On the Silver Mountain — Wacken Open Air 2004


Friday, August 6, 2004


As I roused myself from my tent and got ready for the day I wondered what the “ordeal” of Wacken this year was going to be.  Every year There’s one factor?usually weather-related?that makes Wacken somewhat difficult, although it never quite makes you wish you were somewhere else.  In 2002 it was the freak thunderstorms that turned the place to mud.  Last year, it was the unfortunate fact that Wacken occurred in the middle of the biggest heat wave in Europe?s history for the past 50 years.  This year, as the day dawned comfortably warm and clear, it seemed like we had smooth sailing.  That was good, as I thought we were due for a ?good weather Wacken.


Some of my Finnish friends were barely awake when we trundled off to see the first ?official? bands of the festival.  Many of the Finns were interested in MNEMIC, but I was curious to see ORPHANAGE, who began playing on the Black Stage at 11:00 sharp.  I haven?t previously had any interest in this black metal outfit from Holland, but the buzz I?d heard among Wacken fans prior to the set piqued my interest.  I found that they delivered a pretty solid hard-hitting set, well-entrenched in the realm of black metal without resorting to silly cliches.  Black metal can tend to sound tremendously muddy and chaotic in a live open-air setting, and thankfully Orphanage came across with admirable clarity as well as a fair amount of power and enthusiasm despite their late-morning show time.  


I did not stay for the entire Orphanage set, as I had also been made curious by the comments of my Finnish friends to see Mnemic, which was the first band on the Party Stage.  Niko, one of the writers for Imperiumi.net, described Mnemic as a Finnish Strapping Young Lad, a band of which he’s apparently a huge fan.  I wandered over to the Party Stage and found myself completely unimpressed with Mnemic.  Their music was an electronicized mess that sounded dreadful in a live setting.  The lead singer was, predictably, jumping up and down and hurling lyrics in a very mallcore-oriented style.  Mnemic’s melodies (what few there were) weren’t catchy, their energy not infectious, and overall their music somewhat boring.  This was one of the low points of Wacken, the first set of the festival.


Just after Mnemic finished up, PARAGON appeared on the True Metal stage.  These local (from Hamburg) power metallers were a refreshing change from the mallcorish antics on the Party Stage, and their hard-hitting, fist-waving set was definitely a highlight of the first day.  I’d heard bits and pieces of Paragon’s stuff in years past, and had in fact seen their set at Wacken in 2001, but wouldn’t consider myself a true fan of theirs.  Nonetheless, they were the first band of Wacken this year to get me scribbling down buy their CDs when I get home in my notebook.  Paragon definitely isn’t Gamma Ray or Edguy, but they deliver a solid, well-rounded package of melodic metal that’s highly entertaining and involving.  If you don’t expect them to be the greatest power metal band of all time, you’ll definitely enjoy them thoroughly, as I did.  


By the time Paragon finished, the sun beating down from the cloudless sky and rapidly-rising temperatures gave me an intimation of what this year’s Wacken ordeal would be: sun.  Last year, although temperatures were hotter, there was scattered cloud cover for large portions of both days of the festival.  This year it was not to be.  It was 12:25 in the afternoon, shade was growing scarce, and I realized the obligatory one thing I?d forgotten to bring with me on the trip was a baseball cap.  Despite this, I found myself quite lucky to get in place for the CATHEDRAL set at the very corner of the shadow cast by the Black Metal Stage.  Unfortunately thousands of other Wacken fans had the same idea, and as the set wore on my precious patch of shade disappeared.


A blazing hot afternoon at Wacken.

A blazing hot afternoon at Wacken.  Photo by Ice Maiden.


For as long as I could stand the roasting sun, however, Cathedral was awesome!  This was one of the bands I was most eager to see on this year’s bill.  I was a bit surprised, however, that Cathedral sounds a lot more traditional in a live setting than on their numerous eclectic studio albums.  I’m very used to Cathedral having an odd, unique, I-don’t-give-a-fuck kind of sound Cosmic Requiem being my favorite example; and it was strange that this didn’t translate quite as well to a festival performance.  However, the guitar sounds were as thick, wet and drippy as on any of Cathedral’s stuff, even the old Ethereal Mirror days, and Lee Dorrian;s trademark hoarse, irritated vocals added the touch that most Cathedral fans were looking for.  Until I was finally driven away from the stage by what definitely felt like oncoming heat exhaustion, I thought Cathedral lived up well to their promise.  


I went backstage and managed to mitigate the effects of the heat?with the help of a few cold beers!  One of the topics of discussion around the tables with the Finns?and my good friend Francesco Bucci, bassist for Stormlord, who also writes for Rock Hard Italy magazine?was whether it was hotter this year or last year.  We never came to a consensus, but it didn’t matter, because it was soon time for ARCH ENEMY to take the stage!


I always associate Arch Enemy with extreme heat.  The one and only previous chance I?d had to see them, when they played in Portland in July 2002, they were booked in a hideous, hellish club called Meow Meow, which had no air conditioning (naturally).  I missed most of the show, because at 105? F (40? C) inside the venue, my girlfriend was about to pass out after only a few minutes!  Thankfully, conditions weren’t nearly as extreme this time, and I found the Arch Enemy set to be terrific.  It’s still amazing to me that such growls of utter rage come from the throat of so comely a being as Angela Gossow, and she definitely put her talents to good use.  The blistering assault of death metal was exactly what was needed to inject some life into the wilting Wacken crowd. 


Returning to the backstage to stock back up on beer, I ventured forth double-fisted to steel myself for the awesome assault of BRAINSTORM.  I’ve had little exposure to this band, although I’ve been quite curious because a number of metalheads I know who claim to dislike power metal somehow still speak pretty laudatory of Brainstorm.  Only a few minutes into their set I easily knew why: they completely rock!  With a highly energetic and never-slackening stream of non-cheesy power metal, Brainstorm delivered the strongest set of the festival thus far, and they seemed to do it almost effortlessly.  These guys had an incredible stage presence and were totally relaxed and having fun with the crowd.  Band members over the years frequently report being intimidated by the size of the Wacken crowd, but it was clear Brainstorm was simply getting into the spirit of things. 


Fire hose at the Brainstorm set.

Brainstorm on stage.

Brainstorm set.

Above: the Wacken fire department hoses down the crowd at the beginning of the Brainstorm set.  Middle and bottom: two views of the Brainstorm set. Photos by Alison Jacob.


On my many trips back and forth to the backstage press area I passed the Meet and Greet tent, where there was posted a list of press conferences, and I was understandably shocked to see one of my all-time favorite bands, RHAPSODY, who was not on the Wacken bill, was scheduled for a press conference at 4:45!  At first I wondered whether or not I should attend?after all, the conference would conflict with both the Mayhem and Satan sets?but ultimately I decided I wasn’t likely to get another chance to meet my heroes face-to-face, and to get them on record for Metal-Rules.com!  So I went back into the press tent, which was already crowded with correspondents from all over the world, including Francesco, nervously looking at his watch because Satan was about to start.  It was dreadful inside the press tent.  Because it’s largely enclosed, There’s no air movement, and the breeze that occasionally cooled off the thousands of rapidly-sunburning Wackenites outside was absent here.  It was 95? F (35? C) in that tent if it was a degree above freezing.  Furthermore, Rhapsody was late?very, very, very late!  The only saving grace of the half-hour or so during which I waited for them was that the PA system in the press tent was playing excerpts from Rhapsody’s new album, and it definitely sounded encouraging.


Unfortunately I couldn’t remain in the tent for long, and in any event there were other bands to see.  I wandered over to the Party Stage to catch the end of SATAN.  Although I didn’t hear enough of them to make a really sound judgment, I did like what I heard.  Old-style thrash metal is not my forte, but the few songs I stayed for were delivered in a very straightforward, enthusiastic style, the playing was right-on and the sound was very crisp. 


A few minutes before the end of the Satan set, I decided it would be a shame if I completely missed MAYHEM, which was playing simultaneously on the Black Stage.  I am far from an authority on this classic Norwegian black metal band, but I think I do know something about them; I’m cultured enough in the ways of black metal to enjoy Live in Leipzig, and to a lesser extent Deathcrush, while I admit Grand Declaration of War did absolutely nothing for me.  Thus I was a little skeptical, especially knowing that Mayhem no longer has any original members.  I was right to be skeptical.  What I saw of the set, the band was an absolute joke.  Black metal bands decked out in corpse paint tend to look pretty silly in the blazing light of afternoon sun anyway, but the guy fronting Mayhem simply had to be seen to be believed.  Short-haired, middle-aged, and absolutely unsuited as vocalist for a band of such (former) stature, he pranced and posed around on the stage, generally pretending to be ?evil? and extreme, such as pretending to lick the blade and cut himself with some weird medieval-looking serrated weapon which was very clearly covered with duct tape.  didn’t Dead use to slice himself up onstage for real back in 1990?  In addition to this idiocy, Mayhem’s music was very flat and generic, and their stage presence almost nonexistent.  As soon as I saw a roadie emerge at the corner of the stage with a severed pig?s head I knew what the gag would be.  Naturally the pig’s head was flung into the audience.  Naturally people started batting it around like a beach ball.  Naturally this was supposed to be ?evil.?  And quite naturally, it was very stupid.  Mayhem’s set gets a paltry 1/5 from me.  Time to hang it up, guys.


6:00 PM.  This was one of our prearranged meeting times among the folks from the Metal-Rules.com Disgruntled Metalheads message board, and I eagerly went to the Meet & Greet area to hook up with them, some (such as Kuroneko and Quilan) newcomers, while others (Joffie, Dark Materia) were veterans.  By now the sun had baked the Wacken fields to their hottest temperature of the day, but as evening was approaching there was at last relief in sight. 


The Wacken Metal-Rules crew.

The Metal-Rules.com and Imperiumi crew and assorted friends.  Back row, left to right: unidentified (possibly reporter for Gehtlostjetzt.de), Kari (Imperiumi), Niko (Imperiumi), Michael De Los Muertos, Henkka Klingenberg (keyboardist for Sonata Arctica), Dark Materia, Quilan.

Front row: LMBB, Joffie.  Photo by Ice Maiden. 


We cut short the Disgruntled Metalheads reunion because GRAVE DIGGER, one of the most eagerly-anticipated bands for me, soon appeared on the True Metal stage.  Dark Materia and I went up very close to the action, and it was a very good place to be.  Grave Digger commanded Wacken from the first second they began to play.  Their soaring power metal choruses, crunchy pile-driving guitar riffs and indefatigable energy turned on the entire Wacken crowd from the get-go.  At least where I was standing, the crowd was also energized by the fact that the Wacken firemen turned their hoses on us in a (much-needed) attempt to cool us down.  Dark Materia and I took a blast from the fire hose dead-on, and I was immediately drenched from head to toe, right down to my socks.  It felt absolutely terrific!  I’d had the foresight to cover my beer cup with my hand before the dousing, and we all continued to headbang to Grave Digger without skipping a beat.  Playing stuff from earlier in their career as well as a sampling from their triumphant new album Das Rheingold, this band was an immense highlight of the entire festival. 


After Grave Digger I returned backstage, both to service my growling stomach (the food at Wacken isn?t exactly Julia Childs quality, so one tends to eat as little as possible) and to consider going back to the campsite to change out of my wet clothes.  Ultimately I decided not to, as I was drying pretty quickly in the sun that was just starting to set.  After a bite to eat, a few more beers and some catching-up with the Finns and Ice Maiden, I venture out again with several of the Imperiumi.com writers to check out the much-awaited set of Mr. R.J.D.


DIO was the next set.  It was absolutely incredible.  I’ve seen Dio at least twice before in Portland; on one occasion the show was terrific, and on another it was mediocre.  The Wacken performance left both of these in the dust.  Mr. D is truly an amazing performer, and if anything he’s grown even more powerful and charismatic over the course of his 35-year career in metal.  The set consisted of nearly all old favorites, including Rainbow, Man on the Silver Mountain, and the show-closer, We Rock which went on for probably 15 minutes.  Dio’s vocals were crystal-clear and ultra-powerful, the backing band was tight and well-rehearsed, and the enthusiasm of the crowd was almost like nothing I’d ever seen before over the course of five Wackens.  As darkness fell, Dio proved to the crowd why he is possibly the most important person in the history of metal who’s still playing today.  Some years it’s pretty difficult to peg the single best set of Wacken, but this year it was easy: Dio was it!


Ronnie James Dio doing his thing.

Dio set.

Above: 1. Ronnie James Dio doing his thing.  2. Dio set, after sunset.
Photos by Alison Jacob.


As an added bonus, at the end of the Dio set a special guest came out onstage?none other than Joey DiMaio of Manowar!  Joey presented Ronnie J. with a special ?Lifetime Achievement Award? thanking him for his enormous contributions to the genre of heavy metal.  The crowd roared its approval, and Dio himself was almost speechless, having very little to say upon his very gracious acceptance.  As he and his band retired from the stage, award held high triumphantly, it occurred to me that this was one of those magic shows that makes you proud to be a metalhead.  The entire trip was worth it for the Dio set!


When I returned to the backstage area I found the party just getting started.  The press zone is much more crowded in the evening hours than during the day, and I quickly struck up some conversations with various foreign Wacken correspondents, including Igor, a very cool guy from Italy, and Ola, a soft-spoken Swede who represented some metal newspaper.  We talked about going to see some of the evening bands?Destruction and Amon Amarth were of particular interest?but we never quite made it.  Nonetheless, the Finns were almost unanimously enthusiastic about a band called ELKELISET which would soon be playing on the Party Stage.  El?kel?iset is not really a metal band?in fact they?re more like ?humppa,? which is a style of Finnish polka which has occasionally (most notably in the work of Finntroll) been incorporated into metal.  I did manage to catch a few minutes of the El?kel?iset set.  It was actually pretty cool!  It was everything you?d imagine from an electric polka band, but the Wet Stage crowd seemed to love it, and you have to admit, it was something unique for this very unusual band, and a special kudos to the Wacken organizers for having the balls to book a band like this.


It was perhaps the influence of El?kel?iset that was still affecting my Finnish friends when I returned to the camp site.  Sami, one of the Imperiumi.net writers, had somehow found a very large and disgusting pork bone with several tattered shreds of meat on it.  He waved it around triumphantly and implored everyone to worship his ?Humppa Stick,? until someone grabbed it and flung it away over the distant tents, lest it attract maggots during the night.  It must have been the beer.  Eager for another day of metal, but also for some rest, I pulled off my shoes and collapsed into my tent.


Read on for Coverage of Saturday’s Wacken Experience!