On the Silver Mountain — Wacken Open Air 2004

Saturday, August 7, 2004


I woke at about 8:00 on Saturday morning, and was generally encouraged.  It was very sunny, but it wasn’t too hot and there was a pleasant cool breeze blowing.  I had no idea what we were in store for.


Nearly everyone at Wacken is hung over on Saturday morning.  For hours, from dawn until the start of the first bands at noon, slow-moving figures trudged back and forth to the showers and the smoke from a hundred breakfast campfires hung over the scene.  I used the morning to take care of some business sending emails back home from the press tent and buying various T-shirts and other merchandise, most of which I wouldn’t be able to find back in the States.  I noticed that the main gates of the festival were late in opening, and hundreds of metalheads were queued up behind them.  They finally opened at shortly before 11:30, barely half an hour to go before the day’s first bands.


The empty field at Wacken before gate opening.

A rare sight: the inner Wacken festival area, almost totally empty.  The main gates of the inner festival area are still closed.

The band tuning up on the main stage may be the Wacken firefighters’ band.  Photo by Los Muertos.


There was a noticeable wave of excitement cresting before the performance of BAL-SAGOTH.  If there was one single band I wanted to see at Wacken more than any other, this was it.  Bal-Sagoth is pretty arcane stuff for most metalheads, and very few people, even in their home country of England, have seen them live because they play so seldom.  I met up with several of the Disgruntled Metalheads folks and we staked out a spot about halfway back from the front of the Black Stage.  I was very surprised that a band as fantasy-oriented and bombastic as Bal-Sagoth had virtually no backdrops, scenery or stage props?even the far more sedate Edguy has Egyptian crosses flanking the stage!  When Byron, the lead singer for the band, finally came out onstage, all of us were shocked.  He was wearing a flak jacket and backwards baseball cap, and looked like no one so much as Fred Durst.  In their brief half-hour set Bal-Sagoth represented their albums pretty well, starting with a selection from Battle Magic and covering all the other albums except Atlantis Ascendant.  They even played a selection from their forthcoming new album.  However, the sound was exceptionally muddy.  I could barely hear the synthesizers, which are a main part of Bal-Sagoth’s sound, and the levels on the guitars were not appropriate either.  I could hear Byron well enough when he lapsed into the black-metal screech, but his majestic, Christopher Lee-ish spoken vocals on many songs were simply lost in the mix.  Overall I was disappointed.  I was quite stoked to see Bal-Sagoth and grateful that I’ve seen them live, but their live set lacked the majesty and power of even the weakest of their studio albums. 


I’ve realized that it’s useless for me to try to get too deeply into 80s thrash metal, as blasphemous as that sounds.  Sure, I was into the Big Four, plus Testament, back in the 80s and early 90s, but I largely gave up on that genre, so I wasn’t as stoked as many were to see DEATH ANGEL.  However, I did catch part of their set, and it was really pretty good.  The energy level was very high and the crowd was more enthusiastic than they are for many Wacken sets.  Overall it seemed like a good show.


By 1:25PM it was getting hot – very, very, very hot.  The cooler temperatures in the morning had quickly given way to a scorcher of an afternoon, hotter than yesterday, and there was no relief from the sun.  The only saving grace was that the breeze was still active, and it felt pretty good when it blew, although by now it was beginning to kick up large clouds of dust.  Someone at the festival?I forget who?told me that the best situation for Wacken is if it rains a little on the Wednesday or even early Thursday before the festival, because it tamps down the dust.  Several Wackens ago Ice Maiden coined the term black snot, which is what you sneeze literally for weeks after Wacken due to the pervasive dust.  Neither the dust nor the heat was debilitating – it never is – but I was certainly longing for cooler temperatures.


Another afternoon at Wacken.

It was sunny at Wacken 2004, but it may have been too much of a good thing!  Photo by Ice Maiden.


I saw about half the set for UNLEASHED.  This was, as I recall, the band that gave what I considered to be the best performance at the 2002 Open Air.  While they were still pretty solid this time, I don’t think they quite matched that ideal.  Johnny was generally on his game, and they rattled through Into Glory Ride, Victims of War and other favorites with aplomb, but the electric level of energy that had been present at their 2002 performance on the Party Stage just wasn’t quite there.  Still, I was very glad to see this terrific band upgraded to one of the main stages, and I certainly won’t complain at being forced to watch Unleashed play live! 


In search of beer and shade, I retired backstage and eventually to the camp site.  The poor Finns were not too well-equipped to deal with extreme heat!  Many of them were sitting or lying around lethargically, limiting their movements so as to avoid generating any more body heat than necessary.  Now that it was close to 2:00 PM, shadows were almost nonexistent, so many people climbed inside their tents which had a tendency to become like ovens and hoped for the breeze to pick up.  After a while, Henkke (the Sonata Arctica keyboardist) attempted to rouse some of the troops to go see ANTHRAX on the True Metal Stage.  I’ve seen Anthrax several times before, but I decided to go anyway, figuring I could last for perhaps half the set before the heat and ever-deepening sunburn drove me back under the tents of the backstage press area.


Anthrax wasn’t bad.  It’s been my observation that John Bush is hit or miss, with both Anthrax and Armored Saint (who has also played Wacken)?sometimes he?s incredibly energetic and other times he?s kind of blah.  This year he was a little off, but there was some pretty passable energy coming from the band, which was a feat considering how hot it was.  They played ?Got The Time,? probably my favorite Anthrax tune.  The set wasn’t the rowdy, galloping, thrash metal apocalypse you see on Anthrax?s videos, especially from the 80s and early 90s, but it wasn’t a bad set. 


The next band I saw – after pressing yet another cold beer to my sunburned forehead was AFTER FOREVER.  I wasn’t that interested in them, and in fact had never heard of them before I saw them on the Wacken bill, but I heard the beginning of their set (they were playing on the Party Stage) from the backstage area and was intrigued by the Nightwish-esque vocals.  When I saw them in the flesh, this Dutch band did pretty well, though they won’t be breaking any truly new ground in the metal world.  The vocalist has generally the same range as Tarja, but not quite the power.  Nevertheless, it was a pretty enjoyable set.  Despite my love for Nightwish, I’m generally pretty harsh on most female-fronted opera vocal bands – there have been very few of them except Nightwish that I’ve ever really liked – but this was a decent set, and a good band to enjoy in the hottest part of the mid-afternoon.


NEVERMORE has become something of an unknown quantity.  They hail from Seattle, and because of their proximity to my hometown (Portland) I’ve seen them probably more frequently than most metal fans have.  I’ve seen some terrific shows, such as when they opened for In Flames in 2000, and some pretty lackluster shows.  At Wacken, Nevermore employed a gimmick not resorted to by any other band that I saw: they tested the sound equipment with recorded clips and samples that sounded very much like a long intro to one of their songs, so the crowd was continually applauding as if they were just about to come on stage any second.  This ?cry wolf? tactic therefore kind of reduced the impact when they finally did come onstage.  Secondly, I commented to myself that only the singer of an American band would call from the stage for a mosh pit at a concert in Germany.  Wacken is not known for mosh pits or violent crowd behavior such as is (unfortunately) common at American shows, especially in small clubs, and thus it was a little incongruous when he called from the stage, “I wanna see a huge pit right here in front!”  Their music was somewhat unimpressive.  Technically it was as proficient as you’ve come to expect from Nevermore, who are all extraordinary musicians.  The energy didn’t quite seem to be there, though.  Good, but not great.  


I wasn’t quite sure what to do about Hypocrisy.  I’ve seen them several times – including twice at Wacken – and on tour in various places in the US as well.  One of the Disgruntled Metalheads folks talked me into going to see THUNDERSTONE instead on the Party Stage.  I’m glad I did!  This band was tremendous, playing very energetic power metal.  It was definitely standard Euro power stuff, but the crowd reacted with great enthusiasm.  My fist in the air, singing along to songs I?d never heard before, I greatly enjoyed this set.


Sadly, as the sun began to head toward the horizon I realized that another Wacken was almost history.  I’d been camping the past few days, but because of the necessity of reaching Hamburg early Sunday morning?and avoiding the traditional post-Wacken traffic jam, which makes Los Angeles look tame by comparison – I was due to spend Saturday night in a hotel, and thus had to leave the festival a bit early.  But there was still time for another round of drinks with my friends, be they Finnish, Italian, Swedish or American, and the much-anticipated set by one of the other bands I most wanted to see: HELLOWEEN.


The Wacken programs and web site had hyped for some time that there would be a “special guest” onstage at the Helloween set on Saturday evening.  After last night’s appearance by Joey DiMaio, the rumor quickly spread that the special guest would be Eric Adams who would do some additional vocal duties.  By late Saturday afternoon it had been replaced with another rumor that the special guest was Kai Hansen.  Helloween started the set with a thunderous burst of applause from the audience.  I’ve seen this band at Wacken before, and was amazed by the reception: the home-turf German crowd never ceases to appreciate their own.  Launching into one glorious power metal anthem after another, Helloween definitely reciprocated the appreciation, playing lots of stuff from early in their career as well as the two well-received later albums, The Dark Ride and Rabbit Don?t Come Easy, while focusing less on (what I consider to be) the disappointing mid-range of their career.  Early in the set the ?special guest? was announced, and it was indeed Kai Hansen!  Seeing Kai play with Helloween, for what I believe is the first time in nearly ten years, was truly a memorable experience.  Alas, they did not play ?March of Time,? my favorite Helloween song, but they did finish out a fist-pumping set with the perennial favorite ?I Want Out.?  The entire set was flawless.  I think they were even better than when they headlined the 2001 W:O:A festival.  It was terrific to end on a high note, and the last band I saw at Wacken was worth a well-deserved 5/5!


One of the best things about the Helloween set was the audience, which was full of celebrities.  I’d spied Stratovarius frontman Timo Kolitpelto slipping past me in the backstage entrance on the way out to see Helloween, but when the set was over I turned around to be confronted with none other than two of my ultimate heroes in metal – Oscar Dronjak of HammerFall and Tobias Sammet of Edguy!  Graciously they agreed to take a picture with me and my friend Igor, and I rank that photo as one of the great souvenirs of Wacken.  It really says something about a festival when the bigwigs of the metal scene themselves come out to join the crowd to see what are their favorite bands as well as yours.  It definitely reminds you how small the metal world is.


Los Muertos meets some of his metal heroes.
Los Muertos meets his heroes!  Left to right: Michael De Los Muertos, Oscar Dronjak (HammerFall), Igor Belotti (Italian metal correspondent),

Tobias Sammet (Edguy).  Photo by Kari Sarlin.


After Helloween, I said my goodbyes backstage, more often than not with the hollow clunk of plastic beer glasses being struck together for a farewell toast.  It was a bittersweet moment.  Conquering yet another Wacken festival brings a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, but There’s also relief?decent food, a real bed and some relief from the heat and sun are soon to be in your future.  But parting from friends and realizing that what you’ve just experienced won’t happen for another year is definitely a let-down.  Ice Maiden and I returned to the hotel, and in the bright early morning we set out for Hamburg, passing on the Autobahn more than a few cars full of dusty, sunburned and hung-over metalheads.  On that morning I experienced a deeper feeling of post-holiday depression than I have after any previous Wacken.  It’s alleviated somewhat by the fact that I know I?ll be back, but waiting a year will be difficult.


Metal-Rulesians living it up at Wacken.
Wacken friends: Joffie, Los Muertos, Quilan, Kuroneko.  Photo by Dark Materia.


Now that I’ve been to a few Wackens, I feel that I have enough experience to compare them and sum up the 15th anniversary experience.  I believe, on the whole, that this year?s Wacken Open Air festival was probably the best one in the past four or five years.  Everything seemed to run very smoothly, there were no major mishaps that I was aware of, the weather cooperated, and there was far less last-minute revision and shuffling of the bands and running order than there has been in past years.  Each year I go, I’m always amazed at the graciousness of the people of Wacken, the shopkeepers, landlords, farmers and police, and I hope against hope that nothing will happen at the festival to jeopardize that goodwill.  This year, if there was anything that fell into that category, I certainly never heard about it.  Logistically, once more Wacken was a masterpiece.  Showers and facilities worked for the most part and the experience of camping?which could easily become a dreadful nightmare?was instead a source of great fun for most people I observed.  Furthermore, the security seemed much less irritable this year.  Overall it was an exceptionally well-run show.


I have two suggestions for future festivals, both of which echo criticisms I’ve had in the past.  First of all, the Wet Stage, which is enclosed in a tent outside the inner-core festival area, really needs to be re-thought.  I’m aware that Wacken’s founders have always liked having a tent-enclosed stage, and certainly that would come in handy if it happens to rain, but please make it a pavilion tent with open sides (such as the backstage tents are, and the press tent tries to be).  I stayed away from the Wet Stage this year because I know from past experiences that it can be ten degrees hotter and considerably more humid inside the Wet Stage area than outside, and when it was as hot as it was this year I didn’t think I could take it.  Secondly, what happened to the great food that used to be served at the Wacken festival?  The quality of the vittles seems to have declined in the past two years, and you have to go outside the inner-core festival area to get most of it.


In the scheme of things these are minor complaints.  As in past years, Wacken 2004 left me feeling on top of the world, and grateful that I ever had the good sense to discover the glory that is metal music. 


Two unidentified metalheads at Wacken.  Notice the cool Orphaned Land shirt.
Random Wacken fans.  The guy in the background is certainly getting into the spirit of things.  Photo by Alison Jacob.



This was a strange Wacken for me.  For the first time in my Wacken experience, I was not given a pit photo pass, in large party because I believe NO electronic media received them.  Anyone who knows digital pictures knows that, even with a great zoom, you’re going to get pretty crappy pictures unless you are fairly close?and at night, unless you are close, you get nothing.  Accordingly, I decided not to bother with band pictures, and only took a few of the backstage area and festival site.  Most of the press crew that I’ve grown accustomed to hanging out with in the pit seemed woefully unsure about what to do with themselves- we’re so used to seeing the bands perform through a lense!


This was also the first year I was torn about going to Wacken.  I had a new baby niece born prematurely weeks before I left, and my head and heart were still back home.  Still, after all the trauma associated with her premature birth, I was ready to take it easy.  My motto for the trip was:  “Do whatever the F*ck you feel like doing.”  And mostly I just wanted to relax.  So, it was awesome to meet up with our Finnish comrades on Thursday evening, and I enjoyed drinking and chatting with them, especially my gal-pal Little Miss Blood Bath.  However, on Thursday night, when I finally got back to my hotel at around midnight, I received a slew of notes from the reception desk telling me to call home immediately.  Back home, my car had been virtually totaled by someone who I’d let drive it, and I spent literally all night on the telephone with insurance adjusters.  Crap.  Nonetheless, I was up and at breakfast at 9 a.m., chatting with some metalheads.  Before I left for the site, I went back to my room to make a quick call home?and fell asleep on the bed.  For about 5 hours.  DOH!


What can I say, other than Paragon, Brainstorm, Grave Digger and Bal-Sagoth, there weren’t many bands I was dying to see this Wacken.  Paragon and Brainstorm I missed due to sleep.  Grave Digger were incredible, and Bal-Sagoth were immensely disappointing.  The biggest issue for me with Bal-Sagoth’s set was the horrible sound quality.  I don’t know what was up, but the band known for being epic and bombastic sounded more than a little weak.  Dio, who I’ve seen a thousand times and almost decided to skip, blew me away.  Damn, that little sprite can rock when he wants to.  Holy scheisse?did WE ROCK!  However, believe it or not, I think my favorite band was El?kel?iset?the Finnish oompa-band.  Something about oompa-mixed with metal was just my speed this year.  Somehow, its light-heartedness matched my mood. 


In many ways, surprisingly, this ended up being a great Wacken for me.  I didn’t see as many bands as usual, and I was a bit more of a loner than usual.  But, somehow, it was exactly what I wanted and was almost therapeutic.  Something about being surrounded by metal and metalheads let me feel “quiet” and center myself.  Who’d a thunk it.  Some folks do yoga?this girl needs metal.




I can’t help thinking back to the wonderful and powerful performance of Ronnie James Dio, who came full-circle as one of the founders of heavy metal to headlining the biggest and best metal festival in the world.  With the stage lights blazing, amplifiers throbbing, the sun setting over Wacken and 30,000 metalheads cheering, Dio completed the picture with his incredible and invigorating music, and it was quite an experience.  That night, everyone who was at Wacken was on top of the silver mountain, looking down on our realm with awe and admiration.  That memory will live with me for a long time – at least until next year when I go back!


Dio gets an award.

  The man on the Silver Mountain receives the Lifetime Achievement Award from Joey DiMaio as several thousand of their closest friends look on.
Photo by Alison Jacob.