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Popol Vuh

Lump this German Kraut-rock/prog-rock act in with KRAFTWERK, TANGERINE DREAM, CAN, AMON DUUL II, FAUST et al, at your peril, because POPOL VUH were… of the heavens: electronic music not for robots and space-cadets, but the gods. Master of ceremonies, Florian Fricke (a classically-trained musician with a serious mystical bent), the Moog man appropriated the name of a sacred Mayan text for his uncompromisingly experimental and deeply meditative 70s recordings, among which cult film scores for director Werner Herzog figured prominently. Another massive patron/fan is “Kraut-rock” aficionado and solo star, JULIAN COPE.
Formed 1969 in Munich, the aforementioned Fricke duly acquired a Moog synthesizer after completing a classical piano course at the Freiburg Music School and travelling around the equator. He found the name POPOL VUH (meaning God, The Universe and Everything; from the holy book of the Quechua Incas or the Mayan Book Of The Dead) and recruited percussionist Holger Trulzsch (from German progsters, EMBRYO) and synth-man Frank Fiedler, to record debut album AFFENSTUNDE (1970) {*6}; its literal meaning: the time of the man, the ape. Soundtrack-like in conception, the percussive and ethnic nature of the set does tend to lean toward TANGERINE DREAM’s primeval beginnings; the side-long title track also bears witness to the fact, while Florian popped up the latter team’s “Zeit” double.
Fricke’s global wanderings and in-depth study of diverse ethnic cultures, religions and music served as the starting point for his experiments in sound, initially showcased on such pioneering classics as IN DEN GARTEN PHARAOS (1972) {*9}. “In Pharaoh’s Garden” was another to fit into the avant-garde/experimental/fusion category, however, the sacred and celestial twist of the two lengthy pieces (the title track and `Vuh’) drew from mysticism and Fricke’s new-found love of both Christianity and Hinduism.
For the group’s main releases, HOSIANNA MANTRA (1972) {*8}, Fricke discarded electronics for more sedate vocals (introducing Japanese soprano, Djong Yun) and exotic instrumentation, played by himself and Conny Veit (guitar), Klaus Wiese (tamboura), Bob Eliscu (oboe) and guest Fritz Sonnleitner (violin). If a guitar could gently weep, and a piano could make one do similar, the ebb and flow of the opening two pieces, `Ah!’ and `Kyrie’, brought an austere and cosmic bent to proceedings. Ditto the 10-minute title track and the fragile, `Blessing’.
Half a year later, with Fricke handling most of the vocals (Yun was rested), the PV team were joined by another former AMON DUUL II member, Danny Fichelscher, for album number four, SELIGPREISUNG (1973) {*6} – aka “Beatitudes”. Their style at this point drew from PINK FLOYD and TANGERINE DREAM, while also creating their own blend of ritualistic and Eastern (Tibetan) experimentation. Lasting under the half-hour mark, it disappointed lovers of the band’s previous sets in its meditative and repetitive space-rock.
Yun subsequently re-joined, replacing Veit for the yet another release, (“Earth & Sky”) EINSJAGER & SIEBENJAGER (1974) {*9}. A prog-rock meisterwork, Danny’s swirling, bluesy guitar on short pieces, `Kleiner Krieger’ and `Morgengruss’, and the interplay with Florian’s “kosmik” keyboards on `Gutes Land’ and `Wurfelspiel’ were just glorious; the 19-minute title track another example of POPOL VUH’s staying power.
In 1975, the trio of Fricke, Fichelscher and Yun unleashed their first of two LPs for United Artists (Britain and America were still slow on the update); DAS HOHELIED SALOMOS {*7} – aka “The Holy Song Of Solomon”. A little more pastoral and easier on the ear, the Eastern element shines through once more, courtesy of contributions by Alois Gromer (sitar) and Shana Kumar (tabla). `Steh Auf, Zieh Mich Dir Nach’ opens the set in serene aplomb, while the sweeping and majestic, `In Den Nachten Auf Den Gassen I’ (and `II’) and `Der Winter Ist Vorbei’, were musak for the gods.
Still swept under the carpet across the sea, LETZTE TAGE – LETZTE NACHTE (1976) {*8} – “Last Days, Last Nights”, unleashed more of POPOL VUH’s folky mantras and explosive guitar rock dynamics. The back-to-back `Oh Wie Nah Ist Der Weg Hinab’ and `Oh Wie Weit Ist Der Weg Hinauf’ add another dimension to the band; Renate Knaup (from AMON DUUL II) is sublime in her dual chants with Yun on the likes of `Kyrie’, `Haram Dei Raram Dei Haram Dei Ra’ and the classic, `Dort Is Der Weg’.
Fricke’s delight in showcasing musicians from Eastern persuasion somewhat backfired, when, without his permission and any financial backing, a POPOL VUH record popped up in Italy. The 1976-recorded and unofficial YOGA {*4} – with two lengthy improvs/jams – was something akin to a RAVI SHANKAR album, and it’s obviously one that FF disowns completely.
Having originally met Werner Herzog back in his student days, Fricke had linked up with the visionary director for his 1973 masterpiece, “Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes” (or “Aguirre, Wrath of God”). Pivotal to the famous opening sequence (during the filming of which Herzog – as he later commented – “came to know his destiny”) of crazed conquistadors descending from the mist-shrouded heights of Machu Picchu, were Fricke’s Mellotron-generated atmospherics, as resonantly mythical as El Dorado itself and a luminous canvas for the ensuing messianic delirium of Klaus Kinski’s Don Lope De Aguirre. It remains an unforgettable image and a haunted, weightless music, a transmission from the beyond routed through primitive electronics. While a soundtrack of sorts AGUIRRE {*8} was belatedly released with non-score recordings in early 1976, the main theme, `Aguirre 1’, subsequently turned up on various re-issues and compilations amid the byzantine complexities of the POPOL VUH catalogue; Fricke scored Herzog documentary, Die Grobe Ekstase Des Bildschnitzers Steiner (1975), and made his acting debut with an appearance in the director’s Grand Jury Prize-winning The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1975).
The pair’s next major collaboration was the cult classic, “Heart From Glass” / HERZ AUS GLAS (1977) {*8}, in which Herzog infamously hypnotised the cast to achieve his desired – and admittedly compelling – result. The POPOL VUH soundtrack – released, at various times, under its German and French titles (“Coeur De Verre”) – amplified the movie’s mesmeric tone, employing a more Eastern rock-centric approach in line with main protagonists, Fichelscher, and of course, Fricke; guests included Alois Gromer (sitar) and Mattias Tippelskirch (flute). Just as Herzog’s movie is one of his most oblique and impenetrable, POPOL VUH’s soundtrack is more one-dimensional, and yet while it misses Fricke’s early, singular conception of electronica as a channel for communion with the unseen, under his beneficent direction a guitar is easily as esoteric as a Moog. Most of the pieces are long, mantra-like slow-burners, rooted in Indian classical tradition and aflame with that Germanic combination of serenity, awe and misgiving which colours most of Fricke’s best work. In common with his other soundtracks, he also avails himself of Western folk and popular forms as resolution, as on the euphoric climax to opener `Engel Der Gegenwart’ and the latter part of `Blatter Aus Dem Buch Der Kühnheit’. `Hüter Der Schwelle’, by contrast – and ironically given the proto-spiritual context – oppresses and entrances with the opiate potency of VU’s “Venus In Furs”. But it’s the soundtrack tagline and penultimate track, `Singet, Denn Der Gesang Vertreibt Die Wölfe’ (“Sing, For Song Drives Away The Wolves”), which is perhaps most emblematic of Fricke and Fichelscher’s intentions, elevating Herzog’s weird science with cascades of pure liquid mercury.
Yet it was POPOL VUH’s contributions to “Nosferatu, The Vampyre” which many regard as their crowning cinematic achievement. To Herzog’s sinister, stylized update of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic, Fricke and Co provided music as timelessly evocative and ethereal as their work on “Aguirre” yet infinitely darker, with an ominous choral drone echoing against the bleak Carpathian landscapes and setting the scene for Klaus Kinski’s unforgettably hollow-eyed entrance. Florian’s third Herzog collaboration found him exploring instrumentally organic territory with wonderfully unsettling results. The soundtrack was actually released in 1978 in a couple of incarnations (BRUDER DES SCHATTENS – SOHNE DES LICHTS {*9} and NOSFERATU {*8}) before the 2002 “Spalax” reissue clarified matters, bringing together the disparate parts into one glossy, good value package.
Those who’ve seen the film will be instantly transported back to the glowering skies of Eastern Europe by the likes of `Die Umkehr’ and opener excerpt `Brüder Des Schattens’ (both from the former), with an ominous funereal drone and regal orchestration heralding something very unpleasant indeed. While the track’s hopeful coda anticipates the chiming, folkish pastoral of `Morning Sun`, its dark side is echoed in `On The Way` (both from the latter). While electronics continue to form the raw materials of recurring, theramin-haunted nightmares like `Die Nacht Der Himmel’, the man’s interest in ethnic instrumentation had deepened further by the late 70s, expressed in extended sitar meditations and mantras such as `Höre, Der Du Wagst’.
Another classic work, DIE NACHT DER SEELE: TANTRIC SONGS (1979) {*7}, saw POPOL VUH expand to a quartet/sextet featuring Fricke, Fichelscher, Knaup, Yun and guests oboist Susan Goetting and sitarist Gromer. “The Night Of The Soul” – to give the set its English title, the group’s rhythmic and tribal beats stirred the loins, but it was a bit of a mixed bag in terms of direction and musical destination; check it out for the creepy “Nosferatu”-like track, `Mantram Der Erdberuhrung I’, `Engel Der Luft’ and the uplifting `Mit Handen, Mit Fussen’. Note too that it’s very much different to the US-only collection, “Tantric Songs”, from ’81.
With the aid of soloist and former TANGERINE DREAM member, KLAUS SCHULZE on production, SEI STILL, WISSE ICH BIN (1981) {*8} – “Be Quiet, I Am”, was another in the long line of POPOL VUH classics, but once again anyone outside the confines of Germany and its neighbours had to be content with the pricy import. Knaup was now head of the choir, while AMON DUUL II’s Chris Karrer was drafted in as guest saxophonist. Opening salvo, `Wehe Khorazin’, was up there in mantra meditation; while the “Hare Krishna”-esque rhythms and choral of `Gemeinsam Der Gemeinschaft’, `Lass Los’, et al, were regal and heavenly in their head-swinging and shimmering solemnity.
The most ambitious and fraught of all Herzog’s filmic visions, the FITZCARRALDO (1982) {*7} soundtrack was equally excessive, fortifying the usual POPOL VUH dronescapes with scratchy operatic arias from the earliest decades of the 20th century. It’s a contrast which mimics the movie’s force of will in the face of unknowable nature: Fricke’s organic hosannas drip-feeding from the darkness of the rainforest; Enrico Caruso’s grandiloquent tenor temporarily stemming the tide, the magnificent straining of “civilisation”. If the Caruso and Verdi excerpts sound beamed in from another age today, they must have sounded just as alien to the natives in 1900’s Iquitos, and Fricke plays with the permeability of time. POPOL VUH contribute fresh re-vamps of older tunes; opener `Wehe Khorazin’ is nothing if not a throwback to the late 60s grind of The VELVET UNDERGROUND, sanctified with the kind of empyrean chorale and inner mounting chant he seemingly plucked from the spheres at will.
With guitarist Conny Veit returning to the fold, AGAPE-AGAPE / LOVE-LOVE (1983) {*8} was the group’s last great album. Channelling the use of Gregorian chants/choirs and Danny’s shimmering guitar work, there are a few tracks one might recognise here; `They Danced, They Laughed, As Of Old’ is an extended re-tread of Fichelscher’s “Kleiner Kreiger”. Once again, the path to the heavens were opened on `The Christ Is Near’, `Behold, The Drover Summons’ and the 8-minute finale, `Why Do I Still Sleep’.
POPOL VUH were all over bar the chanting, but Fricke and Co reconvened for the rather ill-advised comeback, SPIRIT OF PEACE (1985) {*4}; released only in Norway, and this time around a blessing in disguise. Although POPOL VUH were, by this point, entering the final stages of their career, their legacy provided the music for what also turned out to be the final Herzog/Kinski collaboration and indeed the final film of the actor’s career. An imaginative adaptation of Bruce Chatwin’s 1980 novel, The Viceroy Of Ouidah, COBRA VERDE (1987/88) {*6} featured a haggard but still intense Kinski in the role of a Brazilian outlaw turned slaver, with a soundtrack which borrowed from POPOL VUH’s previous album. As ever, Fricke seemed hotwired to the subtext, capturing the sense of things coming full circle, Kinski finally burning himself out; the unnerving `Sieh Nicht Berm Meer Ist’s’ as a requiem. The music’s tone, from opener `Der Tod Des Cobra Verde’ onwards, is expressly religious, rarefied by the gracious, recurring chorale of the Bavarian State Opera, possibly Fricke’s most overt example of “a mass for the heart”, as he once dubbed his art. Fichelscher’s guitar tinkers away underneath, but it’s the cavernous voices which fill the space, as edifying as “Nosferatu” was menacing and “Herz Us Glas” claustrophobic. A series of shorter cues are more obviously – and surprisingly – cinematic, context-setting birdsong and swells of regal ambience from Fricke’s trusty synclavier. There’s also a vivacious African field recording (cut in Munich) from the Zigi Cultural Troupe Ho, Ziavi, and the bonus solo piano version of `Om Mani Padme Hum’ is just gorgeous.
If the 70s had POPOL VUH in all their majesty and grace, then the 90s were a major let-down for fans of Fricke and Co. Adding Guido Hieronymous (on guitar and keyboards), 1991’s FOR YOU AND ME {*6} sounded rather new age and fusion-friendly. Okay, there were the odd instances of greatness (`Compassion’ and `Little Bazaari’), but this was essentially world music for the young at heart. Romanticised and celebratory in equal measures, one can’t think of the EURYTHMICS’ Annie Lennox on the Renate Knaup-Aschauer-sung title track.
Intent on alienating his loyal followers in one fell swoop, FLORIAN FRICKE released a couple of solo-credited CDs, one, an eponymous and compilation-type re-recording in FLORIAN FRICKE (1991) {*4}, the other his paean to his favourite classical composer in FLORIAN FRICKE SPIELT MOZART (also 1991) {*3}. Enough said.
As if to add insult to injury, Fricke revisited tracks from “Herz Aus Glas” in the guise of 1993’s SING, FOR SONG DRIVES AWAY THE WOLVES (1993) {*7}, but it was a surprise and a thrill to hear fresh meat on the bones for these golden nuggets, including a 19-minute take of “Einsjager” beaut, re-titled `You Shouldn’t Awake Your Beloved Before It Pleases Her’.
Now duly taking up with the trance-fusion scene, CITY RAGA (1995) {*5}, submerged the new-look POPOL VUH (featuring Maya Rose on speedy vox) into a sea of murky waters. POPOL VUH would eat itself on a few other occasions on the bouncy SHEPHERD’S SYMPHONY (1997) {*5} and the equally avoidable MESSA DI ORFEO (1999) {*4}. Sadly, and with at least a raft of subliminal sets behind him from days of yore, Florian Fricke sadly died of a stroke in his sleep on 29th December 2001. He was indeed a forerunner in contemporary and ethnic music, as old friend KLAUS SCHULZE so endearingly put it.
© MC Strong 1997, 2008/BG-LCS / rev-up MCS Nov2012

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