Skip to main content
Source: Electronic Sound, nr.53, 2019, p.58-61
Author: Mark Brand

Top of the Popols

Of the pioneers blasting out of Germany in the '60s and '70s, one band remains elusive. As a major reissue campaign gets underway, we tackle the genre-spanning, shape-shifting, release-befuddling Popol Vuh
"I have answered this question before; I always find new styles, different forms of playing, that I'm incorporating into the music of Popol Vuh. The essence of my music remains the same. The forms are changing, but the essence remains the same."
So said the late Florian Fricke, leader of Popol Vuh, answering a question posed by producer/ presenter Gerhard Augustin in 1996 about the band's latest stylistic departure. There's a hint of weariness in Fricke's response. He's been asked this sort of thing before. Many times.
Of the first generation of electronic and experimental bands to come out of Germany in the late '60s, Fricke's Popol Vuh are the hardest to pin down. There's a sense in which Can, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream are understood, retrospectively. Not so Popol Vuh, who still seem, to use a period phrase, out of sight.
This can be attributed in part to the sheer scale of the band's back catalogue. There were twenty-one albums between 1970 and 1999, released on multiple labels, and many already reissued more than once since. Add in compilations, boxsets, an unauthorised album of Fricke playing with Indian musicians, along with a raft of Fricke solo albums, and it's a formidable task keeping track of it all. And then there's the range of the music. At risk of reducing this most uncategorisable of bands to neat genre definitions, they made electronic, prog, jazz, soundtrack, ambient, piano-based modern classical and new age material. Sometimes all at once.
In the face of such complexity, Fricke's son Johannes and former band members Guido Hieronymus and Frank Fiedler are taking a welcome curatorial approach to the latest reissue programme - starting with six albums (though not the first six), released separately and in a vinyl boxset. There's a sense of providing listeners with routes through a labyrinthine sound world in which they might otherwise get hopelessly lost. It's not a career that can be summed up lightly, so continuing with a critical approach of our own, here we concentrate on one facet of Fricke's expansively diverse body of work.
Florian Fricke was born in 1944. He was an early starter on piano, and later studied at the Conservatories in Freiburg and Munich. He was briefly a music and film critic, in which capacity he met German film director Werner Herzog in 1967. Fricke had a small role in Herzog's Lebenszeichen (1968), the first fruit of a creative relationship that became a significant part of Popol Vuh's story.
Sometime in 1969, Fricke bought a Moog III modular synthesiser, and Gerhard Augustin of Liberty Records signed him up to produce a Moog album. Some reports say Fricke's was the first Moog in Germany, though Fiedler says it was the second. "The first one went to Eberhard Schoener a year earlier," he says.
To realise Augustin's commission, Fricke founded Popol Vuh with Holger Trulzsch (percussion), Fiedler (recording engineer) and his wife, Bettina Fricke (tablas and production). Members came and went over the next twenty years, with Fricke the one constant. The band's name was taken from the book Popol Vuh, a Mayan creation narrative originating from the K'iche' people before the Spanish conquest of Guatemala. It was something of a counter- cultural favourite at the time, pointing to the themes of spiritual and cultural exploration that ran through Fricke's subsequent music.
Released in 1970, Popol Vuh's first album, Affenstunde, was a revolutionary record. Both Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream released their debuts around the same time. Electronic milestones both, but technologically they were in a different category entirely from Affenstunde, constructed as they were primarily of electronic and tape manipulation of traditional instruments (flutes, organs, electric guitars) over rock drums. And not a synth in sight.
Affenstunde, on the other hand, was a Moog album. There had been Moog albums before (Switched On Bach, George Harrison's Electronic Sound), but nothing came close to Fricke's inventiveness with an instrument then little understood. It's music made before any conventions about how to make this sort of music were established. Johannes thinks his father's classical training was significant, enabling him to create harmonically rich tones from multitracking the monophonic Moog. Somehow both freeform and structured, it goes far beyond the anyone-could-do-it accusation often directed at drone-based early electronic music.
"We used audiotapes like notation paper," says Fiedler. "We produced a series of sound recordings [on a pair of Revox tape decks that constituted the band's home studio] and later put them together in the studio on multitrack machines. The invention of the sounds was practically improvisation. The compilation on the multitrack machine could be described as structural finish."
Side one of Affenstunde starts with birdsong, and what might be a recording of someone diving into water, before the listener is submerged in the three-part Ich Mache Einen Spiegel dream series. The title track occupies all of side two. The multitracked Moogs move through spacey murmurs and bubbling refrains to, in the title track, sections of modal bagpipe-like melody. Percussion ebbs and flows, sometimes a gentle pattering, rising to a pummelling rumble. The overall effect is meditative, mysterious, and at times a little unsettling.
The following year came In Den Garten Pharaos (not included in this first phase of the reissue programme), comprising two side-long tracks that, Johannes says, were more scored than the debut. The first, the title track, begins and ends with recordings of running water, pastoral brackets around an immersive composition of varied moods, including, at around ten minutes, a section of '50s sci-fi-style Moog portamento, mimicking a theremin. The track ends with four minutes of loose, jazzy Fender Rhodes/tabla improvisation, calling to mind the vibes and congas on Tim Buckley albums Blue Afternoon and Lorca the previous year.
On to side two, and the epic Vuh, recorded live in a church. Minor key gothic organ, vox humana synths and billowing crash cymbals resolve into hand drums, a major key chord change, and cymbals now ringing like a peal of mad bells. It's an intense, cascading, overwhelming listen, overflowing with invention. Bonus tracks on an earlier reissue - Kha-White Structures 1 and Kha-White Structures 2 - show a menacing, ambivalent edge that rarely surfaced again in Popol Vuh's story. The first is perhaps the closest the band got to the krautrock of popular imagination, with a bracing, distorted Moog lead over a circular, repetitive sequence.
However, Fricke's relationship with the Moog was to be a brief, intense affair.
"It was a great fascination to encounter sounds that were until those days not heard before from the outside," he told Gerhard Augustin in his 1996 interview. "It was the possibility to express sounds that a composer was hearing from within himself, which in many cases are different from what a normal instrument could express. Therefore, this was a fantastic way into my inside consciousness, to express what I was hearing within myself."
But the moment passed. The third Popol Vuh album sounded like an entirely different band. Fricke aside, it was an entirely different band. For Hosianna Mantra (1972), he abandoned the Moog in favour of piano, and drafted in oboe, guitar, tamboura, and Korean soprano Djong Yun. It's a spectacular album, but it's not an electronic one. In fact, electric guitar aside, it's an acoustic one. Fricke sold the Moog to Klaus Schulze, and never again made another record like Affenstunde or In Den Garten Pharaos.
At this point, things start to get complicated. In the next two years, three largely acoustic albums followed, with Fricke leading on piano. Then came the release of Aguirre, the soundtrack to Herzog's 1972 film Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes. The album was released in 1975, but the tracks mostly date from 1972, and includes Vergegenwartigung, nearly seventeen minutes of minimalist Moog textures.
The Aguirre theme itself appears in several versions, a sweeping choral piece rendered on an instrumentthat remains something of an enigma. Fricke had lent his Moog to Amon Düül II for their 1971 album Tanz Der Lemminge, which features one Jimmy Jackson playing the "choir-organ". It's this same instrument that Fricke uses for Aguirre. Most accounts agree it was a Mellotron-like keyboard playing tape loops of choirs. Whether it was actually a modified Mellotron, a version of the Mellotron's ancestor the Chamberlin, or a homemade one-off is unclear. One description has it as four boxes of tape recorders, each with a keyboard. Fiedler remembers two big plywood boxes, weighing in at up to a hundred and fifty kilos. There's talk of it residing in a museum somewhere, but no one seems to know where. There are no known photos. Whatever it was, or is, with its drawn out vocal tones rendered opaque by tape hiss, it's an appropriately elusive and ghostly presence in the Popol Vuh story.
Another Herzog film, Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht (1979), was the spur for Fricke to once again revisit his Moog period. Herzog commissioned him to write music for the film, which resulted in the album Brüder Des Schattens - Söhne Des Lichts. This was in the now dominant acoustic style, with Fricke on piano.
Tracks from the album were used in the film, but Herzog reportedly wanted "music to be afraid by". This led to a second, more electronic album Nosferatu. By this time, the Moog had gone to Klaus Schulze, but Fricke reopened the boxes of quarter-inch Moog reels he and Fiedler had recorded on their Revoxtape recorders in the early '70s, and used these as the basis for three tracks on this second album. Both albums were released in 1978 on Brain Records. Are you keeping up? Some subsequent reissues have conflated the two albums to some extent, so that pinning down what actually is the "proper" Nosferatu soundtrack becomes a puzzle.
Discographical conundrums aside, the new BMG reissue-which combines both original albums - is a useful entry point into 1970s Popol Vuh, embracing both electronic and acoustic music in a soundtrack context.
Nosferatu was the last expression of the original electronic impulse that drove Popol Vuh. Fricke continued with a stream of often spiritually themed piano-based albums, but by the 1990s, he could once again see a place for electronics in music. Speaking to Augustin Luviano-Cordero in 1994, he talked about how sampling technology opened up new possibilities. Even so, there seems to have been ambivalence.
"But that has really nothing to do with whether or not I value the 'electronic' sound," he said. "I actually don't, because it is foreign to all spiritual vibrations. It is like a person without a shadow."
Train Through Time, a ten-minute bonus track included on the Affenstunde reissue, hints at what might have been a way forward. This rhythmic composition by Fricke and Fiedler, made on an Ensoniq TS 12 workstation synth, uses samples of trains. Dating from around 1997, it nods to the first-ever piece of musique concrete, Pierre Schaeffer's Etude Aux Chemins De Fer, created nearly half a century earlier.
Fricke, who Fiedler describes as "very attentive, alert, relentless... very inspired", died in Munich of a stroke on December 29, 2001, at just fifty-seven. A decade later, SPV released Revisited & Remixed 1970-1999, which combined an idiosyncratic selection of Fricke's original recordings with remixes by contemporary artists, including Mouse On Mars. Stereolab took on Hosianna Mantra, an analogue synth band in thrall to kosmische musik reimagining an original piece of kosmische music that didn't use any synths at all. It's a collaboration that captures something of Fricke's freewheeling, unrestrained, contradictory creative spirit. Johannes Fricke says another remix album pairing Popol Vuh with current artists is planned. Until then, das ist alles.

A six-LP vinyl boxset, The Essential Album Collection: Vol. 1, featuring Affenstunde, Hosianna Mantra, Einsjager & Siebenjager, Aguirre and Nosferatu is out now on BMG