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Darkwood’s “Flammenlieder”: A Proper Albeit Lopsided Introduction to the “More German than German” Neofolk Mainstays

In my mind, the work of Dresden’s Henryk Vogel has been an underplayed secret within the annals of neofolk. His project, Darkwood, formed in the late nineties and has churned out a plentiful self-released catalog of eight full-length albums as well as a couple of singles.  With a modus operandi that could be relayed to neofolk fans as a Germanic sibling to scene mainstays Death in June, Darkwood in general is thematically steeped in similar Reich-dyed sense. However, with Vogel, there’s also a touch of the Lucifer’s plight in Paradise Lost, that devilish grit of questionable rebellion, cast in shadows of antihero regret perhaps best seen from only the spectator’s eye.

Being mostly limited runs on top of being self-published, it’s not surprising that Darkwood finally generated a compilation of sorts. For the most part, three albums carry the bulk of the weight here:  2013’s Schicksalfahrt, 2009’s In Dunkle Land, and 2006’s Notwendfeuer, the latter of which for some reason compromises almost half of Flammenlieder’s overall material.  This isn’t to say there isn’t cause for such heavy cuts from Vogel’s 2006 opus. The deft violin swirls and the sturdily plunked acoustic riffs in “Weltenstürme” are remarkable, and it’s possibly the best song featured here. Not only that—it’s delightful to hear a masterwork duet sung in German, with Vogel’s foggy croon accompanied by the soft ethereal lilt of Manuela Zankl. Then there’s the wandering muted guitars which break into a gallop against the buzzing bass in Schicksalfahrt’s “Secret Places.” Once again, Zankl lends light to its bridge while Vogel’s trademark defiant yet melancholy croon paints a vision of deserts and aircraft inspired by aviator-poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Henryk Vogel | Credit: Sergio G.M.

“Caucasian Tales” is as sublime as its title is questionable. Still, the somber violins and morose accordions woven throughout jangling echoes of acoustic guitar and marimba-like punctuation are perfect cinematic accompaniment to Vogel’s lilting verses which paint an ash-choked battlefield denouement. The sweeping bells and baritone cellos of “Nothing Left to Lose” follow as an equally perfect companion; if “Caucasian Tales” rides in like the end of hope, this ballad feels like an anthem to stir his comrades to charge forth into hopeless battles or the slog of post-defeat years. Oddly enough, both hail from In Dunkle Land and definitely feel like one could not dwell here without the other.

As for the remainder, re-recordings from the odd compilation or 10” record do well at representing Darkwood’s earlier works while offering a tease to get longtime fans in the door. Of these few, “Deutsche Sonnwend” is a standout and personifies Darkwood’s motif. Penned by propagandist Gerhard Schumann, it’s difficult to dismiss that’s it’s “playing with fire” just a bit, even despite being far from fluent in German. In rough translation, it paints in militant folk dance a portrait of ritual and flame, with the gentle thrum and rattle of drum and snare, nimble guitar, and accordion used as the brushes for its canvas. To be fair to Vogel in case the reader is casting a judgmental eye here, Brontë and Ernst are also lyrical muses for Flammenlieder, so I’d level that Vogel’s voice is one similar to that of Jean Genet; just another artist interested in waxing poetic on a dark period of humanity, and not simply embracing it.

In my mind, Flammenlieder is really one of those compilations that is worth searching out, especially considering that Darkwood’s physical material tends to be fleeting at best. A critical man might cast some judgement of Vogel’s project for being so similar to that of heavyweights like the aforementioned Death in June or countrymen Forseti. A more salient complaint would be why exactly Notwendfeuer cuts dominate this release instead of offering something more from Darkwood’s other five albums; one might say it’s practically a revised re-release, if one’s feeling particularly critical.  That aside, Vogel’s voice alone, not to mention his polished arrangements of violins and accordions, give credence as to why fans of the genre make his works an ever-increasing rarity and one well worth checking out.

Track List:

01) Verlorenes Heer
02) Lied Am Feuer
03) Secret Places
04) Nightwind
05) Broken Wings
06) Ostenfeld
07) Weltenstürme
08) Wintermärchen
09) Der Falken Flug
10) Deutsche Sonnwend
11) Stiller Bund
12) Caucasian Tales
13) Nothing Left to Lose
14) Feuerkreis

Written by: Vlad McNeally
Label: Heidenvolk (Germany) / HV14 / CD