Popol Vuh—

Released 1970 on Liberty
The Seth Man, January 2012ce
The brooding front cover of “Affenstunde” displays a close up of a darkened doorway while a warm, orange glow beams from within its interior. On the reverse of the sleeve, the same orange light floods an interior scene of a sheepskin-vested Florian Fricke positioned at his Moog synthesizer, percussionist Holger Trülzsch spellbound by rhythm on twin bongos flanked by a female companion likewise occupied. Meanwhile, the gatefold shot was a full bleed, wide angle photo of the opposing banks of the nearby Inn River at twilight. This design is highly symbolic of the entire conceptual underscore of not only Popol Vuh, but especially “Affenstunde” itself: There’s outside, then inside and then...beyond.

The structure that housed this orange light of creativity was der Roter Pfarrhof (or ‘Red Parsonage’) of Peterskirchen near Wasserburg, West Germany. It was the property of Gottliebe von Lehndorff, the mother of Vera Gottliebe Anna Gräfin von Lehndorff-Steinort (who would later come to prominence in the international fashion world simply as Veruschka) and wife of Count Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort. The Count’s involvement in the abortive July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler swiftly resulted in arrest, prosecution and execution by the Nazi People's Court with his entire family incarcerated in a concentration camp. At the end of World War II, the von Lehndorff-Steinort family was liberated and Gottliebe subsequently purchased der Roter Pfarrhof and organized courses in art and philosophy together with the conceptual artist and philosopher, Fritz Schranz. Calling it ‘a monastery for modern art and philosophy,’ in light of founder Florian Fricke’s true spiritual inclinations, it was a perfect environment and situation for Popol Vuh to coalesce. So Fricke, his newlywed wife Bettina, Frank Fielder (who provided technical assistance to Fricke on the Moog) and Holger Trülzsch (who rounded out the trio on percussion) lived and worked together on, and as, Popol Vuh.

With only one 4-module Moog synthesizer and a limited array of percussion, Popol Vuh produced a debut album of incredible sounds and sensations that were unlike anything prior to its existence. The only instruments used were primitive percussion devices and Moog synthesizer, but mixed and finely tuned into a combination of past and future which resulted in something grounded in both the otherworldly and the natural world AND staged in the moment of the-now-of-then/the-now-of-whatever-year-it-is-now for nearly forty minutes. This sense of eternal blossoming spilled over into its title of “Affenstunde” (or ‘Monkey Hour’), defined by Florian Fricke as describing the moment when “a human being becomes a human being and is no longer an ape.” Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” was a direct conceptual influence; especially when one considers that at the time of the landmark film’s release in 1968, Fricke was still a writer on both film and music subjects for several Swiss and West German publications and undoubtedly experienced and remained moved by it. This is more than evident on side two, where the album’s side-long title track travels through from beginnings in primal chaos to unnatural Moog voicings that nod to György Ligeti’s soundtrack work in “2001” and result in a transcendental finale of uplifting dimensions not inappropriate to the consequences of heightened consciousness.

With a 4-module Moog Series III Synthesizer, the comparison to a black monolith may or may not be appropriate. But Fricke was guided as much by the perimeters of this new machine as much as his own anthropological studies comprised of a wide cross-section of ancient cultures and sacred texts in plotting out his own timeless odyssey by mapping out human consciousness through meditative sound structures that coursed through vast expanses of time, space and various mental states. If this sounds too fantastic, it’s only because it is and as Fricke himself would later state that his experience with the Moog Synthesizer was “a fantastic way into my inside consciousness, to express what I was hearing within myself.”

One thing he may have heard were the unifying elements of planet earth, although it may be too convenient to assign the four pieces of “Affenstunde” to correspond with each of the four elements. But upon close inspection, the sounds of splashing water, crackling fire and the patches of wind-inspired Moog are characteristics too specific to indicate anything else while the percussive squall on side one could conceivably qualify what percussionist Mickey Hart once called ‘earth rhythms.’

Side one contains a massive, three-part instrumental cross-faded together and called “Ich Mache Einen Spiegel” (“I Make A Mirror.”) Taking its title from the Florentine Codex, an exhaustive record of Aztec culture set down by a European Franciscan monk in the late 16th century, its initial sequence, subtitled “Dream Part 4,”1 is a mysterious and floating electronic piece that passes through an initial splash and plunge into the dark pool of human consciousness. Down it descends into the inky depths of the subconscious until a thicket of head-tenderizing percussion to drive out the minions of darkness emerges with a crashing wave into “Dream Part 5.” Presumably 44 dreams later, “Dream 49” fades in and wafts gently over a dark and flat landscape lit only by faintly glimmering starlight. All is serene and surreal quietude for the duration of this last segment of “Ich Mache Einen Spiegel” with only hints of percussion audible in slow, late night conga hits. The eerie sparseness of the piece maintains a steady, settled calm while high Moog notes soar on distant winds as if in search of something precious lost long ago.

Side two’s epic title track, “Affenstunde,” weaves through a crackling fire in a nighttime wilderness that illuminates only an immediate circumference split by long shadows flickering upon the ground. Soon, these animalistic fears dissipate with the fade-in of an extended, improvised and elevating theme performed on Moog synthesizer that could be the soundtrack to the pores of the human heart opening out to the universe and embracing it fully until it becoming the universe. It’s that epic. The improvisational main Moog begins to dance and sing to the accompaniment of Trülzsch’s congas, which quietly ebb and flow in back at sporadic intervals. But no matter how wayward or giddy the Moog becomes, it remains on course, fully integrated with all the other elements and remain as free-felt gestures of humanity coping with newfound tools of compassion pieced together from a brutal past. All of these emotional shadings are varied and subtly applied: all informed by the firm yet sensitive compositional skill of Popol Vuh keyboardist and leader, Florian Fricke. “Affenstunde” is a masterful album and even more so when one considers he mastered the Moog, a brand new instrument, in under one year’s time.

  1. On the original LP release of “Affenstunde,” a 2-minute segment that breaks off into a dankly reverbed vignette would be absent from all subsequent versions reissued on CD. Meanwhile, the CD versions all reflect a seamless Moog overlay over an ongoing, hazy drone.