Album Review: Popol Vuh – Vol. 2: Acoustic & Ambient Spheres

In 2019, BMG put together a boxed set of five important albums by krautrock/ambient group Popol Vuh. The Essential Album Collection Vol. 1 featured vinyl re-pressings of Affenstunde (1970), 1972’s Hosianna Mantra, the band’s high water mark of Einsjäger & Siebenjäger from 1974, Aguirre (1976) and the group’s Nosferatu soundtrack from 1978. Taken together, those five present an engaging survey of Popol Vuh’s work.

But they certainly don’t tell the whole story; in fact Vol. 1 focuses one some of the most mainstream (though that word is used in a relative sense) output from the group. Popol Vuh never fit easily into the krautrock category; much of the group’s music relied on acoustic textures and can’t really be considered any kind of rock at all. But it remains worthwhile, and the term used in Germany to describe it – kosmiche musik – is an apt descriptor.

That brings us to a new 2021 release, Vol. 2: Acoustic & Ambient Spheres. A 4LP set, it showcases Popol Vuh’s more atmospheric works, with two of its four discs representing soundtrack work for the group’s longtime associate Werner Herzog. For reasons known only to the compilers, this set presents those four LPs in reverse-chronological order, but we can listen to them in whatever order we choose.

Cobra Verde
Composing for a soundtrack often means setting aside one’s own creative inclinations, instead creating music that serves the artistic goals of the filmmaker. In the case of Popol Vuhl and Werner Herzog, the partners seemed to have been on a more equal footing. That means that while this music was in fact created for a motion picture in 1987, it stands well on its own as well. Luxuriant washes of synthesizer are all over the record, but it doesn’t sound especially electronic. The tracks are atmospheric and moody in the extreme, and sense of foreboding characterizes much of the material. Guitars are present – as is Knaup, on vocals – but Florian Fricke’s keyboard washes dominate. And that’s not a bad thing.

Agape-Agape Love-Love
This 1983 album is a suite of conceptually linked pieces. The band’s hypnotic approach is fully refined here, and the pieces are often more meditations than actual songs. The most well-known piece, “They Danced, The Laughed, As of Old” is a throbbing, cyclical work that – in typical Popol Vuh fashion – initially doesn’t seem to go anywhere musically. But it certainly sets a mood, and that, ultimately, is the goal of this music. Renate Knaup is most often thought of as one of Amon Düül II’s vocalists, but her work here is extraordinary as well. The religious/devotional undertones of Popol Vuh’s music come through on these tunes.

Coeur De Verre
More acoustic-leaning than either Cobra Verde or Agape, this soundtrack (for a 1977 Herzog film) is spare and spooky. Sitar figures prominently in the mix, as does what sounds like a hammered dulcimer. The pastoral textures suggested by those instruments define much of this record. Daniel Fichelscher’s acoustic guitar work is sublime. And the LP features longer tracks than is typical on a soundtrack release. Instead of mini-snippets, we’re treated to fully-developed songs. Coeur De Verre thus sounds less like a soundtrack and more like a record that was created to exist for its own purposes. And it occasionally sounds a bit like the Grateful Dead. Highly recommended.

The earliest entry in this collection, The superb and simply essential Seligpreisung dates from 1973. Listeners looking for the ethereal krautrock side of the band are advised to begin their journey (at least within this box) with this LP. It’s contemplative and finely textured. Electric guitar is prominent, but it’s rarely used in what one might define as an aggressive manner. Fricke’s piano is a central element, and some of the arrangements place the music closer in spirit to some of Amon Düül’s more mainstream-oriented work. And unlike the other entries in this set, it sometimes – as on parts of “Selig sind die, die da hungern” – rocks.