After a lifetime of immersion in heavy metal I still haven’t set foot in Europe during the summer festival season. Do a little extrapolation and you’ll understand that to mean I haven’t yet been in attendance at the grand pappy of them all: Wacken Open Air. To wit, I try to avoid rubbing salt in that wound by deliberately following the doings and transpirings of the festival, the press that reports on it and paying limited attention to what goes on over there each year. Actively seeking out the lineup and taking note of what bands and what fun I’ll be missing out on year after year is like punching myself in the ‘nads, something I try to avoid doing most days.
Due to my pointed avoidance, it was only until recently that I discovered that in addition to the wet dream of a lineup Wacken usually assembles each year, they also hold what would be best described as an international battle of the bands. Wacken Metal Battle runs in the months leading up to the festival and is basically a contest in which countries around the world hold their own national battle of the bands. The winner gets a chance to showcase at the festival, competing against the other nation’s victors for prizes, glory, the opportunity to play the biggest metal festival on the planet and a great story to tell the grandkids.
We caught up with the CMO (Chief Metal Officer) of the Canadian arm of the Metal Battle series, JJ Tartaglia to break it all down.
How long has the Wacken Battle been happening and what can you tell us about its history?
The Metal Battle first started in 2004 with just a handful of European countries. The main idea behind it is to push independent metal bands and give them a chance to play at Wacken Open Air. Over the years, the Metal Battle has grown and spread to include more countries so that it is now truly worldwide with over 40 countries participating. The prizes have evolved over time. In the early years, it was a record deal for only the first place winner of the International Battle at Wacken. Now, there are prizes for the top five bands with cash prizes being the main focus, plus music gear, slots at other festivals and last year there was a music video. I think the prizes are adapted to what is happening in the music industry currently. Much discussion goes into what prizes we feel are valuable to bands nowadays and I think the prizes reflect that. Sponsors change as well, so that’s also a big factor. Besides the prizes, there is also the Metal Battle Lounge, which is there to benefit all of the Metal Battle bands at Wacken regardless if you make the top five or not. Wacken invites metal industry reps from all over Europe and overseas to attend the Lounge, which is a backstage area where the bands can meet and network with these people who would otherwise be quite difficult to meet.
How did you get involved in managing the Canadian arm of it?
Right place, right time. I was in Finland in 2011 speaking at the Helsinki Metal Meeting and met Enno Heymann from the Wacken admin, who was also on one of the panels. We talked afterward and he told me about the Metal Battle and his interest in having Canada participate. I was enthusiastic about the whole idea and started working on the steps in my head to make it happen. Although I wasn’t really a promoter, I had been running my label, Boonsdale Records for three years and was confident in the knowledge I had of the industry just from being in my own bands as well as managing and booking those bands. Eventually, after some back-and-forth, the decision to go ahead was made in 2012 to officially launch for 2013. That was the first year Canada participated.
How many countries does the Battle happen in? Do you know which of the countries has the highest number of bands registering and participating?
I believe we are in 44 countries now, but each year there are only a maximum of 28 slots at Wacken for the Metal Battle. So, they do a draw to see which countries will need to take a break each year and allow other countries to participate. If you take a break then you’re guaranteed a slot for the next two years, so it’s a good system. We’ve been quite lucky with the draws as we’ve only had to break once so far (in 2017). Canada is definitely up there for the number of bands participating; 82 this year, but we’ve done as many as 120 in some years. South Africa is another one with a lot, if not more. Surprising I know [laughs]. It changes each year, but that’s a good question. I’d be curious to get the exact stats from last year for all the countries.
Can you describe and breakdown the format for the Battle?
It’s much like any regular local metal show you would attend in terms of how the night runs, except the sets are a bit shorter and there’s a lot more promotion, hype and media attention around the shows. So, the attendance at the shows is generally more as well. Changeovers are quick; we use the same backline to make things easy and also give a level playing field for all the bands. A lot of metalheads attend regularly, especially after six years now, the Metal Battle has made a good name for itself here in Canada I’d like to think. Band battles have a bad rep as it is, but we’ve put a lot of focus on separating ourselves from being just another battle of the bands. Since it’s a judging panel that decides the winners, having a solid roster of judges that are respected in the metal community is very important. The reality is that the Metal Battle is a genuine opportunity for the good of metal bands. There’s no cost to apply, no mandatory ticket sales, no fan-voting. It’s no popularity contest here. We just want to send the best band we can to Wacken to represent Canada. Bands have everything to gain from the process.
What criteria are the bands judged on?
We use simple scoring sheets to help the judges determine the winners. So, the bands are judged on Overall Performance, Originality, Songwriting, Image/Representation, Crowd Interaction/Reaction and Time Efficiency on Stage. For the semi-finals and finals, we omit the Crowd Interaction/Reaction category so hometown bands don’t have an upper hand. The score sheets are just a guide really, a way of justifying and documenting the thoughts of the judges so that we have something to show to the bands if they are interested in getting more objective feedback. The main point is that it’s an inner feeling that decides which band you like best, as it is when you listen to metal in general. You feel it in your heart.
As I understand it, the sets of all the national winners are actually a competition and a grand winner is declared at Wacken. From what you know, how are the various Wacken Battle winners responded to at the actual Wacken Festival? Is there much interest in the Battle given the tons of other bands on the festival lineup?
Yeah, that’s correct, each participating country sends one winning band and all 28 of those bands performances at Wacken are judged once again by a panel of 40+ judges (normally the promoters from all of the different countries) to determine the top five who then receive prize money and sponsor gear. All of the Metal Battle bands perform on the Headbangers and WET stages, which are directly beside each other inside of the giant Bullhead City tent. The stages are huge and have big bands playing on them on other days when the Metal Battle is finished. The tent has a capacity of about 7000, so the attendance is quite good and even better when it’s raining, which it often does [laughs] as people can seek shelter inside the tent. I remember the first year I attended I was surprised at how many people would show up as early as 11:00am to watch bands they didn’t know. It’s the spirit of metal in general, and the reputation of the Metal Battle that has metalheads excited to see what each country has to offer. It’s not uncommon to have a capacity crowd, moshpits, chants and flags waving during the Metal Battle sets.
What can you tell us about previous year’s winners? Who they have been, what they received and how has being Wacken Battle victors helped them beyond playing the festival?
Some notable bands whose careers got kick started from the Metal Battle include Battle Beast, Torture Squad, Auðn, Crimson Shadows, Hamferð, Crisix, to name a few. All those bands got signed with Battle Beast probably being the most notable who have achieved major success. Nowadays the top five winners receive prize money (€5,000 for first place, €4,000 for second place, €3,000 for third, etc), and it’s not always about getting a first place either. For example, Auðn from Iceland, who placed third in 2016, signed to Season Of Mist immediately after and are doing very well. Crisix is playing Wacken again this year. Hamferð as well.
How is 2019 shaping up in terms of early round participation and the quality thereof? You’re probably supposed to remain impartial, but have any of the bands this year surprised you?
It’s been solid from what I’ve seen myself. We have shows happening in twelve cities across Canada, but I’ve only seen the bands from Toronto and Hamilton so far and have been impressed with one band in particular. Looking forward to seeing the Halifax bands next week (it’s the first time the Metal Battle is happening there, so that’s very exciting) and also the Quebec finalist later in March. The response out West has been very good as the National Final will be held in Calgary this year, so I’m planning to attend the final there on May 25th and see what the West Coast has to offer.
Given that there have been a number of Canadian bands that have won and/or placed high in the final rankings over the years, what have you heard from the bands about their experience at Wacken?
It’s true the Canadian bands have done very well at Wacken, with two first place wins and one second place so far. From what I’ve seen, the bands are always absolutely thrilled about the whole experience. I mean, it’s the holy land, right? The holy fields of Wacken! When you’re there, even when you’re not performing, it’s such a special place. The energy, the spirit of the metalheads, all united. And as an artist, the hospitality, the organization, everything is top notch. So, it’s really living the dream when you’re playing. There’s no better way to inspire the best performance you can get out of a band.
What would you say you get out of your participation as a promoter/organiser of the Canadian edition of the battles?
To be the rep for Canada is a true honor. Attending Wacken each year, bringing the winning band over, mentoring them to the best of my abilities. To do my duty for the good of heavy metal feels totally great.
For more info on the results of all the hard work JJ puts into the Canadian Battle: www.metalbattle.ca
For details and info about the Battle at Wacken, including applications, news and lists of past winners: www.metal-battle.com