The pilgrimage began the night before with two of my best friends sitting around in Mitchell’s kitchen, drinking hard (think Mötley Crüe “Girls, Girls, Girls” 1987 era drinking) and listening to metal. At the rate we were drinking, no one was getting up the next morning for their flights from Sydney to Hamburg. But we had obviously appeased the Metal Gods with our drinking and blasting Venom’s Black Metal album at high volume at 3 am because sure enough, at 4:30 am I was on my way to the airport for a 6 am flight! Checked in, went through security, boarded an empty flight (one person to a row – sweet!), ordered a double gin & tonic, no ice, with lime for breakfast, and blasted metal all the way to Dubai for a 24-hour layover. Knowing the reality of limited booze outside of the airport, I loaded up at duty free and headed to the hotel. After what I can only describe as hot boredom, I was back on a flight to Hamburg the next day. Once I was out of the airport in Germany, it was time to find my two friends. Knowing that they would have been doing exactly the same as me – drinking the whole time – I knew this would be mission impossible. But first, I had to deal with a train ticket machine that wouldn’t switch from German to English! Running out of patience, I saw a guy in an Annihilator shirt and asked if he was going to Wacken – he was, he spoke German, and he hooked me up with how to get a ticket, so I was on my way to The Holy Land! At this point, I figured I’d try calling my friends again. This time, I was met with slurred drunken confusion and the line “It’s all f’ed, Mitch is f’ed up and has just f’ed off, and he lost his luggage and passport” and the call with Adrian was over. As I was heading to the main train station in Hamburg, I figured I’d have a look around while I was there for them. Not two minutes had passed and I ran into Mitch, completely hammered, which is as funny now as it was then. Trying to explain to him to stay in place while I get tickets to Itzehoe yielded no results, and in a second, he vanished again. It was at this point that I figured, “F’ it” – we started together 24 hours ago, so we’re going to get there together. The next hour was spent looking for the two of them, but to no avail. So I finally decided to head over to the festival alone. Now strap in because this is where it gets good!
This being a pilgrimage finally set in, the doors opened to an impromptu metal party on board the train, and I was instantly welcomed in by everyone heading up north to Wacken. And the beers – the beers! – did not stop getting passed around to this Australian guy traveling on his own. Still, even at this point, it hadn’t sunk in yet that I was only an hour away from the greatest metal festival still going. Getting off at Itzehoe and waiting for the shuttle was no different – more metal, more beer, and making more friends. Yet it was lacking – it felt a little empty, the thought of not sharing this with my two best friends was looming over me. We had planned this together – we should be here together, getting hammered and partying together! So I figured I would get to the festival, drop my bags off, and start looking for them. Again, waiting in line for my wristband, I must’ve had 6 conversations at once and just as many beers from other metalheads that would not allow for me to wait without a beer in my hand. 20 minutes later, I had my wristband, who knows how many friends, and the same number of beers. After dropping my bags off at the camper van we had booked (thankfully we spent the extra cash on it, but more on that later).
It being the day before the festival, I had time to head back to Hamburg to search for the rest of my drinking team. The next 6 hours was spent to no avail so I headed back to Wacken on my own. Beers wearing off and jetlag definitely kicking in, I figured, why ruin a good time? So I promptly hit up the Metal Place, known as the best place to party outside of the infield, and the place where I met two new friends who are still good friends to this day. After way too many drinks with them, I finally headed back to the camper around 3 am, only to find the door wide open and Mitch and Adrian passed out cold, empties everywhere, and nowhere to sleep. I could have been mad that I slept outside on a lawn chair but I just couldn’t wipe that smile off my face. I went back into the camper, grabbed some beers, put some AC/DC on, and drank ‘til the sun came up.
The alarm clock of “The Scream of Wacken” echoed through the campgrounds. Knowing the Metal Place didn’t open til 10, I figured I would spend some time wandering around the town of Wacken, which proved to be both fun and interesting. We had a few chats with some of the locals that were up this early were either preparing their lawns with stalls to sell everything from food to beer to toilet access. They informed us that their “Wacken” sign always gets stolen, and that the festival started back in 1990 with just 6 bands. There is also a local pool that many at the festival use regularly and the local volunteer firefighters open the festival each year with their brass band.
As the morning wore on and I became more impatient waiting for the first day of the festival to start, I figured it would be a good idea to get some beers and wander to the Metal Place. There I was met by the two people I had been drinking with the day before, and a tray of jaeger shots. Finally, my two Australian friends had turned up, much to the amusement of the many that attend Wacken regularly for missing the first unofficial day of the festival. A few hours and way too many drinks later, the time was creeping closer to finally getting to the infield to see Sepultura. Or so I thought! No sooner had we left, I heard, “I feel like shit, I need to lay down but don’t worry they’re on at 5:30, I’ll meet you down there.” To which I responded, “You f*ing pussies, I didn’t fly halfway around the world to sleep one off!”
Running on a mix of exhaustion, adrenaline, and German beer, I made my way down to the Black Stage, beers in hand, and that special kind of excitement you had as a kid waiting for Christmas, and at 5:30 pm Sepultura & Les Tambours du Bronx hit the stage and I couldn’t stop grinning ear to ear. I had made it to Wacken 2012!!! 10 rows back from the front of the stage. And wow, did Sepultura deliver! You couldn’t ask for more perfect weather, an endless sea of frantic fans, and drummers blasting a sonic mass for the 5 minutes of the opening set only to outdo themselves when blended with the sheer brutality of the opening song “Refuse/Resist,” then slamming straight into “Sepulnation.” Derrick Green as always carries himself as an imposing figure on stage, with his insane metal vocals that sit perfectly next to Andreas Kisser (guitarist and only original member). Sepultura plays with a catchy-as-anything metal tone. After working the crowd of thousands into head-banging unison, the band is now watching everyone go into a frenzy with “Kairos,” “Mask,” and “Dialog”. The band seems hellbent on being as unrelenting as possible, which is exactly what I have come to see.
30 minutes into the set sees the return of their drum line, Les Tambours du Bronx, for the song “We’ve Lost You,” a song that on the surface may seem quite atmospheric (and in the hands of pop, it would be the biggest hit), but this is Sepultura and the power and emotion that is played with makes it a hell of a menacing angry song, especially with Les Tambours behind them. The band tries to lull the crowd in, forgetting that at any point it will explode again – which it does – and not only because Derrick Green charms the crowd with his German. The chaos returns again because a Prodigy cover of “Firestarter” plays and sets them up perfectly for the final set of songs. “Territory” is the next song, then everyone gets what they have been waiting for with “Ratamahatta” and “Roots Bloody Roots.” And for that brief moment, most of us here were 16 years old, listening to the metal soundtrack of ’96.
Sepultura is over, but the smile on my face is not. I needed more beer, and proceeded to move through the most polite metal crowd I’ve seen. U.D.O. not being high on my list, I figured I’d check out the infield and get meat & beer. And I have to say, Wacken has the best festival food ever – steaks and sausages cooked on a swinging grill over open flame and coals, on a bun with sauerkraut and mustard – best lunch ever at a festival!
After more beers and walking around the infield, the exhaustion and jetlag were finally kicking in, so I decided to head back to our caravan. Now, because I was not really paying attention to how I got there when the sun was still up was proving to be a challenge. I did, however, meet a group of Germans who were happy to help take me the long way around. We had to stop off at the local supermarket for beer first, though. 90 minutes later, I was back at my camper only to find my two friends still passed out. Again, I decided to sleep outside; this time, however, I invited everyone in the camper park area to our “front yard” for a small but loud metal meet-up. At 4 am we had called it a night.
After 4 hours of sleep thanks to the “Wacken Alarm Clock” – festival attendees screaming “Wacken” at the top of their lungs day and night – I was up, beers in hand, pockets pumped of more, and ready for another day. At 9 am, Mitch and Adrian were up and convinced it was the first day of the festival. “How the f* can you sleep through a whole day of Wacken I still don’t know,” I showed my sincere disappointment.
Not wanting to wait around for them to get pretty, I headed back to the Metal Place for breakfast. After some negotiation and a bit of extra euros, beers and burgers were had.
By 11 am, my friends had finally showed up to the most awesome metal bar I’ve been to. After being the punchline for missing two days of Wacken, all was forgiven with a ton of beer and jaeger shots. Watching the clock, I knew I had to be out of there by 1 so I could keep exploring the festival grounds and get down to the Black Stage to see Overkill. The walk down to the infield took me past the pole-sitting, where people sit on a 2-meter high pole for 6 hours to raise money for the Wacken foundation, which donates money to young musicians). I passed by Wacken Soccer as well. With so many fun activities all around me, it was easy to see why Wacken is always sold out. Endless bars and places to eat, way too many toilets, ATMs, and merch stands line the infield. And the thought hit me – this festival or something like it would never happen in Australia – too many rules, too many idiots.
That aside, I’ve got to get myself to Overkill for what can be best described as a chaotic wall of noise for the opening song “Come and Get It.” As the song settles in, you really start to see how dialed in and tight the band has become. Even with Bobby’s pants almost falling down, the band never lost a step, tearing into “Bring Me The Night” and showing no signs of slowing down. Overkill have set the pace for this set – fast and extremely heavy. Stopping for a brief moment, Bobby (lead singer) uses his pants almost falling down as a Segway to open “Elimination.”
And if you have stuck around for this long, it’s easy to see what Overkill is all about. Taking part of their sound from 80s hardcore and then adding their talent to thrash metal, Overkill are that unique crossover band. The constant chanting of “Overkill” by the fans only spurs the band on even more – then the band gives us “Wrecking Crew” and we sing along to another Overkill classic. They are quite good at playing in a festival environment yet making us feel like they’re playing a club show. They give us gems like “Hello from the Gutter,” “Old School,” “Rotten to the Core,” and a closing song “Fuck You,” a Subhumans cover. If you walked away from that set disappointed, then there’s no helping you – Overkill delivered classic 80s thrash and then some!
Overkill done and 45 minutes to spare before getting to the W-E-T Stage to see Decapitated, a band I hadn’t heard a lot of but was hanging out to see. I guess so were a lot of other people because by the time I got there, the stage area was packed tight. Finally, the band strode onto the stage to their opening song, “The Knife,” a song best described as controlled chaos. The band looked pumped and played outside of themselves, hungry and ready to prove that they are here to stay. By the second song “Pest,” the point was proven. They worked the crowd into a delirium, being unrelenting the whole time. And I was so glad I was watching it unfold in front of me – the almost prog metal mixed with technical death metal was seriously awesome. Add to that the machine gun-like double kick and the brutal vocals on “Mother War,” and this was definitely worth seeing. Decapitated had left me wanting more, but unfortunately 30-35 minutes was all they were going to get.
Now I had just under 3 hours until Dimmu Borgir, a band I had seen 6 months prior at a very average overpaid music festival in Australia, Soundwave, where the band was given a 30-minute set with a 2 pm time slot on a small stage. The 20,000 or so people that turned up to see them were beyond pissed to say the least. But, oh well, I thought, this is Wacken, “go big or go home” seems to be the thinking here. And in spite of the rain, I knew all things would align for an amazing over-the-top Dimmu Borgir set complete with an actual orchestra. Wandering over to the Black Stage, I finally ran into my camper friends making their way to Borgir as well. Not fully knowing what to expect from the show only added to the excitement, and as the light slowly faded from behind the low gray storm clouds overhead, the Czech national symphonic orchestra and chair began to play “Xibir,” the opening instrumental piece from the 2010s. “Abrahadabra” sent an air of trepidation and excitement through the crowd.
To say that Dimmu Borgir aren’t great showmen is quite the understatement, as they methodically and with some menace moved about the stage, readying themselves to unleash their finely crafted brand of symphonic black metal onto the nearly 75,000 enthusiastic fans that eagerly awaited it. They truly delivered on the opening with “Born Treacherous” – the orchestra and choir only added to how epic this set was shaping up to be. “Ritualist” and “A Jewel Traced Through Coal” would drag the set out long enough for the sun to almost go down so that the band’s amazing light show could finally be appreciated. There’s just something so ominous about this show with an orchestra and choir in the darkness. By the time they had played “Vredesbyrd,” my opinion was now “F’ the rain, f’ the cold, f’ the mud, I’m watching something of ‘Heavy Metal Mecca’ that I probably will never see again.” Never having heard it on a P.A. that size, “The Serpentine Offering” and “Puritana” had me floored, as did their closing tune, “Mourning Palaces.” I was left with a feeling that spending all this money was not only the best thing to do, but the right thing to do.
With 15 minutes up my sleeve until In Flames, another band I had just seen at the same shameful attempt at a music festival, Soundwave, I knew that they were going to be good. I hailed over to a mobile beer dispenser to refill both of my Wacken Steins and waited for In Flames to start. I could tell from the amount of effort that had gone into production of it that this was going to be a massive show. Their set opened with the “Jester’s Door” played from behind a silk screen with 3D imagery projected onto it. As the piano slowly faded out, the band came crashing into “Cloud Connected” off the 2002 album Reroute to Remain and a 75,000 strong crowd moved together with Anders Friden (vocals) and Björn Gelotte (guitar). They charged into “trigger,” and the fans responded in kind by opening up the muddy mosh pit for a gloriously filthy good time. Pulling things back only slightly with “Where the Dead Ships Dwell,” Anders encouraged the crowd to forget about the rain and mud and let loose with “Only for the Weak.”
As the rain fell and temperature too, more beer was needed. Walking back to In Flames and seeing “The Quiet Place” being played, you really do notice how much effort is put into Wacken each year. Not only is it the greatest metal festival in the world, but it also has the greatest metal crowd. I do think it comes down to the fact that everyone who attends is here for the biggest party of the year, and that reflects on the respect shown to the bands and other people at the festival. As In Flames started to come to a close with “Take This Life,” I was glad I was watching them at Wacken instead of at home. Even though I was soaking wet and filthy, this was another awesome day that couldn’t have been better. Now to metal karaoke for more beers and an early start and late finish for Saturday.
Up at 8 am and knowing I wouldn’t have any bands to see until 5:30 that night, my friends and I took the opportunity to wander around the town of Wacken, so with backpacks loaded with beer, we were taking in what we had all missed – a very serene town tucked away north of Germany, with people very happy and satisfied. We found ourselves back at the Metal Place yet again for god only knows how many drinks – drunk out of our horns this time – and by 4:30 I was on my way again, this time to see Testament. It had been many years since I had seen them, so this one I was really looking forward to. And as if the metal gods were smiling on all of us, the skies cleared up and the rain stopped because no one is going to fuck with Chuck Billy, the lead singer of Testament! And now, finally, after years of waiting, Testament is at Wacken opening with “Rise Up” off their new album “Dark Roots of Earth.” The band has never sounded better, especially with Gene Hoglan back on the drums. I have to say, this set was the most fun of all the bands at the festival. I don’t know if it’s the catchy hooks of Eric Peterson on his guitar or the way Alex Skolnick shreds his guitar solos. Regardless, it was a fun set to watch. It was filled with a lot of new material off the new album, sure, but the essentials were still thrown in there, like “More Than Meets the Eye” off The Formation of Damnation, or “Into the Pit” off The New Order, or even the catchiest thrash metal song “Over the Wall” off the Legacy album – I don’t know why, but that solo always gets stuck in my head. It was great seeing Testament again, that set really had me head-banging like it was 1985 all over again. And it was fitting that they played on the True Metal stage.
15 minutes to Dark Funeral on the party stage and it feels odd, the sun up and Dark Funeral playing, but oh well, it’s Dark Funeral! As the band walks out onto the stage, I had to laugh to myself, but it really did look like a bunch of dead guys having a BBQ on stage with the smoke machine filling in all the empty space. However, when they opened with “Stigmata” it sounded like a huge jet engine powering up – nothing sounds like Dark Funeral. Nothing! The only complaint I have is this: The louder Dark Funeral got, the louder Cradle of Filth got on the main stage. Which, let’s be honest, is really annoying, especially when Dark Funeral is true black metal and Cradle of Filth is… well, who knows. But, all things considered, Dark Funeral destroyed the “Atrum Regina” and “The Arrival of Satan’s Empire” – the sheer insanity on those drums is enough to melt your face. Throw into the mix the lunacy of their twin guitar attack and the bludgeoning attack of the bass, and you have all the hallmarks of a band not to be reckoned with. And with songs like “Vobiscum Satanas” and “Open the Gates,” all the elements are there for a truly memorable set. I left feeling completely relaxed and very happy with this thought – if I had to sum up what Dark Funeral are about, it would be the quote from Young Frankenstein, “You’re talking about the nonsensical ravings of a lunatic mind.”
15 minutes to spare again before Amon Amarth hit the True Metal Stage – that’s more than enough time for beer.
From the opening guitar riffs of “War of the Gods” you know that Amon Amarth are on a mission and there will be no stopping them once they start. There’s just something awe-inspiring watching Johan Hegg (vocals) getting the 75,000 people to chant with him to “Runes to My Memory.” Fredrick Anderson (drums) opens “Destroyer of the Universe” with blinding speed on the kick drums, followed by the relentless twin guitar attack of Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Söderberg. At this point, the crowd could care less about the rain or mud; this is Wacken at its best. With Amon Amarth setting us up for the classic “Live for the Kill,” flame pots fire shots off, and Johan stalks the stage, working the crowd up more and more. There isn’t one person that isn’t banging their head or rocking out on an air guitar, and it’s at this point that you realize what Wacken is really all about. There is a sense of camaraderie, of friendship, of everyone coming together from all over the world to rock our souls out together. “The Fate of Norns” really hammered that home. And not to leave us all hanging, Amon Marth provided us with a two-song encore of “Twilight of the Thunder God” and “Guardians of Asgaard.” From the crowd’s reaction and the band’s interaction, you have to wonder when these guys will get the headlining spot they deserve. It’s a long story, but for as many people as had showed up to see them at a pre-headlining spot, it was easy to see who the true fans were, and what kind of crowd and spirit the band can draw in, despite any drama.
With Amon Amarth over and a permanent smile on my face, I had 2 hours to kill before Machine Head, yet another band that played the aforementioned so-called metal festival. Once again, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed given the last two days I had spent at Wacken. You know the drill now – I loaded up on beer and made my way down to the front. Only this time, I had to navigate through a flooded infield in the dark while half-cut (Australian for “half-drunk”), avoiding knee high holes full of muddy water. I guess everyone there was going to see them after they released the Unto the Locust album.
As the ominous opening of “I am Hell (Sonata in C#)” filled the infield, Machine Head appeared on stage bathed in a nefarious red glow. As the old school Machine Head riffing built up, so did the unmistakable drum sound by Dave McClain. The mood set, Machine Head dropped a first album classic “Old” off of Burn My Eyes – there’s no way you couldn’t be moved by the catchiness of that song. As the opening of “Imperium” rang out through the infield, so did the chant “Machine F*ing Head” from the crowd, all only to be washed out in a sonic wave of the double kick, and Robb Flynn and Phil Demmel shredding the opening, working the crowd up for discharging the mayhem of yet another twin guitar attack. “A Thousand Lies” picks up speed as well as a new sense of density thanks in part to the bass by Jared MacEachern. At this point, “Locust” and “Aesthetics of Hate,” the latter being a song about the death of Dimebag Darrell, slow the pace down and let us catch our breath for a brief moment before really bringing the mood right down with “Darkness Within.” Now it’s time to pick it back up – and “This is The End” did just that. Machine Head are at the top of their game, but there is just one nagging thought on my mind, “When in the world is this rain going to stop?” but right at that point, I’m pulled straight back into the moment with the opening of “Hold,” and getting pushed and pulled back and forth by the song. As the final chords ring out, the build for “Davidian” starts, as does the feeling in the crowd, and it takes the whole band working together to create the most awesome wall of noise imaginable. It’s the sort of feeling you get where you just want to break things with a sledge hammer. Thank the universe for Machine Head!
I’m still pumped after Machine Head and 15 minutes til Ministry. At this point, I’m soaking wet, filthy, tired, and over standing, but seeing as how Ministry has pulled out at the last minute every time they had been booked to play Australia, I’m staying right where I am. And just like that, “Uncle Al” (Al Jourgensen) appears on the video screens as the opening riff of “Ghouldiggers” rips through the P.A. What happens next could only be likened to an atomic bomb going off on stage – it’s abrasive, aggressive, and pissed off, and it’s exactly what is needed at 1 am. The madness behind Mike Scaccia’s lead guitar work fits perfectly with Ministry, as does the chaos that arises from it. “No W” follows the same path as “Ghouldiggers” – most of the early 90s industrial groove has been removed at this point and replaced with shred and chaos. “Rio Grande Blood,” and “Lies, lies, lies” round out the George Bush Jr eras of Ministry. “99 Percenters” really steers away from the middle period and shows elements of the former Ministry with enough groove and angst.
“Life is Good” straddles both of the two, and while it feels like it could have become something, it relegates itself to the “same-same” feeling of most of the set. And this was the problem I was having with Ministry – it’s become very repetitive. They always have been, but at least there was a time where there were enough creative elements thrown in to pique your interest. “Waiting” still retains those flashes of creativity, but musically the Ministry of today has a general feeling of malaise to it. Again, Relapse has elements of something that could have been awesome. Finally, Ministry end with the classics “N.W.O.,” “Just One Fix,” and “Thieves” – a massive improvement over the rest of the set both musically and creatively, but not enough for me to have walked away from this knowing this was a fantastic show.
It’s now 2 am, and the very careful trek back to the camper begins. I say that as the infield felt like walking on ice, only there was the very real possibility of falling over and coming up covered in mud. All in all, though, this was the best time I’ve had to date. New friends made just because we were all here for the same reason – a true love for metal, a ridiculous amount of beer drank, partying every night, and being left with a question that was so hard to answer – “Why is Wacken SO great? Why is this the greatest metal festival in the world?” And I think the reason it can’t be answered in words is this – it’s such a personal experience, it means something different to everybody. You could, of course, liken it to something, but that would be selling it short.
Wacken has an aura about it. It’s the unity, the friendships made, the experience shared with friends and strangers alike, it’s the distances traveled, and the hurdles overcome just to be at Wacken that make it so special.