Wacken Open Air. This festival probably does not need an introduction. It is the festival which everyone is talking about because over the 25 years since its birth in 1990, it has received legendary status and it is commonly referred to as the “mecca of metal”. Undoubtedly, it is the biggest metal festival in the world. It has around 75,000 people attending every year, it sells out hours after it finishes and it has loads of attractions ranging from the most popular metal acts on huge stages to Viking or medieval battle shows, a movie field to beer gardens. You can also take part in cooking lessons (with Thomas Jensen, the co-founder of W:O:A!), football competitions, check out a W:O:A art gallery, browse around the metal market for your favourite T-shirts, CDs or chill in a swimming pool. As the drummer of Crying Steel, Luca Ferri, told me in an interview, “Wacken is not a festival, it’s something different. It’s a different world. For five days you are in a different dimension. It’s out of this world.”
As everything reaches popularity, however, it enters the mainstream. Once you are big and you have so many people attending your event every year, you make money and you collaborate with many other companies in order to be able to provide the best service that you can to your loyal followers. However, because there is a controversial divide in the metal scene which we know as the mainstream and the underground, some criticise the fest for not being metal anymore and that it is a plain commercial event. The guys from the Swiss thrash act Battalion claim that “Wacken is mainstream because a lot of people come here for the camping just to be at Wacken. People come here just to say that they are at Wacken, it’s a name and you don’t go there because of the bands.”
Wacken might have become the most popular festival in the metal world. And yes, it has entered the mainstream and collaborates with huge commercial companies. Is that bad though? Once you are there, you realise how amazing the organisation is and how thanks to the collaborations with huge companies, Wacken strives to provide the best service to its fans. For instance, this year Wacken started working with Hamburg airport thanks to which Wacken fans are greeted at arrival with Wacken signs, chairs and charging stations. Being popular, making a certain profit so that you can live does not mean that you are mainstream or a sell-out. The spirit of Wacken Open Air is still (and I hope it will stay) underground. The festival organisers listen to their fans and try not to disappoint them – for instance, next year, the tickets will not be personalised since many did not find that helpful. Thomas Jensen stressed in an interview last year that listening to the fans is the most important. Another feature, which makes W:O:A great and underground in spirit is its Metal Battle competition.
The Metal Battle allows bands from all over the world to compete with each other in their home countries and the winner of each country competes at the final at the Wacken stages. There are over 40 countries in the Metal Battle and there are 30 countries competing in the final at the festival. Until last year, there would only be one winner, who would receive a contract with a big label (such as Nuclear Blast). However, the bands were usually not satisfied with the contract and were forced to reject the offer. The last two winners, Hamferð and Crimson Shadows are examples of this. Therefore, it has been decided to have five winners in the competition. The first one would receive €5,000, second €4,000, third €3,000, fourth €2,000 and fifth €1,000. The bands also receive equipment. All of this is donated by the Wacken Foundation.
Therefore, Wacken Open Air gives a great opportunity for small and less-known bands to perform at the world’s biggest festival. One of this year’s finalists, Battalion commented: “The whole organisation and what they are doing for underground bands like we are is great. I think it is a great opportunity for a band like us to perform at this Metal Battle competition.” What is even more special about this, is that Metal Battle bands get one whole day (Wednesday) for themselves at the festival during which no big headliners are playing and, thus, enables and attracts more people to check out the bands which they probably have never heard of before. The rest of the bands perform during the Thursday, which is the first official day of the festival but the big headliners only start in the evening, therefore, many people can still check out the competition. Battalion, thus, draws conclusions that even though Wacken is mainstream, it is still very supportive: “It’s great for underground bands. We have one day just for us without any big bands playing. Wacken supports the underground. There’s no line between mainstream and underground.”
Wacken not only supports the underground but it also makes dreams come true. I talked to a few overwhelmed Metal Battle bands this year. The Italians from Crying Steel said that they could have never imagined themselves performing here and they were so happy that they could not describe it in words. The young Lithuanians from the band Juodvarnis were over the moon: “We need a week or so to understand what happened. We played at the biggest metal festival in the world. ‘WOOOOAH. What’s happening?!’”. Evocation from Hong Kong who got fourth place were very happy with their performance: “We’re still so excited. The crowd was crazy and I think this was the best performance we ever played.” The runners up, Dirty Shirt from Romania, will never forget their time here: “This was the first time in our career that we played at such a big event, and the wonderful days we spent at Wacken will forever stay in our memory and hearts.”
There is more to the excellence of Wacken, however. The organisation and the treatment of the bands is on the highest level. Fourth place winners, Evocation, comment: “Everyone was really nice, starting from the airport to the hospitality. The way they treat artists is very good.” The thrashers from Swiss act, Battalion, were impressed with the organisation and confused that they did not have to carry their own equipment: “The professionalism is perfect. The organisation is perfect. They help you out with everything. You get a sound check and they drive you around everywhere. Everyone wants to help you but you don’t want it, you want to carry your own equipment!” Juodvarnis felt like they were treated like rockstars: “You are one of a few hundred musicians here and you are not performing at the main stages, you are really nothing here. You are just one small band participating in this contest. BUT the crew takes care of you like rockstars, they take care of your things and you can really relax and everything is fine. They say: ‘just go there, play and we’ll do everything’. This is the first time I saw such respect to musicians, such care…if you need something there is no question about it, the crew will make it happen. This is Wacken.”
As every year, this year’s Metal Battle has seen a variety of bands performing a variety of styles. Judging music might be difficult because art is personal and subjective, therefore it is difficult to evaluate. Nevertheless, the runners up, Dirty Shirt, who have won the €4,000 claimed that “it is the best opportunity for bands to show their qualities and to be discovered by the public as well as by journalists, label representatives, promoters, etc.” Mihai from the band continues: “I wholeheartedly recommend Metal Battle (and other competitions, too) to the other bands: this is a unique chance.”
The winners of this year’s Metal Battle are:
In Mute (Spain) – First place
Dirty Shirt (Romania) – Second place
Huldre (Denmark) – Third place
Evocation (China) – Fourth place
Convivium (Sweden) – Fifth place
In this article, we also talked to:
Crying Steel (Italy)