The Transcendent Music Of Popol Vuh
Djong Yun, Florian Fricke and Daniel Fichelscher
By Gary Bearman
Part 3 of 4
Yet another Herzog soundtrack, Nosferatu is the result of Herzog asking if Fricke had any darker music available, music that perhaps was a bit more scary or ominous.
Here we have another oddity. There are no bonus tracks, per se, but the first 4 tracks on the SPV release were not on the original release of Nosferatu, and are in fact the entire album Brüder Des Schattens - Söhne Des Lichts (also 1978), except for the fact that the title track of that album on its proper release is 18:47, and here it's a shortened version of 5:41. More on this in a bit.
Nosferatu itself is another great Popol Vuh album, even though it perhaps lacks the cohesiveness of previous albums and sounds more like the soundtrack that it is. That doesn't deter from the quality of the material, however, and in fact only makes it more diverse. Much of it has darker textures, such as tracks like "Mantra 1" and "Mantra II," and songs like "Venus Principle" and "Through Pains to Heaven" exhibit a distinct growth and complexity that is quite stunning. To add to the variety, "Die Nacht der Himmel," "Der Ruf der Rohrflöte" and "To a little Way" are all older Moog tracks. "On the Way," with its deep chanting, is a sign of things soon to come.
For some this is the last great Popol Vuh album, for they were about to move further away from rock music into something entirely different.
Towards A New Age (1978-1987)
The change here from everything that went before is almost as dramatic as the shift from In Den Gärten Pharaos to Hosianna Mantra. Suddenly Popol Vuh was quieter, more meditative, contemplative and subtle. I can only imagine that at this point they lost some of their fans and gained many new ones.
Brüder Des Schattens - Söhne Des Lichts (1978)
While Brüder Des Schattens - Söhne Des Lichts ("brother of darkness - son of light") was released in 1978 as a separate album from the Nosferatu soundtrack, this is the music that was recorded specifically for the movie, and it was only when the film was almost finished that Herzog asked Fricke for music that would scare people, and so a second record was made of primarily older material, the Nosferatu soundtrack.
This album contains Fricke and Fichelscher as usual, and also brings back Al Gromer on sitar, Bob Eliscu on oboe and Ted de Jong on tamboura, as well as a collaboration with a church choir ensemble from Munich.
The album starts off with the sidelong "Brüder Des Schattens - Söhne Des Lichts." There is some beautiful chanting to start things off that eventually dissolves into some even more beautiful and repetitive instrumentation. Let me say something here about the repetitive nature of their music that would now be a recurring factor on subsequent albums. Obviously the term can have a somewhat negative connotation, but it all depends on one's perspective. From mine, this is now a meditative and peaceful music that builds slowly and creates an emotional feeling and intensity that a more active and constantly shifting musical landscape could not achieve. The roots of ambient and new age are right here in this song, and it's music now that cannot just inspire, but one that can heal. That's perhaps a lot to say about a piece of music, and yet there we are.
The three tracks on side two continue with a more laid back approach, but each track becomes progressively more aggressive, with the climactic "Die Umkehr" hinting at some of the more dramatic aspects of their mid-70's works. Brüder Des Schattens - Söhne Des Lichts is yet another fantastic achievement.
The bonus track is another great one. The 4:15 "Sing, For Song Drives Away the Wolves" sounds similar to a couple of tracks from the Cur De Verre soundtrack.
Die Nacht Der Seele - Tantric Songs (1979)
Die Nacht Der Seele - Tantric Songs ("the night of the soul - tantric songs") contains Fricke, Fichelscher, Gromer on sitar, Susan Goetting on oboe and the return of both Djong Yun and Renate Knaup as vocalists. Fricke also returns as a vocalist, adding some very nice touches in the appropriate places.
Renate Knaup would become a new core member of Popol Vuh. She met Florian Fricke through Daniel Fichelscher, both of them being former members of Amon Düül II. Renate one time stated, "I experienced a lot through Florian's music. Florian's music makes you feel stoned when you sing it; the repetition makes you high. He always sat next to me and we sang it through together until I had it right. I found a closer sense of what it means to sing. 21"
Some pieces, like "Mantram der Erdberührung I & II," sound almost like Tibetan chanting, "Mantram der Herzberührung I & II" are very mellow piano pieces with added flourishes, "Im Reich der Schatten" is an intense tribal percussive piece, "Wo bist Du, der Du überwunden hast?" almost sounds like an outtake of Das Hohelied Salomos and other pieces recall the subtle contemplativeness of Brüder Des Schattens.
This album is similar to Nosferatu in that it's a mixed bag of songs with many moods, styles and feelings, but it feels more integrated and less haphazard. We're taken on varied journeys, but they all seem to be part of a whole pointing towards the same destination, one of pure feeling and soul-stirring upliftment.
The SPV CD contains no less than FOUR bonus tracks; the percussive and drone-like 2:16 "Mantram der Stirnberuhrung I," the beautiful solo guitar of the all-too-short 47 second "Zusammekunft," the evocative 2:03 "Mantram der Stirnberuhrung II" and finally the 10:19 "Im Gärten der Ruhe (Piano session version)." As usual, any solo Fricke piano music is a treat, and this sounds very similar in spirit, if you will, to the "Spirit of Peace" piano tracks that come as bonus tracks on some non-SPV CD releases of Aguirre. The last 2 bonus tracks have a noticeable dip in sound quality, but are still very playable.
Sei still, wisse ICH BIN (1981)
The '80's output of Popol Vuh became a bit more sporadic, unlike the '70's where one could expect an album from them every year, sometimes twice a year.
Never content to do precisely what they did last time, Popol Vuh throw you for a loop with this album. From the opening note there is something distinctly darker, more primitive, almost menacing about the music. The musicians are Fricke, Fichelscher and Knaup on vocals, this time with guests Chris Karrer (you guessed it - another ex-Amon Düül II member) on soprano saxophone and the Choir Ensemble of the Bavarian State Opera.
The first track, "Wehe Khorazin," is the first use of the "Yehung" chant that will appear on the next several albums. "Yehung," according to the Spirit Of Peace album, means "Hand in Hand." The second track contains some deep Tibetan like chanting and almost ritualistic percussion before a return to more chanting. One can only assume that electronic music guru Klaus Schulze co-producing this album must have had an effect on why everything sounds a bit twisted. It's still Popol Vuh, but a slightly demented version of them. It's very enticing, if somewhat dark and sinister. This is a very good album, but a very bad starting place as an introduction into the world of Popol Vuh.
The bonus track here is the 5:02 "King Minos III (Studio Version)" to go along with "King Minos" from Einsjäger & Siebenjäger and the bonus "King Minos II" from that same album. Basically, this sounds very much like the original "King Minos," but mixed strangely in a way that sounds like you're listening to a song from the other end of a tunnel. Sonically, this song doesn't quite make it.
Calling this album, a soundtrack to another Werner Herzog album, a "Popol Vuh album" is a bit dubious, as it only contains 4 tracks by Popol Vuh and 11 tracks by other artists, mostly opera and classical music.
The first Popol Vuh track, "Wehe Khorazin," is basically a slightly shorter version of the track of the same name found on Sei still, wisse ICH BIN. The other tracks have similarities to other Popol Vuh pieces, but all are very pleasant, mellow and stirring music.
Because of the limited amount of Popol Vuh music contained within, I would say this album is really for Popol Vuh completists only, and I personally never considered it to be a true Popol Vuh album. The line-up is Fricke, Fichelscher, Knaup, Yun, Gromer, Chris Karrer on sax and Susan Goetting on oboe. There are no bonus tracks on this CD.
Agape - Agape Love - Love (1983)
Like Nosferatu and Die Nacht Der Seele - Tantric Songs, Agape - Agape Love - Love is an album of many moods and feelings, with each track going to different places, but more like Die Nacht Der Seele, this works more as a whole, perhaps even more so than the former. The album contains Fricke, Fichelscher, Knaup on vocals, and the return of Conny Veit on guitar.
This album was one of Fricke's favorites, at a point in his life where he was inspired by Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, with titles like "Behold the Drover Summons" and "Why Do I Sleep." It is very evocative imagery.
This is a more introspective Popol Vuh in places, and an intense Popol Vuh in others, with most songs containing both elements. There are no superlative standout tracks, except for perhaps the especially pretty and slow album closer, "Why Do I Sleep." This is another album well worth owning, but it's also nothing we haven't heard before. I haven't listened to this album as much as some of their others, but perhaps that was only because of the album that follows this one.
The bonus track, the 2:36 "Circledance," is a very nice sounding track, and could easily have fit on the original Agape-Agape or Die Nacht Der Seele album.
Spirit of Peace (1985)
This is easily their finest piece since 1978's Brüder Des Schattens - Söhne Des Lichts. I like it because it's simpler than their previous three albums. It doesn't try to do too much, it's much slower about getting to its destinations, making the journey the destination, and it truly achieves the meaning of the album title. This is where everything they'd been attempting to do the last few years all came together. Spirit of Peace contains Fricke, Fichelscher and Knaup with Conny Veit and Bernd Wippich on electric guitar.
The first track is "We Know About The Need," which is their best rendition yet of the "Yehung" chant. The second track is a solo Fricke piano piece called "Spirit of Peace" that works remarkably well in its placement here. The song is technically "Spirit of Peace - Part II," but we only know that because of the "Spirit of Peace" bonus tracks on other CD's. We then go into another gorgeous guitar and chanting song called "Song of Earth." Again, we have the "Yehung" chant, and again the song is slow, long and repetitive, but it needs the repetition to build the depth of feeling. Even at 8:07, the song never outstays its welcome.
When asked about repeating musical themes over various albums, Fricke said, "When I feel a piece hadn't been produced the way it was originally meant to be, then I allow myself the liberty of picking it up again three years later and making another version of it. 22"
The album ends with the side-long 17:27 "Take The Tention High." It's the last time Popol Vuh would do a sidelong track, and like the rest of the album, it's a stunner. It starts with some beautiful female chanting before settling into a more mellow, yet complex guitar and chanting groove for the last 15 minutes of the song.
This album just works. I would go as far as to call it an ambient or even new age masterpiece. Of course by now, we are so far away from "rock music" that this will not be everyone's cup of tea, especially some of those who worship their epic '70's works.
It's unfortunate that SPV have not yet released this classic, but they may still. According to SPV and Johannes Fricke, "Some surprises are to come. The complete catalog will be slightly restructured in the aim to make the very best of Popol Vuh's Music available to the fans. 23"
Cobra Verde (1987)
It's fortunate that SPV released this Werner Herzog soundtrack, as it had been very rare and difficult to obtain prior to this reissue.
This would be Popol Vuh's final Werner Herzog soundtrack, their final release of the 80's and it's a beautiful one. Fricke (on piano, synclavier and vocals), Fichelscher and Knaup are joined by Kristen Riter on the "Yehung" chant (first heard on Sei still, wisse ICH BIN) on the first track "Der Tod des Cobra Verde." As much as I truly love the "Yehung" chant "We Know About The Need" on the Spirit of Peace album, here they have perfected the chant even more. An enormously beautiful track. Irmgard Hecker guests on the track "Sieh nicht übrem Meer ist' s," and the album also includes the Choir of the Bavarian State Opera and the singing girls of the Zigi cultural Troupe Ho, Ziavi.
The second through fifth tracks contain something very unusual for Popol Vuh, and that is the return of synthesizers, specifically the synclavier, by Florian Fricke. This is not the space cadet Moog music of olde however, but far more mature and modern, very high quality ambient music.
Track six, "Die sigenden Madchen von Ho, Ziavi," might bother some as it's a decidedly abrupt shift in mood to tribal chanting and percussion that must be part of the Cobra Verde movie. I personally find it a refreshing change, but others might not be as forgiving. Track seven, the brief "Sieh nicht uberm Meer ist' s" brings us to some more deep chanting, and the album ends with the 9:32 "Hab Mut, bis dass die Nacht mit Ruh' und Stille kommt," more of the usual cosmic chanting that we've by now come to know and love about Popol Vuh. Another great album.
The bonus track here is "Om Mani Padme Hum 4 (Piano Version)," which really should have been on the For You And Me CD, but I imagine was included on this disc so it would have a bonus track. It's nice, if a bit sonically lacking.
Into View (1991-2002)
By this time, the world was starting to finally catch up with Florian Fricke and Popol Vuh. The new age music movement, which had become quite popular, realized that Popol Vuh had been making their kind of music already for quite some time, and better than anyone else.
With the CD reissue market starting to boom, as well as the advent of the Internet, Popol Vuh's music became available to a wider audience and access to it became easier and easier.
For You And Me (1991)
For You And Me was released on the French Milan label, a popular new age label at the time with international distribution, and suddenly Popol Vuh was visible and available on a commonly available CD at most larger record stores for the first time. This was the closest they'd ever get to a shot at the big time.
Along with a new label and new start came a DRAMATICALLY updated sound. For You And Me is a far more modern sounding recording than anything they'd done up to this point, and from the opening track, "For You And Me," you could tell that this was a very adult, very polished and much slicker sounding affair. That could be almost an insult if the music didn't hold up, but thankfully it did. This version of Popol Vuh featured Fricke, Fichelscher and Knaup with guests Guido Hieronymus on keyboards and Ann-Marie O'Farell on Irish harp.
While decidedly new age and world music in sound (with musical elements from the Himalayas, Ireland, Greece and Africa), this album has style and grace, and the updated sonic quality makes it a pleasure to listen to. The second track, "Wind Of The Stars In Their Eyes" not only sounds like no other Popol Vuh song, but it's one of the best they ever recorded. By track four, we're in familiar territory with an updated "Yehung" chant, something brand new to recent fans hearing their music for the first time, and again updated to the standards of this slicker production.
Track five, "When Love Is Calling You," is an updated version of the track "Letze Tage - Letze Nächt" from the album of the same name, English lyrics and all. The brief and very pretty "In Your Eyes" is a fitting intro into the next four tracks, "Om Mani Padme Hum 1, 2, 3 & 4," Popol Vuh's beautiful take (or I should say FOUR takes) on this most famous of Buddhist mantras. Fricke said that "Om Mani Padme Hum is almost like the Kyrie Eleison of the west, 24" bringing full circle what he created almost 20 years previously on Hosianna Mantra.
In For You And Me, Popol Vuh created a more modern day classic, easily their best album of the 90's, and due to the crystal clear production, an audiophile's dream recording.
The bonus track, the 4:31 "Om Mani Padme Hum 3 (Piano Version)" is pleasant enough, but suffers from the same sonic deficiencies of the bonus track on Cobra Verde.
Popol Vuh / Florian Fricke Plays Mozart (1992)
Another divergence of sorts, for this album truly is a solo Florian Fricke work on piano, even though the title could suggest otherwise. Doubtlessly it was labeled this way as Popol Vuh was a known entity, whereas Florian Fricke on his own was far less so.
This album is also unique in that it's the first work under the Popol Vuh or Florian Fricke monicker where it does not contain original material.
I must confess to not being a huge classical music fan, so I find it impossible to review this album in terms of comparisons. I simply do not know these works in other contexts, but I can say that his solo piano renditions are startlingly clear and moving. While it's true that I only purchased this CD due to the Popol Vuh name, I am glad I own it and it makes for some very peaceful and enjoyable music, while still being vital and lively.
This title has not been re-released by SPV, at least not yet.
See Part 4 of the Popul Vuh retrospective
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|