course they performed the awesome "Don't Fear The Winter" off of the classic "Perfect Man" album, and much to my surprise they whipped out a couple of Smolski era tunes in "The Great Old Ones" and "Straight to Hell," at least proving that new guitarist Marcos Rodrigues has the chops to keep up. Oh, and he can fucking SING too! In the middle of set closer "Higher than The Sky," the band broke into a damn awesome version of Holy Diver and Marcos himself handled lead vocals and really hit it! Dude has a very awesome Dio-esque tone to his voice. He should front a new band himself and let's see what he can do! 

Twilight Force are a band I've been really into for about the past year or so, so I was looking VERY forward to seeing this! The band has a cool shtick going on...very Tolkien-ish fantasy-based. Elves, wizards, and lots of sword and sorcery-themed subject matter. All of this over power metal very much akin to Rhapsody and Dragonforce in terms of speed and grandeur. The singer hits all the notes and flips his hair like fucking Thor, and the lead guitarist shreds right up there with the likes of Yngwie, Jason Becker (whose signature guitar he was jamming on), and MacAlpine. It's a kickass, fast, excessive power metal unit that is total cheeseball...and that's why I LOVE IT!!!

Back over the the holy ground to see Russkaja. I first came to know about the band from the Wacken 2014 DVD, and despite it being kinda not really metal, I find myself enthralled by their music. It's just so FUN!!! Despite being Austrian, the band bases a lot of the music and imagery in Russian themes, and they call their brand of metal-infused ska punk "Turbo Russian Polka." The set is high energy and equally high spirited, with loud guitars, steady beats, horns, violin, and a vocalist that is practically comical in his delivery; you just feel good watching this band perform. My wife - who was not with me where I was watching the band - is in agreement, as when the band went into their hit "Psycho Traktor," she got caught up in the moment and ran into the SLOWEST circle pit ever, a staple of the band's live shows when performing this song. It was a blast!

Heaven Shall Burn are one of those bands that I feel I've really tried to like over the years, but they just don't do it for me like they do it for a LOT of my friends. Apart from their cover of "Valhalla" and "The Weapon They Fear," neither of which were performed here today, I'm just not invested in them. That being said, their vocalist Marcus Bischoff is definitely one of the best in the genre, with a piercing and anguished scream that is all his own. Needless to say though, I only stuck it out because of who was coming up after them on the neighboring stage. For what it's worth, they were a good live band, but it's cookie-cutter metalcore from 10-15 years ago. But Powerwolf, now there's a German band I can totally invested in! There's nothing you can't love about them! The theatrics are hilarious, with campy corpsepaint and frocks, tons of pyro and pseudo-religious symbolism. The subject matter is anti-religion with a similarly campy dose of black humor injected. And let's not forget the music! The tunes are a blistering power metal that focuses less on guitar histrionics and fast picked lines, and more on big rock riffage and big chords! And let's also not forget vocalist Attila, one of the most original sounds in the genre for god knows how long. Dude is extremely operatic, more Messiah Marcolin than Ronnie James Dio, and godDAMN is it powerful with this music backing it!!!

Katatonia was moved to the Louder stage as a result of Walls of Jericho's cancellation, which led to me actually being able to see them. My first time seeing them live, I was kind of amazed at what I was witnessing because it was a complete 180 from what I envisioned it being like. I love the records because it is a massive wall of sound and extremely heavy. Although many of my favorite tracks were performed - "Criminals" in particular hit very hard and was extremely poignant - I was kind of amazed at how little of a metal band they really are in the live setting. Very shoegaze-ey soundscapes laden with effects and volume swells, and surprisingly guitarist Blakkheim was the source of much of this, leaving what little heaviness to come from co-guitar Roger Ojersson (also of Tiamat). It wasn't bad, it was just...lacking. Even the very sonorous tones of Jonas Renske couldn't really carry it, so I bailed to head over to the Bullhead Circus tent and caught the tail end of The Head Cat, the rockabilly sideproject once boasting the mighty Lemmy in their ranks, but now since turned into a bit of a tribute act and including ex-Morbid Angel bassist/vocalist David Vincent. Speaking of Vincent, he actually sounds pretty damn good doing something a bit more country/western-inspired like this, with a very thick southern drawl. Not typically my cup of tea, but it was cool to hear something different at this festival.

Easily one of my favorite bands of all time, I was awaiting the set from Primal Fear like a kid waiting for Christmas morning! What I didn't know, was that the following 45 minutes or so was going to be one of the best metal sets I've ever seen in my life! I have had the pleasure of seeing this band perform several times in my life, including their first U.S. performance at Milwaukee Metalfest all those years ago...but this was "wow" on another level. It was 100% killer Accept-meets-Priest Teutonic Metal, 0% fillers, and also as an added bonus - because this is literally THE only flaw I've ever found with the band at all - 0% ballads. Thank you metal gods! "Final Embrace" to open the set because it's just one of those incredible metal anthems that has aged so well in the past 18 years, and then lets keep that double-bass driving into "Angel In Black." Ralf was in fine form and hit all those damn high notes that he is known for, and Mat Sinner was right there alongside him, even taking his one lead part in the amazing "Sign of Fear" and just totally killing it! Added bonus, the one glaring omission from the recent "Angels of Mercy" live album/DVD got performed here, "Chainbreaker," the opening track from the band's debut album that heralded the birth of the new metal kings back two decades ago. Closing the set with "Metal Is Forever" is a no-brainer, but it was just a perfect end to a perfect set and the lyric subject matter hits you hard when you're at this event. It's a song of unity, and it's just is that much more impactful when you're surrounded by 80,000 metalheads!

I made my way to the Harder stage and heard my favorite Avantasia song "Scarecrow" off in the distance with Jorn Lande absolutely slaying his vocal parts. Unfortunately, the way there was treacherous not only with the mud but also with literally hundreds if not thousands of metalheads traversing the grounds, and needless to see I did not make it in time to actually witness much of the tune. I was then treated to songs featuring Amanda Somerville (awesome!), as well as the stupidly-talkative Eric Martin (Mr. Big) and Geoff Tate (ex-Queensryche) who it seemed just could not get the fuck on with it and let the band start the next tunes! I love the concept of a group that is doing a veritable metal opera, but with now 7 albums under their belt of varying quality, that luster is waning. So much so, that as awesome as Avantasia are, I have to confess I kinda was not feeling it, which inevitably led me to another one of the best sets of the weekend. I headed to the Wackinger stage where I was able to catch most of Omnium Gatherum's set. Damn, were they good! Being kinda familiar with the band's material I heard MANY songs that I knew. Of course recent single "Frontiers" was an appropriate centerpiece of the gig, surrounded by many other absolutely killer tunes like "New Dynamic" and "Unknowing." Bar none, if you dig your death metal melodic and with the occasional singalong choruses, you owe it to yourself to be listening to this Finnish band. Markus Vanhala, also of countrymen and fellow Wacken performers Insomnium has got all the cool poses that go along with playing a Jackson Rhoads, almost like a taller, less-hoaky Alexi Laiho. Rhythm guitarist/vocalist Joonas Koto was busy making it look super easy. You could tell that what he was playing wasn't really all that technical, but for primarily a rhythm guy he put a LOT of feel into those riffs. And part of me wants to think that frontman Jukka Pelkonen was just tipsy or something, but really I think it was just that he was giving his all to the performance almost as if he didn't understand that his band wasn't headlining. how you win over a crowd! 

The last band I cared to see on the 3 biggest stages was the mighty Kreator. This being the second time seeing them perform I felt I was able to witness them with less awestruck eyes and I began to notice something the more they played. Guitarist Sami and bassist Speesy are actually very tight musicians...but Ventor and Mille are very much NOT. Goddamn was this a sloppy set! Just all over the place! To a casual fan that's just happy to see some classic thrash take the stage, I'm sure it was incredible, but speaking as someone that is consumed by his love for playing an instrument, himself...I can tell when you're fucking up on that stage! That being said, it was still cool to see "People of the Lie" and "Hordes of Chaos" in this setting, on the biggest stage of the biggest metal festival in their home country. 

A few last songs for Soilwork. What was once my favorite band of these days a bit fatiguing to the ears. Speed Strid is now the sole remaining original member and he still can belt it out with the best of them, but arguably the songwriting is just not as interesting without Peter Wichers on guitar. Interestingly, bassist Andreas Holma of Scar Symmetry was filling in for them, so it was cool to see a rare treat of a fill-in musician with such a pedigree.
Although there was one more band I kinda liked after them, I decided to end my Wacken experience watching my buddy Pat tear shit up with  Fit For An Autopsy. They took the stage ready to lay fucking waste and that's exactly what they did. Many people write this band off as "merely" another deathcore band. Those people would be fucking idiots. There is so much more going on here besides growls and pummeling breakdowns, although there is PLENTY of that. There's healthy doses of avant metal, dissonant death metal, and even some flat-out Gojira and Morbid Angel worship going on here that helps to put this band in a class of their own. Watching them perform is this weird, beautiful kind of musical violence. It's like watching YouTube videos of people getting cannot take your eyes away and you can't believe you're able to watch this. It was the perfect end to my Wacken experience. It ended with watching a band play the gig of their life and seeing one of those sets that is pure, perfect, and life-affirming. Odd to call a deathcore set life-affirming, but still. 

So that's it. That was my Wacken experience. This was the first year in a long time where the event did not sell out within the first day or so of the tickets being sold, so maybe this year is an unfortunate sign that things might change a bit in the future. I don't know, but I can guess. 

Throughout the event and online in the months leading up to the event, a phrase I kept hearing and seeing was "not the best billing of bands." Despite there being so many bands that I saw that absolutely tore it up and I don't think I ever really had too much actual downtime beside Thursday morning, I would actually agree that it felt like there were less bands I was genuinely excited about seeing. It just kinda worked out to my advantage to where I wasn't having to make as many difficult decisions regarding who to see like I did two years ago. I would also say that now, after attending this concert a second time, and after owning SEVERAL of the official Wacken DVD and Blu-Ray sets, I can definitely say that there are some "typical" wacken bands that seem to play every year or every other year. There are TONS of other bands out there vying for a chance to grace these stages...maybe we can offer a little more variety in the future? 

One final thing is concerning the quality of the mixing. Many stages had sound that ranged from great to incredible. The Bullhead Circus tent was easily the best. Every instrument always had a perfect place in the mix and nothing was too loud or too soft in that setting. Certain sets were just goddamn magical in that tent, among them Primal Fear, Aborted, and Candlemass, who all sounded utterly larger-than-life. That being said, the Fast and Harder stages suffered from a downright STUPID amount of emphasis on the kick drum. It literally would just eat the low end of every other instrument and make the listening experience genuinely difficult for some bands. For bands that have a bit more of a simpler sonic texture like Memoriam and Europe, this was almost beneficial, but for acts like Powerwolf and Heaven Shall Burn, where there is this extremely busy wall-of-sound, it was overbearing.

As much as I love this experience, I think I need to keep my options open for future Euro vacations. People keep recommending Party San, Graspop, With Full Force, and Hellfest to the wife and I. Maybe we'll try something different next time. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. At least we know that we'll have a downright solid and awesome time at this event!