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Pitchfork MARCH 16, 2015 - by Nick Neyland
POPOL VUH/FLORIAN FRICKE: KAILASH
Florian Fricke's name doesn't often come up in discussions of great minimalist composers. The constraints of genre didn't really suit him, and his best-known work was with German kosmische legends Popol Vuh, most notably in a series of soundtracks scored for Werner Herzog's films. Kailash provides an introduction to the spare piano music Fricke worked on throughout his career, which was cut cruelly short by a stroke at age fifty-seven in 2001. It's been assembled by Soul Jazz, in a loving tribute: The first disc contains a mix of released and previously unreleased piano works, while the second contains a score to a documentary Fricke co-directed with his bandmate Frank Fiedler in the mountains of Tibet. This material edges closer to the metaphysical side of his output with Popol Vuh - a smart move that could hook in fans who haven't ventured into his lesser-known works. A DVD of the documentary, also titled Kailash, rounds out the comprehensive package.
The piano work here covers a considerable timespan, from 1972 to 1989. During these years, Fricke returned to the piano after years spent wandering various disciplines. According to David Stubbs' krautrock book, Future Days, Fricke studied classical piano as a child, played jazz-fusion later in life, worked as a film critic, and had something resembling a spiritual epiphany when poring over old Mayan texts (one such text was the inspiration for the name Popol Vuh). Fricke had something of an obsession with purity, both in a sacred and literal sense - the Moog synthesizer that was his trademark for a while was replaced by the piano for, in his words, its more "human" and "direct" feeling.
If those quotes make Fricke sound like some kind of traditionalist, it was never a feeling conveyed in his otherworldly music. The soundtrack disc in this set contains many of the elements that became hallmarks in his work, including banks of foggy drones, reverberating cymbal splashes, and an air of dark rumination that conjures a decidedly inward-gazing spirituality. Fricke's soundtrack work stands on its own, apart from its visual stimulus, mostly because Fricke has a talent for imbuing his music with a strong sense of journey and place, making sure that contrasting ideas gently cascade into one another. There's a traceable arc from the prickly field recordings in The Garden Morya and Nomads Move to the gentle, wave-like structures of Last Village and the subtly creeping Valley Of The Gods. Fricke was clearly keen on reflecting both the light and dark side of his personality - something the Kailash soundtrack fully embodies.
The leap from the Kailash score to the piano work is only a departure in the tools Fricke used. It's not hard to see how his spare work informed the slightly more full sound of his music under the Popol Vuh name. The suite of three Spirit Of Peace songs build around slowly repeating motifs and moments of near silence as notes gradually fade to grey, which is exactly how the best Popol Vuh tracks work, albeit with different instrumentals. Popol Vuh's classic Hosianna Mantra (1972) prominently featured Fricke's piano playing, and much of the material here resembles a version of his ideas from that album with a few layers stripped out. The Heart is the centerpiece of this set, with Fricke flickering between tranquility and a jagged edge, occasionally letting out an audible sigh, obviously lost in the circular shapes that engulf him in his art.
The piano works make abundantly clear that Fricke was a musician with an exquisite ear for when not to play. He comes close to letting loose on the rippling mid-section of Moses, but holds back, allowing the track its own painfully mournful exit. Both Julian Cope (in Krautrocksampler) and one-time Captain Beefheart sideman Gary Lucas (in a Wire epiphany) compared Fricke to John Cale, and it's not hard to see why. They share a classically trained background, which they would try to escape from and embrace at various times in their careers. The positively jaunty (by Fricke's standards) Garden Of Pythagoras even resembles Cale's piano playing on his and Lou Reed's elegy for Andy Warhol, Songs For Drella - a record about love and loss and the wonder of formative experiences. Those big concepts are all over this album too, demonstrating how Fricke could summon them up with the lightest of gestures.