One of the great tragedies of being an experimental music fan is knowing that there was a mountain of great albums released during the cassette underground's '80s heyday that I will probably never hear. Fortunately, this 1987 cassette (originally released on Germany's Cthulhu Records) has managed to escape obscurity through the efforts of a few great blogs and The Skaters' Spencer Clark, who has just reissued it on vinyl. Vox Populi! are probably best known in the US for their 1989 split with HNAS, but their thoughtfully composed mixture of eerie ambient psychedelia and Persian folk could not be much further from Christoph Heemann's Dada-inspired lunacy. I am utterly baffled as to how this band has managed to remain such a secret, as they were significantly more compelling and inventive than many of their better-known '80s contemporaries.
Vox Populi! began as Axel Kyrou's solo industrial project in the late '70s, but turned into something quite different after he met Iranian émigré Mithra Khalatbary and her percussionist brother Arash in the early '80s. Since then, Axel and Mithra have been the core of a very fluid group, approximating a sort of a Parisian ethno-industrial His Name Is Alive: a beguiling mixture of weird experimentation, eccentric stylistic detours, and sublime beauty delivered by a revolving cast of characters.
In fact, VP's line-up even varies over the course of this album, as the first half is devoted to Mithra and Axel's studio recordings (with a little help from Arash and Pacific 231), while the second half is culled from a series of live performances with Francis Manne. I am not normally a fan of live albums at all, but this one is a pleasant exception, as the live material is virtually indistinguishable from the studio material. Also, these eleven pieces somehow cohere into quite a surreal and coherent whole that is generally considered to be one of VP's best releases by fans (and tentatively by me as well, though I have yet to fully absorb their three-decade discography).
Curiously, the 11 songs on Half Dead Ganja Music are all fairly brief, with only one clocking in at over 4 minutes. For the most part, that was a great move, as it means that Axel's more bizarre experimental pieces end before they start to seem indulgent. However, that brevity is a little exasperating for the lush and dream-like drone pieces like "Schmacht" and "Gole Mariam," as they end before I am able become fully immersed in them. I suspect that sketch-like aesthetic was probably intentional, as drifting from one strange interlude to another is a large part of what makes this album such a unique and appealingly hallucinatory experience, but it would have been nice if Mithra and Axel had allowed themselves time to stretch out a bit when they hit upon something particularly beautiful or striking. Fortunately, they hit upon such moments with surprising regularity–it seems like they had more than an album's worth of great ideas, but condensed them into a single album anyway.
The album's clear highlight is "Fassle," recorded during a 1987 performance in Ravensburg, Germany (absolutely no one rocks Upper Swabia like VP). Built upon little more than an eerie, pulsing synth pattern and Mithra's melancholy, sacred-sounding vocals, it encapsulates everything that is great about Vox Populi! in just 3 minutes: strong, yet understated melodic sense; haunted-sounding, otherworldly beauty; uncluttered simplicity; and something that sounds a lot like heavily processed (and vaguely menacing) recordings of some ducks. "Golnessar" also reaches similar heights with similar components, combining a dense, queasily shimmering drone with more ethereal vocalizing and primal animal squawks. As for low points, they basically do not exist: while some pieces are certainly more melodic and composed than others, the whole album is essentially a well-orchestrated and appropriately phantasmagoric mind-fuck.
My sole critiques are both quite minor ones. The first is that there is not much in the way of development within individual songs, as each piece is basically just a single theme that starts, continues for a few minutes, then ends. However, that same charge could easily be leveled against nearly every great post-industrial band of the period and Vox Populi!'s themes are much better and more effectively realized than most. My other quibble is just that the sequencing could have been a bit better, as the closing abstract trilogy of "Taghmanantes/Gin Gina/Un Jour" feels like a bit of a meandering anticlimax after the brilliance of "Fassle." However, for an album culled from a mix of studio recordings and three separate live performances, Ganja Music is still sequenced remarkably effectively.
If it gets heard, this album should go a long way towards belatedly establishing Vox Populi! as one of the best and most original bands to emerge from the shadowy post-industrial cassette milieu of the '80s, which is great, since they are still active and around to appreciate it. In fact, it is very easy to imagine an alternate reality where Vox Populi! got signed to 4AD and became huge, as some of Ganja Music's best moments sound like a more experimental, industrial-damaged This Mortal Coil or Dead Can Dance (perhaps they should have considered doing some Big Star covers to grab Ivo's attention). Happily, there are some rumblings of a possible Vinyl-on-Demand retrospective in the future, but this is as excellent an introduction to Axel and Mithra's aesthetic as anyone could hope for.