Vader Slays as Slayer Fades
Wacken Open Air 2003
by: Paul Schwarz / Matthias Noll
The Spirit of Wacken

I can think of no other event better suited to describe the incredibly positive and unique atmosphere at the Wacken Open Air than what we saw when we finally reached the little village of the same name in northern Germany: as always the local inhabitants had set up chairs in their little gardens facing the streets to watch the incoming metalheads. Standing in the car queue which had built up at the camping ground entrance, we watched a strange pair chatting: an old lady in front of her house was having a visibly friendly conversation with a guy who was only wearing shorts; a bullet belt held not only his trousers in place, but also a real axe; and on his bare back a giant inverted cross was painted in a blood-red colour. Before my first Wacken experience in 2001 I would have never imagined that such a massive event could possibly take place without the slightest amount of trouble or negativity. [MN]

The Festival

As in previous years, the "gigs" took place on four stages. Two big ones side by side, where the main bands were playing alternately on the Black and True Metal stage, always with just a fifteen minute break in-between. In addition there was also a smaller stage, approximately 200 meters away, called the Party stage, and a fourth stage in a tent close to the entrance. The tent stayed open all night; it was the place for the metal disco as well as the (as far as I've been told, totally hilarious) Metal Karaoke.

The overall setup of the festival area was slightly different this year because most of the booths selling food and drink had been relocated to the borders of the festival area. In the vicinity of the entrance but outside the festival area, a beer garden from a German brewery had been set up. Several additional booths selling food, CDs, merchandise and other metal-related stuff were located outside as well. The metal market resided in another giant tent, for which an additional entrance fee was charged. The metal market featured strip-tease shows this year, and most of the times I was in the vicinity I saw a long queue of people waiting to get in. Due to the incredibly hot weather I couldn't be bothered to check out what was going on inside.

The shower facilities were more numerous than on previous occasions, and as far as I can judge there were also more portable toilets available. Most of the shortcomings that had been massively criticised after last year's edition were improved this year. Another new feature was a huge video screen set between the two main stages, which displayed live footage from the bands playing at the time as well as up-to-date information about changes concerning the running order.

Here are some prices as an example: grilled sausages, €3; 0.4l beer €3 and non-alcoholic drinks €2.50 each, plus €1 deposit for the cup; a piece of pizza, €3; french fries, €2.50; etc. [MN]

Thursday

Circle II Circle

This year we had started early enough to arrive at the parking area at approximately six in the afternoon. After setting up the tents, taking a ten minute walk to the festival area and exchanging our tickets for wristbands, we immediately entered and wandered around to check out the area. No one could be bothered to see Circle II Circle, featuring ex-Savatage singer Zakk Stevens. From afar they didn't sound too different from recent Savatage material; they also played "The Edge of Thorns" and, surprisingly, a cover of Metallica's "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)". [MN]

Annihilator

The second band of the festival was Annihilator. Once again Jeff Waters has brought in a new singer, who turned out to be a young fellow that wouldn't have looked out of place in an outfit like Linkin' Park. He had a decent voice and was able to deliver a convincing performance on tracks spanning the whole Annihilator career. However, as with most Annihilator singers so far, I felt his voice lacked identity. Annihilator have a very dedicated following in Europe and went down very well, playing songs like "Phantasmagoria", "WTYD", "Set the World on Fire", "King of the Kill" and so on. [MN]

Victory

Victory were next and delivered a set that should have pleased most connoisseurs of German melodic metal; but there was hardly any crowd reaction to be seen. For me their performance was quite tolerable, thanks to the absence of power metal stereotypes and their focus on playing their music instead of playing games with the crowd or engaging in boring stage banter. [MN]

Saxon

Now it was time for a surprise, because out of nowhere Saxon appeared on stage. The band only played three songs, but this year I found them to be incredibly enjoyable, while their headlining gig two years ago had sent me running for cover. The band played "Motorcycle Man", "Princess of the Night" and "Denim and Leather". Surprisingly, Biff's voice sounded as good as it did back in the '80s, and overall the brevity of the gig and the focus on real classics made it a really worthwhile event which found me and my friends singing "Denim and Leather, keeps us all together" as if time had stood still in 1981. [MN]

Running Wild

Thursday's headliners Running Wild had attracted a very special breed of fans: numerous individuals and whole groups of people had dressed up as pirates. Most noteworthy of all was a guy with a paper parrot on his shoulder, while one of his mates was appropriately wearing water wings. Running Wild opened with "Genghis Khan", and although I own their first two records, this and fourth track "Riding the Storm" were enough to drive me away. My friends Daniel and the aptly named Hell-Hans, as well as CoC metal brother Paul Schwarz (whom we had met in the meantime) felt the same way, and therefore we spent the rest of the Running Wild gig in the beer garden until they ended their set with the hilarious "Chains and Leather (and Rivets)". By all rights, Running Wild's ilk of power metal should've died many years ago, but I assume the fact that they sound so terribly German to my ears is precisely the key to their appeal. [MN]

The real disappointment for me regarding Running Wild's performance was that they regretted to dress up as pirates, as per their _...Jolly Roger_ album. Casually sporting unbuttoned Napoleonic military garb, Running Wild were not helped by the predictable weakness of their o-so-German power metal fare; but to be honest, if they'd been dressed up as pirates -- with perhaps some rigging and a walkable plank as scenery -- I probably would have enjoyed it regardless... at least for a while. [PS]

Friday

Dew-Scented

We got up early to see Dew-Scented, who were the first band to play and briefly soundchecked with a cover of Slayer's "War Ensemble". Having added a second guitarist to the line-up, the band was tight and performed professionally on the big stage. Most of the songs were taken from their excellent _Inwards_, but they also played two promising new tracks, which seemed to be a bit more varied than their previous material. Unfortunately the guitar sound was not sharp or loud enough for their riff-driven style, and so the dynamics of excellent material like "Bitter Conflict" and "Unconditional" were sadly amiss -- one could have the impression that they played the same song over and over again. Although I'm totally sure that this band crushes with a better sound and in a smaller environment, it was just an okay performance by the German thrashers. [MN]

Dew-Scented certainly do crush with a better sound and in a smaller environment: in Glasgow with Vader last year they slayed, despite trying circumstances. [PS]

Extreme Noise Terror

Extreme Noise Terror were up next and I really hadn't expected much from them, which is always the perfect condition for a pleasant surprise. Although the band seemed burdened by a night of heavy drinking or the abuse of certain substances, their mad twin-vocal assault in combination with some simple but devastating crust/grind and a good deal of chunky mid-tempo riffs proved to be the right medicine to get the adrenaline flowing. While initially only a rather meagre audience -- a lot smaller than Dew-Scented's -- had gathered in front of the stage, whoever was in the line-up for this gig did manage to attract quite some people by the end of their 45 minutes. Not really an essential set, but ENT were powerful enough to give everybody in attendance the impression that things were finally starting to get serious. [MN]

The Crown

When it comes to vocalists re-joining their original bands, it wasn't Halford and Priest getting back together that made my day in the last year or so: it was Johan Lindstrand being back in The Crown. There may be death metal vocalists who can sound deeper, but in my opinion there's no one out there who can match the incredibly dirty yet inhumanly powerful roar Lindstrand is capable of without using any artificial help. With their Wolverine look-alike frontman, there was no way to stop the Swedes from dealing out the first serious blow of the festival. Starting with _Crowned in Terror _'s vicious title track, it was immediately clear that the band was there to deliver a totally shredding performance. I had the impression that there was some less-than-perfectly-timed drumming early on in the set by the otherwise totally amazing Janne Saarenpää, and Lindstrand had occasional problems remembering lyrics from _CiT_ songs; but apart from these minor gripes, The Crown ruled. The highlights of the gig were the monstrous "Total Satan", "Blitzkrieg Witchcraft" and "Under the Whip", while the slower "World Below" seemed to drag on a bit too long while remaining somewhat unspectacular. The huge and extremely active audience loved every minute of it. The Swedes also took the chance to perform a new scorcher called "Face of Destruction / Deep Hit of Death" from their upcoming album, and the band still came back to play "Executioner - Slayer of the Light" as an encore. The Crown's set was certainly one of the highlights of the festival. [MN]

I haven't much to add, except to endorse Matthias' sentiments almost unanimously, and simply say that The Crown have -- primarily by virtue of my witnessing this one performance -- become one of the most favoured and most treasured Swedish death metal bands in my music collection. I think many of us at CoC are awaiting the return of Lindstrand on record ('probably in October,' we were told at Wacken) with bated breath. [PS]

Diamond Head

I avoided Diamond Head, who were not the real thing but a combination of Tygers of Pan Tang and Diamond Head, and only heard bits of the unavoidable "Am I Evil" from afar. [MN]

Dismember

Did we mention how hot it was at Wacken? I know it's not necessarily strictly relevant to our general review of the music, but in the case of Dismember's performance it was a striking factor. The heat was incredible; it was just around midday when the Swedish five-piece took up residence on the Black Stage. As Matti Karki remarked in conversation afterwards, it was a very good thing that the sun was behind the band. But that put it shining slap-bang into -our- eyes -- which made it all the more pleasing to see the size of crowd Dismember had attracted. Clearly the lengthy wait for _Where the Iron Crosses Grow_ has not put off their sizeable hardcore following, of which myself and Matthias were certainly a part. Though opening with "Of Fire", Dismember focused squarely on their early years, digging up almost all their 'cult classics': "Override the Overture", "Dismembered", "In Death's Sleep", "Skin Her Alive" ("...for the ladies"); they were all there. All in all, Dismember delivered a punishing set. It was a good mixture; somewhat surprisingly neglecting _Hate Campaign_, but playing nicely to a festival crowd. However the sound was what really mattered: in the live environment, as on record, 'the sound' can make or break an old style Swedish death metal prospect like Dismember... with devastating ease. That Skogsbergs-associated, Repulsion-spawned guitar sound -- bassy, overdriven, but with an edge like a chainsaw going at full whack -- is hard to recreate effectively in the live environment without drowning the discernibility of the resulting mix. Thankfully, Dismember have one particularly talented individual -- who was also working with a few other bands at this year's Wacken, including Thyrfing -- doing their sound. Getting as near perfect a sonic balance as you could ever wish for -- at any Dismember show, let alone an open-air one -- he supplies Dismember with all the 'ammunition' they need to truly devastate. Whether it be the rumbling, hammer-blow crush of "Casket Garden", the high-velocity death-maul of "Soon to Be Dead" or the punishing "Misanthropic", Dismember hit you square in the gut, creating a warm, energising feeling which provokes handbanging, roars of approval and overall satisfaction. But unfortunately, it's not the perfect performance; while the band as a whole -- including a newly recruited rhythm guitarist whose name escapes me and session bassist Johan Bergebäck (borrowed from Necrophobic, for whom he plays rhythm guitar) –- perform very well, David Blomqvist let the side down, just a little. At the time I was torn over whether a lack of practice or the effect of the midday heat on his guitar strings was to blame; but what was undeniable was that the trademark melodies (worked into riffs and distinctive in his leads), which are his most major contribution to Dismember's music, were not well represented. The melody line of "Of Fire" sounded flat; the intro section of "Dismembered" retained little of its recorded charm; and in the opening section of "Override the Overture", Blomqvist wasn't even keeping up! When I put it to Matti later that perhaps David needed a little more practice, he said, noncommittally, "Well, you know: some days he gets it, some days he doesn't." If there was a specific reason, then, it's not clear what it was. No matter: Dismember still slayed. A new track from the upcoming _Where the Iron Crosses Grow_ (out in December if everything goes right, or February if everything goes wrong, according to Matti) sounded pretty cool: though clearly not representative of a revolution to come, it suggested that Dismember's sixth album should be a more-than-worthy follow-up to _Hate Campaign_. When it came time for classic set closer "Dreaming in Red" (the only track from _Indecent and Obscene_ aired) Dismember succeeded in delivering the goods; Blomqvist may have sold the leaderwork a little short -- the dark, hallowed feel of the recorded version was not perfectly reproduced -- but that didn't stop "Dreaming in Red" coming across as a classic: a death metal anthem. Dismember proved that the old school can still kick ass, live -and- in the open air. Right on. [PS]

Primal Fear

There isn't much I can say about Primal Fear, even though I watched most of their set. Like almost every other falsetto vocalist I had to endure during the two days, Ralf Scheepers either wasn't wearing tight enough underwear or requires studio technology when it comes to hitting certain notes. His Halford-style posing looked embarrassing as always, and I don't remember much about their music other than the so-so Judas Priest cover "Metal Gods". [MN]

Though I (thankfully) didn't actually witness Primal Fear's set, I was told about one thing they did that was uncharacteristic for German bands (especially of the power metal persuasion) at this year's Wacken: they persisted, throughout their set, in speaking to the crowd in English. This is no crime, of course -- but when you're a German band who sell most of their albums in Germany; and you're at a German festival where well over fifty percent of the metalheads are German; and many of them (I would judge from extrapolations based on my own experiences) are not great speakers of English; why, in that situation, would you choose to talk to the crowd in -English-? Perhaps it was because old Ralph knew no one was really listening to what he said in-between songs. More likely, it was intended to give the band more "international credibility". However you slice it, it demonstrated poor communication skills. [PS]

Testament

While the audience was totally into Testament and it was certainly good to see the giant Chuck Billy back on stage, the Testament set did nothing for me. Starting with a seemingly endless series of mid-tempo tracks from which the worst were from their 'let's sound like Metallica and get rich' period, I started to wonder why Testament were ever labeled thrash metal. Steve Di Giorgio's stage moves had a certain Janick Gers quality and were totally terrible to look at, and Chuck Billy's vocals only sounded powerful to my ears when he did one of his lower roars. Fortunately the band did play some thrash metal later on; "The Haunting", "Alone in the Dark", etc. sounded cool, but -- maybe due to the fact that The Crown as well as Dismember had been able to prescribe a much heavier dose of metal earlier on -- the gig left me unimpressed until the end. [MN]

Though I can very much understand Matthias' experience of Testament's set, I was, curiously enough, among those members of the audience who were totally into Testament's set -- well, not all of it, but more than I would have expected. When I saw Testament in London back in April, the ilk of "True Believer" provided dreary listening. But -- though I'd still prefer Testament to play -more- from _The Legacy_ and _The New Order_ than hear the tracks in question -- at Wacken I enjoyed them, albeit a fraction as much as I enjoyed "The Haunting", "Burnt Offerings" or the band's magic "Disciples of the Watch" closer. Some of the later Testament material plays well to a festival -- as I discovered, it's infectiously sing-a-longable. What really made Testament's set such a joy for me was the fervour of the fans: they sang an astounding proportion of the lyrics, in astounding numbers. The "magic moment" came at the end of "Alone in the Dark", when the crowd carried on sounding the main melody line like a football chant. Testament were "forced" to go straight into the next song: the crowd (myself included) had no intention of stopping. It's certainly fair to say that Testament could have been better, but that's not to say they weren't a fist pumping, head-banging joy to behold. As long as they keep pumping out a fair whack of _The Legacy_ and _The New Order_ at each gig, I can't see my overall reactions turning negative. [PS]

Gamma Ray

Out of curiosity and masochism I went for another dose of German power metal. Watching Gamma Ray from afar, I was shocked by the absolutely terrible vocal performance from Kai Hansen. The guy could hardly hit a note properly, and seems to have lost his higher range completely. His out-of-tune squeaking on the encore (the Helloween track "Victims of Fate") could have soured milk. Technically speaking, Gamma Ray were really good; but I'm totally at a loss as to why Hansen thinks he is capable of handling the vocal duties on his own. [MN]

Assassin

Germany's Assassin got this year's traditional thrash metal reunion slot. The German five-piece recorded two albums during the '80s -- 1987's _The Upcoming Terror_ and 1988's _Interstellar Experience_ --, both of which pretty much failed to make a considerable splash in the scene back then. In 2003, nostalgia and permanent name-dropping from message board nerds trying to outdo each other when it comes to praising only the most obscure outfits seems to have given the band a status it never had during its rather short-lived career. However, Assassin, strengthened by the addition of ex-Violent Force / Living Death / Sodom drummer Atomic Steif, did at least partially manage to send most of those who decided they'd rather see a third-tier band from fifteen years ago than "N'Flaimz" through the time tunnel. Starting with "Abstract War" and timing problems that would've put even Capricornus and Witchhunter to shame, the band at least had a decent sound -- which was dominated by chainsaw-like guitars, ripping and tearing along in the old-fashioned German speed metal way. During later tracks like "Baka", "Junk Food", "Assassin" or the closing "Bullets", they managed to tighten their act -- and despite some verbal diarrhoea and awkward stage acting by vocalist Robert Gonella, Assassin managed to do justice to the recorded versions of their material. The gig would have been an okay, and at least a fairly satisfying, one-time trip down memory lane if it hadn't been for the two horrible new songs aired, which were atrocious enough to make me fear a new Assassin album more than the black plague. [MN]

In Flames

From my perspective, seeing In Flames live these days is always a hollow experience, when all is said and done: it is -always- disappointing because -- just like Entombed in the late '90s -- In Flames have basically opted to confine their second release to the history books. _Subterranean_ tempered the unbridled eclecticism of _Lunar Strain_ into some of the most majestic pieces of Swedish melodic death metal created in the '90s. I mean, just -imagine- if In Flames opened up with "Stand Ablaze". Now imagine if Henke (vocalist on _Subterranean_) was guesting on vocals... Now try to understand why I find Anders Friden and crew 'coming out to party' disappointing -- even though, as an experience in 'extreme stadium metal', In Flames hit the nail just about square on the head. That's right: they are great -- in their own way. The crowd is a huge seething mass. The setlist a popular-favourite-after-popular-favourite run-down. "Pinball Map", "Only for the Weak", "Episode 666", even "Moonshield" are received like classics of the metal canon. It's a nice thing to be part of; but "Jotun" never comes out to play, and the closest thing we get to hearing something from _Subterranean_ is when the obligatory "old song" -- "Behind Space" from 1994's _Lunar Strain_, re-recorded on 1999's _Colony_ -- is dusted off, as-per-formulaic usual. It's frustrating rather than pleasing to hear "Behind Space" done as a straight, brutalising death metal song -- a novelty, essentially -- stripped of its acoustic outro though more recent In Flames albums supply material for the same set which is as mellow and more so. The mercy is that exceptionally little from _Reroute to Remain_ was played. The pleasure was being part of something so thoroughly huge, powerful, and yet -extreme-. In Flames may neglect their finest work, but they at least open many people up to discovering it, and the great music which surrounds it in ever-increasing circles of obscurity. [PS]

Twisted Sister

These days Twisted Sister could be considered as much of an oddity as Assassin, but at least they can look back at an original concept and a tremendously successful career -- with an arsenal of songs that no-one who is into any kind of rock is unfamiliar with. The band went on stage to the sound of the traditional intro tape "It's a Long Way to the Top If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll" by AC/DC -- which already made people in the back sing and dance along. With the exception of bass player Mark "The Animal" Mendoza, who had gained quite some weight and probably didn't fit into his costume anymore, the band looked exactly like they did in the '80s, including make-up and sunglasses. Equally unsurprising was their opening track, the always excellent "What You Don't Know", which sounded much heavier than I remembered Twisted Sister to be. That's what happens if totally dumb material like "I Wanna Rock" or "We're Not Gonna Take It" starts to overshadow the -metal- Twisted Sister most definitely played on their debut. Other tracks such as "Like a Knife in the Back", "The Kids Are Back", "Live to Ride", "Under the Blade", "Shoot 'Em Down" and especially the punishing "Destroyer" easily managed to come across as surprisingly up-to-date and totally entertaining. Dee Snider hasn't lost any of his capabilities to be an outstanding rock frontman who is able to deliver the most ridiculous stage banter and ass-kissing in a fashion that's entertaining and not embarrassing at all. After the obligatory drum solo, the band went on to play the hits of their later career, including the aforementioned "I Wanna Rock" and "We're Not Gonna Take It"; and even if these anthems of stupidity give me a sick feeling in the region of my stomach, it was most amusing to see people wearing Gorgoroth and other grim black metal shirts sing along to them. Overall Twisted Sister turned out to be a worthy headliner, which despite their faded metal credibility managed to unite fans of the most different of styles. There's no way Cradle of Filth -- who had decided to play Ozzfest instead -- would have been able to be as entertaining and worthwhile as Friday's headliner. [MN]

Saturday

Graveworm

Rumour was spreading that Sinister had split up during the drive to Wacken and Holy Moses had replaced them on very short notice. The extremely inhuman but totally ludicrous roar that Sabrina Claassen delivered during the sound check immediately convinced me to go see Graveworm instead. The band attracted quite a following in front of the Party stage, but their music is a completely unimaginative assembly of Dimmu Borgir's most keyboard-laden moments and a brand of death metal that never gets as ferocious and heavy as real death metal should sound. The professional delivery did not really help to overcome the serious issues I have with Graveworm's music, and I didn't get much more excitement than I would have if we had decided to rest on the camping ground for another hour. [MN]

Thyrfing

Swedish Viking metallers Thyrfing certainly had a good sound: same sound guy as Dismember, Matti Karki tells me. So what was there to enjoy -was- Thyrfing, untarnished by any sound problems -- even wind. But when it came down to it: for me, that just wasn't enough. Festival-friendly much of Thyrfing's broadly 'epic'-style material certainly is, but engrossing it ain't -- at least to my ears. Good but not great, and very dependent on taste: I certainly felt out-voted by the audience, who formed what was, for the early afternoon, a sizeable crowd around the True Metal stage, and clearly enjoyed themselves -- some even sported plastic Viking helmets. [PS]

Twisted Tower Dire

Though it was disappointing that when Twisted Tower Dire emerged onto the Party Stage, the American five-piece ('Priest / 'Maiden set-up) wore none of the spikes and other 'metal gear' that characterises their promotion, it would be more sensible to blame airport carriage restrictions than the band themselves; and in any case, it's the -music- that matters: TTD are all about -that-. Showing up just about every other 'power metal' band in attendance -- particularly Primal Fear, Metallium and Running Wild -- TTD let loose with such style that -not- head- and fist-banging would have taken a physical effort. Their singer was ecstatic. "I'm so glad to see all of you here", he beams. "'Cause it was either here or Disneyland." He explains. "I asked my kids, 'Do you wanna go to Disneyland or do you wanna go to Wacken with your daddy?' And they said, 'We wanna go to Wacken with you, daddy!' And I'm so glad all of you are here, 'cause if there'd been, like, twenty people, Mickey Mouse would be looking pretty good right now!" A cover of "The Trooper" closed things off in fittingly anthemic style. The crowd (very much including myself) sing and shout along not only to probably half the lyrics, but also about an equal share of the classic melody lines the song contains. There was no "true metal" band worth comparing with TTD at Wacken this year: they slaughtered their genre-specific competition. [PS]

Malevolent Creation

Not really getting Twisted Tower Dire's point during the first five minutes of their set, I went over to the Black Stage to check out Malevolent Creation instead. Although I was in the mood for some death metal, their performance left me more or less unimpressed. The band lacked the charisma and vibe of an outfit that enters the stage to viciously lash out and lay everything to ruin in the manner that songs like "Kill Zone" suggest. New frontman Kyle Symons tried hard to balance the extremely static stage-acting from the other band members, but despite his efforts what was going on up there wasn't all that exciting. "The Slaughter of Innocence" and the closing "The Will to Kill" were my personal highlights of the set. Malevolent Creation were not bad, but their performance made it extremely obvious for me why they have never achieved and never will obtain the status and on-stage qualities of bands like Cannibal Corpse, who have been in the business for a comparable period of time. [And are also from Buffalo! -- PS] [MN]

Carpathian Forest

I had serious doubts over whether Carpathian Forest would even work at Wacken. With the genre somewhat stereotyped as tight-lipped and overserious, how would a 'real' BM band -- i.e. sans synths, traditionally metal or distinctly proggy melody patterns -and- clean vocal sections (male -or- female) -- be able to successfully win over a festival crowd; and in the midday sun, no less? Well, the first thing to do in a situation like this is to break the ice -- and just after CF take the stage (in fact, -immediately- after Matthias and I have sniggered quietly about their bassist's girth) the band's singer does just that... perfectly: "Hello Wacken! We are fat fuckers from Norway!" Combined with the band's almost defiantly bold corpsepaint and hell-bent-for-leather sound and delivery, it made CF a viable festival act. Of course the increasingly Motorhead-and-Venom inspired, black 'n' rolling steps the band have made in recent years gave them a setlist that would work; but the full 'spiked penguin' presentation and punchingly primitive sonic treatment has a habit of dying on its arse when it leaves the cozy confines of a club -- if not a recording studio: I would never have expected it to work on one of the -big- stages at Wacken. CF got things grooving, got us laughing, and did Norway proud as the country's only(!) representatives at this year's Wacken. Satan rules supreme, as the legendary Geordies once said! [PS]

Kataklysm

Despite clearly playing their guts out -- and making a crowded mosh/bang "pit", extending impressively far out from the Party Stage, rather happy -- Kataklysm didn't really seem to have an edge, at least as far as I could discern. Definitely not bad, but a little underwhelming. [PS]

Stratovarius

While trying to pay as little attention as possible to Stratovarius -- they were far from the worst power metal act of the festival (that dubious honour I bestow upon Metallium) but that still didn't make them a -positive- addition to the line-up -- by standing near the Party stage after Kataklysm, I was given some unlooked-for aid. As the Finnish six-piece were waiting for their T2-theme intro to complete its cycle, a metalhead revealed that he had a light, inflatable football... by kicking it high into the air. As it came down, bounced, and then flew off again as another foot connected with it, a kick-about was initiated. As more and more metalheads with no discernible personal relationship to each other joined in, one decided it would be fun to grasp the ball in his hands, and run. If you've ever seen video footage of the annual "Running of the Bulls" in Santa Fe -- and you can image similarly adrenalised men and women, adorned in various "metal" garbs, darting between clusters of people in their efforts to catch a single individual -- then you can picture what ensued: thirty-odd minutes of free-form rugby. It was like, in this small patch of Schlewsig Holstein, we had traveled back in time a few hundred years. Any notion of rules went out the window. It was great. And yet, in the spirit of all things Wacken, things don't go bad. They certainly get violent: every time a "player" is downed a scrimmage ensues, as almost every pursuer leaps on the ball-carrier, or scrambles to the ground to try to pull the ball from their firmly locked arms. After the entertainment is over, one unharried participant stands nearby with an open tear on the bridge of his nose. I missed what he said, as he was speaking in German; but by the look on his face alone you could tell that he hadn't regretted his decision to join in the fun. Unfortunately, after all that excitement, Stratovarius' overwrought melodicism was even less appealing. We waited it out begrudgingly, lining up a good position from which to see Nile on the Black stage. [PS]

Nile

It had been hours since anything seriously killer had transpired; Kataklysm were adequate and Carpathian Forest were good, but only Twisted Tower Dire had really got me rockin'. Now, the first bona fide highlight of the day had arrived: they bettered all who had gone before. A near-crystal clear, loud and crunchy sound brought out the fluid, note- and beat-perfect playing beautifully. The set... well, it slaughtered, quite frankly. A perfect mix of speed-drenched death metal dervishes ("Chapter for Transforming Into a Snake" as an opener; both Toller-Wade typhoons from _In Their Darkened Shrines_, "Execration Text" and "Wind of Horus", aired; "Khefti Asar Butchiu" -and- "The Blessed Dead") and pyramid-weight stompers like "Sarcophagus", "The Black Flame" and "Stones of Sorrow", Nile's set was satisfying for a fanatic while being appropriately weighted for a festival appearance. Rarely is a band so enthralling, and I've never seen Nile be better in four years of having seen them perform. The material is partly responsible: _...Shrines_ is Nile's most accomplished -album- thus far by a clear margin, and features many of their best songs. But it's the group involved -- their abilities, their charisma, their -presence- -- which makes seeing Nile today such a -total- pleasure. Mid-way through their set, Karl Sanders takes the opportunity to make an announcement, in a short break between songs. "I've got something to say", he begins, preparing the floor. "Ich bin ein Wackener!" If Nile hadn't already achieved iconic status back when Chief Spires was still around, there is no doubt that they have now. The "new" line-up -- already into its third year as Sanders / Toller-Wade / Laureano / Vesano -- not only slays, but already reads like a "classic" roll call; the way, say, Azagthoth / Sandoval / Vincent / Rutan did. It's very simple, people: Nile are the new Morbid Angel. They are reaping the harvest of the black seeds they sowed in the late '90s. The kings are dead: long live the pharaohs. [PS]

Slayer

Well, it had to happen one day. Having undisputedly built up the reputation of being the best live band in metal for almost two decades and still not suffered any backlash (at least not when it comes to the turn-out at their shows) -- and that despite a whole sequence of superfluous records -- Slayer needed only 70 minutes to efficiently [or effectively, I wonder... -- PS] ruin their god-like status. Coming after approximately 55 bands who had all managed to keep the tight schedule, Araya and company entered the stage almost twenty minutes late, didn't care to say a word to the audience (who after more than two full days at the festival had already become upset) and started with a disappointing volley of four new tracks. As someone who is not familiar with _God Hates Us All_ I have to say I expected nothing, but I was nevertheless surprised by the weakness and tedious grooves of the material from this record. Even worse, just 100 meters from the stage, the sound -- which I had expected to totally crush -- stayed at a volume level which allowed conversations about the disappointing nature of what was going on to continue without even needing to raise one's voice. Countless people started to yell "louder, louder" in between songs; not in the humorous way which has become a fashion at Motorhead shows, but in all seriousness. After four or five tracks the sound got slightly louder and "Antichrist" appeased some in the audience, but still everybody was hoping that at some point during the gig things would reach a level worthy of a Slayer show. Not even the following "Mandatory Suicide" had much of an impact. Things were seriously worsened by a band performance which gave the impression of three people who have absolutely no interest left in what they are doing, other than to fulfill contractual obligations. Tom Araya especially came across like someone who was either completely stoned or close to falling asleep. Dave Lombardo, on the other hand, seemed to be highly motivated and his performance was flawless, even introducing a couple of new twists and turns to the classics being played. "Hell Awaits" was aired and sounded decent -- but still not loud enough -- before the band played the first half of the immortal _Reign in Blood_ -with no breaks-. The overall mood of the audience was lightening up a bit and many were visibly impressed by the fact that Slayer were doing stuff like "Necrophobic" and "Piece by Piece" -- which they hardly, if ever, have played. The complete _Reign in Blood_ treatment was divided by "Dead Skin Mask" before Slayer continued to present the -whole- of the second side of the album, and thus finished their set with one of metal's finest moments, "Raining Blood". During the whole gig the band never managed to unleash more than an absolute minimum of energy; the volume remained at 5 out of 11; Hannemann's guitar tone was weird and powerless; and the audience ran more and more out of steam despite a setlist which by the strength of the songs alone should have stunned and annihilated everybody in attendance. Straight after "Raining Blood" the band flipped a couple of plectrums and drumsticks into the crowd, left the stage... and the gig was over. No encore, nothing. It only strengthened a large part of the audience's impression of having seen a show by some arrogant has-been band who couldn't care less about its performance and its audience. A disaster of unthinkable proportions for a band like Slayer in front of what must have been a crowd as dedicated to them and metal as one can only imagine. [MN]

Vader

There's hardly any time of the year when Vader seem to not be touring. They have to be one of the hardest working bands in the whole metal genre; but from my point of view this has turned into a disadvantage. There seems to be hardly anyone, at least in Europe, who hasn't seen Vader two or three times already. When I did my initial planning of whom to see in Wacken, I wasn't really sure that I'd be interested in checking out the Poles at 1am -- after Slayer and more then two full days of exposure to metal. At one point during the second day I finally made up my mind and decided that Vader would surely have a hard time attracting a good and big enough audience during their most unfortunate slot, and that I owed such a dedicated band to be at their gig come hell or high water. Although I did make statements like "If Vader and Slayer played the same evening I'd go and see Vader" in previous CoC contributions, I knew that Slayer would play all of _Reign in Blood_ -- and frankly I didn't believe that Vader would be able to leave much of an impression afterwards. Peter seemed to share my view when he approached the crowd with the words "Well, it's always hard to play after a band like Slayer, but we'll try." Of course they tried, but I don't think anyone would have expected that Vader would totally and completely annihilate Slayer that night. Blessed with an ultra-loud, crisp, crunchy -- in short THE perfect sound, Vader delivered a set which may well have been the best of their career. Starting with the ultimately powerful "Epitaph" and the shredding "Cold Demons", Vader struck with such unearthly power and metallic beauty that all I could do in between some frantic headbanging was to groan and scream in pleasure while covering my eyes with both hands and shaking my head in disbelief. People who had obviously started to walk away after or during the Slayer disaster came back to the stage, some of them running, and soon a considerable crowd had gathered. A certain MonTankA describes the situation appropriately in the guestbook of Vader's official site: '"Okay, everybody else is saying this... I just went away from the Slayer show to go and kill myself after their performance when I heard something blow me away!! Well that was Vader Fuckin' Vader!"' The god-like "Xeper" and the Stalin organ type barrage of "Carnal" followed with unbelievable power and precision. Drummer Doc left the impression that he could wipe the floor with Lombardo -- be it speed, fills or breaks. The band delivered their usual aggressive stage acting and new bass player Novy (ex-Behemoth) seemed to be more than well integrated and headbanged like a maniac. The show continued with songs like the fantastic "Silent Empire", "Black to the Blind", "The Nomad", "Wings" and a handful of others, until the band left the stage for a few seconds before returning once more to ultimately finish the audience with "Sothis". These days Vader are everything Slayer once were! I can't say anything more positive about a band. [MN]

(article submitted 21/9/2003)


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