Wackenland (English version)
By Juan Sebastián Villa Ortiz.
Photography by Juan Sebastián Villa, Jens Nolte, Mariam von Phandl y Manuel ‘Apes’
(Complete galleries at the end of article)
People don’t go to Wacken for the bands, nor do they make the trip to the equivalent of Santa Rosa de Osos because the biggest metal festival happens there. Not even because every Motörhead concert could be Lemmy’s last show. (Update, it was their last show on Wacken).
80.000 people go to Wacken Open Air each year for the people who fill the festival. And if you want proof, knowing that two days after this years edition all 80.000 tickets for 2015 sold out in less than an hour (without announcing a single band) should suffice. For us colombians, who still have amongst the metal lines a considerable number if those who radicalize their metality with the bands they have academically listened. Us who see the other in concerts as obstacles to be nearer to our idol. That’s simply incomprehensible.
Covering Wacken was for me a dream come true., and what enveloped it was a series of fortunate events. But if I had to pick just one, it would have to be that after I lost my partner for the festival, I came across Jens Nolte, veteran photographer of W.O.A, and local guide for this foreigner to the nation of Metal. Since we took the Autobahn 1 heading north, I began to feel the spirit of the Holy Land. Every once in a while one could see a vehicle with the letters W.O.A on the back, and with two or three people inside heabanging to some kind of metal.
I admit when I first saw the nickname “Holy Land” in the maps of the event, I took it for marketing, but after arriving and being greeted by the kindest staff of any festival I have covered, the name started to fit.
For 5 out of 365 days, Wacken is not a small town, It is the kindest and most metal nation in the world. But to belong there are a few rules to follow. I don’t usually drink when I work, but after walking around the first day with my cam and my tactical photographer vest, and not knowing well if people laughed with me or at me, I followed the germanic advice of Jens and gulped one beer. From that moment on everything was clear.
Rule N.1. IN Wacken nobody takes himself to seriously (And everyone must take at least one drink)
After crossing that barrier, all friction vanished for me. Moving amongst the masses of long hair and black tees was simple, and the only problem of asking for a picture was that if I wasn’t quick enough, the friends of the depicted, and soon the nearest strangers would form a group hug making funny faces for the lens. Fans asked me if I was a playable character in Call of Duty, took pics of me and offered me booze.
It’s not like there’s no assholes there, but they are so few and invisible that the friendliness and the smiles of everyone else makes you forget right away. Intolerance is terminated massively the moment it’s spotted.
Everything in Wacken is Metal. The counter on the press tent is made with speakers and music gear boxes, the camps are decorated (at least spray painted) to the same level of the banners inside the festival that display the amazing pictures that Pep Bonet, took last year for his project We the people of Wacken. And from the first security guy to the last staff member, everyone is as metalhead as Eddie. What’s weird is that out of every 10 black tees, 8 have a cow skull.
Getting installed in the VIP camping was a conflictive experience. While my costumes and budget drove to arrange my staying around a tent, sleeping pad and Jens’ car, around us one could find from caravans of cars that brought gigantic tents and all their garden furniture, trailer houses and even army trucks with their own shower, sofas for a roof covered with a tarp, and even a small palm tree in it’s pot. The zone is shared between staff members, bands of smaller stages, press and some people I never knew what their deal there was.
The fact that the VIP area wasn’t exclusive for press could seem at start as a logistics fail. With how slow WiFi usually is at music festivals, having people uploading selfies while someone tries to send her boss her best Accept picture can be a pain in the ass. But the place made it unavoidable to talk to staff, producers, upcoming bands and the other press mates. The feeling of us all being the crew of one ship became clear as water after a couple hours.
I must admit that I thought my military gear would frame me as one of the weirdos in the press tent. Not even close.
Wacken is too metal for anyone to care about your kilt, your straw hat, glam leggins, your chest rig or the lack of a black tee on you. Nor are there envies or freudean humiliations for the size of the other guy’s lens. Who doesn’t smile to you, simply doesn’t deal with you.
Rule N.2. In Wacken looking at people over the shoulder can seriously affect your social status, and further partying.
But to be fair, Wacken Open Air is the closest thing to a battlefield I have seen as part of Bajo Asfalto. This year the logistics team didn’t manage specific corridors for press to move with ease to the stages from the VIP area,and this made covering bands a journey through fields covered by an intermittent cloud of dust, occupied by thousands upon thousands of metalheads screaming and celebrating. The walk between stages was long, the road to the camping area was even longer, but nothing gave more meaning to being the tactical photographer than shooting from the press pit. Logistically it was a hostile situation. The height of the stage usually cuts the artists in half, and other than having to shoot between giant speakers that segmented the field view, an automatic camera on rails tends to rudely get inside your frame when you’re about to take your best pic. Add to that the pressure of having less than two songs per band on the big stages; and dressing for war makes complete sense.
But the tension gets countered by the camaraderie of the other photographers, the respect and cooperation from security staff, and mainly the willing, kind and easy relationship with the fans of the festival.
Nights in Wacken are a pretty dilemma. Do I give in to the party? Do I sleep well to work better tomorrow? Or should I take advantage that the first band plays at noon and try to sleep even with the sun baking me inside my tent? In a place where every 30 steps there’s a table full of booze open after 10 minutes of conversation, it’# easy to wind up playing golf at sunrise, past drunk, aiming with compact foam balls for the trailers on the next field.
There are no roosters in the morning, but from far away on the camping grounds you can hear “WA-CKEEEEEEN!”, a cry that, because of dividing the word with a pause, evoques at the same time a fraternity motto, a warcry and a cheer from a bunch of drunks. The call never dies without being answered from two or three more places, with the same pause in the middle and the same belonging. The sun hovers on the horizon lighting up hundreds of flags that wave over the camp, not marking nationalities, but stating presence.
I don’t know if it’s something one can’t do, or don’t want to, but sleeping three hours a night is a luxury few gift themselves with. Morning sums up in having a sandwich for breakfast, completing it with smoked bacon and Monster, getting up to date with the other photographer’s sleepless nights, waiting in line for the shower while talking more bullshit, packing up a couple beers and heading out to the camping zone to hunt pictures, because the craziest, weirdest shit on the festival are not the dragons and flamethrowers on stage. Standing on the edge of the camping zone means that up to where your eyes can see details all you see is tents, flags and trailers; and walking through it takes you to hybrids between medieval taverns, postapocalyptic shelters and alcoholic bunks.
Oh,and trucks. Lots of trucks with decks on top to party with height.
Contrary to my preconceptions, germans don’t all speak english (damn movies about nazis and their bullshit info about Germany), but a horned hand is, according to context: Yes, your outfit rocks, thanks, this is a kick ass show, more beer, see you later, good night, and of course WA-CKEEN!
So the language barrier is usually jumped with booze and metal.
This abandonment of national identity as something relevant goes through interaction, and also dismantles musical appreciation. In Wacken the struggle for things such as Norwegian Black Metal being the true one isn’t evident, no one seems to put national origin as first argument for the quality of nothing; and they especially don’t give a fuck that between bands there may be some electronic music coming from the stages (Because you can even find reggae on the campsites). And if in on the metal nation it is irrelevant to bind to metal as if it was a monk’s silicium, It’s worth asking ourselves if being so radicalized and worrying so much for defining the Scene of Medellin is what has best kept it frozen.
Nonetheless, this does not take away the pride for their own, and the festival knows how to take advantage of this giving the possibility to willing countries to make their own selection of bands in a contest, to then take the winning band of each nation to their own arena. Wacken calls this Metal Battle, and South America doesn’t have a single country sending their art. Although the major prize includes gear and a contract with one of the most prominent metal record labels, just the fact of winning a national Metal Battle has a double effect. It shows what a country has to offer, and it secures that everywhere in the world metal record labels will check those bands.
If there’s something true about our metal is that latin american crowds are the noisest. They scream louder, mosh harsher and don’t stop bouncing ever. Wacken’s (forbidden) walls of death seemed weak for me, but as contrast who wants to go through doesn’t get insulted, people wear costumes of unicorns, gorillas, bananas, mankinis in a Borat fashion, and not even near nudity (male or female) causes the least bad glimpse. I’m not saying no one laughed at my tacticographic vest, but if I face it to how many times I was stopped to take a picture of me, or greeted with horned hands, the message is clear. Intolerance and violence in Wacken isn’t just minuscule, it is crushed on sight in a second.
Who goes to W.O.A don’t see the rest of the public as an obstacle to enjoy their favourite band, they see it as one more reason to. And everyone is clear on the reason why they go. They do it to have a good time, and bands, fan, media, organizers and everyone else all the way to the last huge security guy smile and try to feed that happiness in each interaction. On the other hand no one oversteps their role. Fans don’t obstruct photographers, they help and even shield them in the moshpit. Nor do they try to pass over security. And security does not get aggressive with the press or the fans. Not even a caravan of police cars stopped by a guy dressed as a lion who climbs on a car hood and growls at them while his beer spills is a reason for troubles.
Rule N.3. Party poopers stay home.
And it must be because of the relationship between Wacken Open Air as a community with Wacken, the town, which has assured it to be the oldest ongoing festival (Words from Lemmy). W.O.A together with the town have kept away chain markets and stores. Locals turn their gardens into mini markets, bars, and watching the town kids selling beer from a small wagon on the back of their bikes condenses the respectful treatment between the event and the locals.
On my part, my way of giving to this paradise was the transmutation of coffee delights, that simpleton candy we take for granted, into a valuable coin with which I gave thanks to what I had to be thankful for. And in their own way everyone does the same.
Wacken is a great family. A nation with a banner of saboe and a bull skull in gold. The mosh pit isn’t there to swallow whoever didn’t want to deal with it, it’s difficult to find a bad gesture without provocations, no one lets crowdsurfers fall, and when the wave drives you to the alley just before the press pit, it’s not uncommon that the security giant that receives you smiles back when he understands you feel on top of the world. Then that alley becomes a runway where everyone high fives you; and alof a sudden you feel home. In a place you could swear every person appreciates you and take care of you like you’re their blood. The prints of dusty hands on your t-shirt seem to protect you more than soil you.
Newscasters announced that this year one fan died in Wacken, on the town, hit by a car. Rumors spoke of another that went early morning to his tent way too drunk, and died dehydrated for not being able to wake up. Although the second one was not confirmed, I dare to say if you take any population sample of around 10.000 individuals and you scan it for five days, wounding up with two people less is an unfortunate statistical reality. What is clear is that in Wacken people take care of each other, whether they know each other or not. And that accidents just happen.
Rule N.4. Tragedies ruin parties on the long term. Keep your stupidities free of risk
As a press photographer my shock wasn’t just in being protected by strangers when I decided to bullfight Wacken while Amon Amarth hammered hard from stage. It came because when l looked at the public from the press pit we got back smiles, horns and flags waving at us. It came because if you missed the short entrance time to the pit someone spared you a few of their shots to complete your quota, and such an enviable fact as getting a greeded pit pass got nothing more than honest hugs.
Maybe I was just lucky. Maybe it’s just the sentimentalism and what was for me a beautiful clash of cultures is for european metalheads just natural order. And of course all this is just my opinion.
After Amon Amarth I decided I’d cover no further bands. My photo gear falls short in comparison to the other photographers, and from day one a hoodie in varsity style winked at me, but the amount of work blocked me from remembering the store was in town. After 10 minutes to convince Jens to join me for the eternal walk so I didn’t get lost, we hit the road.
Schwein Gehabt, in german, means To have had Pig, and it means to have luck. Our Instagram is, since the festival,full of pics with a lego piggy named Bazofio Alveiro, but the saying was my mantram during the whole event, because even when I fucked up, I was still lucky.
There were barely a few hoodies left of the size and colors wanted, and when I got the news I cheered rushing a big gulp of beer that had the bad luck of falling straight into my throat, wounded a couple days ago after receiving from some french golfers a few shots of an illegal rum with over 70°. The result was my mouth becoming a beer spray that hitted the vender just when she headed towards the storage room to get my hoodie.
She got angry as hell, but I didn’t see it happen. My head was stuck to the counter while I heard Jens calmly talking to her, laughing from time to time. Still, he paused for a moment an placed his hand on my shoulder to tell me: “You’re fucked”.
But the story wound up being funny to the sales lady, and she asked me to try it on. It fitted me really well, but I would have bought it even if it looked like a bib just out of shame.
Everything came out fine. She smiled, Jens and I did too, and after apologizing and thanking her in german, I tried to grab my beer from the counter, only to spill half it’s content. The lady busted into laughter, Jens dragged me out of the store, and I didn’t know if I should be laughing or crying.
Rule N.5. Don’t judge the drunk for misbehaving. Laugh at him.
When we came back we found the press tent nearly empty. The bar outside was packed full, and after a couple drinks with the friends I had made, we finished on the VIP camping, laying on a plastic tarp looking at the sky. It wasn’t worth sleeping.
Next morning Jens and I headed to the main camping area with Mariam, now our close friend, to register the sad ending of the festival. The landscape was desolated, full of garbage and damaged or abandoned camping gear. Some campings scavenged amongst the leftover recyclable gear, and Wacken’s garbage trucks took the rest. Jens told us later there was a fire further away, , but we couln’t see it because we decided to sit by the side of the road the cars drove by to get out and watch the people go, and every two or three vehicles we hears “See you next year”, even if we never crossed this one.
Wacken is a different nation, an utopic land where for less than a week black is the happiest color in the world. Mannifest hate is massively crushed, and not even a drunk with a crown stopping a police column receives less than a smile.
Yes. Wacken is Holly Land.
Fans and camping:
Scenary and crowdsurfing: