MARK PRENDERGAST TREADS CAREFULLY THROUGH THE MINEFIELD OF CD REISSUES BY THE INFLUENTIAL GERMAN BAND
Popol Vuh are certainly one of the most enigmatic recording groups ever to come out of Germany. Inextricably linked with the early 1970s space rock of Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel as well as the visionary films of director Werner Herzog, their music has always defied easy categorisation. They've issued dozens of albums featuring ethnic chanting, guitar mantras, straight electronic music, minimalist piano melodies, heavy rock, folk guitar instrumentals and ambient music. Yet anyone seeking a handle on their career has been frustrated by issues and reissues which change track listings, duplicate titles and generally confuse the issue. Thankfully, Spalax Music in Paris have tried to rectify the problem by re-releasing the entire Popol Vuh back-catalogue on compact disc.
Before we examine the reissues, let's look briefly at the origins of the group. Popol Vuh has always been the vision of Florian Fricke, a mystical musician born near beautiful Lake Constanz on the Swiss/German border in 1944. At only 15 he entered Freiburg Music School to study classical piano. Then he studied composition in Munich, before leaving at 19 to pursue his interest in film-making and film criticism. He met the young Werner Herzog, and a friendship developed which would lead to later soundtrack work. Fricke travelled widely in Arabia, Africa, India and Nepal, studying Tibetan choral music in the Eastern Himalayas.
Back in Munich, Fricke joined a jazz-rockgroup with ECM founder Manfred Eicher, before buying a large Moog synthesiser in 1969 and founding Popol Vuh. Their name derived from the holy book of the Quechua Incans and has a galaxy of possible meanings: the universe, God, light, energy, etc. Percussionist Holger Trulzsch from Amon Düül II and synthesist Frank Fiedler completed the initial line-up of the group, who made a huge impact with their debut album, "Affenstunde", in January 1971.
"Affenstunde" means 'the time of the monkey' and was rooted in Fricke's studies of South American Indian culture. Musically, it was an essential electronic album. Tapping into the elemental sounds of water and fire, it shifted from natural sound to electronic treatment without resorting to the cliche of rock instrumentation or vocals. It comprised just two lengthy tracks, the second and title cut reflecting a greater emphasis on ethnic percussion and folk elements. The album received very sympathetic media coverage in Germany.
Recorded at the same time was "In Den Garten Pharaos" ('In Pharaoh's Garden'), a meditation on the Moog which built from soft atmospherics to loud conga drumming, with added bursts of electronic noise which climaxed in a trance-like coda for percussion, tinkly piano and rippling water. (On some compilations, just the coda has appeared, under the title "Schilfmeer" ['Sea Rushes'].) The album's second track, " Vuh", was recorded later with Fricke on the organ of the Baumberg church in Bavaria, his 20-minute performance overlaid with a cloud of cymbals and percussion. "In Den Garten Pharaos" was issued in April 1972. The following month Fricke contributed Moog synth to Tangerine Dream's "Zeit", a classic performance which inspired the Dream's Christoph Franke to explore the potential of the instrument.
It was the soundtrack of the film 'Aguirre, Wrath of God' in 1973 that pushed Florian into the spotlight. An angelic choir accompanied by a haunting Mellotron solo was the mighty sound that opened the movie, as the doomed Aguirre and his conquistadors made their way blindly down a Peruvian mountainside in search of El Dorado. Classically divided into theme and exposition, this theme, "Aguirre 1", began an association with director Werner Herzog that continues to this day.
The "Aguirre" album currently available on Spalax is actually a revamp of a 1984 LP on Celestial Harmonies. It includes the entire "In Den Garten Pharaos" LP plus "Spirit of Peace", a piano trilogy from 1985 - and, at last, "Aguirre 1". The real soundtrack to 'Aguirre' was released on Cosmic Music in1976, and contains two versions of "Aguirre", but it has yet to be seen on CD.
In January 1973, meanwhile, Fricke unveiled a new Popol Vuh line-up, featuring Conrad Veit (guitar) and Djong Yun (vocals) ."Hosianna Mantra" saw Fricke turn his back on electronics in favour of tranquil vocals, satin guitars and soft piano runs, while a tamboura added an Indian inflection. Tracks like "Kyrie" and "Blessing" were unambiguously Christian in their outlook, and the transparent delicacy of "Nicht Hoch Im Himmel" ('Not High In Heaven') characterised the whole project.
Everything changed again for "Seligpreisung" ('Beatitudes'), which was released in September 1973. Danny Fichelscher (ex-Amon Düül II) joined Conny Veit on electric guitars and drums, while Fricke handled vocals, with lyrics taken directly from Christian prayers. An oboe gave the album a classical feel, but it was still rockier than the group's earlier efforts.
By 1974, Popol Vuh had become a trio of Fichelscher, Djong Yun and Fricke. The resulting 'Einsjäger & Siebenjäger’ (One Soldier & Seven Soldiers) was their hardest album yet, with Fichelscher's dripping Fender solos and drums well to the fore on tracks like ''Kleiner Krieger'' (Small Wars) and the excellent "King Minos''. After some pastoral guitar and muted piano, the album reached a crescendo on the 20-minute title track, a strange hybrid of all their previous styles with Yun’s vocals providing a final, eerie edge.
After performing a walk- n part in Werner Herzog's film 'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser', Fricke returned to Tonstudio in Munich in February 1975 to record "Das Hohelied Salomos" ('The Holy Song Of Solomon’) with the same line-up. This was vintage Vuh, with two stand-out performances in "Du Schönste Der Weiber" ('You, Most Beautiful Of Women’) and "Deine Liebe Ist Susser Als Wein" (‘Your Love ls Sweeter Than Wine’). Fichelschel’s guitar provided the creamiest sound on record since 'Meddle’-era Pink Floyd, while "Du Tranke Mich Mit Deinen Kussen" (You Drank Me with Your Kisses') displayed a fine understanding of the dynamics of volume.
For 1976's "Letzte Tags, Letzte Nachte" ('Last Days, Last Nights'), another Amon Düül musician, singer Renate Knaup, replaced Djong, who opted for a solo career. Only 30 minutes long, this was defiantly a rock album, yet the guitar solos had a strangely ancient quality, and in places, Renate's voice took on the feel of a ritualistic chant. For all its idiosyncrasies, the album is worth investigating, notably for "Last Days, Last Nights" itself, a great progressive rock number sung in English. Also issued in 1976 was the quirky if unexceptional "Yoga", which documented Fricke's total obsession with India and the East.
Over the next two years, Popol Vuh hit their recorded peak, as Fricke began working again with the visionary Werner Herzog. Their first project was "Singet, Denn Der Gesang Vertreibt Die Wolfe" ('Sing, Then The Song Which Dispels The Wolf) - alias "Herz Aus Glas" or "Coeur De Verre", for this 1977 soundtrack of the film known in Britain as 'Heart Of Glass' was released under three different titles. Herzog's film about the coming of the industrial revolution was famous for his use of hypnosis on the cast. Its dreamlike quality was reflected in the strange music which Fricke and Fichelscher concocted in the studio, with grinding, oddly-accented rock instrumentals augmented by forays into primitive music and raga. One track, "Der Ruf " ('The Cry'), could almost be described as pre-punk, post-punk music!
Potential collectors should beware, however, of the CD which uses the "Singet, Denn . . ." title, as it merely contains edited versions of these tracks plus the complete "Einsjager . . ." from the band's 1975 album.
Herzog's next venture, his stylish 1978 re-make of Murnau's 1922 classic 'Nosferatu', gave Klaus Kinski his finest role as the vulnerable vampire. Once again, Florian Fricke provided the music. Unfortunately the soundtrack was released in three different versions, two in 1978, one in 1985. Spalax have thankfully issued the first two versions on CD, "On The Way To A Little Way/Nosferatu" and "Bruder Des Schattens - Sonne Des Lichts" ('Brother Of Shadow - Son of Light'). The first disc, with its excellent cover shot of Kinski and Isabelle Adjani, was a strange mixture of sitar mantra, the delightful acoustic guitar instrumental "Morning Sun", edits from "In Den Garten Pharaos" and a re_run of "King Minos" from "Einsjäger..." with added sitar! The most successful piece on the album was "On The Way", a spine-tingling, cavernous chant/drone.
Fricke obviously thought he could do better, and issued the more substantial "Bruder des Schattens" later the same year. On the title track the chant drone was extended into a gorgeous ambient/guitar/ piano/sitar mantra which lasts more than 17 minutes. On "Hore, Der Du Wagst" ('Listen, Who Dares'), Fricke again used the short sitar ideas of the first disc as a basis for more profound experiments, following Eno's lead by utilising the still ambience of decaying piano notes. "Das Schloss Des Irrturns" ('The Castle of Errors'), a cascading acoustic guitar piece, was followed by "Die Umkehr" ('The Turning Back'), an unsettling but still beautifully played electric rock piece which concluded Popol Vuh's most famous and possibly finest album.
This classic period continued with the release of 'Night of the Soul', "Die Nacht Der Seele: Tantric Songs", which was inspired by Fricke's studies of lndian tantra and his wanderings in the Himalayas. He expanded the group to a six-piece with Danny still on guitar and percussion, Al Gromer still on sitar, both Renate Knaup and Djong Yun on vocals and Susan Goetting on oboe. The record, meanwhile, began with Amazonian chants which seemed to encapsulate Fricke's mysticism. Exquisite acoustic guitar passages like "Mit Händen, Mit Füssen" ('With Hands, With Feet') and "Auf Dem Weg" ('On The Way') were squeezed between soft, chanted mantras, percussion instrumentals and two ambient piano pieces titled "Mantram Der Herzberuhrung" ('Mantra Of the Touching Of The Heart ).
Because of the record's stylistic similarity with "Bruder Des Schattens", Celestial Harmonies reissued an edit of both albums in1981, under the title "Tantric Songs". Celestial's CD reissue in 1988 coupled that compilation with the entire "Hosianna Mantra" album. In the midst of that confusion, Spalax's commitment to re-releasing the albums in their original format and artwork is commendable. Sections of "Tantric Songs" and much of the next album, "Sei Still, Wisse Ich Bin" ('Be Still And Know That I Am'), was used by Werner Herzog in his 1982 film 'Fitzcarraldo' which again starred Klaus Kinski - this time as a crazed adventurer loose in the Amazonian jungle. The "Sei Still . . ." material was definitely the most difficult Popol Vuh music to digest, and it worked best when it accompanied Kinski and his crew as he defied nature by dragging a paddle-steamer across a mountain. Most of the record consisted of raw, ritualistic sounds - heavy thumping percussion and unnerving chants.
Former Tangerine Dream member Klaus Schulze released "Sei Still", Popol Vuh's 14th official album, in 1980 via his Innovative Communication label. The year before, he had also re-released their debut, "Affenstunde', at WEA'S request!
'Agape-Agape" ('Love-Love') was the band's next new release, on the Norwegian Uniton label. A peculiar record, it seemed to summarise all of Popol Vuh's previous recordings from "Einsjager..." to "Nosferatu" and "Bruder Des Schattens". "Love-Love" sounded like vintage "Ummagumma"-era Pink Floyd, while the second side drifted from cloudy mantra into the pure ambience of "Why Do I Still Sleep", a still piano track and one of the quietest eight minutes of music ever committed to tape. If you're unfamiliar with the group, this is a great place to start, as if you like what you hear, then you'll like everything else!
With Conny Veit back on guitar, Renate Knaup still on vocals and Danny Fichelscher as ever on guitars, Fricke brought in yet another guitarist, Bernd Wippich, for "Spirit Of Peace" in 1985. Unfortunately, on the original Cicada release the music was buried in a muddy mix, leaving many reviewers unimpressed. Spalax's CD issue gleams by comparison, revealing another great Popol Vuh album. Again the atmosphere was fllmic, and the chanting of "We Know About The Need" and "Song Of The Earth" appeared on the soundtrack of the 1987 Herzog film, 'Cobra Verde'.
The LP's title track, "Spirit of Peace", was a better mix of the second movement of the longer "Spirit of Peace" from the "Aguirre" compilation, as Fricke drew long, static lines out of a series of sparsely played piano notes. The finale, "Take The Tension High", was a tour de force. After a short choral opening this 17_minute wonder launched itself into a hypnotic, trance_inducing guitar/vocal mantra, a form that was enthusiastically absorbed by Rugby's Spacemen 3 in the late 1980s. That was the last album of new Popul Vuh material to date, though both "Cobra Verde"( 1987) and "Der Gesang Der Angel" ('The Song Of The Hinge!') (1988) featuring music from the 'Cobra Verde' movie. Plans are afoot to release both on Spalax, who have also issued the original 1982 soundtrack from 'Fitzcarraldo'. Meanwhile, the label has just found the tapes to the 'Aguirre' soundtrack and are planning to release it with its originaltrack listing of 'Aguirre 1", "Aguirre 2" and the epic "Vergegenwärtigung" ('Imaginings'). A film of Popol Vuh in the Sinai desert, called 'Meditations', which will feature the music from 'Fitzcarraldo' is also in the pipeline.
Two other compilations of Popol Vuh music are available on CD from other companies: "The Best From Werner Herzog Films" and "Gesang Der Gesange" ('Song Of Songs'). But nothing can match the majesty of the original catalogue. Since ambient took a hold on today's post_house imagination, the landscaped emotional soundworld of Popol Vuh has become an important reference point for isolationist musicians like Main, Thomas Koner and Orang. The CD reissues aren't a nostalgic throwback to the progressive rock era but a vibrant ingredient of today's music - and possibly the future as well. As Florian Fricke once said: ''We are working on a music which is so free that the listener can find the way to his or her own fantasies."
"Popol Vuh is one of my favorite bands of all time. I'm not really sure how I came across Popol Vuh years ago, but they have consistently stuck with me as one of the most atmosphere-filled music groups that's able to conjure up such an incredible feeling, a meditative feeling, with simple but with awesome melodies, hypnotic". (2013)
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