San Francisco labels Honey Soundsystem and Dark Entries have pored through Cowley's archives and collected the best of his gay porn soundtracks into multiple albums—the murky beats of School Daze and the slightly funkier Muscle Up. Completing the trilogy, Afternooners compiles songs from a 1982 soundtrack made shortly before Cowley's death from AIDS, and includes some early sketches for his studio album Mind Warp. Cowley's songwriting goes beyond mere function on the LP, and it's the first of the gay porn collections that truly feels like it could have had a life outside of a seedy theatre.
The title Afternooners hints at a sort of sun-drenched decadence, and the track names and musical style follow suit. "Hot Beach," "One Hot Afternoon," "Surfside Sex"—you can probably get a picture of what these pieces were meant to accompany. Those last two are the closest to what you might consider regular porn music, funky and elastic, but they're written so well that they rise beyond wallpaper. The bassline on "Surfside Sex" could easily rock a dance floor. "Hot Beach," meanwhile, is closer to daydreaming, with drowsy syncopated drumming and melting synths that evoke an overheated day working up a sweat on the sand.
There are songs on Afternooners that seem tailor-made to soundtrack fucking, and there are tunes that seem so much more out-there in the grand tradition of bizarre gay porn music. The Italo-ish chug of "Furlough" is remarkably dramatic, especially given the almost proggy riff it builds up to every few bars. It's here that Cowley's gift with synthesizers really comes to life.
Afternooners is deceptively complex for soundtrack music. There's a thick atmosphere to the slow, almost Krautrock-y "The Runner." "Bore & Stroke" features a delightfully glitchy delayed drum sound, a hint of the dub techniques Cowley occasionally experimented with. The improvement in arrangements and sound quality on Afternooners over School Daze and Muscle Up comes down to Cowley continually refining his craft and synthesizer technology improving at the same time—if there was a new synth to play with, Cowley would master it.
Afternooners is shorter than other collections of Cowley's porn music. Only nine tracks are from that 1982 film—the other three were dug up from the Megatone archives and tapes found in his old friend Lily Bartels' attic, and they make for a nice coda after all that laid-back funk. Those songs are naturally more present and assertive than music meant to soundtrack a film, but the song that stands out, "Love Come Set Me Free," is the most restrained. With a rhythm that bobs like digidub and soft, cascading melodies, "Love Come Set Me Free" takes the lurid groove of his porn music and transforms it into something light, fluffy and just a little wistful. It makes for an emotional end to a trilogy of albums that paint a striking picture of what a talent Cowley was.