Heart of Steel: Concert Reviews

The World's Loudest Acre:
Wacken Open Air 2002

Saturday, August 3, 2002

A clear, bright, sunny morning. No rain; no mud; warm but not hot. Could we be in for the perfect-weather Wacken day? Indeed, were our problems over? Not by a long shot. The drunk Germans in the room next door, who played bad dance remixes of Bon Jovi tunes at four o'clock in the morning, should have been an omen. Foolishly I ignored them, and after a call to the front desk--"Zey are makink too much noise? Ja, I vill see about it"--I figured that was the last Wacken Tribulation I would have to endure. Wrong!

We had spent the morning at the hotel squinting at various Italian metal stars who were staying at our place--Fabio Lione of Rhapsody, for example--and were about to leave for the festival site when I realized my wallet was completely empty. Damn, I must have bought a lot of beer yesterday! Thankfully there was an ATM machine right next door to the hotel. I inserted my battered, chipped credit-union ATM card, which I've had since 1992, and waited for the machine to prompt me to enter my pin number. No dice. THIS MACHINE IS CLOSED. I punched "Card Return." THIS MACHINE IS CLOSED. I punched "Cancel" several times. "Give me my card back, you fucking piece of Teutonic trash!" ZIS MACHINE IST CLOSED!!!!!!! No money. No ATM card. Nothing! Oh, did I mention that Wacken doesn't take credit cards? Enter Wacken Tribulation #4: EVERGREY IS GOING ON STAGE RIGHT NOW AND I'M COMPLETELY BROKE!!!!!!!!!

 

AMON AMARTH

AMON AMARTHI'll skip the account of the various phone calls I had to make, some back to the United States, to stabilize my financial situation; I'll merely mention that this incident is why we didn't arrive at the festival site until AMON AMARTH, the legendary human beer-wipers themselves, were about to take the stage. Several of us were quite stoked to see this great band perform live, but it was a little uncomfortable out there. Remember how I said in the morning it was warm but not hot? Well, scratch the "not," and enter Wacken Tribulation #5: heat. Shedding your shirt helps to a certain extent, but it can still get damned hot in northern Germany in the direct sunlight.

AMON AMARTHAmon Amarth were awesome. Simply awesome; no other way to describe it! Angry, violent, blistering Viking metal, but with some great melodies and a lot of power. Every song came at you with the power of a runaway freight train, and from a technical standpoint their performance was pretty much flawless. After the incident yesterday I was ready to be pretty harsh with this band, but they certainly took the wind out of my sails in short order, turning in one of the top performances of all of Wacken. The crowd responded in kind, resulting in one of the highest collective energy levels of the whole festival. By the time they left the stage all the tribulations of Wacken had disappeared from my head. It was now pure fun, just as it was meant to be, and now nothing could dampen my spirits.

AMON AMARTH(Ice Maiden's Commentary: Argh! No Evergrey or Wizard because of the credit card fiasco! I had to make AMON AMARTH, who have that brand of death that I most enjoy--beautiful in its brutality. An incredible set, which made the heat bearable, but after it I decided to once again head back to get a drink, check email and get out of the sun. Black Goat and Skyklad had found a peaceful wooded spot behind the stages where they set up a blanket and their cooler. Ahhhhhh….to sit in the shade and chat with old friends. Nice! I decided to sit back and wait for FALCONER before venturing forth again.)

 

The sun was still high and the heat pushing well into the 80s as NUCLEAR ASSAULT took the stage. I haven't been a tremendous Nuke fan in years past, but I thought I owed it to them to give their set a fair shake, particularly after having the great opportunity to interview Dan Lilker earlier this spring. The crowd certainly responded to Nuclear Assault as if they were the second coming of Christ, or the first coming of Satan, or something. Unfortunately even good old '80s thrash can get a bit thick to handle in such heat. A great performance, if you're a thrash junkie; if not, the cold beer backstage is a slightly better draw. Especially if Punishment Due is buying, which, after telling him the story of my vanished ATM card, he definitely was!

 

The next band on our list was one of the reasons I had crossed the Atlantic: FALCONER. Having worn their first self-titled album almost to pieces from playing it so much, only to replace it with their second triumph, I was extremely enthusiastic to see how they'd pull off a live set especially at Wacken. The crowd at the Party Stage was composed almost entirely of like-minded Falconer diehards, because when their set began it was like a fireworks show in honor of the gods of metal! It was obvious to me that Falconer, with their low-key stage presence, is either not that experienced in live shows or not that comfortable playing them. However, this is a band where the music speaks for itself. The enthusiasm in the air during their fantastic set came mostly from the spectators, but that was good enough. Great vocals, shredding guitars, and the occasional segment that sounded like a Viking drinking song was exactly what we all wanted to hear. Hail Falconer! Despite already having given us peaks like Dickinson and Borknagar, Wacken was only getting better.

(Ice Maiden's Commentary: FALCONER's self-titled was my top pick for last year, so I was very excited to see them. Muertos hits the mark when he says that they lacked a little of the stage presence to make this one a great performance. Nonetheless, the crowd was happy to see them, and this was definitely a fun, sing-along set. I realized I was missing IMMORTAL. I had seen Immortal twice recently with MANOWAR, so, knowing I was missing another favorite band, I stayed for all of Falconer.)

The only bad thing about Falconer was that they were playing at mostly the same time as IMMORTAL, and when they were over, only 20 minutes or so remained of the famed Norwegians' set. By now the heat was beginning to dissipate and we were settling in for another one of those magical Wacken evenings. Immortal is sort of an odd band to see in the daylight--there's something vaguely ludicrous about corpse paint and bullet belts in full summer sunlight--but what I saw of their set was excellent. They weren't quite as powerful as when they opened for Manowar back in May, but had I not been enjoying Falconer on the Party Stage, I certainly would have given Immortal my full attention.

 

The Part Stage - front rowBack on the Party Stage, I could not convince Nomad to stay for more than a few minutes of VANDEN PLAS, despite the fact that I liked their sound very much. I had never heard of this band before, and I noticed that the lead singer appeared to have a non-derogatory picture of Jesus Christ on his T-shirt, but they played snappy, well-written power metal with clean vocals and a fair amount of energy. I was motivated enough by the ten minutes or so of the Vanden Plas set I witnessed to purchase one of their albums at World Of Music in Hamburg the day after the festival. Despite this being a Christian band, I probably would have enjoyed the CD, except I discovered that the CD case contained by mistake a Vision of Disorder CD and the record store said they didn't have any more copies of Vanden Plas with which to replace it. Ah; c'est la vie. Perhaps just as well.

 

(Ice Maiden's Commentary: After the Falconer set I grabbed Skyklad and headed over to the one show I had to catch at the Wet Stage: DREAM EVIL. The organizers had made an improvement by leaving an entrance to the Wet Stage inside the festival area, so we didn't have to exit the site to get to the entrance as in previous years. The tent was as smelly, crowded and hot as in previous years, however. Hint to the organizers: stay true to the "Open Air" name for ALL stages. A third day of camping makes many a metalhead rank…

Out came "pretty boy vocalist" number three. Who is this lad? Short brown hair? He could be in an Aber-whatever and Finch (Fitch?) ad. Well, at least it was better than the dyed blond coif he sported on the album sleeves of "Dragonslayer", possibly my favorite release of the year. Out sprang Snowy Shaw, the drummer and the only member of the band who looked like the band sounds: pure '80s traditional/power metal. Wearing short lycra shorts and a sweet-ass mullet, he started hazing the crowd with short drum solos and crazy-eyed gestures to get them cheering. Dream Evil had a few false starts as the sound was adjusted, and the band made a couple of good-natured jabs at themselves. These guys were fun, and they were having fun-hamming it up with the crowd, posing back-to-back as they rocked on their guitars, throwing picks and sticks to the crowd. Playing virtually the whole album, from the rollicking and catchy "Chosen Ones," to the slow and simpering ballad, to the rock 'n' roll sound of "Heavy Metal Jesus," to the plastic-sword-raising "Chasing the Dragon." This is "nice" metal. It's happy. It's "having a good time" metal. If you think Hammerfall are "gay", you won't like Dream Evil.

I had FUN at this set, and after Skyklad's head banging forced her out of the heat of the tent, I pushed to the front and danced with a trio off little metal chicks from Japan. We sang ourselves hoarse. Woohoo! Dream Evil played my favorite set at Wacken, and I left the Wet Stage sweaty with strains of "We keeled the Drag-gone" running through my head.)

 

Hmm, a moral question…see HYPOCRISY (for the third time), or go backstage and drink beer? Well, anyone who knows me would have to guess that the beer would win, and they would be correct, but I did catch enough of Peter Tagtgren's landmark band--returning to Wacken after their 2000 showing--to register my general approval. Had I not been asleep on my feet when Hypocrisy played Portland back in June, I might have had a rough idea of what their set list would be, but I don't. Did anyone else see them? Bueller? Bueller?

 

Beer, food, aspirin…good weather, in fact a beautiful evening brewing…the metal gods were indeed smiling. There was a palpable electricity in the air as we gathered for EDGUY. Various other bands may have made the equation sweeter, but deep down I have to admit the major reason I was at Wacken this year was because of this band. Exploding onto the stage with fireworks and the title track from their album MANDRAKE, the hallowed German power metallers owned the stage from the very beginning, and frontman Tobias Sammet's pipes were wailing as gloriously as on any of their studio albums. They launched through many of their favorites, but the personal highlight of the set was "Babylon," the first track on the 1999 "Theater of Salvation" album and, in my opinion, one of the great power metal songs of all time. Edguy do not quite have the control of crowd enthusiasm that Gamma Ray or some of the other great power metal bands have, but I expect this will come with more experience. Nonetheless the Edguy set lived up totally to expectations…at least until the last number. What is it with Wacken performers wanting to do silly polka numbers at the end? I won't sully my Edguy review by describing it; I'll just pretend it didn't happen. Edguy were awesome. I eagerly look forward to seeing them this fall at Prog Power on American soil.

(Ice Maiden's Commentary: You guessed it, "pretty boy vocalist" number four hit the stage with EDGUY. Although I'm a huge fan of their albums, and this set was snappy, I left Edguy more impressed with their stage set than with the music. It just goes to show you that having too high of expectations isn't necessarily a good thing…

After about half the set I ambled over to catch HEATHEN. They were outstanding, with a frontman who knew how to get the crowd hopping. Yowza! How much awesome metal can one girl take???)

HEATHEN

HEATHEN

 

BLIND GUARDIAN

As darkness fell on the last day of Wacken, the only truly excruciating moral choice of the festival presented its ugly head. BLIND GUARDIAN is one of my favorite bands of all time, but some idiot scheduled UNLEASHED--a classic cult band I have never been able to get enough of--to play on the Party Stage at the same time! Since Blind Guardian were supposed to play for two hours, I decided I would see the beginning of their set, then slip over to the Party Stage to catch Unleashed, and return to Blind Guardian when they were over. Hopefully there'd be enough good metal to go around.

For reasons that will become apparent, I'll describe BLIND GUARDIAN's set first. The truest sign of favor from the metal gods was that before I had to leave for Unleashed, they played my two favorite songs--"Welcome to Dying" and "Nightfall," and both were absolutely stellar. I had some doubts about how Hansi Kürsch's ragged, hypnotic voice would play to an open air festival, but I needn't have worried. His vocals were the backbone of Blind Guardian's awesome performance. From fast stuff to slow stuff, quasi-thrash metal to almost folk, the most popular German metal band of all time definitely showed the crowd why they enjoyed that status. Once I returned to the set from the Party Stage, everything else they played was merely icing. Their encore was the perfect finale to Wacken--wistful, sad, powerful, crushing, energetic and thoroughly flattening. I don't know how someone could not love Blind Guardian. I don't know how any Blind Guardian fan could not love them at Wacken. Here was metal's greatest on display, giving it their all. Here was one of the reasons this was the best Wacken.

(Ice Maiden's Commentary: Blind Frickity Guardian! Woohoo! Very excited, I started snapping photos in the pit, caught between just wanting to watch from such a close vantage point and wanting to capture the moment. After snapping my pics I made my way from the front of the stage up the side to get free from the crowd. Holy shit-I think almost the entire festival site was jammed with metalheads, all watching and singing along. All the way from the front of the stage, through the market and food stalls and all the way back to the entrance to the site, folks were crowding in to catch the act. Amazing. A literal moving sea of metalheads. I stopped to sway along with everyone else to "Nightfall." It was all I really HAD to hear-and they played it right off the bat. I stayed for much of the set, then wandered to catch a few songs of UNLEASHED before retiring to the backstage area, where I chatted with some drunk Portuguese and a few fellow journalists. One more Tequila Sunrise and my Wacken was over. OK, that's not entirely true…there was still all the folks and Wacken story swapping yet to happen in the bar back at the hotel…)

BLIND GUARDIAN

And here's another. I slipped through the crowd toward the Party Stage nervously; I could still hear Blind Guardian playing loudly from the True Metal Stage, and wondered if I was shooting myself in the foot by deserting them. I found UNLEASHED had already begun their set. These legendary purveyors of Viking-themed death metal have always had a special place in my heart since I discovered the "Eastern Blood--Live in Poland" live album. Just seeing Johnny Hedlund on stage again, after a lengthy hiatus from metal, was exhilarating. The best was yet to come. As soon as I got close enough to Unleashed to not hear annoying "noise bleeding" from the Blind Guardian set, they launched into the awesome "Victims of War," probably my favorite Unleashed song. A few whiplash-filled, headbanging minutes later I was possessed, and I weaved through the crowd to get as close to the band as possible, winding up almost at the metal barriers right in front of the photo pit. What occurred over the next twenty or thirty minutes is something I can't even adequately describe. The metal coming out of the guys on the stage was so pure, so powerful and so energizing that it truly reached the highest level of metalness that it's possible to achieve. Imagine the best metal show you've ever been to, the one that was the most fun, the most pure, the one you most did not want to end. That was what it was like. It was dark and starting to get cold and Wacken was almost over, but this band was taking their crowd to a whole new level, one you rarely reach even if you've been in the scene for years, even if you've been to dozens or scores or even hundreds of metal shows. The music gets inside of you and for a while that's all there is. You are metal, and the metal is you. When it ends, you realize you've seen one of the greatest metal sets of your life. If the Unleashed set at Wacken 2002 was not the greatest metal band performance I've ever seen, it's certainly in the top three. All I know is, all the hardships, the thousands of dollars I'd spent to get there, the long hours on planes and trains and in unfamiliar hotel rooms, all the work that was piling up for me at my office back home in my absence--it was all worth it.

Unleashed is the last band I'm going to talk about, because they were, for me, the end of Wacken. What happened after that barely mattered. We went backstage; we had more beers; I chatted with Francesco, with Claudio, with Cristiano, with Punishment Due, with Black Goat, with all our friends I'd been hanging out with for that whole glorious weekend. I remarked to Nomad once: I could live at Wacken; I could die at Wacken. This Wacken was the best of them all. It wasn't just the bands; it was the experience, the friends, the incredible sense of belonging that only metalheads can truly understand. Going back to the hotel that last night--having one last drink at the bar, taking off your muddy shoes for the last time, putting away your press pass and cutting off your wristbands--you know instinctively that you'll be back, and all you can feel is pure optimism. Let's come back next year! We'll get everybody--all our friends--all the Metal-Rules people--everybody we know, and we'll all make it a great party! And who will be booked next year? Stratovarius? Rhapsody? Dismember? Manowar? Iron Fucking Maiden? The sky is the limit. Yes; I could live at Wacken, I could die at Wacken. Get me in the door, give me a beer and a running order and point me to where the bands are playing and where I can find my friends. And if I never again set foot off the world's loudest acre, so be it. I'll be happy.

(Ice Maiden's Commentary: Loudest acre? Make it loudest 30 acres and everything else Muertos says is right on-- I will return to Wacken, come hell or high water.)

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