Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect – as well as giving a brief overview of the music itself. For today’s jumbo-sized edition, we’re looking at a monumental new box set compiling selected albums from German innovators Popol Vuh.
With early ’70s Kosmiche music being as popular now as it’s ever been, many people are beginning to look beyond the genre staples of Can, Neu! and Faust towards the less commercially successful groups to have come from the movement. Popol Vuh are one such act; although always a band able to draw a fervent cult audience, they never experienced the kind of tangible chart popularity that their most famous peers were able to flirt with. Listening to any of the five albums included in ‘The Essential Album Collection Vol. 1’, this comparative lack of commercial success becomes frustrating but somewhat understandable. Make no mistake, the music contained in this set is almost always excellent and frequently fantastic. But, for all this quality, their albums also ask of the audience something that few typical rock fans have: patience. In so many ways, Popol Vuh were perhaps the first band to take the rock group format and truly turn it on its head, resulting in moments as early as 1972 that can only really be described as post-rock. That innovation alone would rob most groups of immediate commercial success, but what it has given Popol Vuh is a sense of endurance. This is music that unfolds at its own unique pace; immaculate and self-contained musical worlds are conjured with each separate piece – some joyous, some mournful, all quietly captivating.
‘The Essential Album Collection Vol. 1’ compiles into one set five (or technically six – but we’ll get onto that) of the group’s studio albums. This alone magnifies the vivid sense of artistic progression across their discography, and that is one of the most exciting takeaways from this fantastic release. Their 1970 debut ‘Affenstunde’ is largely an electronic affair that has more in common with the analogue experiments of Cluster than Vuh’s own later and more typical work. Calling the record essential somewhat stretches the meaning of the word. While there is certainly a strong sense of atmosphere crafted here, compared for instance with the equally embryonic works of peers Tangerine Dream, ‘Affenstunde’ lacks focus. This is certainly not an issue shared by Vuh’s 1972 stunner ‘Hosianna Mantra’. Primarily acoustic and infused with a pastoral beauty, the album sits in stark contrast to the cold, electronic musings of their debut and sets the pace – both in tone and mood – for albums yet to come. 1975’s phenomenal ‘Einsjäger & Siebenjäger’ refines previously explored themes to diamond-tipped refinement and stands as the highlight of the boxset. Pastoral perfection, this is a hugely moving and largely instrumental set that expresses more through musical notes than all but the greatest of poets could with words. Wildly inventive and startlingly ahead of its time, the album practically writes the post-rock handbook. It foreruns the likes of Sigur Rós and Mogwai by over twenty years and also manages to create the kind of divine ambience that most groups influenced by the album could only dream of.
Although not quite as much of a masterpiece, 1976’s ‘Aguirre’ still articulates the ambient ambitions of ‘Affenstunde’ with far greater maturity and success, combining the opulent beauty of its predecessors with a newfound sense of focus during the ambient portions of the album. The fifth and final album included in the set is the double disc soundtrack to Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of the horror classic ‘Nosferatu’. In reality, the album is in fact a combination of the dual 1978 albums ‘Brüder Des Schattens – Söhne Des Lichts’ and ‘On The Way To A Little Way’, albeit in slightly adjusted form. Both are beautiful records, although ‘Brüder Des Schattens…’ impresses in particular.
Fragile beauty lies at the very essence of the Popol Vuh vision. So much of every album included in ‘The Essential Album Collection Vol. 1’ is quiet enough that noisy vinyl pressings would render them unlistenable. It’s fortunate, then, that a lot of care has been taken to ensure a quality listening experience. The six LPs included in the set have all been pressed by German juggernaut Optimal Media. They’re a pressing plant whose output varies quite a bit in quality; we’ve heard some wonderful records from them but also some that suffer from significant surface noise problems. A rigorous test pressing process can easily avoid any such issues and that is evidently what has happened here, as these discs sound fantastic. Our copy of ‘Affenstunde’ is practically faultless – a particularly impressive feat considering the entirely ambient content of the album. All six of these discs benefit from a low noise floor that allows the shimmering atmospheres of the music to shine through uninterrupted. ‘Hosianna Mantra’ does bear some minor surface noise in a few spots, as well as a slight touch of inner groove distortion during the final throes of each side, but playback is still generally very clean and certainly tidy enough to make for a rewarding listen. ‘Einsjäger & Siebenjäger’ is not only the best of the bunch musically but also the cleanest pressing of the set. Indeed, playback is as close to perfect as any record we’ve written about for Vinyl Corner, only further reinforcing the sense of high quality control on display with this set. This quality remains much the same for both ‘Aguirre’ and ‘Nosferatu’, their noise-free surfaces making for a listening experience pleasingly free of distractions.
It’s not just the cleanliness of the playback that impresses here, either. All six LPs are heavyweight black vinyl slabs, each sitting flat and warp-free on the platter while spinning. This is certainly refreshing – far too many modern records are at least somewhat warped straight out of the shrinkwrap, so to find an entire boxset free of such defects makes for a welcome change. Surfaces themselves are very clean; all twelve sides bear a strong sheen and are free of scuff marks and fingerprints. An unfortunately large amount of pressing plants routinely produce new vinyl with visibly dirty surfaces – we’re looking at you, MPO – so to find such a visually tidy set of discs is perhaps more refreshing than it really should be.
‘The Essential Albums Collection Vol. 1’ features brand-new remastering exclusive to this set, which has apparently been handled by band members Guido Hieronymus and Frank Fielder. Presumably they’re either experienced audio engineers or were given outside help, as the mastering is excellent across this collection. It’s not entirely clear if these were mastered directly from the original analogue tapes or not but it doesn’t particularly matter when the end results are this good. The enveloping, expansive tones of the vintage Moog synthesizer used on ‘Affenstunde’ are given a full-bodied, rich sound on this remaster. The rich, bright characteristics of the twelve string guitars and pianos found on later albums – particularly ‘Hosianna Mantra’ – are no less impressive, with the comparative optimism innate to the instruments coming through clearly. Vocals, meanwhile, retain the almost unreal and highly ethereal mood so intrinsic to them, but gain a definition that benefits the music no end.
While the sound and pressing quality is highly impressive, anyone who has purchased a box set like this will know that packaging and presentation is an essential part of a well-executed reissue. It’s immediately clear that much attention has been given to the presentation of these titles, ensuring that ‘The Essential Album Collection Vol. 1’ has the feel of a well-rounded release. The box set itself is a very solid slipcase affair; well made, it feels sturdy in hand and looks great, boasting a vibrant colour scheme and minimal yet attractive artwork as well as spot-glossing to accentuate this. The full details of the set – including track lists and a short paragraph on each album – are included on the back of the box, which actually makes for a rather useful reference. Each individual album is included in its own cover, each one replicating that of the original release, at least to a certain extent. Naturally, label details have changed in the intervening decades and some of the sleeve notes have been adjusted. In general, however, the art direction remains faithful to the highly expensive and scarce original issues. Where applicable, the albums have been presented in gatefold sleeves to match the originals – with the exception of ‘Nosferatu’, which was first released in this configuration in 2015 and thus does not have a vintage counterpart.
The manufacturing quality of the sleeves themselves is very solid. The cardstock used in this set is not unusually heavyweight, but it is certainly good enough quality that the covers feel sturdy and well-made when in hand. Cover art is well reproduced across all five sleeves; the artwork is vivid, memorable and highly befitting of the music, so it’s fortunate that the presentation lives up to this high standard. The colours are vibrant – especially with the brilliant yellows of ‘Einsjager & Sibenjager’ and the profound purples and rich blues of ‘Aguirre’. As with the album art, the spines are eye-catching, stylish and, in the case of the gatefold sleeves, also pleasingly chunky. Spine text is clear and easy to make-out even when packed onto a busy shelf and, although the non-gatefold sleeves naturally have slimmer spines, the art direction is bold enough that the text is still clearly visible even then. One small qualm we have is that across all five titles the spine text reads upwards rather than downwards. While this is hardly a big issue, it does create a slightly irritating discrepancy between these titles and those besides which they’ll likely sit on a record shelf.
Label designs have a modest appeal to them. Although they make no attempt to replicate the appearances of the original editions, they do share an aesthetic across all six LPs and layout is clean and attractive. The full track list for each side is given, as the side marker. Both are small additions but are certainly appreciated, especially considering how many modern releases opt for artwork on their labels instead of simple but far more useful information. A small irritation with the sleeves themselves is the fact that each one has a small barcode printed onto the back cover. While these are admittedly as discreet as such an addition ever could be, they also seem rather pointless considering that a barcode is provided on the boxset itself and there’s no indication that these titles will be sold separately. On the upshot, plentiful inserts are included in the set, which really accentuate the stylish presentation of this release. Three posters are provided, two of which are A3 fold-out images of the band while another is a stunning fold-out poster for ‘Nosferatu’, featuring the same incredibly evocative and stylish artwork as the album cover, albeit in much larger form. Print quality is excellent on these posters and they mark a very welcome addition to the set. Also included is a 12″ x 12″ fold-out double-sided essay insert replete with images and a discography. Although the insert totals six sides, the text itself is not hugely lengthy – although it is informative – and images are nice quality as well.
As a final note, it should be mentioned that all six LPs are included in highly protective polylined inner sleeves. These are really great quality and make for a much appreciated addition to the package and once again reinforce the notion that considerable care has been put into the presentation.
‘The Essential Albums Collection Vol. 1’ assembles six albums that demonstrate just what an expansive musical vocabulary Popol Vuh had. This is a genuinely needed reissue that puts back into print a selection of incredible albums which previously stood as difficult to attain, even in reissue form. The quality of the sound, pressing and presentation all speak to a project undertaken with real passion and the end result is one of the best boxsets we’ve written about for Vinyl Corner.
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