Graded on a Curve:
Popol Vuh, Aguirre

Watching Werner Herzog’s 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God recently, something happened to me that happens very, very seldom–I found myself spellbound by its soundtrack. Not only did it perfectly complement Herzog’s awe-inspiring shots of mist lingering over the Ucayali tributary of the Amazon River, with its backdrop of the steep cliffs of Huayna Picchu–it moved me.

I was familiar with the name of Popol Vuh, the Florian Fricke-led ambient music German group responsible for the soundtrack, and had even listened to a bit of their music, but my tastes in Krautrock have always leaned towards the motorik energy and sheer weirdness of such bands as Can, Neu!, Faust, and Amon Düül II. But the soundtrack to Aguirre, The Wrath of God–which was only released three years after the film hit the theaters–changed everything.

When I use the word “ambient” to describe Popol Vuh’s music in Aguirre, Wrath of God, I use it very loosely; it’s anything but your Brian Eno-school aural wallpaper. Even the 16-plus minute electronic soundscape “Vergegenwärtigung” (Fricke, a pioneer of the Moog synthesizer, would soon abandon the instrument in favor of a more organic sound) that makes up side two doesn’t come close.

And speaking of “Vergegenwärtigung” (and this is the part where things get tricky), you won’t hear it in the film, nor will you hear two others songs on the LP. I know, I know, kinda changes things, doesn’t it. But in a sense it doesn’t, because one of the unused songs sounds of a piece with the music used by Herzog, and the other is lovely beyond words.

Opening track “Aguirre 1″ consists of two parts. Part one, “L’Acrime di Rei,” is heavenly in a literal sense–Florian’s Moog is ethereal and partakes, dare I say it, of the Divine. His “choir organ”and its accompanying melodic line bring Pink Floyd at their head-rock best to mind, but Popol Vuh’s is a spiritual, not secular, music. As for part two, “Flöte” is a lively but haunting turn on the panpipe by sometimes Popol Vuh member Robert Eliscu. As it’s played by an indigenous native Aguirre’s eyes wander off to something only he appears to see. Is he bored? Contemptuous? It’s impossible to tell.

“Morgengruß II” isn’t in the film, and would not have fit had it been used. But its melody is gorgeous, and the exhilarating interplay between Daniel Secundus Fichelscher’s acoustic and electric guitars could not better capture the spirit of the song’s title (it means “morning greeting” in English).“Agnus Dei,” on the other hand, would have been right at home in the film, and I find myself wondering why it wasn’t used. The choir organ is back, and as the title indicates this is not secular music; it aims for spiritual transcendence, and soaring hits its target.

The irony of all of this is that while Popol Vuh’s music partakes of the divine, the jungle itself is cruel and unforgiving, the Spaniards themselves the real savages. Even Jesus of Nazareth, as personified by Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, is a venal and mendacious anti-God. “On the river,” says Aguirre at one point, “God never finished his creation.” Seems he’d never even visited the place.

Popol Vuh contributed music to five of Herzog’s films, and compilations are available that compile these works. If you’re not interested in the Popol Vuh material that Herzog didn’t use in his films, or the music contributed by other artists who did, one of these compilations may be better suited to your needs. Me, I wouldn’t want to be without “Morgengruß II” and “Agnus Dei” (although I could live without “Vergegenwärtigung”). The soundtrack to Aguirre, The Wrath of God isn’t ideal. But it’s a magnificent piece of work nevertheless.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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