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Wacken Open Air (W:O:A) is one of Europe's two largest heavy metal festivals, the other being Dynamo Open Air in Eindhoven, Holland. This three-day exercise in loud- and/or madness takes place in the small Schleswig-Holstein town of Wacken (that's in Germany, for the geographically challenged). Most of the year, Wacken is a small, sleepy town with around 2000 inhabitants, but during this barbarian invasion, the "population" count usually exceeds 30.000. Trust me, the sight of a tiny village crawling with black-clad, long-haired spike-wearing types is interesting, to say the least.

Not another damn fair

The crew behind the festival take great pride in the fact that their festival is not just another damn fair, and that it has remained free of commercial control for its entire lifetime, despite the lucrative offers the crew has received over the years. But as they say, that's not what W:O:A is about. Despite the fact that various European Union taxes has made the festival harder to manage financially (there is a "foreigner tax" which they must pay in addition to all foreign bands' fees, even including things like hotel rooms, flights and the like, all in all adding up to around 35% more expenses for the W:O:A crew), the crew is determined to keep the festival free of commercian control, to make sure that nobody can tell them which bands to book, or fill the entire place with damn ads. To be fair, the festival crew do advertise the sound processing gear they use, at W:O:A 2003, there were more or less prominent Marshall and AMD banners in the main concert area. The festival does make a profit, but most of it is usually spent on improving next year's festival. Music TV channels like MTV and VIVA has never once aired footage from W:O:A, nor is it likely that they ever will.

Concerts & Bands

Bands that have frequented W:O:A have been an impressive list over the years. The 2003 band list alone includes such metal luminaries as Annihilator, Diamond Head, Dismember, In Flames, Nile, Primal Fear, Slayer, Soilwork, Stratovarius, Testament and Vader, as well as the Twisted Sister reunion concert. There's pretty much something for you no matter whether you're old school or new school, except that the festival steers clear of corporate nu-metal. The festival sports four large stages (the True Metal stage, the Blackstage, the Party Stage and the Wet Stage -- the latter is enclosed in a tent, in case of heavy rain), and for two of the three days of the festival, the schedule is set up so that when one concert ends, another will start at the adjacent stage 15 minutes later.

Definitely a good place to spend a hot summer weekend if you have a fetish for distortion pedals, gigantic stacks of Marshall amps, and like the company of drunken metalheads. Suggestion: Avoid sunburn, metal concerts are Hell if the slightest touch reminds you that your skin is 400 degrees hot.

Blasting the North in August.

Such is the motto of Wacken Open Air (estd. 1990) which is pretty much the best metal festival ever, or at least one of the largest and most highly regarded (though Dynamo in Eindhoven and various Scandinavian ones can match it for atmosphere and suchlike, WOA trumps them all with sheer size.) Seriously. Download, O2 Wireless, Bloodstock, all can go and take a long walk off a short pier for all I care. Wacken has it all, the best bands, the lack of corpo-whoredom (Download this year had one stage sponsored by a washed up shit-sheet and the other by whiny emo tossbags, see what I mean?) the cheap local German beer, the greatness that is the Metal Market, the incredible atmosphere, the huge crowds of on average 35,000 people from all over the world, though often this is a conservative estimate, and above all, it's really cheap compared to what one might expect to pay were it held in Britain, even if you factor in the costs of getting there. Then there's the whole adventure side of it, navigating across Europe to a muddy field outside a small sleepy town about halfway between Hamburg and the Danish border, living in a tent and not washing for days just to see some crazy Norwegians or batshit insane Finns thrash out a few songs. It's truly excellent and, in the year of our Lord 2006, I was there.

I won't bore you to death with how I got there, suffice to say that by the wonders of the 160mph Eurostar, and fare-dodging on a sleeper service to Hamburg (if you're an employee of Deutsche Bahn, don't get your knickers in a twist, I can explain...) I arrived at Wacken (population: 1,750) on a local stopping service and a crowded bus, and, having picked up my reserved tickets from a supermarket in the town, I tramped across to the festival site (population: about 80,000 this year, I was told at the time, though later estimates put it at about 62,000). I had thought I'd been real smart by turning up a day in advance to bag the best camping spot, but so had everyone else and as such my tent was almost at the far edge of the campsite, next to a trio of German girls with dyed hair, one red, one green, and one blue, in a dark green tent with some Norse runes emblazoned on a banner on one side. Having done that, I then had a wander round the site just to get my bearings. Here follows some of the more interesting parts in the area I found:

  • The Beer Garden. Without a shadow of a doubt the most important part of the festival site, they served a variety of alcoholic beverages, mainly local beers, ranging from the ineffably cheap but Stella Artois-like Holsten at €1.50 a can, to some more expensive but nicer tasting items. The best offer was a plastic stein of something called Franziskaner Weissbier, which was plenty for your money, lasted a long time, and when one of the spontaneous Mexican-wave-like shouts of "WACKEN!" went round the area, accompanied by many, many pairs of devil horns, it had a good heft to it. Also, just wandering about here meant that I, who went alone, could get to talk to some fellow Englanders, my German being pretty much out of an Audi handbook. I met up with one group from the town of Weymouth and ended up chanting in a most politically incorrect manner with the best of them:
  • We're the Wackeneers,
    We like drinking beers,
    Rape and pillage, rape and pillage
    Kill all the fucking queers!

    Of course, as the pilsener flowed more this was inverted to "We like fucking queers" and "drink all the fucking beers" and this then segued into that rugby-club favourite, "For we're all queers together!" There was also a local brand of beer, Wacken Beer, which came in bottles with the festival bull's head logo on it and the tag, "Skoal Metalheadz!" which I didn't taste but was probably repackaged Holsten sold at twice the price. A small stand near the beer garden sold soft drinks as well as sealed bags of crushed ice which, in the sort of insanely hot weather we had during the latter half of the festival, were a necessity.

  • The various food stalls. Overpriced and toxic looking usually, especially the kebab vans. I went for the bratwurst in buns for the most part, or the grilled steak, because they looked the least likely to demonstrate to me whether my boots were leaking. There was also pizza, and something called "knobi-brot" which sounds a) rude, and b) unidentifiable. However, they had more potential customers than the population of the terrorist capital of the UK nearby so the stall operators could afford to rip them off and poison them because the punters had nowhere else to go really. That being said, I did try the steak in a bun and felt my left arm twinge in a worrying manner with the huge amounts of fat stuck to the bit of meat I was consuming. This, and the sausages in buns, became a sort of staple festival diet for me. Even more strangely though, I actually lost weight, because at the end my trousers were falling down...
  • The Metal-Market. This was a number of covered stalls at one side of the festival site, at which various suitable odds and ends could be purchased. These included loads of underground CDs, band shirts, patches, spiky bracelers and gauntlets, ornate leather jewelry, corsetry, flappy dresses, and other gothwear for the ladies who were into that kind of thing (though metal fashion is, I must say, very androgyne, there were several nicely gothed-up ladies about, most of the time on the arms of huge 18-stone Germans), black jeans, black leather trousers, black latex trousers, rings and things, and other such oddments. One stall of particular note was the Viking Stall, at which one could buy chainmail shirts, helmets, mead, drinking horns, Thor's Hammer pendants, and T-shirts with slogans like "Odin statt Jesus" or "My God is Odin, My Lord is Me." This is apparently a regular fixture at WOA and the drinking horns were certainly a fast seller, mainly because you could decant a surprising amount of beer into them.
  • I did, however, find some of the wares on offer at the Metal Market a little bit ironic, though. One stall specialised in black metal from Poland, the Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, a not inconsiderable portion of which was apparently produced by people of a, well, rather fascistic political bent and some even on record labels associated with white supremacist movements. Now although I'm perfectly capable of separating peoples' works from their political views - and many so-called "NSBM" acts have lyrical themes about pre-Christian traditions in their home countries and other forms of National Romanticism rather than going on about why Jews and blacks need death, I found it a wee bit creepy that not a few yards away from a banner bearing a crossed-out swastika and the legend "Metalheadz Against Racism" you could, in effect, pay off the pension funds of openly racist organisations. Then again, a lot of people will buy stuff by Graveland, Temnozor, Nokturnal Mortum, et al, just for the music. Which is, of course, why people come to WOA and the stall owners probably realised that.

  • The WOA Soccercup. This event usually takes place the day before the festivities start in earnest. Basically you sign up on the Internet with your team of five before coming and play some football against other metalheads. Note that this is basically an excuse to get drunk and streak across the pitch. It's all good clean fun as well. The standard of play on offer wasn't great, although one really quite fat guy with a beard down to his crotch seemed a particularly talented player and one who was quite quick on his feet, or maybe that was because he was less/more ratted than the rest.
  • The toilet and shower facilities. I deem these worthy of note because, well, even we big hairy metalheads need to answer a call of nature at times. Basically, these are typical festival standard, with portaloos that resemble someone's science project and communal showers in a Nissen hut. There are some proper toilets which flush and which are cleaned properly, but these cost 50 Euro-cents to enter. Basically you're better off going in a hedge, and only using proper toilets when you need to offload those dodgy burgers. Imodium tablets are also a good idea.

  • The campsite. Don't expect to do much sleeping here, the party goes on pretty much in some form or another twenty-four hours a day. If ever you get bored, just wander about a bit and you'll probably find someone interesting to talk to, even in the dead of night. The campsite is all open and has proper roads and as far as I know nobody got robbed or beaten up. Well, there were German police on ATVs tooling about a bit, though mainly to curb people getting aggressive while drunk and telling them they've had enough. Lots of people had brought stereos and blasted their CDs out with their friends hanging about and inviting others in to join them. It is exceedingly friendly, almost disturbingly so - for instance, some Germans gave me two cans of Holsten simply because I had a Slayer T-shirt on.
  • There's a spot of fratboy humour about but it should be taken in the spirit in which it's intended. Don't go expecting a Spring Break style syphilis-swapping party, or voluminous amounts of shagging at all really for that matter (the couple who were thusly engaged up against the side of their camper van while Cradle of Filth's song "Coffin Fodder" blared out from within are excepted.) Basically the fratboyishness is reserved to holding up the bottoms of wholesale outers of pilsener with "Titten fur Bier" scrawled on them in permanent marker - and, just before someone starts claiming that we're all a load of sexist dinosaurs, a bunch of female metalheads had a similar device in another area of the campsite saying "Bier fur Titten." They were evidently deemed quite attractive because they had several crumpled cans about the base of their deckchairs. Another individual had cut out several pairs of circles in a roll-up type mattress, and marked them "zu Keine," "Kompakt," "Handvoll," "Standart," "Grosse," and "Hilf mir!" and nobody batted an eyelid really to this blatant objectification of the female form. Though to be fair, there was probably a female counterpart with a "Dick-o-Meter" made similarly. It's all in good humour anyhow; besides, true dyed-in-the-wool Bro-Magnons aren't into proper metal and would not be seen dead with Wackeneers in any case. Not cool enough.

    Something that did worry me about the campsite was that it was very tightly packed in when I was there this year. It was so tightly packed in that some Danes in an Astra accidentally backed into the corner of my tent while I was inside and bent one of the poles out of shape a bit. I was, of course, unhurt, but it did very much worry me. Early arrival is highly recommended in order to find space and to avoid incidents like this.

  • The stages themselves. There are four stages at Wacken; the two main ones are next door to each other with fifty-foot stacks of speakers up each side and heaps of Marshall amps in near-permanent residence (in the world of metal, is there any other sort of amp?) and a video screen between them which showed various information about who was next, and a few adverts, mainly for the documentary film Metal: A Headbanger's Journey which featured Wacken prominently. These two were called the "True Metal Stage" and the "Black Stage" and are of about the same size, possibly the True Metal Stage being a wee bit bigger (though Emperor, the band that many people I spoke to had singled out as one to see in 2006, were on the Black Stage.) The third stage, the Party Stage, is off to one side and is about half the size of the main two stages. The fourth stage is very small and is covered by a tent with its own beer sub-tent inside. This, the "Wet Stage," is where the Metal Karaoke was held and the lesser-known acts performed. Yes, Metal Karaoke, I shit you not.
  • To avoid conflicts of sound and other such messes, acts were scheduled alternately between the True Stage and the Black and Party stages, so that when, for example, Danko Jones was playing on the True Stage, Opeth and Soilwork would be setting up on the Black and Party stages respectively. The plus side of this arrangement is that it's possible to have more bands perform in the three days of the main festivities, but on the minus side, sometimes one has to make some pretty tough choices about who to see next. The Wet Stage simply played all the time, it was small and far away enough to keep itself to itself and it didn't really interfere with other bands playing on the main stages.

    Advertising on stage is limited to the equipment used by the bands, the ubiquitous Marshall amplifier brand and the film "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey." It's quite on the cards that that is the way it will remain for the foreseeable future; WOA has lasted 17 years without being bought out by some major media conglomerate (Download, for instance, at Donington Park in the UK, is run by Live Nation, a subsidiary of Clear Channel) and its organisers and adherents would most like it to stay that way. After all, with no sponsors or advertisers to tiptoe round, the organisers can ensure that the acts they book are those that the festival-goers want to see. And the acts that the festival-goers want to see are all well regarded metal bands, all very different styles, be they traditional metal, death metal, melodic death metal, female fronted death metal, black metal, symphonic black metal, black metal/humppa crossover, power metal, cheeseball Tolkien-obsessed power metal, folksy metal which results in not so much circle pits as circle dancing, Viking metal, and many, many more. They do tend to steer clear of nu-metal or things whose genres involve the word "core" though (other than grindcore, as Napalm Death have played there I believe.) Of course, not every artist who played there was metal per se, in 2006 the Canadian alt rock artist Danko Jones played on the True Stage, and the German artist Mambo Kurt, who specialises in covering all manner of songs of all types in a bossa nova or polka style on a Hammond Organ played on the Wet Stage.

    Indeed, WOA has grown from being a small local event as it was in 1990 to a major international headbanging happening; practically every band of any significant stature has played there, and even some less well known performers as well. It's also comparatively cheap, as festivals go, well, in terms of ticket prices it is; in 2006, a full three-day ticket would have set you back merely €79, which is about sixty quid in real money. Compare this with certain other festivals I can name, which command ticket prices over twice that, and the money you can save can go towards getting there and back and, of course, that lovely, lovely Wacken Beer. Also some people have been there pretty much since day one; indeed, my trip there in 2006 was the first time I had ever been and I did notice there was a wee bit of a dick-waving contest to see who could produce the oldest official WOA shirt or badge or whatever (a thirty-something French bloke "won" if you must know, with a 1996 shirt.) It's little things like this that make WOA such an unmissable event, even if you're not into psychotic distortion pedals and stacks of Marshall amps.

    One should be warned, though, that the weather can be rather changeable up between Hamburg and the Danish border and the combination of rainy spells during the first half of the week and oppressive sunlight during the second half of 2006's event meant that I went off home with half of Schleswig-Holstein stuck to me in the form of tiny little dust particles (via a night camped out on the floor of Bruxelles-Midi station after having been direly warned by a pair of Belgians who looked like Jay and Silent Bob that I'd be pickpocketed and arseraped by Moroccan cottaging enthusiasts within minutes, or something like that, but that's another story) which appeared literally everywhere. So when I got back home to loserville where I lived I was tired and filthy but I didn't care, it was that great. Beer, tasty music, intelligent conversation (well, conversation not about vapid zelebrities or Cristiano Ronaldo anyhow)... what more could I have wanted?

    I'm definitely going again next year.

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