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8th March 2016

Record reappraisal: Virgo Four – Virgo

Virgo Four’s version of Chicago house was always a little more offbeat and introverted than their peers, but it was just as futuristic and innovative

Virgo Four – Virgo

Released in 1989 by Trax and Radical Records

Of all the genre reappraisals in music nowadays, the supposed re-emergence of house music is the strangest. It isn’t that it has simply taken mainstream pop music more than two decades to acknowledge its influence (and, inevitably, bastardise it). The strangest thing about house music’s revival is that it isn’t really a revival at all. House has always been at the cutting-edge of electronic and dance music, blithely doing its own thing and doing it remarkably well. The radio-friendly pop-infused crap that many people mistake for house music couldn’t be further from the real thing. However, around the time of house music’s distinctly non-commercial ascendancy in the late 1980s, Virgo Four—the mysterious duo of Merwyn Sanders and Eric Lewis—weren’t necessarily anyone else’s idea of what house was either.

Their idiosyncratic 1989 album Virgo—less an album than the pairing of two EPs—one of which originally released under their former, more prosaic name M.E., demonstrates why. Amongst all the Chicago house and acid staples—the hissing, synthetic hi-hats, the thudding 4/4 beat, chattering TB-909 percussion—are some peculiar and unlikely textures that separate Virgo Four from the usual Chicago house pack. Textures like the ghostly keyboard stabs and spacey, isolated guitar on ‘Do You Know Who You Are?’, while ‘All the Time’ features strikingly unbridled slap bass. It is house music that breathes and pulsates with a human intensity. Unlike much contemporaneous house, there’s nobody chanting “h-h-h-house nation”. Some typically lively house piano turns up on ‘Going Thru Life’, but everything else about it is surprisingly and pleasantly off-kilter. Chicago house tended to be euphoric and communal, but Virgo Four’s model is chilly, lonely and deeply atmospheric. That doesn’t mean you can’t dance to it. There’s still a pumping urgency, a nagging pulse.

‘In a Vision’ offers acid house that sounds haunted and pensive, the signature, piercing squelch sound achieved by sending a TB-303 into overdrive perversely dialled down low in the mix. House aficionados might assume that the duo were using the same equipment that their peers were using extensively. This is not so: Lewis has since admitted that they couldn’t afford the 808s and 909s customary to Chicago house and instead got by on a TR-505 drum machine and a Roland Juno 2 synth, rather than the pricier Juno 60 or 106. Perhaps that explains their fairly lo-fi, grainy sound. Still, they often sounded like snappy 808s. They certainly had this writer fooled, not least on the seductive ‘School Hall’—an outstanding, and perfectly crafted example of deep house that also worked as an unlikely floorfiller; the soundtrack of a club night just starting or coming to a meditative close. ‘Take Me Higher’ is spectral and absorbing. Instead of evoking the sweaty transcendence and dry ice of a nightclub, you feel a tingling shiver, approaching the brooding, minimal deep house of early Mr. Fingers, or Gene Hunt & Ron Hardy’s ‘16 & Indiana’.

The whispering, drowsy vocals on ‘Ride’ sound less elated and ecstatic than their peers, more like the gloomy older brother to Frankie Knuckles’ ‘Baby Wants to Ride’. Moreover, a handful of great house records contained such an impressive pop sensibility like Virgo Four. ‘Never Want to Lose You’ is such an example—its female vocal coolly intoning to “get ready to move”, possibly the only track that makes explicit its invitation to dance. “You’re my inspiration, you get me through my trials and tribulations,” sings a sincere, mumbled male vocal—as if singing not to some attractive, saucer-eyed clubber on the dance floor, but to his long-suffering wife. It’s those quirky details that make Virgo Four such a compelling listen that’s well worth investigating (their thirty-track compilation of unreleased material, 2011’s Resurrection, is also a must-listen), and proof that house music, just as it is today, was truly ahead of its time.

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