A little research helps connect the dots. Born in Buffalo, NY, Cowley arrived in San Francisco in 1971. He honed his craft at the local City College (where he co-founded the Electronic Music Lab) before his reputation as a synth and production whiz got Sylvester's attention. Beyond that partnership, Cowley worked with new wave band Indoor Life (among other artists), and co-founded Megatone Records, which notably released his groundbreaking solo music as well as records from Sylvester and Paul Parker. Around the 1981 release of his first album, Megatron Man, Cowley was hospitalized and diagnosed with a then-unnamed disease. A year later, he became an early victim of the AIDS epidemic that would go on to ravage gay communities, tragically ending what in a short time had become an influential career.
In recent years, Cowley's narrative has expanded, thanks in part to Josh Cheon's Dark Entries label. Working with San Francisco label and DJ crew Honey Soundsystem (of which Cheon is a member), Dark Entries released School Daze, a collection of 10 Cowley pieces commissioned for two films from famed gay porn company Fox Studio. More than just reviving unheard music, School Daze revealed a largely undiscovered side of Cowley—his signature Hi-NRG style was almost completely absent from the celestial, gently experimental tracks. Named after the second film Cowley soundtracked for Fox Studio, Muscle Up continues to expand Cowley's legacy. It again brings together material from the porn company's vaults, as well as lost recordings held by Megatone Records owner John Hedges and Cowley collaborator Maurice Tani (who also contributes an essay).
Muscle Up can largely be split into two musical categories: atmospheric, tribal-tinged synthscapes and proto-disco/synth-funk hybrids that swing around loose rhythms. "The Jungle Dream," which trudges through jungle sounds and analog synths with subdued tom rolls and steady hi-hats, falls into the former category, as does "Timelink," with its disjointed arpeggios and didgeridoo-like bass. On the other side of the spectrum are tracks like "Somebody To Love Tonight," a dubby and melodically rich disco track that's an early instrumental of what would later become Sylvester's "I Need Somebody To Love Tonight," and "Pigfoot," an especially funky cut that lands somewhere between Wild Style breaks and a druggy Deodato interlude.
"Don't Ask" is somewhere in the middle. The synth-heavy standout begins in more abstract territory before linking Muscle Up's exploratory musings with its more soulful undertones as it shifts into beatless, astral funk. The record's most striking highlight, however, is "Mockingbird Dream 2." It closes things with an expansive meditation split between two movements and full of star-gazing arpeggios, rich chords and all manner of FX. Crafted well over 30 years ago, "Mockingbird Dream 2" stands as a masterful ambient composition.
Like School Daze, Muscle Up succeeds because it does more than merely offer demos and B-sides from Cowley's catalog. This is all highly listenable music that reveals further depth to the pioneer's abilities. And Dark Entries' attention to detail, in terms of presentation and preservation of the material, is also commendable. Beautifully remastered for vinyl and presented in a double-LP with appealing extras for curious collectors, Muscle Up proves again why Cheon's label can be trusted with such precious material.