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Variegated Menace

Portion Control, “Progress Report 1980-1983” septuple LP box set (VOD 73) –

Electronic Dance Music (EDM) rarely finds itself reviewed critically alongside, say, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini or Requiem in D Minor. It is often regarded as derivative of Kraftwerk at best, cold cut kitsch at worst, or merely functional for those who get off by shaking their endoskeletons. Entertaining? Yes. Fine art? No. But if EDM is the property of the discothèque, not the audio boutique, what must we do with Portion Control?—the band who has for thirty years dedicated itself to composing and occasionally performing music that is meticulous yet aggressive, elevated yet idiosyncratic, challenging yet lyrical, and altogether subtle. It also happens to be danceable.

Portion Control’s obscurity is, if you will, legendary. Admired and emulated as they have been by nearly everyone within EDM, they had numerous opportunities to achieve popularity, stiff their day jobs, pen radio hits a la Depeche Mode (with whom they have toured), and become household names. But they have always chosen (all but once, in fact) the left-handed path, viewing both rabid commercialism and rabid anti-commercialism with suspicion and disdain: they don’t release material or tour regularly, don’t have a manager or lawyer, and moreover refuse to embrace any public persona or genre. They rather prefer the descriptor “uncompromising electronic music”. But this is all social. The artistic purity of Portion Control springs not so much from the elements of refusal, but from a dedication to expression and mastery of the analog synthesizer.

Terror Leads to Better Days, from Surface and Be Seen EP, 1982

Though the earliest analog synths actually date to the 1920s (Elisha Gray’s 19th century attempts notwithstanding), it was not until the 1970s that they were available to those without access to commercial audio laboratories and high-end studios. Modular synthesizer manufactured by companies such as Moog, and Electronic Music Studios, and ARP Instruments became part of the repertoire of both professionals and amateurs (Metal Urbain, Tubeway Army, Kraftwerk, Devo, George Harrison’s Electronic Sound); despite the availability, remarkably few synthesizer-based records were released during that decade.

1980-81 was an epochal year for DIY electronic maverickism in Europe. It was the year punk spirit and laboratory technology conjugated to form a new musical grammar. Old World and New World punks had discovered commercial synthesizers. Joy Division’s Closer and Cabaret Voltaire’s The Voice Of America, seminal synth records both, came out in 1980, as did Der Plan’s Geri Reig. SPK had moved to London and released Information Overload Unit in 1981, the same year that saw Lustmord’s debut LP, Nocturnal Emissions’ Tissue of Lies, Chris and Cosey’s Heartbeat, and Matt Johnson’s Burning Blue Soul, and on the continent Front 242’s Principles 7 inch and Esplendor Geometrico’s Necrosis En La Poya 7 inch.

In the autumn of 1980, three student chefs at Westminster College in London made for themselves a modest studio in a flat at 319 Kennington Road, South London, and set to work with an 8-bit Apple ][ and a sampling system called Greengate DS-3—one of the first of these to be made commercially available. John Whybrew, Dean Piavani and Ian Sharp, having named themselves Portion Control (after a chef school methodology) soon upgraded to an Akai S900, an S950, and finally the S1000, which would provide the aural backbone for their variegated menace. Sampling at the time was in its infancy, having been practiced only in live setting (e.g., DJ Kool Herc’s Bronx parties) and on a few early hip-hop and electronic releases (e.g., Dreamies’Auralgraphic Entertainment from 1973 and Grandmaster Flash’s “The Adventures of” from 1981). So unknown was this form of music at the time that Portion Control were refused Musicians Union Membership because “none of us could play a conventional instrument”.

Mass Disorder, from I Staggered Mentally LP, 1982

Given their prescience to the scene, it would be tempting to consider Portion Control a trio of uncelebrated pioneers, but they do not see themselves as pioneers, and prefer instead to situate themselves historically in a moment defined by the post-punk scene—by Wire and the Pop Group, and perpetual California outsiders Chrome—not by the birth of the English New Wave (Human League, Ultravox, Fad Gadget, Buggles, et al). Nevertheless, their influence on multiple genres (i.e., EBM, IDM, Industrial, Techno, Ambient) is evident in adulatory name-checks by more visible bands such as Skinny Puppy, Nine Inch Nails, Front Line Assembly, Orbital, and Depeche Mode.

Portion Control’s early analog synth- and sample-based material (as documented on this box set) is more diverse, and more colorful, than it first appears. Especially on the earliest and most recent material, dynamic tones and hues float to the surface of their virile, driving presence—slowly, as on the canvases of Rouault. Each track is distinct from the one before it, and yet many are somehow the same by dint of conventional song structures with verses and choruses and seductive beats (usually a simple kick pattern followed by a one or two bar step-programmed bass line, followed by more drums). And yet the music is still “difficult” and playfully unyielding, like musique concrète; tracks continue to unfold after repeated listens. Sometimes the tracks go frenetic, oppressive, for stretches claustrophobic—their ambience wrapping around your head like tight foil, even as they unfold logically, but they are never over-embellished. Indeed, the spare muscularity of Wire and Gang of Four is often in evidence. Portion Control have created and maintain a pristine and specifically English form of vintage electro-punk, one that comprehends the veracity of the tape loop, and does not litter them; one which deliberately buries vocals, rife with disgust and estrangement, deep in the mix so as to come off as just another instrument; one which is, in fact, transcendent of forms and free of commercial veneer. They are a remarkable band for making a stasis of their own naïvete, and for seeming, for all their recourse to technology, strangers to the modern world.

Untitled (3), from unreleased video soundtrack, date unknown

Portion Control yielded eight releases between the years 1980 and 83, and all of them are collected in this box set. The original band lasted until 1987, at which time they made the error of signing with a major label, and promptly vanished from the public eye. Barring a brief foray under the moniker Solar Enemy, they did not re-emerge until 2004. In much the same mood (though now having entirely forsaken hardware) as the day they disappeared, they proceeded to yield twelve more releases, both as CD and download from their website. This septuple LP box set, compiled and released by Frank Maier of Vinyl-on-Demand, is a retrospective of the early days, including over sixty unreleased treasures among its 138 total tracks. The seven LPs (subscribers receive an additional 7 inch), along with a spiral bound photo album, a DVD, and a t-shirt, come housed in a fitted, etched aluminum box.

What must we do with Portion Control? Danceable though it may be, it is too unfriendly for the disco. High art subtleties though it may have, the tides of acceptance have not come in. It doesn’t matter to John Whybrew and Dean Piavani what we do with them[1], for like all good things, Portion Control’s near thirty years of output is the product of an obsession, not a profitable concern. It is creation without expectation, without want for immediate reward. They are still active.

From privately circulated cassette, Private Illusions No. 1, Early 1980’s

White Cubes

Go for the Throat


[1] Ian Sharp did not rejoin in 2004

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