Graded on a Curve:
Popol Vuh,
The Essential Album Collection Vol. 1

Founded by the late Florian Fricke in 1969, Popol Vuh became one of the more enduringly interesting acts associated with the whole Krautrock shebang, especially after they began an extended collaboration with their countryman director Werner Herzog. BMG has recently reissued five of their ’70s LPs as expanded CD digipacks, but vinyl aficionados need not fret, as those titles have gotten the 180gm treatment and are packaged together as The Essential Album Collection Vol. 1. The set includes 1970 debut Affenstunde, ’72’s Hosianna Mantra, ’74’s Einsjager & Siebenjager, ’75’s Aguirre, and ’78’s Nosferatu. It’s not all of the worthwhile stuff, but it is a substantive hunk of expansive, spiritual glide.

By the late ’80s, I’m sure a fair portion of young and curious US listeners received their initial taste of Popol Vuh not on vinyl or even CD, but cassette; the VHS kind, courtesy of the films by that stalwart auteur of the New German Cinema Werner Herzog. My introduction came through 1982’s Fitzcarraldo; I was suitably impressed with that movie and its score so that it was only a matter of days before I borrowed a copy of Aguirre, the Wrath of God from an old hippie pal who ran a local used bookstore.

And for a good while hence, Popol Vuh sorta remained on my radar as the Krautrock soundtrack unit not named Tangerine Dream, basically because in my neck of the woods their early stuff was essentially scarce. If I recall correctly, the easiest record to special order around that point was ’87’s Cobra Verde, another soundtrack to another Herzog film. In the early ’90s, during the inaugural boom of affordable VHS, Nosferatu was released alongside Fitzcarraldo (by I believe, the Anchor Bay imprint). I picked up both.

The ’90s were nearly over before I heard Affenstunde, Popol Vuh’s first album from 1970, and similar to the early work of Tangerine Dream, it was a markedly different affair than I expected, foremost due to the presence of a 4-module Moog Series III synthesizer. With the release of the group’s third record, Fricke would abandon electronic music for acoustic instruments (eventually either selling or giving his Moog, accounts vary, to Klaus Schulze), but Affenstunde is a wholeheartedly electro affair, much closer to space music than the outward-bound tranquility of Popol Vuh’s later material.

If not representative (there was one more electronic LP, ’71’s In den Gärten Pharaos after a label change from Liberty to Pilz), it’s still quite an enjoyable (and at times fascinating) ride, especially the title track, which takes up the entirety of side two. Note that BMG’s CD reissue includes the exclusive bonus track “Train Through Time,” which initially appeared as part of a 2004 release.

I caught up with Hosianna Mantra shortly thereafter, and that provided the real epiphany. Revamping the debut’s trio lineup (featuring Holger Trülzsch and Frank Fiedler plus uncredited wife Bettina Fricke lending some extra tablas) to include the electric guitars of Conny Veit, the oboe of Robert Eliscu, the tamboura of Klaus Wiese, and the striking voice of Korean singer Djong Yun, Hosianna Mantra is an absolutely gorgeous record, but it also possesses heft.

In part due to the Grateful Dead-like playing of Veit, it would make a fine point of entry for more rock-inclined ears into Popol Vuh’s vast thing. Interestingly, the vinyl of Hosianna Mantra includes the bonus track “Maria (Ave Maria),” which was (sorta curiously) a ’72 solo single by Djong Yun. Along with the switch to acoustic instrumentation, Fricke was undergoing a spiritual transformation which, as the group found a new label home on the fittingly named Kosmische Musik, extended into the next batch of Popol Vuh LPs.

By Einsjager & Siebenjager, the lineup had tightened to Fricke, guitarist Daniel Fichelscher and Djong Yun, though the general thrust was unchanged; Veit might’ve exited, but there is still plenty of expansive guitar playing, enough so that jamming this for a field of Deadheads on a crisp spring morning would likely inspire all sorts of twirling and hooping.

This is especially true during the 19-minute title track, which is where Yun enters, and the intensity and the beauty gets kicked up a few wonderful notches. “Einsjager & Siebenjager” was formerly the side-long closer, but for this edition it’s followed by two bonuses, “King Minos II” and “Wo bist Du?,” both first heard as part of the 2004 edition.

In this collection, Aguirre, first released in ’75 on the Ohr label, also ends with a bonus, “Aguirre III,” which serves as a nice bookend to opening track “Aguirre I”; it and “Aguirre II” are the only pieces on the album actually used in Herzog’s film, with the other three cuts dating from ’72-’74. They can be essentially considered padding.

But hey, it’s good padding (two of the selections are different versions of songs from Einsjager & Siebenjager), occasionally very good padding, and in the context of this box, Aguirre does a terrific job of interweaving the group’s more rock-inclined work to the ambient/ kosmische/ proto-New Age direction for which they came to be revered; the long track “Vergegenwärtigung” even nods back to the band’s debut.

BMG’s notes explain how this 2LP edition of Nosferatu combines two distinct albums, Brüder des Lichts and On The Way to a Little Way, which were brought together in 2004 (a la the bonus tracks sprinkled throughout the set) by the SPV label. The decision to join them was a smart one; at 65 minutes, the four sides are generous but not overly abundant or exhausting and are more diverse in fact (nicely extending from Aguirre) than one might expect.

Herzog’s directive to Fricke, specifically that he wanted a soundtrack that would “frighten any audience,” opened matters up quite a bit as the Popol Vuh leader reportedly went back into the Moog portion of his archives for partial foundational inspiration. The results are appealing as they underscore how Fricke’s notions of analog purity took a backseat to delivering a strong soundtrack for his friend and collaborator.

The electronically derived tracks mingle productively with a widening sense of the mystical, particularly in the tamboura department; this is fine music for sitting cross-legged on the floor. By extension, the guitars maintain their psychedelic edge by moving into more forthrightly Eastern modalities and away from the rock zone of Hosianna Mantra and Einsjager & Siebenjager.

BMG’s title makes the case that this first volume is essential. In this instance, that’s not the same thing as complete, which is sure to encourage debate in longtime fans and speculation into whether a follow-up set will continue to tap into the ’70s catalog or instead just march into the ’80s. I’m hoping for the former, but if that’s not to be, The Essential Album Collection Vol. 1 is a solid serving of quality from Popol Vuh’s first decade.

Affenstunde
B+

Hosianna Mantra
A-

Einsjager & Siebenjager
A

Aguirre
A-

Nosferatu
A-

The Essential Album Collection Vol. 1
A-

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