Portion Control have gone pop. Not in the sense that thirty years into their career they've suddenly decided to pander to a mainstream palate. But they haven't been this close to producing conventional electronic dance music since the release of Step Forward in 1984: Violently Alive is their most cohesive, coherent, consistent, and most easily consumed recording to date.
As the rapid fire string of releases since the band's unexpected 2003 renaissance has demonstrated, Portion Control mastered the soundscape of an automated world falling apart long before Autechre, Aphex Twin and other contemporary agents of abstract, abrasive ambient music — generally perceived as pioneers — had sorted their gear out.
Yet, save for Blood Loss and the closing You Hold Me Down, the unconventional, free-form pieces are held back on Violently Alive in favour of customarily structured vocal tracks with an average length of three and three-quarters of a minute. Portion Control's hallmark electro punk — complete with samples of film dialogue which, though once ubiquitous in the genre, are now lent a subversive bent by the increasingly fashionable copyright posturing — blends seamlessly with strictly controlled doses of techno and trance.
Despite breaking their methodically monotonous grooves up with a surprising (for Portion Control) number of key changes, their recordings still lend themselves to mixing, remixing, and mashing up in all of its various permutations. Which isn't to say that their intrinsically woven sonic tapestry is unfinished, but rather that the recording isn't necessarily the final artifact. It's meant to be augmented, to evolve; a true cyberpunk product which doesn't attain its full potential until the street finds a use for it.
Thematically, the band continue unravelling the layers of "Onion Jack" Britain, a society enamoured with the idea that constant surveillance, stripping inhabitants and visitors alike of their basic liberties, sacrificing respect in order to "protect", is a panacea for its ills. Dean Piavani's south London snarl gives voice to characters attempting to attain an ever-elusive freedom, while enduring a state of unmitigable control.
With minimal, menacing musical motifs, pithy lyrics exuding paranoid defiance, and packaging with all the charm of surveillance imagery, Portion Control skillfully evoke this technologically saturated, paranoid state, where your movements are tracked, your habits mapped, public transit cards remember where you've been, employee ID cards report when you showed up for work, when you left, and where you went within the compound. Cellphones pinpoint your location, disclose who you call, from where, and how often. Credit card records etch your transactions in time, as do airline tickets — even if you pay cash.
Web browsers constantly add to the significant cache of online data accumulating about you. Cameras are mounted in police cruisers, hang from trees in parks, are fixtures in public places, sports stadiums, shopping malls. Heralds of a new mental ice age, whose defendants claim that if you've nothing to hide you've got nothing to fear, even as you're being habituated to accept heightened levels of scrutiny by unseen eyes for increasingly mundane activities. Like borrowing a book (or Portion Control album) from your local library.
It's a place permeated by threats of violence from an intentionally loosely defined entity, allowing Cold War rhetoric, military symbols and myths to regain prominence. Military heroics, bunker politics, and "us versus them" mentality has been resurrected. It's a scenario reminiscent of contemporary Britain, with its close to 60,000 CCTV cameras operated by local authorities (some 10,500 operated by police in undisclosed locations), and perhaps as many as 4.2 million cameras total when private "security" systems are taken into account — though no one appears to know for sure.
Curiously, Violently Alive contains yet another entry in Portion Control's catalogue entitled Waste, which save for a brief mention of "a reckless soul", has little in common with its namesake track on the band's previous album, 2008's Slug. No doubt providing plenty of opportunity for confusion at Portion Control performances, should the band ever solicit requests.
From the sheer techno workout of Extraction to the bouncy electro punk of Relapse, Portion Control provide a darker, more experimental edge often missing in alternative electronic music produced in Northern Europe — and in contrast to the rock-infused alternative electronic music of North America. Violently Alive is their best album to date, as crucial listening for fans of the genre as 1982's groundbreaking I Staggered Mentally, and the most incisively honed collection of recordings in Portion Control's catalogue thus far.