Over the last decade and a half Wacken has indisputably become the place to go for all fans of the much derided heavy metal genre. Most of the greats have played here at one time or another, whilst for the UK metal fan it's a chance to see bands which simply wouldn't get a look in on our shores due to the rather unfortunate fashion-led nature of the music industry over here. As this was the 15th anniversary it seemed as good a time as any to make my first pilgrimage to Wacken, and I have to say it was an excellent decision. Despite the debilitating heat (temperatures were constantly well over the 30 Celsius mark, which coupled with strong German beer doesn't always bode well for a trouble-free festival experience!) this was a fantastic 3 day celebration of metal in all its forms; not only were there many fine performances, but the atmosphere generated by metal fans from all over the globe was excellent - a real feeling of unity and that everyone was there primarily for one thing - not because it was trendy (it patently isn't!) but because they love this type of music and want to support it.
Although they weren't the reason I went there, I was still pleased to see gothic/ symphonic metallers After Forever's name on the bill - I've followed the band since their excellent debut Prison Of Desire, yet had not managed to catch them live previously.
After Forever played a mid-afternoon set on the 'Party Stage' on the final day. Although it may have been somewhat daunting for them following an absolutely storming set by Anthrax on the main stage, this also worked to their advantage as a large crowd had gathered for the New Yorkers, and the fact that the other band playing (on the 'Black Stage') was extreme metallers Cannibal Corpse meant that many 'casual' metal fans went over to see what After Forever were all about.
Coming on to the obligatory dry ice (which seemed almost incongruous amongst the very bright sunshine) and the instrumental 'overture' Childhood In Minor, the band soon launch into the powerful Beautiful Emptiness, and from hereon in the power and heaviness rarely let up. Wisely dressed in metal-friendly black rather than the rather odd turquoise outfits they are clad in on the cover artwork of recent CD Invisible Circles, the band clearly tailored their set to the occasion. As, rather fortuously, Invisible Circles is their heaviest outing to date, its no surprise that the majority of the tracks come from here. In fact, much of the gig followed the running order of the album, but omitted the slower, more balladic moments such as Eccentric. Whilst to an extent this is a shame (Eccentric being one of the highlights of the album) it's also a sensible decision given the audience and the conditions their playing in (during songs you can hear the bluster from the 'Black Stage', which would certainly have destroyed any of After Forever's more subtle moments.
When I reviewed it, I gave Invisible Circles a cautious recommendation. Repeated listens since have however increased my appreciation of the album, and I would probably put it up there amongst their best work. What certainly can't be denied is that these songs work extremely well on stage, the extra heaviness gained in the live setting really adding a sharper edge to the likes of Sins Of Idealism and Digital Deceit. The 'grunts' by guitarist Sander Gommans are also far less annoying here than on the album, although it should also be said the clean vocal contributions from fellow guitarist Bas Maas are equally well delivered here as on the album, and hopefully the band will make more use of these in the future. The sole mis-step the band make is to include the awful 'spoken word' section from Between Love And Fire - this doesn't work on Invisible Circles, and works even less well here, with those not familiar with the album looking very baffled.
The band was blessed with a good sound, and were clearly all at the top of their game. Vocalist Floor Jansen deserves a special mention; not only was her wonderful voice in great form here, but she is also a very confident front woman who worked the crowd expertly. After Forever clearly looked like they were having a ball on stage, despite the scorching conditions, and this always adds to the enjoyment of a gig.
In addition to the Invisible Circles material, After Forever also managed to squeeze into their hour set the equally heavy Glorifying Means (from the Exordium e.p.), and for the finale play what has probably become their signature tune, Follow In The Cry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest cheer of the set came for the band's cover of Iron Maiden's The Evil That Men Do. Normally it's a bit depressing when a band get bigger cheers for cover versions than for their own original material, but here it's understandable, as power, or traditional, metal is still the over-riding style on display at this Festival. There's no doubt that this is a great version, which gets everyone on their feet.
Overall, an excellent set that went down very well with the crowd, and no doubt won After Forever a whole host of new fans. As for the Festival itself, I would say that if you have even the slightest interest in heavy metal this is a pilgrimage you have to make at least once in your lifetime! I'm already planning for Wacken '05…