At last, after years of thinking about it, I’m here at Wacken Open Air. And so, it would appear, is every other heavy metal fan in mainland Europe, all of us huddled together (not, thankfully, trying to hide from the rain), in a too-small space for the number of us waiting to see German metal behemoths Accept.
It’s not a run-of-the-mill Accept performance either, as guitarist Wolf Hoffmann is playing a set within the set with a symphony orchestra reprising his Headbangers Symphony album from last year. A great night is in prospect.
But that’s all in the (near) future. I’ve been commanded by HQ in Australia that I should try and catch main stage direct support Europe’s set for review purposes first, so here we are, watching Joey Tempest and company opening up proceedings with a brooding, almost doomy take on War of Kings. The band are consummate musicians, the sound is clear as a bell, but something doesn’t quite ignite.
Hole in my Pocket is similarly so-so, but Rock the Night gets things going. People are punching the air and woa-woaing seemingly all the way to the horizon, and everyone gets involved enthusiastically in the call and response routine inserted into the song. Scream of Anger from Wings of Tomorrow is next up, a power metal tour de force with a real Deep Purple feel that certainly gives the neck muscles a workout.
Last Look at Eden is probably the highlight of the set however, a grinding heavy metal beast replete with a superb chorus that highlight’s Tempest’s superb voice, the riff-making capabilities of John Norum and Mic Micaeli’s peerless keyboard orchestration. Firebox is a bit grungy for this correspondent, but again features a compelling performance from the whole band, as does their superb rendition of Sign of the Times. Rock solid thanks to the thunderous drumming of Ian Haugland and John Leven’s superb bass playing, the song turns live from a pomp rock anthem into another superb heavy metal stomper; it’s hard to explain to people who know only the Final Countdown just how supreme a heavy rock outfit Europe are, especially in the live arena, but any doubters here today are believers by this point in the set.
Norum is augmented on guitar by Tempest for a lithe and very riffy Ready or Not, but Nothin’ To Ya doesn’t really hit the spot so well. We’re coming to the end of the night for Europe now; The Beast, from Last Look at Eden perks things up again, and a closing one-two of Superstitious and (you guessed it) The Final Countdown sends the punters away happy, toasting Joey Tempest and company in the most hearty Teutonic fashion.
Except we don’t go away. Nobody wants to give up the space they’ve reserved for tonight’s main attraction, even though the delights of various sausage and beer vans are so close you can almost taste them. So we stand, wearily, waiting…
… But the waiting is worth it. When the curtain drops, Wacken goes wild and the band delivers. Opening with Die By the Sword from the new album eases everyone in to things, but a vicious look at Restless and Wild really blows the lid off the admittedly open-air arena; this is masterful heavy metal, and from the looks of the faces of the band on the big screen – it’s impossible to get close enough to actually see their faces, you understand – the band are enjoying things as much as we are, Hoffmann, bassist Peter Baltes and guitarist Uwe Lulis indulging in some amusing choreography behind vocalist Mark Tornillo’s back as he sings his lungs out.
Another newie, Koolaid, is suitably gonzoid, but Pandemic gets the next big reaction, being greeted with as much fervour as the classic material. It’s a great song – real classic metal – and it’s given the full treatment by both band and audience alike. Hoffmann’s soloing at the end of the song is, in a word, Godlike.
A breakneck Final Journey brings the first mini-set to it’s conclusion; Cunning, this, as it’s use of Morning Mood by Grieg gets us all thinking classically for what’s to come. However – and this is probably heretical – I don’t want this heavy metal phantasmagoria to end. When the curtain comes down for a second time to reveal Wolf and his Symphony Orchestra pounding out Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain it’s akin to being confronted with a heavy metal Andre Rieu, and though this is doubtless a special performance that people will look back on and be proud to say they were there, for me it’s just time that could have been spent listening to more Accept classics.
I’m in a minority in the audience tonight, however, as those all around me lap up stentorian versions of the like of Vivaldi’s Double Cello Concerto. It’s superbly done, please don’t misunderstand me. But tonight I just wanted the classics. No pun intended.
Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 – you’d know it if you heard it – ends this part of the performance, then the band return, the orchestra stays and we treated to an augmented run through of some classic heavy metal.
Princess of the Dawn is first up. And it’s spine-chilling, and not just because the sun is going down. The massed strings really ramp up the tension on what is already one of metal’s most drama-laden tracks, the result being utterly spellbinding. Tornillo’s rasp roams the lower ranges whilst spaghetti western trumpets pierce the upper registers, the counterpoint of the two resulting in aural delirium.
The bombastic Stalingrad is similarly successful, the Slavic overtones of the anthemic main guitar line lending themselves well to the orchestral setting – and massed ranks of singers-along – but after this, things calm down a little until an utterly coruscating Fast as a Shark absolutely lights up the night. Metal Heart keeps up the intensity, the amazingly crystal clear sound letting you hear every nuance of the string arrangement as well as getting the full benefit of a heavy metal band firing on all cylinders, whilst the show-stopping finale of Teutonic Terror and Balls to the Wall leaves us all battered, bruised and deliriously happy. I was going to hang around and take in Volbeat who closed out the night’s proceedings but really what could top that?
And there are still two days of this madness to go. Good God Nurse, the sedatives…