As part of my long-running series on Krautrock (covering the golden age period between 1968 – 1975) I re-assessed the reverential, hallowed, work of Munich’s Popol Vuh, starting with their debut, Affenstunde.
Recorded at Bavaria Music Studio, Munich, March 1970.
1. Ich Mache Einen Speigal – Dream Part 4 (8:40)
2. .Ich Mache Einen Speigal – Dream Part 5 (4:50)
3. .Ich Mache Einen Speigal – Dream Part 49 (7:35)
1. Affenstunde (18:57)
Frank Fiedler – Synthesizer and Mixdown.
Bettina Fricke – Cover artwork and tablas.
Florian Fricke – Moog Synthesizer.
Holger Trulzsch – Percussion.
Produced bt Popol Vuh.
Divine musical messengers, Popol Vuh, transcribed the aria’s of the heavens and the mystical dreamt kingdoms, occupied by all manner of religious icons and prophets, for our humble benefit; here on Earth. Amen!
Hooked-up to the transcendental phone exchange; Germany’s ethereal link to the empyreal, could turn any stoic synthesized note into a diaphanous, or, hallowed symphony, and give a reverential gravitas to any movie soundtrack. As players in the – sarcastically labeled – Krautrock epoch, Popol Vuh dignified and indolently created ambient suites and peregrination ethnic inspired soundscapes: at first, led by the future envisioned manipulations of the Moog, and then, with a return to the acoustic piano. The loosely collaborative groups legacy began with the, deeply spiritual, bandleader Florian Fricke; a graduate of the German classical conservatories in Freidburg and Munich: where he honed his directing and composition skills.
Florian, a product of the Fatherland’s 60s political youth movement, was of course attracted to the dangers of free-jazz – he would play alongside the future ECM record label founder, Manfred Eicher, in a combo – film-making in the pursuit of erasing the country’s recent past. Whilst braving the latter half if the 60s Munich scene, he met the aspiring film director, Werner Herzog – perhaps Florian’s most important and enduring professional relationships – who sorted out a role in his debut movie, ‘Lebenszeichen’ (1968), for him. Both perspicacious in character; they struck-up a productive friendship that saw Florian’s Popol Vuh produce the lamented soundtracks to, almost all, his work.
Juggling a career as a film and music critic, whilst continuing to tread the boards and compose, Florian studied religion and myths; taking a keen interest in the mechanics and mysticism of the Mayans: a civilization and world that also fascinated Herzog – he would of course direct the Conquistador mind-fuck, ‘Aguirre: the wrath of God’. The Mayan’s biblical equivalent tome during the antiquated “post classic” period (1000 – 1697AD), gives its name to the group: the Popol Vuh, which can be translated as ‘Book of Community’, or ‘Book of Counsel’, and even a more literal, ‘Book of The People’. A mytho-historical manuscript that includes a story of creation, genealogies, and the tales of the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the sacred text generated enough themes for Florian to weave into his music, which was steadily moving away from jazz to new age.
MY KINGDOM FOR A MOOG
In the year of our lord, 1970, Florian assisted the Stuttgart electronic music advocate and conductor, Eberhard Schoener, in contributing a musical score for the World Expo in Osaka. As fate would be the setting for a meeting between the Bavarian prophet and the newly fangled Moog III synthesizer. Impressed enough to purchase the great slab of technology – he would be one of the earliest converts – and start using it as the lead appratus in his compositions. Now as a Moog centric enterprise, Florian asked studio engineer and technical expert, Frank Fiedler, to join with ethnic percussionist, Holger Trulzsch. Fiedler would be on hand to fix any problems and help with mix-downs – I’d imagine he’d be called upon quite often.
The trio’s first experimental fruits soon drew praise, with soundtrack work for Florian’s chum, Herzog (‘Auch Zwerge Haben Klein Angefangen’) and directors Ulf Von Mechow (‘Wintermarchen’) and George Moorse (‘Antarctica’). Liberty records had already snapped up fellow Munich sages and intergalactic psych-explorers Amon Duul II – Trulzsch had actually played Turkish Drums on their debut LP, ‘Phallus Dei’ – they now set their sights on the cosmic reverence of Popol Vuh; signing them to a one album deal. In the early Spring of 1970, the Vuh moved into Bavaria Music Studio in Munich to lay down the otherworldly holy spook-fest, ‘Affenstunde’.
Rather an unusually recondite and mystifying title, Affenstunde literally translates as “Monkey Hour” – perhaps mockingly or as a veiled reference. Though technologically facing forward, the albums cover features a Gothic Medieval fashioned grill, whilst inside the musical elegiac sound manipulations draw there influence from across vast aeons of time (or should they be imagined time?).
Side one of this tome features a three-part sequence of ambient and space-age soundscapes, headed ‘Ich Mache Einen Speigel – Dream’. Each of these concatenate tracks is numbered, i.e ‘Dream Part 4, 5 and 49’ – whatever happened to parts 1 -3 and 6 – 48 remains a mystery, though they may exsist as shelved experiments. ‘Dream Part 4’ opens proceedings with a chorus of richly-lush forest atmospherics, which is drowned out by a big splash and a vibraphone shimmering veneered wash that lifts the drawbridge, and moves into a room of competing computers, relaying data to their hearts content. Warbling Moog and wooing soundwaves fashion up images of the Forbidden Planet, and take us beyond our own orbit towards the far reaches of the galaxy. Transmissions beam back and forth like an episode of the original Star Trek series, sounding both nostalgic, yet ominously futuristic. A Musique Concrete version of an orchestral chisels out a wafting melody that settles over the lunar switchboard chatter, and chorus of tribal tablas – played by Bettina Fricke, who also designed the albums artwork. This, almost wholly, synthesizer generated suite blends into the proceeding antecedent ‘Dream Part 5’, on a caustic Dune swept solar zephyr. Alien Beaudoin electronic drum pads beat out a frantic ceremonial trance as tablas and shakers rattle along to the strange phaser tunneled visions. We are then whisked away to a Tibetan bell thrashing and cattle-pushed-down-a-steep-mountainside carnival, where the ashram contemplation is shattered as the landscape begins to crumble at the advent of some climatic event. Percussion rather then synthesized, ‘Dream Part 5’ is the middle act that brings us back to Earth.
Eerie vistas beckon the listener as ‘Dreams Part 49’ hums and vibrates; suffuse over the horizon. A mix of weary and whizzing spirits fly across the skies, and ‘This Island Earth’ imbued 50s sci-fi atmospherics try to spook us but their mischief is snuffed out when meandering tablas and low fuzzy jammed car horns seep into the esoteric sound. Soon a languor wave of dreamy placable ambiance returns to put us back into our meditative trance.
Lavished with an entire side, the title track ‘Affenstunde’ wastes little time in pleasantries, beginning with its ascent at a crackling fire in some quasi-primordial lagoon. Someone, or thing, throws stones against a caves wall, and stirring accompaniment of softly resonating bells and percussion lifts the mood before a reverb barrage of atavistic holy land ritualistic noise takes us east. Bewitched sounds howl amongst a biblical battle scene as devilish burbles and bubbling Moog trickery, move us to the set of the Exorcist 2, as performed by a turban wearing loon. We are then transported to South America, pre-Columbus, to sample the delights of astral traveling across the plains of Mayan Guatemala, helped on our way by Moog modulated panpipes that take on the appearance of Bubo the Owl from Clash of the Titans. Murky fluctuating tides lap at the invented mysterious shores, bringing this ambient opus to an end.
With no obvious direction or guideline in the sporadic rhythms to follow, Affenstunde proved to be visionary: in effect Popol Vuh incipiently created a kind of holy mood music; carving out there own reverential hosanna to a higher being.
This form of worship was surprisingly removed from the ideas Florian initially tabled. In fact the groups spiritual leader, was already having doubts about the Moog, using it only once more for the following album, In Den Garten Pharaos, before giving it away to fellow German maestro Klaus Schulze. Florian would soon revert back to a traditional wealth of antiquity and acoustic instruments for all future Popol Vuh albums.