It’s fitting that the world’s largest metalfest, a gathering that drew upwards of 70,000 people this year, is situated in the middle of a coagulating, mud-swathed cow pasture. I am of course talking about Wacken, Germany, a bumpkin town about 50 kilometers northwest of Hamburg that has housed the open-air monstrosity every summer for the last 17 years, each event bigger and louder than the last. Metal enthusiasts from across the globe converge, rain or shine, for three days of camping, drinking, vomiting, and unapologetic butchering of metal classics by way of karaoke. Yet Wacken is no longer a simple celebration of metal culture. Attendance has more than doubled from what it was only five years ago, turning the event into something of an abomination, a haven for virtually anybody on the fringes. The once-cultish concretion of metalheads is now a seething, metastasizing corporate phenomenon. Nerds, weirdos, burnouts, hippies, gypsies, bikers, leather-daddies, larpers, rastafarians, the obese – they all call Wacken their home.
Most people who attend the festival typically arrive by train, and being too broke to rent a car, we were left with no option but to suffer the masses. On Thursday, the Hamburg station turned into a fucking zoo as people funneled in from every corner of Europe. I half expected Saxon to play right there on Platform 6. From Hamburg we traveled north to Itzehoe where we all shelled out seven euro to be bussed to the site in a sardine can. The campground stretched from the edge of town into eternity. It was enormous; jammed with tents, cars, vans, and ramshackle tarps as far as the eye could see. After setting up camp we made our way to the stages to catch Sodom, who, despite being doddering grampas, tore up the evening crowd to get the fest underway.
On that note, the sound, lighting, visuals, etc., were all top-notch; no complaint there. Surrounding the massive stages were various overpriced pizza booths, brat stands, and beer tents, as well as a huge vendor market the size of your average Wal-Mart, trafficking everything from buttons and bodices to chainmail and drinking horns. Hell, you could buy a full suit of armor if you had the cash. Additionally, Wacken now slaps their official brand name on just about everything but a baby’s ass. They’ve got footwear, camping gear, hats, flags, guitars, bathrobes, towels, air fresheners, condoms, even vibrators.
The rampant trinkets and souvenirs I expected, but what I didn’t expect was all the indiscriminate, wanton passing out. Drunken lunacy I can deal with, and I know people have died at Wacken before in alcohol-related “accidents,” but I must’ve heard ambulance sirens at least five times a day. People dropped like flies, passing out at any and all hours, wherever and whenever they pleased. Metalheads are music’s biggest drunks, sure, and I imbibe my fair share, but for fuck’s sake, at least attempt to make it back to your shit-swaddled hovel instead of passing out in the middle of the festival grounds. Nobody wants to step over your corpses, assholes. What is this, a rave?! The kind gentleman below had the courtesy to find his bed outside of the show area, mere feet from the portable toilets. Thank you, sir.
Another of Wacken’s delightful attractions is the piss canal. Shallow irrigation ditches honeycomb the campground that typically become the site of shameless, relentless pissing contests and trash dumping. Yes, of course I’m guilty. Who the fuck wants to use the toilet? Thankfully, there was a broad furrow perhaps 20 yards from our campsite that became our own personal trough of sorts. Aromas you’ll notice floating through the daytime air include vomit, urine, manure, beer, cow, and wet euromullet.
Friday saw the real party commence as geezers Blind Guardian, Iced Earth, and Norway’s Demon Burger headlined the event. Not being a huge fan of Blind Guardian, I forgot how popular they are, particularly in Europe, and particularly among the geriatric and fantasy crowds. There’s nothing really to say except that they’re just straight-up Dragonlance™ metal. Cheesier than Frodo’s breakfast omelette? Yes, but a fun band nonetheless. I couldn’t help but notice the drunken camaraderie among the fans when they played, as old and young alike roared aloud in unison. Speaking of old, I should’ve known that acts like Iced Earth, Blind Guardian, and Saxon would rouse the senile from their deathbeds, giving them a chance to don their ragged denim jackets and not feel ashamed. There comes a time in a man’s life, however, when you have to let the dream die. This man clearly hasn’t, and yes, he is asleep.
Also worth mentioning is the fire that broke out some time during the afternoon on Friday. Or was it Saturday? I happened to be standing near the Beck’s headquarters flipping through CDs when smoke began billowing above the crowd about 20 meters away. Apparently somebody thought it was a good idea to flick their cigarette butt into the straw. Amazing, I know. Moments later the heroic Wacken fire brigade appeared on scene, dispersed the mob, and casually doused the fire. Reeling from what was probably the most action they’d seen all year, the firemen decided to hang out and catch some of the subsequent bands, even hose down the occasional unsuspecting passerby. Sadly, nobody was incinerated during the mishap. That would’ve been metal.
Now I’m no fan of post-Enthrone Demon Burger, but they managed to pull off a decent show, sampling from just about all their albums. Shaggy has put on more weight, no doubt from touring across the U.S., the cradle of obesity, earlier this year, and falling in love with my sister. No, I’m not kidding. I might as well mention now that most of the bands didn’t deliver anything approaching stellar, but it’s a treat to be able to see an act you like, wander around for a bit, have a smoke or a beer, and then see another. And another. It’s an unbridled barrage of virtually every metal genre, and there’s something for everyone. Amorphis sounded pretty good, as did Enslaved. Saturday night headliners Immortal rocked the house, but mainly because, well, they’re Immortal, rather than their set being anything but muddled. 1349 and Vital Remains played back to back for the black metal hordes before karaoke carried whoever was still awake toward dawn. At one point I heard a shocking rendition of Master of Puppets.
As the night grew late and the black metal spectacle (and my level of drunkenness) intensified, I found myself thinking about what would draw so many thousands of people to the forsaken tract of country called Wacken. Booze-addled ideas about oneness, acceptance, and non-conformity ambled through my head. I remembered overhearing Cristina from Lacuna Coil earlier that day, talking about how beautiful the festival was and how it brought us all, the fans, the bands, the team, together. I wondered, does Wacken truly unite various metal adherents? Were we all there to join hands and lionize the lifestyle? Yeah, yeah, we’re all outsiders, an army marching under the inexorable banner of W:O:A, and metal fucking rules! Aaaaaarrrrrgh! But I knew better …
I woke up Sunday morning, saw the wasteland of terror spread out before me and thought, yup, I was right, it’s all horseshit, and most metal fans are the scummiest, most simpleminded dregs in the galaxy. Wacken looked as if a Category 5 hurricane had rolled through. Trash piled in heaps across the horizon, bottles strewn about by the thousands, toilets overturned, grassland reduced to piss-logged mulch. Camp chairs were broken, tents ripped, muddy clothes peppered the landscape like so many molehills. Even the town markets were strafed with garbage and turned to cesspools. It was horrifying. The post-Wacken urine canals would’ve given any trench on the Western Front a run for its money.
So what does usher the mobs to Wacken? Surely it isn’t the bands, as half the people there were more interested in sitting around their tents, drinking. Most people were too hung over to function anytime before 2 p.m., and if they did, it was only to go purchase more beer from one of the local markets. If I wanted to lounge on a camp chair and drink, I sure as hell wouldn’t pay 100 euro to do it. I’d drink on my fucking porch! So then perhaps it’s that illusion of oneness I mentioned, the feeling that there are other people out there who share the same experience, the same incongruity, the same love for an obscure music that gives them a reason to feel special, to feel different. If this is your reasoning, then I say fuck off. If Wacken is your yearly medication for maladjustment, then may you forever remain submerged in its filth. You’re probably the dickhead that passed out during Dimension Zero (best show of the festival) and woke up smothered in mud. Metal has never been about togetherness, or love, or teenagers that can’t handle their liquor. OK, fine, it clearly has a spot for zit-riddled teenagers. Humor? Hell yes; any longhair worth his salt has a good understanding of it. I met some great people at Wacken and had a time I won’t soon forget, but half its attendees should’ve been shown the exit, or the guillotine.
On the other hand, where else can 100+ metal bands occupy the same limelight? Where else can you party for three days straight, blast your music at full volume, paint your face, and wallow in your own feces without being hassled by police? Where else can the unwashed rabbles of Western civilization congregate in relative harmony? The Wacken population, while largely insufferable elsewhere, is probably the tamest metal crowd to be found anywhere in the world. Could it be the striking absence of meat-headed Americans? I didn’t see a single American flag fluttering over the campground skyline. Norwegian, Finnish, German, Romanian, French, even Brazilian, yes, but not one Yankee banner to be found. From what I gathered, there seems to be a naïve notion held by many European youths, especially the Germans, that we’re all Bush-loving war mongers out here. Decades of repressed nationalism explain the common likening of Bush to Hitler, but I suppose the beer garden is about the last place one would find reasonable politics, or toothpaste.
Whatever the case may be, Wacken is a harmless enterprise. It’s clear that most of these kids never leave their boondock European towns but for the annual pilgrimage to drink themselves silly. They need Wacken, and despite its inflated state, metal needs it too. So until next year’s hangover, sleep well, my friends.