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Wacken Open Air, Germany, Copyright: Daniel Reinhardt dpa/lno
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Heavy metal fans invade Wacken

Silke Wünsch / eg
July 29, 2015

Every summer a small village in Germany turns into a Mecca for headbangers. The Wacken Open Air, the world's largest heavy metal festival, draws metal fans and top bands from around the world. Let the pilgrimage begin.


It started in 1990 with a few hundred participants and is now the biggest heavy metal festival in the world. The founders of Wacken Open Air couldn't have imagined this would happen when the organized their first party on a cow pasture right by their village of 1,800 inhabitants. They had a line-up of six bands.

Now over 100 bands are playing there, for a crowd of about 75,000 metalheads.

Wacken, the village, is located somewhere between Hamburg and Flensburg, up in the North of Germany. It's surrounded by nothing but meadows, pastures, fields, and a few trees. A temporary community, at least 40 times bigger than the village, pops up every year: "Holy Wacken Land," as the festival grounds are called, is made up of several areas, stages and a huge campsite.

Metalheads invade Wacken peacefully

During the festival, which opens on Thursday (29.07.2015), the heart of heavy metal spends four days pounding madly - 24 hours a day. Even when the bands take a break, the party just keeps going on in the camping area.

Wacken Open Air, Germany, Copyright: Daniel Reinhardt dpa/lno
Festival-goers in the small village of WackenImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Sleep is completely overrated here, just like showers and healthy meals. Beer is the festival-goers' staple food, though some manage to grill a hotdog or open a can of ravioli. They otherwise subsist on the music and the great atmosphere: Even though Wacken attracts thousands of dangerous looking people with long hair and black clothes, it is considered one of the most peaceful music festivals in the country.

Those living in Wacken have learned to stoically accept the fact that every year, their village gets invaded by a merry crowd of heavy metal devotees, united under a battle cry - "Wackeeeeen!" - which they roar while raising their pinky and index fingers to form the sign of horns, the famous metal salute.

Metal fest opens with oompah music

The villagers have actually long been involved in the action. The main stage is on the field of a local farmer, and every year, the festival is opened by the local fire department's brass band. The "Fire Fighters" mercilessly play Oktoberfest classics while fans clap, swing and sing with them.

The crowd shows its true colors when the first metal bands start rocking the stage. It feels like a stampede just erupted in the audience. The crowd divides into opposing lines, waits for the band's signal to surge on to the other side at a breathtaking speed, and hundreds of people collide in the mosh pit: This ritualized form of dance called "wall of death," as well as crowd surfing, are not officially allowed, but tolerated.

Things get 'louder than hell'

There's a strong sense of community in Wacken. That's why it's not only the loyal fans that keep coming back; there are also many bands that are permanently enlisted. Motörhead, for instance, feels like "Wacken's house band." Other regulars include Doro Pesch, one of the few heavy metal front-women, Cannibal Corpse and Subway to Sally. All the greats have played in Wacken too: Iron Maiden, Deep Purple, Type-O-Negative, Scorpions, and Slayer.

Wacken Open Air, Germany, Copyright: Carsten Rehder dpa/lno
Crowd surfing: Part of the ritualImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Once again, the 2015 line up promises many treats for fans and freaks. Rob Zombie, Oomph!, Judas Priest, Waltari, Biohazard, and even New Model Army. They'll all unite, as always, under the motto: "Louder Than Hell!"

Newcomer bands battle it out

The Wacken phenomenon has already inspired several filmmakers. In 2005, the Korean Cho Sung-Hyung created with the film "Full Metal Village" a cinematic tribute to the Wacken Open Air festival. Norbert Heitker celebrated the 25th anniversary of the event in 2014 with the documentary "Wacken 3D."

This year, DW's cameras will also follow the event. The main focus will be the Wacken Metal Battle, during which newcomer bands from 30 countries have the opportunity of a lifetime. Over the two days of the competition, each band is allowed to play 20 minutes. Those who don't leave the stage after that get their sound turned off. The jury is huge: All 30 countries have a representative, on top of which come more musicians and specialized journalists. They will select the five best bands.

Metal Battle Wacken
DW's PopXport will be covering the event

This year promises to be exciting. Not only the classic metal nations like Finland and Great Britain are sending their participants, but there are also bands coming from the Middle East and Uruguay.

Bands with a front-woman have good chances of grabbing the jury's attention, as there aren't that many. Last year the Spanish band [In Mute], with lead singer Estefania Garcia, won the competition.

All five winners of the Metal Battle will receive cash prizes and merchandise. This year, DW will also be filming a portrait of each winning band, to be shown on the TV music magazine PopXport.

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