Monday, May 13, 2013

Norway's Popol Vuh/Popol Ace A Band That Shoud Have Been Huge Now A Rare Collector's Progressive Rock Perfection

It's amazing to me how many great bands came out of Scandinavia in the 1960s and 1970s. Even in the 80s there were a lot of brilliant bands for what they did such as Sweden's Treat and more commercially successful Europe, Norway's Da Vinci, and Denmark's Skagarack. There were horrible bands too and one of them called Return who sing about nothing but death and violence gave me a very bad idea of Norwegian music. I don't know why, but Norway is the darkest of all the Scandinavian countries when it comes to the lyrical subject matter and Popol Vuh (not to be confused with the better known and boring German band)/Popol Ace are no exception.

                  -Disgusting Winters May Lead To Delicious Music-
  The long winters may have something to do with it, but there's certainly more than meets the eye (a Europe song title) to how intelligent this band is. They should have made it and their lead singer Jahn Teigen was all set to replace Peter Gabriel in Genesis when he turned them down. I'm sure that at the same time that he isn't too happy about that he most have known it just never would have lasted more than one album with them. I wish they'd made that one album! With an original line up of 6 Viking-looking guys from the Oslo area the band were called Popol Vuh at first and I wonder how there came to be two bands at the same time with that name. Their lyrical texts from the start of their career right through to their best and last album with Teigen are very dark and depressed. You imagine bleak winters and long periods of darkness, but there is something there to keep you warm. The music, especially Jahn Teigen's passionate vocals don't sound cold. The rest of the band comprised guitarist Arne Schulze, keyboard player/guitarist Pete Knutsen, bass player Terje Mehti, drummer Thor Andreassen, and flautist Pjokken Eide who only lasted for their first album. I became aware of them at a time when I was big into the Finnish progressive/melodic heavy metal band Stratovarius and I think that had something to do with my initial interest. Later in life I'd be slamming this poor band although I hadn't lost the love I had and have for Stratovarius. Thanks to YouTube and getting more mature I made the plunge into making a big push to get Popol Vuh/Popol Ace for my birthday and it really has paid off with a lot of listening pleasure. The winters in Norway/Scandinavia may be bleak, depressing, and miserable, but don't let that spoil the music for you! And now let's get onto that brilliant creation of music known as symphonic progressive rock!
           -The Self Titled First Album From 1972: A Good Start To A Great Career-
Popol Vuh/Popol Ace like all bands had to begin with a debut album. In 1972 the most heavily influential progressive bands were King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake And Palmer, Jethro Tull, and the Moody Blues. It would be nearly impossible for 6 Norwegians to sound like such highly British identified bands so they set about putting their own stamp on their influences. Not mellowed out as much as The Moody Blues they still were a big influence along with King Crimson as the first album is saturated in lush soaring mellotrons. That may be the best thing about the album with Teigen's powerful, charismatic vocals another main strength. The texts are very depressing to most of the songs with Side One's two main showstoppers the hard, powerful jazzy prog of "Hunchback" and a really sad song in "All We Have Is The Past." Unfortunately, their lyrics of inequality and environmental destruction ring just as true today as they did in 1972. This is music from people who spent a lot of time thinking, reading, writing, and digesting the sometimes indigestible world around them. Rather than sing of ancient Viking folklore they sing of a homeless hunchback who leads a miserable life with a spoken conclusion that he believes that:
      "When I Die And I Leave This World Of Horror My Coffin's Gonna Be Bigger/So I'll Cause More Trouble To The Digger/And On The Top Of My Grave A Heap So High/I'll Be One Step Ahead Towards The Sky"
    Yeah, it's pretty bleak stuff, but it means he believes he will go to Heaven and that Hell is made by mankind. If that is someone's only consolation then it is really, really sad. I would say there's enough warmth and emotion in Popol Vuh's music to save them, however, and that furthermore they are a band who play thought provoking music with excellent top quality musicianship. Unlike the worst British progressive bands who went off the rails into horrible proto fusion muck even the jazz influences in the music and especially Jahn's vocals work brilliantly rather than are a catastrophic nightmare.
      One of the major strengths of this first album is the amazing musicianship and huge amount of energy put into the performances. It's almost impossible to think that they'd get so good they'd make this look pale in comparison to their first (and last) real album as Popol Ace the 1975 meisterwork STOLEN FROM TIME. In 1972 their music was split between grandiose classic progressive tracks and hard rocking material like "Joy And Pleasure" and the amazing epic closing track "Medicine" which must be heard by any serious music fan. There are moments of extremely sad mourning of things passing away into darkness and death like "All We Have Is The Past" where Teigen sounds like he is literally about to start crying its so sad and emotional, but then "Medicine" closes the album with a miracle cure- music can bring you down, but music is the ultimate medicine! This may not be a concept album per say, but it flows together like one. You even get a really King Crimson "Epitaph" like dark dreamy prog brilliant song in "For Eternity-" a song stuffed with Flamenco guitar and mellotron. This is definitely a great start to a great career, but a very, very rare record. It won't cost half as much as lot of other albums from the same era, but it might be even harder to track down a copy.

                               -A Prelude To STOLEN FROM TIME-
    The one issue on the first album was just how important to the group was Pjokken Eide. His flute performances were great, but he seemed almost superfluous in the band's vast sound. The answer was he wasn't that important I guess as he was gone from the band by the time they made their second album under the Popol Vuh banner QUICHE MAYA. This album changed the approach quite a bit with more emphasis on the romantic, but the major change would come when they started to generate a lot of interest in Europe. It wouldn't last very long and that is not just tragic it is something whoever was writing the script (And we all know by now he goes by the name of Lucifer, Satan, Beelzebub George W. Bush, Adolph Hitler. and a whole host of other names including Bastard, Asshole, and Merciless Idiot!) should have been shot for doing to them. Some of the bad decisions would ultimately have to be blamed on Popol Ace, but that was really after Genesis diverted Jahn's attention and he ended up without a band. I have not heard the followup without him to STOLEN FROM TIME CURLY SOUNDS, but I have heard that it isn't a patch on what they did with him in the line up. STOLEN FROM TIME should have made this band famous, but the seeds for their brilliance after the name change were being planted on QUICHE MAYA which like all their albums is virtually impossible to find. I've only had it once and it was the very first thing I owned by the group.  I was shocked that there was another Popol Vuh and it was something totally new to me.
    STOLEN FROM TIME made the process to mature and grow and make astonishingly beautiful progressive music come to a brilliant peak seldom equaled so let's get on to that magical album right now!
          -STOLEN FROM TIME is Stolen From The Memory Of Most Now Revered By Me-
     Recording studios weren't that high tech in Norway in the early 70s and by 1975 Popol Vuh now Popol Ace to avoid confusion with the German group were looking to go a lot further and push a lot harder to get noticed all across Europe. They didn't sound German, but they recorded some of STOLEN FROM TIME in Germany. They didn't sound the least bit British, but they recorded much of the album in England. It clearly was making the move to make the big time and that is what the first track "Bury Me Dead" is all about. You'd expect a really bleak and dismal song from that title, but the song is about trying to make it big in the music world and all the uncertainty that goes along with it. Jahn Teigen is super here and the playing is so tight and lively that you can almost dance to it! It really is a very bouncy little number despite the strange and unrepresentative song title. I suppose it translates into "The music industry is cutthroat" or something along those lines.
    There are a lot of different things going on in STOLEN FROM TIME and one of the things I love most about the album is the more romantic sound of a lot of the songs and the general mellowing of the group. Now Camel and Kayak, even the little known more-pop-than-progressive British band Kestrel can be brought in as comparisons. So can Genesis and it would be Genesis that would unintentionally or intentionally tear the band apart when they tried to get Jahn Teigen to replace Peter Gabriel. I don't think I need to go any further into how that panned out, but there will always be a lot of early Genesis fans who think Phil Collins demolished Genesis. I wouldn't agree on the earlier albums with him at all. Genesis tended to write rambling epics, but Popol Ace are more concise. When they solo or jam it's in the context of a tight song structure and best of all there is more room for different keyboards and vocal tricks on STOLEN FROM TIME. "Today Another Day" is a beautiful song with great vocals and really impressive arrangements from the rest of the band. Teigen never contributed much to the writing aspect, but the songs were so wide-angled because he had an unbelievable range that could go anywhere from sweetly sung to nearly screaming. Lake, the German band, would come along a few years later and fine tune what had begun with Canada's 25e Regiment and was taken further on by Popol Ace. They would enjoy success in Europe, but the nagging question is always how to break into the US market. I think there is a reason Lake had a cult following here in the States, but they should have been huge. Popol Ace should have had a contract in America with a big label, a huge amount of money poured into them, and acclaim worldwide. I can't believe that isn't how things went for them.
  Throughout music history there have been great bands that have gone nowhere. Listen to tracks like the sure fire hit "Jester" and then explain to me how this band are not only obscure, but virtually impossible to locate! "Jester" continues the progressive pop of "Today Another Day" with some highly energetic music and sprightly vocals. Lyrically, Popol Ace are almost impossible to match with words that are better than those of many bands and artists where English is their first language! There aren't any embarrassing moments where they pronounce things wrong which is more than I can say for a lot of bands. The heaviest track on Side One is the closing track "Mr. Bigalow" which features bizarre tripped out lyrics and wailing vocals from Teigen. The rest of the in total 5 tracks on the side are very melodic and very inspiring progressive pop and Teigen pitches in with the gentle ballad "Soft Shoe Dancer." "Today Another Day" may be my favorite track, but it's not an easy choice.
       Side Two is all romance and the need for love barring the closing epic "Suicide" and the first song on the side "Sweet Tune" couldn't be more aptly named. It really is a beautiful song. In Scandinavia there is a sound that is unique to that part of Northern Europe and Popol Ace have that sound. I would recommend also the great reissue with two bonus tracks of another amazing band Denmark's equally ill-fated The Old Man & The Sea. They were fucked over unbelievably by their label Sonet who only made 500 copies of the album all of which have 4 or 5 skips in them! Thank you Tommy Hansen for putting the record straight in the reissue insert interview! The question can only be "How Do You Do Any More To Succeed?" It seems that these great bands like Popol Ace are always getting ignored until their local fan base brings them back to reform for reunion gigs and as good as that must feel it would be appreciated I am sure more by the band if the publicity hadn't been a disaster at the time. There are a lot of songs on this album that should have been massive hits and I'd especially say "I Can See Tears" is a really beautiful romantic ballad that features some of the best arrangements I've heard on a progressive record. "Suicide" is a very questionable lyric until you realize how brilliant it is to tell the story of someone who is stupid enough to kill themselves from the point of view of their subconscious getting so warped as to talk that person into taking their life over the most trivial things in the world. It's almost funny, but there is something also very dark in Teigen's clever way of singing the words.
                  -The Epitaph Of Popol Ace And The Rebirth-
   I think that Popol Ace were well-educated. I guess the one area in which they weren't that well off was in knowing how to deal with the ruthless record industry. Back after STOLEN FROM TIME was released Genesis had lost Peter Gabriel very suddenly and the only singer they thought was good enough was Jahn Teigen. While that may have been flattering it focused his attention in all the wrong ways and by the time he was ready to rejoin Popol Ace after giving the thumbs down to Genesis it was over and that is really a shame. The rest of the band would virtually disappear, but Jahn Teigen went onto a successful career in Norway as a cabaret singer which is really sad. There have been quite a few ill-fated bands, but the band the world should miss the most or one of the bands to be missed the most is Popol Vuh/Popol Ace. They made brilliant music when they were around and for me they are the perfect prog band. Most of the other top melodic progressive bands are from the same part of the world. It doesn't seem to be a world that can make the right bands at the right time make it, but there is always the rebirth of a great band. Popol Ace are back performing again. Catch them I would if I were in Norway. I'd love to meet such an intelligent and rewarding group! The rejuvenation doesn't even have to be a band getting back together to play again- it can be the band getting the attention they deserve and at the very least a top placing in the world of collector's records. That's good enough for many, but I think that Popol Ace should seriously consider writing and recording again with Jahn Teigen just to make somebody such as me who is too young to have been there to experience just how great an experience it must have been to share a part of such musical magic. My highest praise to this band- find their music at the very earliest opportunity or convenience!

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