Essential albums: Popol Vuh

Popol Vuh's sonic trademarks are diverse: abstract electronica, devotional music, progressive rock, eclectic vocal blends and pioneering ethno-ambient fusions...founder Florian Fricke was a brilliant, intuitive musician and one of the first Westerners to seamlessly blend Eastern and Western sounds, in both a traditional rock band context and in a more ethereal, meditative vein.

Popol Vuh

country of origin:

World music, ethno ambient, sacred/devotional, psychedelia, ambient rock

decades active:
70's - 90's

essential releases:

  • In the Gardens Of Pharao + Aguirre (1971, Celestial Harmonies)
  • Hosianna Mantra (1972, SPV Recordings/Celestial Harmonies)
  • Seligpreisung (1973, SPV Recordings)
  • Das Hohelied Salomos (1975, SPV Recordings)
  • Letzte Tage Letzte Nachte (1976, SPV Recordings)
  • Coeur De Verre - Herz Aus Glas soundtrack (1977, SPV Recordings)
  • Nosferatu soundtrack (1978, SPV Recordings)
  • Bruder Des Schattens Sohne Des Lichts (1978, SPV Recordings)
  • Die Nacht Der Seele - Tantric Songs (1979, SPV Recordings)
  • Tantric Songs (1981, Celestial Harmonies)
  • Sei Still Wisse Ich Bin soundtrack (1981, Spalax)
  • Agape Agape (1983, SPV Recordings)
  • Spirit Of Peace (1985, Spalax)
  • Cobra Verde soundtrack (1987, BMG)
  • Best Of Popol Vuh - Werber Herzog (1989, Milan)
  • For You And Me (1991, Milan)
  • Nicht Hoch Im Himmel (1998, Mystic Records)
  • Revisited and Remixed 1970-1999 (2011, SPV Recordings)

Reviewed by Mike G

A changeable line-up of musicians led by mystic and keyboard player Florian Fricke (1944-2001), Krautrock icons Popol Vuh were one of the great innovators of world music and exotic ambient.

Known very unfairly in some quarters as purveyors of sitar-heavy "raga rock", the band's sonic trademarks are far more diverse: abstract electronica, devotional music, progressive rock, eclectic vocal blends and pioneering ethno-ambient fusions. You may have already heard their music without realising it: German director Werner Herzog has used it to mesmerising effect in some of his films from the 70's and 80's, most notably Aguirre Wrath Of God and his extraordinary 1979 remake of the silent vampire classic Nosferatu.

Fricke was a brilliant, intuitive musician and one of the first Westerners to seamlessly blend Eastern and Western sounds, in both a traditional rock band context and in a more ethereal and meditative vein. But he didn't do it alone. Guitarist and drummer Daniel Fichelscher - the only other stable longtime member of the group - also made outstanding contributions. He was a supple, melodic guitar player who brought a rock-like accessibility to Popol Vuh's sound and without whom a large portion of the band's music would have been a very different thing. He was also a fine singer, making substantial contributions to the group vocals and chants that became pronounced in the band's music after the mid 1970's.

Where to begin?

At the time of Fricke's death more than two dozen original albums and film soundtracks of varying quality had been released and many more compilations as well. Wading through them can be a maddening experience. There is a tendency to repeat or re-record tracks on successive albums for no apparent reason, not to mention a lot of previously released music turning up on the film soundtracks. The less-than-hi-fidelity sound of some productions also takes a little getting used to. Until very recently the band's back catalogue was a shambles: some put that down to Fricke's personal quirks and aversion to the music business, while Fricke himself on at least one occasion (in a rare 1996 interview) blamed the record companies.

So where does all this leave newcomers to Popol Vuh? Today, in a much better place that they might have been. To its credit North American label Celestial Harmonies has kept a small, carefully compiled collection of the bands music available on CD for several decades now. More significantly, in 2004 a series of careful re-issues of the original albums was instigated by German label SPV Recordings. A full re-appraisal of the band's albums is now possible.

Electronic beginnings

Popol Vuh's earliest music dates from the late 1960's and early 70's and is fairly typical of the exploratory, abstract electronica in vogue among German bands at the time. The second album In The Gardens Of Pharao (1971) is a classic; an intense, eerie melding of electronic tones from the Moog synthesiser and organ with cymbals, vocal tones and half-submerged tribal instruments. That it recalls early period Tangerine Dream is not surprising when you consider it was Fricke who introduced that very band to the Moog synth as a guest player on their album Zeit (1972). But In the Gardens of Pharao is a more deeply sacred music than TD, reflecting his keen interest at the time in Mayan Indian culture and his lifelong spiritual leanings in general.

There's several versions of Pharao available, the best of them being the Celestial Harmonies release which bookends the original album with two other unrelated tracks.

At one end is the 20-minute "Spirit Of Peace", a spacious and deeply personal creation for solo piano. At the other end is the stunning main theme from Werner Herzog's film Aguirre (ignore the patchy Aguirre soundtrack album released 1974). On this track Fricke reaches the apogee of his work with electronic synthesis. It's breathtakingly, jaw-droppingly beautiful: a six minute sepulchral drone that blends angelic vocal samples played on a Melotron-like keyboard with deeply trance-inducing colours and pulses from the synthesiser. A milestone in ambient sound, "Aguirre" (also known as "Lacrime Di Re") also marks the end of Fricke's short love affair with electronics. A certain vocal sound he'd been attempting to find with electronics unexpectedly turned up in the form of a Korean vocalist named Djon Yon, who would feature prominently on Popol Vuh's next album Hosianna Mantra (1972).

Almost an antithesis to what came before, Hosianna Mantra favours mostly acoustic music that's devotional but doesn't sit within any single religious tradition. It's a timeless, beatless neo-classical blend of Yon's ritual-like vocal improvisations blended with Fricke's piano, silky electric guitar by one Connie Veit (with lots of sustain and echo), sweet oboe by Robert Eliscu of the pioneering world music band Between, and subtle touches of droning tamboura.

Prog rock adventures

Meeting guitarist Daniel Fichelscher around this time radically changed Fricke's musical world yet again. In the next few years there appeared a series of forward-thinking albums made by what superficially appears to be rock line-up but which doesn't sound quite like any other rock music of the 1970's.

Seligpreisung (1973) is the greatest of these, a masterpiece of ambient rock jamming, jazz-style improvising and lovely duets for oboe and piano. The changing time signatures within many tracks are brilliantly handled, the flow uninterrupted. It marks the first appearance of Popol Vuh's trademark jangling guitar and piano combination, a luminous ambient sound that came to define the band's very soul. Fricke's wordless vocals here - usually not part of the PV sound - seem to anticipate the visionary style of Stephan Micus a decade later, being all about sound rather than lyrics. Seligpreisung also displays the band's mysterious brilliance for being able to sound non-Western with little actual reliance on exotic instruments.

Three other albums recorded in this quasi-rock style in the mid 1970's also rate essential listening and two of them feature the welcome return of Djon Yon's vocals.

Das Hohelied Salomos (1975) echoes the sound of Hosianna Mantra but with the additional of drums and more intensely layered rhythm and lead guitars, giving the album a more rocking feel. Some impressive group vocal chants start to appear at this point in the band's career, a direction which would come to full flower in the next decade. For the first time Indian sitar sits upfront on several tracks but it doesn't radically alter the groups sound - suggesting an earlier mastery of Indian and Mid Eastern modes before they ever relied on the actual instruments. The album Letzte Tag Letzte Nachte (1976) is similar, if even more intense at times in its psychedelic rock gestures, and some of Yon's most powerful singing can be heard here. Rounding out the trio is the film soundtrack Coeur De Verre/Herz Aus Glass (1977) which is completely instrumental, allowing Fichelscher to really let fly with some his most celestial, probing guitar playing.

From rock to chants & ethno-ambient

Having explored the possibilities of what a full-time rock combo could sound like, the band moved on once again and by the late 70's was charting increasingly quiet and contemplative waters.

The music recorded for Werner Herzog's hypnotic vampire film Nosferatu is actually spread across two different albums released in the same year: the official soundtrack album Nosferatu (1978) plus Bruder Des Schattens Sohne Des Lichts (1978).

The recent CD re-issue of Nosferatu by SPV Recordings compiles all of the music from both earlier releases and is the logical purchase. On these releases the band downplays its penchant for progressive rock jamming to include beatless mood pieces and atmospheric ethno-ambient stylings. Some moments date back to the sessions that produced the eerie electronica of In The Gardens of Pharao; some pieces exist within the classic Popol Vuh blend of piano and guitar; others manage the not inconsiderable feat of making Indian sitar and tambour drones sound rather tense. Towering above them all is Nosferatu's main theme "Brothers Of Darkness Sons Of Light", an example of Fricke's growing sophistication in use of vocals. It opens with dark male vocal chants that seem to blend Tantric, Buddhist and Christian traditions, building slowly with sad oboe and crashing Tibetan cymbals before spilling over into a slow instrumental jam as openly loving and joyous as anything you'll hear from the band.

Consistent with the feel of the previous two albums is the magnificent Tantric Songs (1979/1981) which - just to keep things confusing - currently exists in two different versions. It demonstrates the band's extraordinary gift for tapping a deep, mystical, intangible power and turning it into music without pomp or pretension. The album offers some the moodiest and most ambient of Popol Vuh's music: Fricke's shadowy gothic piano figures, Fichelscher's glittering acoustic and electric guitars, some lovely oboe and touches of Indian instrumentation. It's music unanchored to any particular time period in musical history and awash with religious atmosphere, carried by subtle shifts of light and shade. The original version of Tantric Songs emphasises a slightly wider range global exotica than Celestial Harmonies U.S. version. The latter is more of a "best-of" collection of late 70's material which deletes a handful of shorter tracks to make room for the aforementioned 18-minute classic "Brothers Of Darkness Sons Of Light".

The 80's

Although output of new material slowed in the 1980's, the decade remains significant for Popol Vuh's exhilarating distillation of vocal sounds - chants, mantras and choral singing - from different ages and cultures.

The film soundtrack Sei Still Wisse Ich Bin (1981) is an "oratorio" that finds the band working with large scale choirs and group vocals. Anyone with a fondness for the soulful qualities of human voice should be suitably knocked out. Backed by flowing piano, guitars, tribal drums and shimmering percussion, the swelling chorales and chants are by turns mournful and joyous, dark and euphoric, dramatic and gentle. The vocal sources are varied - operatic, South American, Christian, Tibetan elements and more. This is profound music, human and divine at the same time, and its rough edges and looseness make it all the more appealing. With perfect understatement, his friend and Celestial Harmonies Records boss Eckart Rahn once said to me in an interview about Fricke: "He knew something". Yes he did, and he managed to get it down on spellbinding records like this.

Four more original releases from the same decade also rate highly. Agape Agape (1983) and Spirit Of Peace (1985) don't consistently scale the heights of Still Wisse Ich Bin with their vocal work but are still essential releases. "Why Do I Still Sleep" is a cluster of simple piano figures so gentle and expansive you may get carried away on its ravishing melody and not return for several hours. Some of the layered vocal chants like "Agape Agape" and "We Know About The Need" are extraordinarily beautiful, while the gentle group jam "Take The Tension High" casts its slow mantra-like spell over 18 minutes. The film soundtrack Cobra Verde (1987) also contains several similar folksy vocal mantras alongside some surprising beatless, string-laden landscapes - the latter more traditionally filmic and not typical of the band, but fantastic and darkly beautiful all the same.

The 90's and Fricke's death

The 90's proved to be creatively far leaner than previous decades, with only For You And Me (1991) proving to be an impressive work. Its clean, crisp production is something of a shock if you previously waxed ears on the band's earlier material. Was the softer lo-fi sound of yore deliberate? Quite possibly.

Certainly the band's creative dynamic was now different.

What was not widely known - even nowadays - was the reason. Fricke sustained a serious hand injury at some point in the 80's - losing at least one finger to gangrene after a trip to the Himalayas, Eckart Rahn told me - and tragically could no longer play the piano. So new member Guido Hieronymus took over the piano playing and also shared the creative duties, a move that fundamentally changed the band including a diminishing of Daniel Fichelscher's role.

The overall effect of the clean sound on For You and Me seems somehow less mystical, but the album is still a lovely, engaging and mostly upbeat collection of world music fusions with just a touch of synth pop. The classic blend of ringing guitars and glowing piano still binds everything together, however, and some of the small group choral arrangements are striking. The band's past resurfaces on the 4-part suite "Om Mane Padem Hum" on which Fricke cleverly reworks the brighter moments from his classic "Brothers Of Darkness Sons Of Light" into something new but equally as warm and optimistic.

With the non-essential City Raga (1995) and Shepherd's Symphony (1997) the influence of Hieronymus on keyboards and arrangements has become overt, with the band now hopping on board the 90's ambient dance bandwagon. At the time many fans were aghast, but in retrospect neither of these are horrible records; they're just underwhelming next to ethno-ambient efforts by more dance-savvy acts of the period like Mayko, Loop Guru, Deep Forest and Delerium. Daniel Fichelscher - sidelined after the arrival of Hieronymus - was unimpressed with all the sequencers and drum machines; he left the band soon after City Raga after contributing guitar to just one track.

The final album before Fricke's death in 2001 was an interesting but unexceptional mix of ambient drones and poetry for an art installation called Messa Di Orfeo (1999). It's significant only in that it suggests Fricke had come nearly full circle to once again embrace the abstract electronica of his earliest work.

Compilation albums

Popol Vuh compilation albums are numerous but can be problematic; only three are recommended.

The Best Of Popol Vuh: Werner Herzog (the 1989 version from Milan Records - later versions are shorter) is an excellent summery of the band's film music with an emphasis on the group's vocal work of the late 70's and 80's. Nicht Hoch Im Himmel (1998) is also studded with great tracks and reasonably covers the first 15 or so years of the band's recording career, so there isn't much overlap with the Herzog collection.

The most interesting comp is the 2CD set Revisited and Remixed 1970-1999 (2011) which was released to mark the 10th anniversary of Fricke's death. The first disc is a good compilation of mostly film music, again without too much repetition of tracks from the other two compilations listed above. But the remix disc is a revelation. In the hands of modern beat, dub and experimental European producers such as Peter Kruder and Mouse On Mars the source material is subject to some brilliant reinventions. "Through Pain To Heaven/Kyrie" gets a stunning deep progressive house makeover. "Heart Of Glass" is recast in a kind of modern Indian arrangement including an inspired cross-mix with a vocal from the Sei Still Wisse Ich Bin album. There's quite a bit of weirdness, too, but only a few tracks misunderstand the spirit of the band's music. That is: tuneless beats, glitchy cut-and-paste or - in the case of "Aguirre" - ruinous electronic squawks by noise duo Haswell & Hecker. The latter remix is so disrespectful to the original that it beggars belief that Fricke's son Johannes even let it get past submission stage.

Other Popol Vuh comps are best avoided. Many have poorer sound quality than usual due to non-existent remastering and some also suffer from unwelcome edits and other tampering with the original music. One to be avoided at all costs is Future Sound Experience (2002) which was released to much ballyhoo after Fricke's passing. It's an alleged remix album that sees either Fricke or someone else - it's not clear who - taking a selection of past tracks and overlaying and stitching them together will all the finesse of a 5-year old playing with a mixing console. Hearing the transcendent "Aguirre" butchered (again) by overlaying it with out-of-key guitar strumming is enough to move devoted fans to tears - for all the wrong reasons.

What's needed now that Fricke is gone is a definitive multi-CD boxed set compilation, with handpicked tracks from the the band's whole career lovingly remastered. Quite a task, but what a treasure it would be.

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