I've known Tom a long time. We became friends through the Record Store i used to work at in Sydney. Pretty sure we bonded instantly over a mutual love of heavy metal and horror novels. Anyway, he's a published author, so i am super stoked he's participated in this series. There's not much i can say about him in this intro that he doesn't say himself in his bio, other than he's a legitimately solid dude (and a top notch writer).
What this album means…to me: Popol Vuh – In den Gärten Pharaos
I do not think it is a coincidence that some of my favourite music discoveries occurred during some of the least favourite times in my life. Tracing back to my teen years, I can distinctly recall purchasing key albums that would shape the person I have become, and almost all of them are while my surrounding life was a total mess. Not all of them have aged as classics, but I can still pinpoint why they resonated with me so well at the time.
The exact nature of this connection is obscure to me, but it has remained reasonably consistent throughout my life. Though I was far removed from being a teenager, in 2016 I would find myself in such a situation again. I was stuck working in a PR role I hated, working on a horror novel I thought would never be finished and barely able to sleep.
Yet in amongst this I discovered In den Gärten Pharaos and it became something of a lifeline. Listening to it repeatedly became a ritualised, meditative act throughout the workday – a purging of all the surrounding nonsense, providing a focus which enabled me to get through the ugly tasks before me. Its influence did not cease as I left the office; I would listen to it to help me sleep at night, the faint water sounds at the end of the title track some of the last I would hear before I fell into a restless sleep.
Masterminded by pianist Florian Fricke, Popol Vuh are probably best known to the world as a result of their contributions to the soundtracks of numerous Werner Herzog films. Yet they carved a distinct career for themselves which has brought them a cult appreciation the world over. Today, their influence is most keenly felt in modern ambient and New Age music, but it stretches much further. Metalheads in particular seem to have an appreciation for them; Opeth regularly use one of their songs as their walk-out track during live performances.
To the best of my (potentially flawed) memory, I first ran across Popol Vuh when I was a teenager. I was watching a documentary about Krautrock on SBS – an Australian TV channel that served as a crucial outlet into the wider world for me the late 90s and early aughts, in an era before internet access came so freely. Acts like Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk naturally made an appearance, their work indefinably influential but also strangely alienating to my teenage self.
It would be Popol Vuh that stuck with me the most. Their name, taken from a Kʼicheʼ Mayan creation story, intrigued me; it seemed to lend them a mystical quality and aura. There was something more overtly human to connect with, in spite of their apparently deliberate obfuscation.
Of course, I didn’t actually listen to them properly until years later. Spotify and YouTube didn’t exit, and even in 2019 tracking down physical copies of their albums can be a tremendous pain. The line between being a cult favourite and wilfully obscure is a pretty thin one, it turns out.
But for some reason, I found myself thinking of them in 2016 when I was looking for music to help me concentrate in the office. Being a great lover of Ancient Egypt, the title jumped out at me, and I plugged in my headphones. It wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things, but it would be fair to say that life has not really been the same since.
The music contained on In den Gärten Pharaos is cryptic and mysterious; there are only two tracks, and neither are really songs in the conventional sense. Despite the Krautrock and ambient tags that are often applied, there is nothing really resembling rock, and it’s miles removed from the bland, store-selling-crystals conception that we tend to have of ambient music in 2019. Early Tangerine Dream is the most obvious touchstone – and not surprising, given that Fricke was friend with them – but it’s very much its own beast. It’s truly Kosmische Musik.
The cover is similarly enigmatic; against an orange backdrop, a bird sits atop a multi-coloured flower. One could perhaps extrapolate that it’s meant to represent a bennu, following on from the album’s Egyptian-themed title. But this is solely guesswork, and given that Fricke was not a man to subject himself to frequent interviews, guesswork is what we have.
But to be honest, I think it’s partly the enigma that I enjoy. Music isn’t necessarily a blank slate, but we do tend to project a lot of ourselves onto it. The absence of conventional song structure, lyrics and liner notes just makes that even easier to do than normal.
In early 2018, I was lucky enough to track down an LP copy of In den Gärten Pharaos – a late 90s pressing, which seems to be one of the better versions doing the rounds at the moment. Of course, I plan to get a second (and third) if I can ever find one or it gets reissued. I’ve gone on to explore most of the rest of their discography too, and they now occupy a significant space on my vinyl shelf and phone alike.
As for the crappy job? Fortunately, life has moved on since then. I quit at the end of 2017, got a better one, my sleep radically improved – and perhaps most importantly, I finished the book! Indeed, given how many times I listened to the album while writing it, it’s fair to say that Popol Vuh played a significant role in helping my finish the thing. The relationship between difficult times and discovering new music may not be coincidental for me, but the final outcome has always been better for it.
About Tom G. Wolf
Tom G. Wolf is a Sydney-based author who specialises in pulp-style horror and adventure fiction. By day he works as a journalist and copywriter. His work has appeared at We Are the Mutants and Astral Noize. He also runs a pop culture/writing blog at www.lupinebookclub.blogspot.com
He lives in Sydney with his wife and cat. You can find him on Twitter @lupinebookclub. His horror novella, Lost Tunnels, can be purchased here.