[6 July 2011]
Virgo Four first approached Larry Sherman of seminal Chicago House record label Trax in 1984 or 1985, as house music was beginning to take off. At the time, Sherman shrugged their demos off as titles in his catalogue were beginning to chart and he didn’t want to take a risk a couple of unknowns who put in no time at the Warehouse or the Power Plant. The group returned several years later with a wealth of new material. Sherman liked it and wanted to put some of it out, but he was unsure this unusual batch of music by two Chicago art students and childhood friends named Eric Lewis and Merwyn Sanders would sell. Lewis and Sanders at that time called themselves M.E. (Merwyn and Eric, with a possible nod to the Gary Numan tune of the same name as well), but Trax insisted that they call themselves Virgo Four, despite there being only two of them, to somehow associate the act with Virgo, a supergroup of sorts comprised of Marshall Jefferson, Vince Lawrence, and Adonis. As their debut album (split into two singles by Virgo Four and M.E. respectively for the U.S. release) gained traction over the ensuing years, confusion arose over what the band’s actual name was. That the CD issue on Radical Records in 1989 was solely attributed to Virgo did not help matters.
In an interview with Gridface last year, Sanders admitted that the duo never did their due diligence in promoting the record or networking with other DJs. So it’s testament to the emotional resonance of the music itself that it grew over the years into something of an underground classic. The futuristic grooves sound perfectly at home alongside other Chicago House, Acid, Jack, Techno, and Balaeric Beat songs of its era, but at the same time, it is so finely produced and original that it could be put out today without heads in the deep house game skipping a beat.
After Rush Hour reissued their debut last year, Lewis backhanded his own album by declaring, “We didn’t want to give [Trax] what we considered our better songs. Even the songs that were released were not our best stuff. We would like to soon release the songs we really enjoyed,” in an interview with Little White Earbuds. The duo allegedly have hundreds of tapes worth of material to sort through in their archives, but the first fruits of their labor, and hopefully not the last, come to listeners in the form of Resurrection, a succinct set of 15 cuts recorded between 1984 and 1990 (The 5XLP adds 14 more unreleased cuts to this set).
An essential question on every listener’s mind will be how the album stacks up to Lewis’ claims, which is a tricky one to answer. Whereas Virgo Four’s debut album was a consistent vision of atmospheric forward-thinking techno, Resurrection is a more varied effort. It shows Lewis and Sanders as a thoughtfully malleable and evolving unit, one whose talents could not be contained within the restrictions of a single genre. Tracks here bear not just the influence of dance music but also synth-pop and R&B. Still, others like opener “Silence”, with its barrage of backwards-masked voices, or the breezy pads and hard arpeggio of “The Mop”, are freeform exercises, jam sessions fluid in character and uncluttered by the structures and strictures of pop. Resurrection then adheres to the schema of the sophisticated sophomore album. While not every track reaches the highs of “Take Me Higher” and “In a Vision”, several of the cuts certainly do compete.
“Sex”, certainly one of the most memorable tracks on the album, rides gigantic, pounding beats and a Lothario-smooth groove that could have been dropped by Moodymann earlier this year. Yet, unlike club music’s more risqué bangers of this era, there’s a cautionary reserve in Virgo Four’s step. Unlike La Tour’s HIV-era bubblegum rollertechno anthem “People Are Still Having Sex”, Virgo Four reserve judgment and make music that’s mysterious and wonderful yet almost scientific. “Sex rules our souls / Sex rules our world / Everybody wants it / Everybody needs it” goes the chorus, almost deterministically. The dry, nearly indifferent vocal delivery skips eroticism to underpin an almost Ballardian mechanical process behind the act, the result of an inescapable biodestiny.
“Let the Music Play”, on the other hand, is loose and, as the title suggests, playful. The synths and keyboards here are most certainly hand-played rather than programmed, giving the track a raw funkiness that emblemized the garage style of Masters at Work, Larry Heard, and the Strictly Rhythm roster (who also rejected Virgo Four submissions), which was set in motion some years after these tracks were recorded. The funk on “Boing”, on the other hand, is in rubbery bass, synthetic cymbals, and tightly constricted automotive percussion. Whereas “In A Vision” wound up on Warp Records’ Warp 10+1 Influences disc as an example of a predecessor to the early bleep n’ bass aesthetic of the early 1990s, the rhythm of “Boing” foreshadows mid-period Warp, with its tightly assembled abstract drum architecture and buoyant tech-steps.
If and when the duo falter, it’s never due to a lack of ideas. “Moskaw” starts out with intense industrial drumming, more than likely in ode to Telex’s “Moskow Disko”, which sounds like a plugged in high speed rail darting across the neon glow of the urban landscape. However, these atonal dynamics fade for the more secure passage of chilled synth patches, dissipating the song’s most interesting aspect and dividing the song’s narrative.
Fortunately, these choices are few and far between, and the works here are amazingly realized for a series of demos. It’s hard to believe nobody wanted these tracks whenever they were first offered, particularly given the breath of DIY labels popping up in Chicago alone. One can only wonder what alternate directions Virgo Four and house music in general could have gone down had any of these singles caught on. Even if Resurrection doesn’t garner as much attention as the debut reissue got, it’s quite likely that the quality of the music will help it survive just as long.