Thursday, 6 June 2019

Popol Vuh ‎– Hosianna Mantra (1972)

Style: Krautrock, Ambient
Format: CD, Vinyl, Cass.
Label: Celestial Harmonies, Pilz, PDU, Cosmic Music , SPV MUsic

Tracklist:
      Hosianna-Mantra
1.   Ah!
2.   Kyrie
3.   Hosianna-Mantra
      Das V. Buch Mose
4.   Abschied
5.   Segnung
6.   Andacht
7.   Nicht Hoch Im Himmel
8.   Andacht
      Bonus Track
9.   Maria (Ave Maria)


Hosianna Mantra is one of those albums it’s okay to call beautiful. Florian Fricke of Popol Vuh calls it a “Mass for the heart.” “It is Music for Love” he carefully adds in an interview. Popol Vuh released the album in 1972 after making two records, Affenstunde and In den Gärten Pharaos, which pioneered the use of the giant Moog synthesizer. On later albums however, electronic experimentation took a backseat, and instruments tended towards the ethnic, which, in a way, was a continuation of what had gone before: ambitious instrumentation on a surprisingly humble conceptual budget, a stated aim of nurturing and preserving a spiritual core within the music. That core was protected, like a child, by the austerity of Fricke’s decisions – not to scale down his musical ambitions, but to cut out anything that could not express what was at the heart of the matter at any given moment. 
The usual tendency in prog rock is for ambition to star in the composition, like a magician in pantomime robes. Sometimes this comes across as campy, other times mystical. Although Hosianna Mantra is dedicated to spiritual matters, there is no sense of a pious intercessor molding it into a ‘difficult album’ with an agenda; there are no musical styles or alternative faiths aggressively promoted. Perhaps this is due to the peculiar ambition of Fricke, which, although great, extends into a selfless, even featureless universality. Many artists nowadays would balk at declaring their attempts to find unity between such loaded territories as Eastern and Western religion. The title Hosianna Mantra doesn’t seem to have grown on the band members in any kind of personal way, but according to Fricke, the two Hindu and Christian liturgical terms were chosen simply because they were representative of two major world religions, and expressed his purpose: to make a religious album that transcended differing traditions. The title evokes the image of an extremely stable structure, the two terms supporting each other, pyramid style. It is easy to visualize this purpose as an echo of traditional European philosophical and religious music, which was often architecturally inspired in its conceptual purity. The European influence is particularly evident on the album’s later tracks such as “Not High in Heaven,” “Kyrie” (the Greek address to the lord in Christian praise songs), and “Blessing.” 
Those tracks that utilize the talents of the soprano Djong Yun — in whom Fricke discovered the beautiful voice he had previously tried to express through ethereal synthesizers – tend to have European sounding Devotional titles, and traditional, Christian influences. ‘Voices’ rather than percussion are prominent on the later tracks. These include oboe, violin, and Yun’s solo soprano (plus what sounds like an electronic choir). Though the most beautiful tracks to my mind are those that rehearse the ‘Mantras’ rather than the Hosiannas of the title. It is easy to forget that Fricke was a pianist, seeing as the piano/keyboard is so frequently dwarfed inside Fricke’s vast cathedral-like compositions. And it is difficult to pin down what influences the piano parts are channeling; although they frequently sound minimalist; mobile and modern within the framework of the overall arrangements. The Mantras of the first section of the album repeat simple phrases that gain complexity over the course of progressive key changes, unfolding glacially, deliberately, in typical minimalist fashion. The whole keyboard is used, but only with the slightest nod to Jazz. Hosianna Mantra, unlike many of the prog albums of its era, is the album that Jazz forgot; or perhaps the album that forgot about Jazz. 
The forgetting may well have been conscious, part of the careful exclusion of any element that would not serve Fricke’s purpose. At the risk of sounding New Agey, the ‘energy’ of Jazz would probably have been disruptive to Fricke’s project. Quite simply, European church music demands a firm resolution to any musical narrative, mirroring its own spiritual narrative. In the same way, the album’s trajectory is overwhelmingly positive, and it fetches up in the most exalted and least chaotic territory possible. At this point, Djong Yun’s voice is permanently stuck to the ceiling, a state which many will find beautiful, but I find less moving — her voice has obviously been recorded in such a way that it soars to almost inhuman heights of remoteness and perfection, and though it sounds lovely, it loses its character up there. The PC brigade might also object to the fact that the ‘gateway’ tracks — the Mantras — are aligned with the Hindu tradition, while the album’s lofty heights are occupied by the tracks that more closely resemble European church music. It is said that Fricke converted to Christianity around the time of Hosianna Mantra, which would explain this progression. Nevertheless, his recollections of making the album are much more open and unprejudiced towards other forms of religious expression than a fanatic conversion experience would suggest. 
Hosianna Mantra’s big dreams represent its own brand of prog megalomania, though it is not really a rock or jazz influenced album. Groovy guitars are present here and there, including Conny Veit’s 12-string guitar, electric guitar, and the hippie signature sound of the tamboura – an instrument that resembles the sitar. As with the piano parts, Veit’s playing is difficult to pin down to any particular style, and it is difficult to tell whether the occasional noodling scale is consciously influenced by jazz modes. 
Outside of Popol Vuh, Fricke’s collaborations with the director Werner Herzog represent his most renowned efforts. Not being familiar with Herzog’s work, it is difficult to draw any informed conclusions from this, but it does seem that Herzog’s refusal to restrict himself from realizing even the most impossible artistic vision (yes I am referring to that hackneyed story about the ship being hauled over the hill in Fitzcarraldo), bears some resemblance to Fricke’s confidence that he could produce an album for all religious traditions, a ‘Mass for the heart’ in Hosianna Mantra. The product of his efforts is undoubtedly beautiful, and also humble in its realization (at least to my ears) — which raises an interesting possibility about artistic ambition; one for pondering happily ad infinitum: it may be that the most apparently haughty, exalted artistic ambitions – those that attempt to tackle the ancient themes of love, wonder and God – are the simplest, and in fact the most honest of them all. 
J Monk / Tiny Mix Tapes

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