To fully appreciate Patrick Cowley’s diverse body of work, you have to understand the context. As detailed in the liner notes of Muscle Up, Cowley’s world was “a bubble in time and space”, his sound a vibrant time capsule for the sexually charged climate of San Francisco in the seventies. During this period, Cowley became widely known for intensifying the evolution of disco, pioneering his own version of Hi-NRG, and shaping ‘the San Francisco sound’. These efforts launched him toward notoriety among disco circles, his work with Sylvester (including hits like You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)) in particular leading to his much-beloved extended remix of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love.
When Cowley first began to experiment with synthesizers, San Francisco provided fertile ground for the depth of his genius. The city was home to a rapidly growing gay scene as well as a new wave of big budget, artistic pornography. It was here Cowley immersed himself, creating his signature take on sex music made to soundtrack creative gay arts such as theatre and porn films. It is the latter that Muscle Up fixes its gaze upon.
Muscle Up is the second Patrick Cowley compilation from Dark Entries, this time a joint venture with Honey Soundsystem. Much like the first, 2013’s School Daze, Muscle Up compiles a diverse selection of extended atmospheric pieces, originally crafted as studio experiments before being used by gay porn studio Fox. It also echoes School Daze in that it evokes a sophisticated approach to background music, succeeding in being both sultry and softly driving; both sweat-soaked and suggestively poised.
The carnal drive of upfront funk and prolonged ecstasy of mutant disco runs alongside deep, swirling experiments that graciously set the pace. A tension between the cosmic and the earthy is revealed, the soft suspending of time laid against more urgent senses – the military-like drums of opener Cat’s Eye and thick Amazonian humidity of The Jungle Dream make way for the stargazing sprawl of Deep Inside You; the slowly burning funk of Somebody To Love Tonight against its more urgent counterpart 5oz of Funk. Sensate nocturnes both primal and spiritual, the tracks also outline the breadth of Cowley’s experimentation, from the quivering stretches of Mockingbird Dream 2 to the beatless industrial whirr of Uhura.
Muscle Up is not only an artifact of a pioneer taken too soon (Cowley tragically died of AIDs at 32) but is also a crucial chapter of queer culture and the sonic innovation that runs alongside it. The listener not only enters the lost world of sophisticated porn, but a vanished era of sexual expression, too.