Popol Vuh

For Florian Fricke, the leader of Popol Vuh, music was nothing less than an act of devotion, a gift to the world. A reticent character with a propensity towards the spiritual and the religious, in his few interviews, he issued proclamations about the desired effects and intentions of his creative output, claiming that the music of Popol Vuh (whose name was borrowed from the mythical text of the Mayan K’iche people) was “a mass for the heart. It is music of love”. So far, so hippie. And yet, Fricke’s body of work, remarkably consistent in both its vision and quality, transcends, almost effortlessly, any ‘one-world’ corniness, any New Age piety.

Admittedly, it took Fricke a while to find his calling. While he did study music at the conservatory, in his late teens he diverted his energies to film making; soon, he would be sidelined into work as a film and music critic for a number of German publications. In his early twenties, on meeting film director Werner Herzog, one of the key elements of the Popol Vuh story would fall into place, and Fricke and Herzog would maintain a productive relationship for decades – indeed, much of the Popol Vuh legend rests on the extraordinary music Fricke made for Herzog films like Aguirre, Nosferatu, Herz Aus Glas and Cobra Verde. (Fricke would also act in a few of Herzog’s films.)

But it was the purchase of a Moog III synthesizer, afforded thanks to family money, that set Fricke on his path. Early albums, such as 1970’s Affenstunde, made extensive use of the Moog, with Fricke sketching out its tonalities and possibilities to best allow him to express the personal vision that he was intent on exploring. If this album feels a little unfocused, by the following year’s In Den Garten Pharaos, everything had fallen into place, and indeed, he was already chafing at the instrument’s restrictions: the second side of that album was a monstrous, monolithic drone for church organ. Part of the then-nascent Kosmische Musik scene in Germany, Fricke also worked with Tangerine Dream on their epic Zeit double-album.

And then, Fricke walked away from electronic music: for him, having found the sound of the “human voice” that he wanted to express via the Moog III, he decided to turn to acoustic instrumentation. On 1972’s Hosianna Mantra, one of the classic Popol Vuh line-ups falls into place, with Fricke on piano, Conny Veit (of Gila) on guitar, and Djong Yun on feathery, blissful vocals. Conceived as a Mass, the album sets out much of what Fricke would subsequently explore – minimal phrases set in circular motion; a simple, yet rich melodicism; and an at times extraordinary sense of exaltation. For Fricke, it was important that his music reached for religiosity, but not of any specific religion: as he said of Hosianna Mantra, “A conscious reflection upon religion is included in this music, but not in particular to any religious groups.”

From there, the Popol Vuh line-up would mutate, slowly, over the forthcoming decades, Veit dropping out for the best part of ten years, drummer and guitarist Daniel Fichelscher joining in the mid-‘70s, with fellow Amon Düül II member Renate Knaup pitching in on vocals soon after. The music would move through a number of phases – a focused period of ‘raga-rock’, Fichelscher’s guitar looping and weaving around Fricke’s melodies; the breathy, ghostly mantras of albums like Die Nacht Der Seele and Brüder des Schattens – Söhne Des Lichts; then a more peaceable, reflective ambience, as discovered on Agape-Agape Love-Love and Spirit Of Peace. But the ethical and ideological coordinates of Fricke’s constellation remained the same – repetition, worship, and devotion, with massed simplicity giving his compositions a seemingly elemental force. There is very little other music quite like it.

Jon Dale

In den Gärten Pharaos

Popol Vuh
In den Gärten Pharaos cover

It feels insulting to describe an album as mammoth as In Den Gärten Pharaos as ‘transitional’, but in many ways that’s what it is. On two side-long pieces, Fricke shows that he’s mastered the intricacies of his Moog, before blowing everything apart. The first side is taken up with the title track, a lovely piece for electronics, Fender Rhodes, water and percussion that ties together the loose threads of Affenstunde and proves that Fricke’s hard yards at the patchbays had paid off; there’s an elegance here that’s missing from the debut, a liquid motion to the compositions, that makes it a consummate take on Kosmische Musik. Flip the album, and “Vuh” is genuinely startling, a magisterial, planet-guzzling church organ drone that’s as epic as it is mournful and ponderous; crashing crescendos of cymbal punctuate the piece, alternating with tumbling percussion, while distant vocal chants suggest figures lost in a wrecked, frozen landscape. Popol Vuh’s music would never be quite this dramatic again, but “Vuh” feels like a clearing of the decks, while pointing Fricke’s music towards the elemental, the religious, and the acoustic.

Hosianna Mantra

Popol Vuh
Hosianna Mantra cover

After the first two Popol Vuh albums, Florian Fricke packed away the Moog, embraced acoustic instrumentation, and foregrounded his religious and spiritual convictions. Hosianna Mantra introduced a new line-up of Popol Vuh, with Fricke’s piano centre-stage, surrounded by Conny Veit’s guitar, Klaus Weise on tambura, Robert Eliscu on oboe, and the breathtaking voice of Djong Yun, the daughter of Japanese composer Isang Yun. Fricke had been working with singer Esther Ofarim, but with Yun, he found the perfect conduit for his lyrics, which drew from texts by existentialist philosophe Martin Buber. The album, which took six months for Fricke and Veit to score, is one of Popol Vuh’s highest moments, a sacred text that weaves Veit’s trickling, Echoplexed guitar around Fricke’s repeating, sky-bound piano runs, as Yun’s feather-light voice swoons and swoops. While there’s something ineffably mysterious about Hosianna Mantra, on one level, it feels like a very practical and useful music of abstract worship, threading devotional melodies in light-dappled arcs through spaces of communion. It’s also breathtakingly lovely.

Einsjäger & Siebenjäger

Popol Vuh
Einsjäger & Siebenjäger cover

Florian Fricke once described Einsjäger & Siebenjäger as the “finishing, or closing of the cycle”. Certainly, you can hear threads here that connect back to earlier Popol Vuh albums like Seligpreisung and Hosianna Mantra, and Einsjäger & Siebenjäger does feel like the culmination of the exploration of a set of principles. The group were certainly accessing something extraordinary here, with the entire first side of the album performed in one take. But with Conny Veit out of the frame, Fricke gives over to Daniel Fichelscher’s vision entirely, and his ringing, carillon-like guitars are all over Einsjäger & Siebenjäger, gifting the album its overarching mood of ascension within limitations, with raga-like, interweaving parts locking into an overwhelming whole. As Fricke reflected, “It’s one way of jubilation; it’s our expression of jubilation.”

Aguirre

Popol Vuh
Aguirre cover

If Popol Vuh are known for anything, it’s the iconic theme music Fricke wrote for Werner Herzog’s 1972 film Aguirre: The Wrath Of God. Fricke and Herzog would work together, sporadically, over the seventies and eighties, and they were a surprising pairing at first, Herzog’s mania an inversion of Fricke’s calm. This, however, was also the collaboration’s superpower. Watching Spanish conquistadors clambering down a mountainside in Peru, an epic vision in itself, accompanied by the rapturous ‘voice organ’ mnemonic of Fricke’s “Aguirre,” is a sight once seen, never forgotten. “Aguirre” shifts slowly, the glorious, spectral choir underpinned by an intensely potent and mournful two-note figure for guitar; from something so simple builds a music that’s incredibly powerful. There are some other lovely songs on this album, but everything’s overshadowed by the variations on the “Aguirre” theme. Gary Lucas once described it as “among the finest film music ever composed” – he wasn’t wrong.

Letzte Tage - Letzte Nächte

Popol Vuh
Letzte Tage - Letzte Nächte cover

While they have made stronger albums, there’s something quintessential about 1976’s Letzte Tage – Letzte Nächte (Last Days – Last Nights). It’s the album where Daniel Fichelscher really made his presence felt, and on this album and the following Herz Aus Glas / Cœur De Verre, he takes up much of the sonic spectrum, the album a fantasia for his flinty, swirling guitar, pedalling the album in a more rock direction than usual. He also writes the opener, “Der Große Krieger”, and co-writes a few tunes with Fricke. Indeed, Fichelscher is really keyed into the yearning quality of Fricke’s compositions here, none more so on “Oh, wie nah is der Weg hinab”; if the title of the album hints at apocalyptic visions, then a song like this is the phoenix from those ashes. Renate Knaup from Amon Düül II joins on vocals, and she’s a partial presence in Popol Vuh for years to come.

Herz Aus Glas / Cœur De Verre

Popol Vuh
Herz Aus Glas / Cœur De Verre cover

Herz Aus Glas / Cœur De Verre is notionally another Werner Herzog soundtrack, though very little of the music contained on the album actually appears in the film – indeed, much of the soundtrack to Herzog’s film is drawn from this album’s predecessor Letzte Tage – Letzte Nächte. That does nothing to diminish the power of Herz Aus Glas, perhaps Popol Vuh’s finest hour, and certainly the most potent from their ‘raga rock’ phase, where guitarist Daniel Fichelscher grabbed tight the reins of Florian Fricke’s song. It’s a majestic music, for sure, but one of great subtlety too, particularly in the way Fichelscher tills away at the melodies, extracting great nuance from the subtle flick of a wrist in his playing, but also pealing out those tumbling, cycling phrases that are the bedrock of so much Popol Vuh. Indeed, the music beautifully reflects the hypnotic-visionary tenor of Herzog’s film, full of rosy red claustrophobia, even if much of it’s not on the soundtrack.

On The Way To A Little Way (Soundtracks From ‘Nosferatu’)

Popol Vuh
On The Way To A Little Way (Soundtracks From ‘Nosferatu’) cover

Another Popol Vuh album that draws from Florian Fricke’s soundtrack to Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of Murnau’s Nosferatu. For this set, Fricke and Herzog reach back to some of the earliest Popol Vuh material — Fricke dug out some formative, spooked electronics, which he had dubbed ‘angst music’, and their presence, on tracks like “Die Nacht Der Himmel”, certainly gifts the album a foreboding tenor. Most everything here is taken at a glacial pace — see the trudging phrase that spools out of “Mantra II – Choir”, where voices and guitar plot a spooked melody while Ted De Jong’s tamboura purrs and drones underneath. If Popol Vuh’s albums can sometimes feel a little interchangeable, a collection like On The Way To A Little Way is a timely reminder that Fricke’s vision was far more malleable and wide-reaching than he’s often given credit for.

Die Nacht Der Seele (Tantric Songs)

Popol Vuh
Die Nacht Der Seele (Tantric Songs) cover

In the late 1970s, Popol Vuh’s music really started to change. Their albums were less focused, more varied, with leader Florian Fricke embracing different tonalities. On Die Nacht Der Seele (Tantric Songs), this meant anything from clattering percussive miniatures (“Im Reich der Schatten”) to a number of pieces that invoked the chanting of Tibetan monks (“Mantram der Erdberunhrung”, the gloomy “Wanderer durch die Nacht”). When the usual, two-chord mantras for guitar and piano did appear, with Renate Knaup and Djong Yun back on vocals, they felt lighter, unmoored, spun from altogether more fragile matter. But the core of the thing — hypnotic repetition, to access the infinite — is still there. “Florian’s music makes you stoned when you sing it,” Knaup told artist and journalist Edwin Pouncey back in 1996, “the repetition makes you high.”

Sei Stille, Wisse Ich Bin

Popol Vuh
Sei Stille, Wisse Ich Bin cover

Both an oratorium, and the soundtrack to Florian Fricke’s titular directorial debut, an enigmatic – to say the least – film featuring model Veruschka as a bearded prophet, leading followers through the Sinai Desert, Sei Stille, Wisse Ich Bin still feels like one of the great lost Popol Vuh sets. There’s something wild in the way Fricke brings the choir of the Bavarian State Opera in with massed chants, and then drops them amidst a ghosted landscape of thunderous percussion; in many ways, it feels like the culmination of the devotional, amorphous spiritualism that he’d been exploring over the past decade. He recycles some earlier material here, tracks from Herz Aus Glas, for example, reappearing with dizzying choral swarms swooping across the songs’ surfaces. Repetition in the music and Fricke’s never going to lose it – this is one of his masterpieces.

Spirit Of Peace

Popol Vuh
Spirit Of Peace cover

1985’s Spirit Of Peace draws together much of what Popol Vuh and Florian Fricke had been exploring over the previous half-decade. “We Know About The Need” opens the album with the kind of slow-moving, guttural chanting that Fricke explored on his recent solo album, Die Erde Und Ich Sind Eins – he’d also mine that material more directly, revisiting “Song Of Earth”. “Spirit Of Peace” itself is a reflective, stately piano instrumental, Fricke meandering across the keys as though he’s exploring slowly blossoming thought. (Later editions of the album add another two parts of “Spirit Of Peace” – they’re well worth hearing.) “Take The Tension High” swallows the entirety of side two, and it’s Popol Vuh at their most exultant – the voices of Fricke and Renate Knaup sing out an ever-circling mantra as a complex web of multi-tracked guitars weaves riveting patterns underneath, long-time Popol Vuh members Daniel Fichelscher and Conny Veit joined by guest Bernd Wippich.