There are many prog rock groups who are fondly remembered but one that I think are underappreciated or overlooked are Popol Vuh. Popol Vuh soundtracked many of Werner Herzog’s movies and formed an integral part of the experience, without which the films would seem incomplete or lacking. I recently purchased the Best of Popul Vuh Werner Herzog Soundtrack and this is my review of said album but first some context of how I discovered this band.
I first experienced Popol Vuh when I rented out Aguirre: Wrath of God from my university library. The opening scene, of an expeditionary caravan travelling through the misty mountains of the Andes to find El Dorado was set to the haunting mesmerising score and seared itself into my soul and I knew then that I was watching something special. As the film continued and I saw the true madness of Aguirre's journey into the heart of darkness (Joseph Conrad style), the visuals and music mixed into a heady cocktail and enveloped me.
The whole Aguirre score reminded me of probably my most formative media experience, that from my favourite children's television programme, The Mysterious Cities of Gold. Aguirre and MCOG shared much in common as both were set amongst the time of the Inca and Conquistadors but it was more than that, the Moog synthesiser combined with ethnographic religious voices from both the TV show and Aguirre echo a move away from stereotypical panpipes and woodwind interpretations of the 'other' and instead seemed more mysterious and spiritual. Aguirre's soundtrack tapped into my love of the acclaimed MCOG soundtrack by Haim Saban and Shuki Levy. I had to find out more about Popol Vuh, which in the mid 90s was quite difficult as the internet barely existed.
So, after Aguirre I rented out Fitzcarraldo, the tale of another explorer who ventures once again into a Conradian heart of darkness to set up a rubber plantation and build an opera house to bring culture to the 'savages.' To achieve this he persuades many local tribesmen to drag a steamboat over the rainforest and hills to a river many miles away.
The music was once again magnificent but was in direct contrast to the actions portrayed on screen of the enigmatic but deeply reprehensible characters, played with deranged, barely controlled, ferocity by Herzog regular Klaus Kinski. These deeply flawed protagonists are on a self-destructive journey but believe they are on the path to greatness.
Popul Vuh's music doesn't celebrate the protagonists but rather the cultures they are trying to subjugate and control. Aguirre is an imperialist conqueror looking for gold and glory, Fitzcarraldo an arrogant man who wants to achieve fame and repute amongst the ultra elite and Francisco Manoel da Silva, from the film Cobra Verde, wants to build a kingdom upon the slavery of the people he initially befriends.
The working relationship between Herzog and and Popol Vuh, led by his longtime friend Florian Fricke, was a very fruitful one with XX soundtracks scored. This is many hours of music but the best of Popol Vuh features 14 tracks which are as follows:
- Wehe Khoorazin
- Im Garten der Gemeinschaft
- Der Tod des Banditen
- Agape, Agape
- Gemeinsam aßen sie das Brot
- Gemeinsam tranken sie den Wein
- Als lebten die Engel auf Erden
- Eine andere Welt
- Höre, der du wagst
- Brüder des Schattens - Söhne des Lichts
- Engel der Luft
- Wir Wissen von der Not
- Take the Tention High
- Lacrime di Re
This 14 track playlist just seems too short to truly showcase the importance that Popol Vuh had in bringing Herzog’s vision and more importantly ethno-religious soul to something as seemingly mechanical and soulless like the synthesiser but it offers an appetising amuse-bouche for those willing to dip their toes into a kind of prog rock that flourished before the decadence of 20 minute keyboard solos. Fricke was a spiritual man and this comes through in his music.
The sublime Lacrime De Ri from the opening of Aguirre sounds like an otherworldly choir of angels before it opens up into ethno-religious percussive rhythms. The visuals of a hopeful group emerging from the misty mountains is one of cinemas greatest openings and the music brings a sense of spirituality into the mix with an angelic choir created by the melotron.
Popol Vuh's soundtrack for Nosferatu The Vampyre, is phenomenal but a particular standout is Brüder des Schattens - Söhne des Licht, which plays at several key points during the movie bit most memorably at the beginning which opens with the mummified remains of the victims of an 1833 cholera epidemic. I have never forgotten the simple yet haunting two-note choral motif, it plays in my dreams and haunts my nightmares.
Wehe Khorazin is a profound, powerful, and deeply moving piece in its simplicity and it touches the deepest part of my soul. It starts off with an almost angry booming Gregorian-like chant and then gets prog rocky with sitars and a more calming repetitive chant.
Ein Andere Welt is a hypnotic ambient drone that calms and soothes, recalling Jean Michel Jarre's stunning Waiting for Cousteau.
Höre, der du wagst is an interesting piece as gentle piano wends in with synthesiser and sitar sounds to create a soft melodic piece which is relaxing.
Der Todd Der Banditen is a harmonious sonorous song similar to many devotional chants I've heard. It's touching and deeply resonates with me as it seems to be ascending to heaven, like when people say Om and it comes from deep within the body, this has that effect.
The whole package is stunning and even though there are many more amazing tracks missing, these 14 are all mesmerising and well worth a listen.