Wacken Open Air –the name, the majesty, the legend. There isn’t a metalhead in the world that hasn’t heard this glorious name uttered by at least one other person. This is a place that is steeped in tradition for many metalheads, often being described as the Mecca or the ‘Holy Land’ by those who are lucky enough to attend. So what is it actually like? From the minute you step foot inside the hallowed camping fields at Wacken you quickly understand why so many refer to it as the Holy Land. Campsites and flags erected everywhere from almost every country imaginable, speakers blasting the hits of Sabaton or Rammstein loudly, games of flunky ball occurring on almost every available road or passage, and the notion that every single person of the 80,000+ strong crowd which has descended upon this small town in the northern Germany, is there for the exact same reason that you are – Metal! Its like Disneyland — but for metalheads!
In 2016, we were again treated to rain the day before the festivities began. Rain at Wacken has become a regular occurrence over the past few years, and perhaps this is why there are Wacken shirts which have emblazoned on the back of them “Wacken – Rain or Shine”. A small amount of rain is never normally a problem, but when you have 80,000 metalheads walking through the same thoroughfares that rain has just hit, the mud becomes quite deep. But the inconvenience of the mud was never going to keep me from watching so many great bands playing on Day 1 as there were so many big names in store, and I hardly knew where to begin! Marduk, Foreigner, Whitesnake, Iron Maiden –fans were really spoilt for choice here and it was difficult trying to plot out a course of action.
Perhaps the best choice I made early on was beginning the day by heading in to through Wackinger Village to get some food and enjoy some of the traditional folk festivities as soon as the gates opened. My friends and I have sort of a habit when we are at Wacken to spend a lot of time relaxing and taking in the sites in the Wackinger village when we aren’t watching bands on the big stages. For those who don’t know, this is a section of the festival area, complete with its own stage, that is themed like an old medieval village. Think something from the TV show ‘Vikings’, but metal! The village has its own Pirate Boat shaped bar, axe throwing, meat roasting over open fires, and mead is available at almost every second stall. Even with the ankle deep mud causing foot traffic problems, the place always manages to attract a crowd and the mud didn’t seem to have dampened anyone’s spirits. Wackinger Village is one of the most unique and enjoyable places on earth and they seem to have got the formula right. With Pampatut playing their comedic style of metal over on the Wackinger stage creating the perfect beginning to what would be a monstrous three days, it was time to get into it.
Deciding it was time to head down to watch some bands on the bigger stages, and making the small trek through the ankle deep slop I caught Skyline officially open the main stages of the festival. Following them were heavy metallers Saxon who I only briefly caught as I decided I would go and have a stroll through the metal market, but it seemed like the crowd loved what was being thrown down by the band. Whitesnake was up next and the rockers put on one hell of a performance that was fitting for the day’s proceedings. Probably the only thing that the band needs to tone down is the amount of times ‘Whitesnake’ is written on vocalist David Coverdale’s jacket, but apart from that the band still has the touch that has made them a favourite amongst crowds for many years now.
Now, every year, Wacken seems to put on one band that, while fitting, just seems a little out of place with the bulk of the lineup – and it’s usually a band that have a storied career behind them. Last year it was Europe, and I think I heard enough of “The Final Countdown” playing through the campsite last year to last me a lifetime, but this year it was Foreigner. Now while I just can’t picture exactly what it was that made this so special, it could have had something to do with the thousands of fans singing along to “I Want to Know What Love Is”. It’s often simple moments like this that stick with the fans and ‘make’ the festival for some of us, and if standing in a field with 40,000+ other people singing along to Foreigner wasn’t a highlight for some people, then I don’t know what is!
Dashing over from the main stage to the W.E.T stage, I was able to catch death metal masters Immolation performing to a solidly packed-out tent and they put on such a visceral and chilling performance. Although they were one man down on stage, the band’s performance didn’t suffer in the slightest and those fortunate enough to watch the band were treated to one hell of an aural onslaught put on by the Americans. But the one band that blew absolutely every member of the 80,000+ strong crowd away was the one that almost everyone had been waiting the entire day for, none other than Iron Maiden. There was just something indescribable about the energy that the crowd exuded for this band. I’ve seen big bands before at Wacken – In Flames, Motörhead, Slayer, King Diamond, Judas Priest and Running Wild – but I have never felt an energy that was as intense as standing in the middle of this crowd watching Iron Maiden.
There are probably no words in the human vocabulary that could describe just how impressive this show was. Bruce Dickinson was absolutely flawless vocally, and the energy that he has on stage is that ridiculous you swear you were watching someone 30 years his junior; Steve Harris continues to be the energetic bass player that just wants to ‘shoot the crowd’ as he plays along; and the trio of guitarists in Janick Gers, Adrian Smith and Dave Murray are almost eternal in their playing. Perhaps the greatest moments from the setlist stemmed from the band’s encore of “Blood Brothers”, and “Run to the Hills” which saw nearly every person in the 80,000 strong crowd chanting along (and I’m sure a lot of other people around the world watching the live stream were too). There was nothing to fault with this performance, which will stand as one of the most memorable I have seen in my entire time attending concerts and festivals.
Now there was no denying that all eyes were on Maiden who were finishing off their ‘Book of Souls’ World Tour, but I almost feel sorry for the other bands that were playing at the same time including The Black Dahlia Murder (who, by accounts from some of my friends, put on one of their finest shows yet), and Marduk, because grabbing some of the fans during this time would have been difficult! Catching glimpses of Blue Oyster Cult as I slowly meandered back to the campsite was the cherry on cake for such an amazing first day, and knowing that for me this was the ‘quietest’ day, I was prepared for the uphill battle ahead of me for the next few days. But that’s the beauty of these festivals, and knowing that this was only the beginning filled me with an air of excitement.