In late June, me and Ellie went over to Hellfest in France, and last weekend we were at Wacken in Germany. It's been 4 years since I was last able to do both festivals, and as they are more similar in size now it makes more sense to be able to compare them. Hellfest has its share of problems, but as for Wacken, I can start by saying that it's fair to say my assessment is the opposite of ironlord's over here - it's well past its peak now, with no prospect of improving.
Hellfest is in the interesting situation of growing very rapidly. Capacity was 13,000 in 2007, up to about 20,000 in 2010, but was apparently somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 this year. And the reason for its popularity is clearly that they deliver stunning line-ups year after year, spanning from classic rock/metal right across to the extreme stuff. This time around, there was Iron Maiden, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Rob Zombie, Soundgarden, Slayer, Avenged Sevenfold, Deep Purple, Emperor, Carcass, and Opeth. Then you have a high quality undercard of bands like Behemoth, Paradise Lost, Sabaton, Death Angel, Electric Wizard, Soilwork, Nile, Kataklysm, Watain, Enslaved, Turisas, Monster Magnet, Clutch, etc.
This year's Wacken paled by comparison on the band front. Thursday didn't even feature any internationally-known bands until 6pm (unless you want to count Skyline, famous for being the Wacken organiser's band...) upon which we got Hammerfall, Steel Panther, Saxon, Accept, and Masterplan. That would have been a great line-up for an indoor Bloodstock about 10 years ago. If you're not into hair/power metal though, Thursday's main stages were a write-off for you. It's interesting to compare that uniformity with Hellfest offering you different genres on each stage so that on the French fest's first day you could see Iron Maiden and Slayer on the main stages, or Death/Septic Flesh/Kataklysm on another stage, Watain/Enslaved/Turisas on a third, and Electric Wizard/Kylesa/Godflesh on a fourth. No contest. Move forward to Friday and Wacken does a little better, scraping onto a par with Hellfest by featuring a couple of the same bands (Slayer, Carcass) but whether you think Motorhead, King Diamond, W.A.S.P., Apocalyptica, and Children of Bodom beats Aerosmith, Avenged Sevenfold, Deep Purple, Nile, Gorgoroth, Eluveitie, Shining, Monster Magnet, and Clutch, I don't know. Wacken's last day was great for me - but mostly because I got another chance to see the bands I'd enjoyed most at Hellfest, ie. Emperor and Behemoth. Germany's other offerings were Devin Townsend, Amon Amarth, Megadeth, and a 2 hour Avantasia set (why?!). Compared against Black Sabbath, Soundgarden, Opeth, Soilwork, Paradise Lost, and 1349, I think Hellfest is at least a little more interesting. (Though it was good to see Megadeth at long last. (But it should also be pointed out that they were booked for Hellfest too, until their bassist's father died and they had to cancel.))
Both events offer up several stages, but while Hellfest fills 5 stages full of well-known rock and metal (plus a punk/hardcore stage I'm not equipped to judge), Wacken these days puts popular bands on their 2 main stages and a handful on the others. It doesn't even open its 3rd outdoor stage on the first day. And the the W.E.T. Stage, their 4th tier, was dire this time around. Long gone are the times I would be in there for much of the day watching bands like Tsjuder, Sirenia, Hail of Bullets, Before The Dawn, Khold, Suidakra... now it's full of unknowns until the evening when you get the likes of Hell, ICS Vortex, Masterplan, Vreid... and that's all.
Wacken offers something unique over on their Wackinger stage - if you like medieval-themed music or folk metal. That's fun, and I enjoyed Vogelfrey in particular (for amusement value rather than musical quality per se), but they just get the same handful of bands to play each day, so the novelty wears thin. And to put a serious band like Dordeduh out on that stage where their quieter moments are drowned out by the main stages in the next field is pretty much criminal. Still, around that stage is the Wackinger village, an interesting sort of medieval area featuring old-style food and drink, merchants selling middle-ages style clothing, and various related activities like blacksmithing, axe-throwing, archery, etc. On top of that they also had a 'Wasteland' area which was a sort of post-apocalyptic Mad Max place, full of rusty vehicles and people dressed up vaguely like Tank Girl. It's all a lot of fun. But it started to feel like these peripheral aspects were more interesting than the main offering, which can't be right.
One joker on the Wacken forums mentioned last month that facilities should be good this year since they saved money on the bands. Well, at least the second half of that was right! While at Hellfest it was scorchingly hot and dry, and Ellie and myself lamented that they only had a handful of drinking water points. Turns out that Wacken did even worse on this front, offering a mere 2 drinking points, both ridiculously located next to the main stages rather than out in the places you can easily get to. Toilets were also rather thin on the ground, and Germans apparently don't need to wash their hands afterwards because there was no running water near most of the arena toilets, unlike at Hellfest.
The fabled German tendency for great organisation was absent too - this year saw a ridiculous hour-long queue for the festival wristbands since they decided to stop issuing them on the way in, previously a 10 minute affair. (I also went to buy drinks for us while Ellie queued - and had to wait over 30 minutes at the bar! Hellfest never made me wait more than 2.) They also decided to hide the wristband collection area at entirely the opposite end of the festival to the entrance, meaning a lot of tired and annoyed people trudging around the site with their stuff looking for this mystical place, not realising that this year you're expected to pitch your tent and then collect the wristbands. Which itself was frustrating since the campsite had filled up almost entirely by early on Wednesday afternoon, for a festival that doesn't start properly until about half-way through Thursday. I also found it annoying that they provided a map of the campsite that was clearly wrong in a couple of places (eg. missing roads/paths). And why give all the routes fancy metal names on the map if you're not going to mark a single one in the real world?
Hellfest had its issues - their premium shower and washing area on the edge of the campsite was oversubscribed and ran out of water on at least one occasion. But it did work well most of the time, and also provided separate shower cubicles for prudish Brits like myself. It was also incredibly hot and there was very little shelter from the sun once outside, but Wacken was no better in this regard. At least at Hellfest you could reasonably expect to see good bands in the tents, rather than Wacken's patchy selection.
One last thing I normally like about the overseas festivals is the merch and market areas. From 2008 to 2012 Wacken used to be the main place I would go to pick up new CDs from the merchants there. Not this year. The Metal Markt is a special tent that you pay to get into, with the reward being that you get to visit many interesting vendors with a wide range of music from mainstream to extreme, selling stuff that is hard to get anywhere else. This year the Markt was virtually empty, except for a few mainstream sellers. Gone were Metalmailorder, Earache, Goddess Of Desire, That Black Metal Distro That Writes Prices On The Shink Wrap In Marker Pen, and That Place That Always Sells Me Paysage D'Hiver Digibooks. Such a disappointment. Yet almost all of them were present at Hellfest, alongside a few French labels as well. I don't know if they just raised their trading prices, or whether merchants are deciding that Wacken is not a good place to sell at any more, but it was a massive let-down. Even the traditional outside market area was smaller than it used to be. At Hellfest, there was a smaller selection of merchants outside, and obviously they didn't have the interesting Viking village, but the CD sellers were 10x better. I picked up about 6 or 7 records at Hellfest and a big fat zero at Wacken. I'd love to know what happened here.
As usual the Germans were friendlier than the French, and getting to the event via German public transport actually works, whereas trusting the French to actually be running anything is a fool's errand; at Hellfest there was a train strike that cancelled our trains and we were lucky enough to get a flight back the day before an air traffic controller strike shut down the planes. But Wacken can't take the credit for Germany's reliability any more than Hellfest can be blamed for the French's passion for not going to work.
Given that pretty much everything was rather disappointing this time around compared to previous years, the one hope we had was that if enough people complained about the poor showing this year, it might improve for next year. But no - in their infinite wisdom the organisers put the tickets on sale at midnight on Monday morning and all 75,000 tickets for Wacken 2015 were gone by midday. This cements its position as being increasingly German-only since half of this years attendees from overseas were still making their way home by the time sales had ended! They obviously have no incentive to improve the lineup (or anything else) considering they cannot sell any more tickets as a result, and a quick look at the online forum suggests that most people think everything there is great and that there's no need to improve anything. It's still a fun few days in a field if you have the luxury of not having to take a whole week off to facilitate it as overseas visitors tend to have to, and I'm sure the German market loves listening to Schandmaul, Knorkator, In Extremo, and Saltatio Mortis year in, year out, so the fact that it sells out is not much surprise nor any real indicator of intrinsic quality.
Next year then, I expect Hellfest will be my big festival of choice, if the bands look interesting enough. We had chosen not to return to Wacken next year while we were still there; having the tickets sell out before we were even on the flight home just seems to confirm that they don't want us there anyway!
I have memories, clouded by sorrow
Of a time in life when blood ran through my veins
- A Tale of Two Festivals