South Africa’s Wacken Metal Battle: Judging criteria revealed

Performance at Cape Town City Hall

As July approaches its end, so does the legendary and mighty Wacken Open Air festival in Germany begin to loom on the horizon. Some South Africans make the pilgrimage each year, or just once, to be able to say that they have been and experienced the glory; been to the proverbial ‘Mecca’ of global heavy metal. Some South Africans are also packing their bags, but with a different agenda in mind. Last year was the first time that our country was included into, and hosted its own, Wacken Metal Battle; a competition which has included no less than forty South African metal bands in its two years of participation. Some South Africans are packing their bags because they will be heading over to Germany to compete alongside participants from thirty other countries in hope of claiming the international prize as 2014 Wacken Metal Battle winner. These words by Patrick Davidson, cohort at metal4africa and member of the judging panel for the finals at Wacken Metal Battle South Africa held in Gauteng on 28 June, 2014.

Without going into too much detail on the actual participants or the South African finalists themselves who are now preparing for the Germany leg of the competition, there has been a fair amount of flare-up from various groups of people who remain deeply unimpressed and vocal about the South African outcome. Speaking for myself, who had been called into service as judge for both years of the local competition, I have decided to answer indirectly some of the questions in circulation via social media. This open and publicly accessible response is answer to those questions which I personally deem useful to many, and I will not publicly discuss matters which pertain to the specifics of the scoring done by myself or by any of the other judges, because there is no useful outcome to such information being released to public scrutiny. We who were part of the panel are all people who know and understand that regardless of the outcome, there would be dissatisfaction from any possible angle. We endured this process expecting some measure of dissatisfaction.

This information is being made available to answer the most commonly asked question, which will hopefully set some of the metal supporters hearts at ease with further understanding of the processes behind the decisions, and to allow any interested bands the opportunity for strategic self-improvement – to those who seek it.

Wacken Metal Battle South Africa: Judging Criteria

0-5 points for professionalism… Did bands arrive fully prepared, knowing their set duration and technical specifics? Did they maintain time-keeping in set-up and performance? Do they know how to communicate effectively with event staff? Are they clued up with using the gear available (be it brought by themselves, or supplied by the event)? Will any of you reading this be amazed if I told you that, as stage manager, at this level of competitive performance I still need to keep my own guitar cables close at hand just in case a band arrives on stage without one? etc.

0-5 points for image… is the band visually powerful? Do they at least look reasonably cohesive? Could they have put in a better effort? How does an audience respond to the visual aspect of the band, if at all? I don’t like to name-drop, but in this case it will be useful: think of a band like Durban’s Theatre Runs Red, for those of you who have seen them before, as a 5-5 reference point. The only 5-5 I’ve awarded in this category during the entire competition in the 2 years I’ve been involved, although I came close with a few others, I’ve never seen an equal in cohesive commitment and powerful presentation.

0-10 points for crowd interaction… this is key to a bands entertainment value – which, in my opinion, entertainment value is king-maker – and my most strict scoring area. Where most of the pressure is pinned to the frontman, that does not mean other members should be lazy and not interact as well. The best frontman in the world will only score a band a maximum of 6 or 7 points in my books. I watch ALL front-stage members for things like communicative gestures, eye-contact, etc, and just about anything which provokes engagement with an audience or even an individual just in front of the member for a moment. Bonus points if rear-stage members get involved too; but does the frontman communicate effectively with the audience? Does he (I mean he/she, but for the sake of simplicity) give songs context which the audience can connect with? Does he interact only between songs, or also during? Does he only communicate with the front row, or does he reach right into the back of the venue? Does he use gimmicks or does he have an actual gift for the role he is filling, using only the mic and his skill of wit and personality to command active enthusiasm from the audience? If he used gimmicks, was the audience sufficiently impressed by it? etc.

0-10 points for performance… this is the ability to play accurately AND interact AND throw some movement/energy into the show. A lot of individuals in bands fall flat here, sorry to say, because I don’t think a lot of people know the difference between delivery and performance. I also noticed a fellow judge, Alec Surridge who was not on the same heat/panel as me, voice this openly on social media about the Gauteng heats he partook in the panel for. In my opinion, to be honest, I’d rather watch a band I can enjoy live with a couple (and just a couple, mind you) of minor slips than a flawless delivery which was boring and un-engaging to watch. Give me a blend and I’m entertained and happy and joining you for a good headbang. (PS: if, in the band room, you’re focused only on delivery and not headbanging/performing in there already, you’re not likely to be ready to do so on stage. Throw everything you’ve got into it!)

0-10 points for musicality… is there dynamic to a bands music, ebb-and-flow, musical hooks, true stand-out moments, etc, or does the music just “flat-line”, as I would call it; and things like: is there a good interaction between technicality & groove, etc? I watch some bands and, although their show hit me hard, I can’t remember what an individual song sounds like even before they’ve completed packing off the stage – I watch others and I find myself humming to those songs weeks later. A good performing band is not necessarily a brilliant song-writing band, and vice-versa. I know that this area in particular is probably the most subjective point, difficult to measure; but that is why the competition host decided to call in a panel of five very diverse judges for the South African final.

That is the sum of the criteria. How should this be interpreted?

Of course, each judge (even yourself, as an ‘informal judge’) would interpret each scoring area in their own way, based on their own experiences of and interactions with the industry. My personal experiences and interactions include: 20 years of festival attendance as a music fan who delights in good quality live entertainment; 10 years of stage performance as a musician, with 6 of those overlapping two bands with very different objectives and approaches to live performance; 7 years of booking bands as member of a festival organization team; 7 years of stage management as liaison between bands and tech crew; 3 years experience as stage manager in a large festival environment. Every one of the aforementioned are still regular and current activities. I agreed to lend my experiences to the Wacken Metal Battle because I believed that any band who wanted to hear my views could gain significantly from having those views shared with them; and many of those who have come to me afterwards have indeed done so.

The South African finalist kicked arse! They were not the only band to do so, nor were they every judges highest score in the competition (there was no requirement for unanimity, which is one of the strengths of the panel method, as we are forced to validate our opinions by the mere fact that they are likely to differ from judge to judge), but their cumulative score between the five judges came out as the highest and so they took the night. Well done! I also believe that if more people in our local scene placed as much effort into improving their game to meet the standards set by those top-performing acts at Wacken Metal Battle as they do into opposing the outcome, we’d have an even more amazing pool of top class entertainers who would not need a competition as their ticket into the line-up of an international festival.

These are my personal views, not reflective of those in particular of any of the other judges, the event host, nor of the website which has published this. Thank you for your time.

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