Heart of Steel: Concert Reviews

Like An Ever-Flowing Stream
Wacken Open Air 2003

By Michael De Los Muertos
Pictures and Commentary by ICE MAIDEN


Friday, August 1, 2003

It was quite warm at Wacken. When we finally pulled into the backstage parking lot on Friday afternoon, our backpacks laden with sunscreen and bottled water, it was probably 85 degrees and getting hotter. A few oily clouds tantalized the possibility of some relief, but nothing ever came of it. Merciless sun and ever-increasing temperatures were to be our lot. At least I didn't need the heavy boots I'd lugged all the way across the Atlantic after last year's mud catastrophe.

The first band I saw on Friday was DIAMOND HEAD. Wacken has a tradition of returning old classic bands, many from the NWOBHM era, although the years are finally starting to be truly unkind to bands like this. I can't say I was impressed with Diamond Head. They were loud, they were tight and I guess they were technically competent, but I didn't sense anything really cooking behind their music, not even when they played "Am I Evil." They sounded not like Diamond Head, but like Diamond Head covering Metallica covering Diamond Head.



The next band I saw was one of the bands that caused me to decide to go to Wacken this year. The one, the only, the almighty, my favorite death metal band of all time, DISMEMBER! European and particularly Scandinavian metalheads have seen a lot of this band, but for a bloodthirsty American who grew up on Like An Ever Flowing Stream any chance to see a performance of theirs is noteworthy. When they went onstage the energy was incredible. I felt like I was surrounded by thousands of fans who felt exactly the same way about them as I did--which was unadulterated worship! Even better yet (at least for some), Dismember's jaw-dropping set was very heavy on early stuff. It seemed like between every other song Matti Karki told the crowd, "OK, we're going to play another one from our first album!" There were a few other, later songs mixed in the set, but not that many, and I would have been completely happy if Dismember had played Like An Ever Flowing Stream in its entirety from beginning to end. The bloody brutality that spewed out of these death-dealing Swedish madmen almost defies description. It was without a doubt the most brutal, ear-numbing and soul-capturing performance of Wacken. By the time it was over and I headed backstage to whet my hoarse throat with another beer with the Finns, I felt like the entire trip was worth it. These guys rocked!


(Ice Maiden's Commentary: Diamond Head was nothing to write home about. Dismember were very tight and high energy, but the best set of Wacken? MAYBE in the top five, but definitely not my number one. Very nice guitar work from these guys, though.

After Dismember I headed over to the Party Stage and caught a bit of DARK AGE, a band I had no familiarity with. They play what they label "Dark Metal," mildly-gothic and atmospheric music that still had a fairly aggressive edge. Fans of Dark Tranquility might also like this German (I think?) band.



By this time I was ready to head back and catch FREEDOM CALL, joining up in the crowd with the Royal Carnage crew once again. Very melodic. The lead singer has a fairly strong voice, and, overall, they sounded, not surprisingly, fairly Gamma Ray-esque. They played a very solid set that left the German fans very happy.



Next up was PRIMAL FEAR, which I had much anticipated. They did not disappoint. This is one of those bands that I think represents the modern European power metal scene extremely well. Ex-Gamma Ray vocalist Ralf Scheepers has amazing range and emotional expression. I was pleased to hear one of my faves, "Eye of an Eagle" and lots of other classics off of NUCLEAR FIRE. I saw these guys in '01 at Wacken and loved them-I have to say that with this set they had even more energy and excitement.)

By this time the afternoon was growing so hot that retreating backstage was our only option. Somehow I wound up back at the Finns' backstage camp site, where beer and Jägermeister were being consumed liberally, thanks to the Imperium guys and Little Miss Blood Bath from the Metal-Rules message board (thanks again, by the way!) Nonetheless I made it to the True Metal Stage at 4:15 to see FREEDOM CALL, another of the bands I really wanted to see at Wacken. This is, as you may recall, the side project of Dan Zimmermann, Gamma Ray's drummer. They gave a very tight, well-controlled set that, while being pretty standard power metal, had an unusually high energy level. Freedom Call performed no miracles, but it was a very enjoyable set, and at least kept our minds off the heat for a little while.


- Right Wing Meets Left -


I saw SENTENCED when they played at Wacken in 2000 and was very impressed. Three years later, while they're still good, I wasn't as totally swept away by their performance as I was then. The opening number, "Noose," probably my favorite Sentenced song, seemed a little hurried. Indeed Sentenced were perhaps a bit distracted. The energy just didn't seem to be there. That said they played very well technically and the crowd seemed to respond enthusiastically. It wasn't a bad set.



Wacken is, above all else, a balancing act. There are great bands to see, but there's a lot competing for your attention, and particularly on days like this endurance issues become paramount. For that reason finding a spot of shade and something cold to drink can sometimes take precedence even over a band you really want to see. Does it sound like I'm trying to apologize for something? Well, I'll be out with it--I wish I would have seen more of TESTAMENT! After coming back from the press tent I caught a little of their set, and was as amazed as I expected to be. Chuck Billy, having survived the ravages of cancer, seemed to be using the Wacken performance to announce to the world that he's back and ready for action, stronger than ever. The relentless, top-tier chugging and riffing of this veteran band put to shame a lot of their lesser imitators in the metal world. Now playing together for more than 20 years old, there's no doubt that Testament deserves a permanent designation as one of the most important metal bands ever. Tonight's set list contained more than one gem from THE LEGACY. Unfortunately if they played my two favorite Testament songs--"Return to Serenity" and "D.N.R."--I missed then while I was in the press tent trying to stave off heat exhaustion. Perhaps I owe an apology to the metal gods for this!

"...one of the crew from the Metal-Rules message board, Moshpit Monster..."(Ice Maiden's Commentary: TESTAMENT!!!! I was front, center and ready for these guys. Maybe because of the heavy dosage of power metal I had in the morning, I was ready for some sweet Thrash. Chuck Billy (was that a wig?) and crew pulled out perhaps one of the best set lists (though not necessarily performance) of the festival. Playing mostly off of pre-The Gathering albums, I heard many of my faves including "Practice What You Preach," "Sins of Omission", "The Haunting", "Burnt Offerings" and the seriously catchy "DNR." It was definitely time to bang your head, and I saw one of the crew from the Metal-Rules message board, Moshpit Monster, right near the first row doing just that. The set seemed like a big "F*CK YOU!" to Chuck Billy's cancer. Awesome!

By this time I don't think I had sat down since the morning, but ROTTING CHRIST, one of my faves, was up…time to trudge to the Wet Stage…)


-The effects of Wacken-

Just as Testament was finishing, Ice Maiden and I made the long trek over to the "Wet Stage" to see one of our favorite bands, ROTTING CHRIST. Surprisingly this was my first deviation of the festival from the two main stages, and I still think it's quite odd that this hard-working Greek black metal band, who have been around since 1991, were relegated to the boondocks that many people called "the tent stage." We've had problems with the Wet Stage before precisely because it's enclosed, trapping heat, sweat odors and cigarette smoke in what can become a toxic smog. Unfortunately we found these problems much worse this year. In fact during this extraordinarily hot day the Wet Stage had become so uncomfortable that we couldn't take more than a few minutes inside its steamy, choking atmosphere, which is a real shame, because Rotting Christ sounded excellent and what crowd had the endurance to listen to them was very enthusiastic. I desperately wanted to hear "Dead Poem" and "Der Perfekte Traum"--though I'm not sure RC would have dared to put them on the set list--but the conditions inside the Wet Stage tent were literally suffocating. We retreated from Rotting Christ, and I vowed to put this statement in my review when I got back, directed at the folks who plan Wacken: BRING BACK ROTTING CHRIST, AND LET THEM PLAY ON ONE OF THE MAIN STAGES!

(Ice Maiden's Commentary: The Wet Stage is an abomination. In the extreme heat, and true to its name, nearly everyone was soaked straight through their clothing from sweat. Why can't the sides of the tent be open? And why the hell is a band as established as Rotting Christ, with black metal fundamental albums like "Triarchy of the Lost Lovers" and "Thy Mighty Contract" under its belt, playing the "Wet Stage", historically reserved for new acts??? I heard part of "Non Serviam" and then realized if I didn't worm my way out of the tent I risked melting to death. Crap-and they sounded really good. Death to the Wet Stage.)

As evening settled over Wacken we finally got a break from the heat. Indeed the summer dusk hours in northern Germany can be quite comfortable and charming, and now that we weren't sweating off all our body weight and cutting sets short to retreat into the shade, it was actually a very temperate and memorable evening. I've seen IN FLAMES more times than I can count, and after savaging their last album on the pages of Metal-Rules.com last year I'd decided that I didn't need to see them again. However, they were staying at our hotel, and I did talk to Jesper Stromblad at the hotel bar, and their driver did give me a ride to Wacken yesterday, and Ice Maiden and I had been hearing rumors that they were trying to go back to their old sound. So we decided to give them a try. Actually they did reasonably well--up to a point. Anders Frieden at least wasn't wearing a tie or a boiler suit, and it seemed they were at least trying to tone down some of the mallcore-ish elements of their performance, perhaps aware that a lot of the Wacken fans haven't been happy with their new direction. But then Anders lowered the boom. He said to the audience--and I quote, his exact words--"Jump da fuck up!" At that moment my relationship with In Flames ended abruptly. I turned and walked away from the stage and headed toward the Party Stage, not caring what band was playing there. Here's a note to any members of metal bands who hope to play at Wacken one day: FOUR WORDS YOU SHOULD NEVER, EVER, EVER, EVER SAY TO THE WACKEN CROWD ARE "JUMP DA FUCK UP!" Call me unreasonable, but I can categorically say that, although they are nice guys and have given the world a lot of great metal over the years, I will not be seeing In Flames again live.

The band I found myself watching on the Party Stage after my flight from In Flames was Germany's ASSASSIN. While I've heard of them, I've never actually heard any of their albums. That will change forthwith, I assure you! These guys pulled off one of the best, high-energy performances of Wacken in my opinion. The Party Stage crowd always tends to be a little purer, particularly when a band playing there is up against one of the heavy hitters on the main stages, so the people in the audience are usually big fans of the bands and very enthusiastic. Assassin fed off this energy extremely well. Heavy and thrashy but with a very traditional heavy metal sensibility, Assassin were full of power and played every minute like they were the headliners of the festival. Much headbanging and horns-in-the-air went on during this awesome set, and when it was over I definitely found myself in the market for Assassin's two albums. Unfortunately the tent-enclosed Metal Market was even hotter and less tolerable than the Wet Stage, or so I was told, so I never quite made it.


Now comes the controversial part of my review. Probably the biggest news story associated with this year's Wacken was the abrupt cancellation of Friday headliner Iced Earth, who had to pull out of the festival due to the sudden split with long-time vocalist Matt Barlow. Iced Earth was replaced with TWISTED SISTER and this was regarded as a major coup by most of the metal press. However, I have to admit that, as influential as they were on the early-80s metal scene and as much well-deserved respect as they command today, I'm not into Twisted Sister or their music, so I went backstage for another beer with the Finns. I might not have done this had I not been sure that Mr. Dee Snider and company would be adequately covered on the pages of Metal-Rules by Ice Maiden and Arto, so I'll leave it to one or both of them to describe what Viking God reported was his personal favorite set of the festival. If I had it all to do over again I definitely would have seen more of Testament, but I doubt that at Wacken 2003-Alternate you wouldn't still have found me backstage with beer in hand during the mascara-smeared finale of Friday's performances. Ice Maiden, Arto, I yield the floor to you.

(Ice Maiden's Commentary: OK, I can understand not bothering with TWISTED SISTER (though you made a mistake missing them), but GAMMA RAY??? Sure, we've seen them a number of times before, but this is Kai Hansen-metal god extraordinaire. I couldn't miss them, and waited with anticipation to hear my faves when Muertos disappeared. Unfortunately, this was perhaps the worst set list of Wacken. There they were, prime time at Wacken, largest metal fest in the world, with more than 30,000 of their biggest fans waiting in anticipation, and Kai and the lads choose to play straight B-side tunes. WTF??? Where were all of our faves from these masters of happy metal???? Sure, Kai had stage presence and his soaring voice, and Dan Zimmerman pounded his drums with near perfection-but these weren't my old faves! Argh. I wanted classics damn it-this wasn't the time to raise song awareness!

Although I can't say I've ever been a fan of TWISTED SISTER, the crowd anticipation for this band was incredible. I mean, fans were going CRAZY waiting for them. Can you say Old School? They sure can, and did. "We're Not Gonna Take It", "I Wanna Rock." Everyone was going nuts, but so were my legs, which told me that they WEREN'T gonna take it-so I headed back to meet up with my crew…)


All I will say about our trip home from Wacken on Friday night is this: a McDonald's Big Mac in Europe tastes about 666% better than it does here in the States. Why I have no idea. Perhaps having been on my feet for most of the past twelve hours, my back hurting, and my stomach utterly empty had something to do with it. When I got back to my hotel room I didn't care how hot it was (which was plenty). I crashed. One more day to go.


Saturday, August 1, 2003