The Stranglers: Dark Matters – album review

The Stranglers ‘Dark Matters’
(Coursegood Records)
LP| CD | DL
Rel Date: 10th September 2021

pre order album from here

9/10 for The Stranglers first release for a decade, the aptly titled Dark Matters, is a masterpiece to get lost in and a tribute to their late and great keyboard wizard Dave Greenfield. The album sees the band embrace all the nooks and crannies and styles of their fascinating journey in a late career flourish – a genuine highlight that ranks with those classic and game changing first 5 albums.

Famine, plague, death, destruction and the end of the world…since the last Stranglers album, Giants, was released ten years ago. It’s not been easy on the world stage or the band’s tight inner circle but The Stranglers finally deliver their 18th album fittingly named Dark Matters. It’s been a long time since we heard any new material and the album has been overshadowed by the death of core band member Dave Greenfield and his genius keys, and the final retirement of the great Jet Black but the record has been worth the wait. It’s an eclectic and fitting testament to the keyboard wizard and a great late period document of this idiosyncratic band.  

Somehow, despite everything, The Stranglers have delivered one of the finest moments in their bizarre career. Either as an act of closure or the beginning of a final chapter, Dark Matters, bookends their unlikely sojourn and is kinda like a grown up Rattus. It retains all the dark melodic inventiveness and distinctive sound of that most classic of debuts from 1977 that reflected the sewer like survival of mid seventies London but has been upgraded decades later into an album that is full of an emotional introspection as well as a well worn and well earned wisdom with an added dystopian twist and embrace of everything that life chucks at you. There is also a genuine sensitivity and emotional clout that may have been hidden away in the older stuff but always lurked somewhere just beyond their charismatic bravado and was explained in this very open interview by JJ Burnel with John Robb a couple of months ago. 

Of course the death of Dave Greenfield hangs heavy over the album musically and thematically but he was around long enough to play on eight out of the eleven tracks. Fittingly some of his career best keyboard runs are on the album which is a fitting epitaph to his genius. From the opening track, ‘Water’, Dave’s brilliance is underlined. The tracks classic keyboard runs show that his dexterity and sense of texture and melody were as strong as ever. The keyboard lines and bubbling runs are at his trademark best. He made this kind of stuff feel effortless – it’s the real signifier of just how good he was that his classic style pours out of the tracks like it was totally natural. The complexity and originality of his playing is often overlooked because its so perfect for the song and at the band’s best it was the crucial texture that made them stand out and allowed all the instruments space to serve the songs.

One of the keys to the band was that no note was ever wasted by Dave or his comrades and the constituent sounds of each instrument was rich and textured whilst playing its own lead lines. Dark Matters is full of this classic Stranglers technique.  The opening ‘Water’ sets this stall. The track has been in the band’s set for some time and the recorded version is honed to perfection as it weaves its watery way building and twisting and turning. The liquid metaphor runs through the lyrics that deal in the future wars caused by the water running out – classic Stranglers reportage like from The Raven period which this track could easily be from. A few decades in and a smart band understands what made them great and plays with those themes and reinvents them in new shapes. Nature themes and the power of the elements have always been at the Stranglers core painting sonic pictures out of the sensual power of the elements. That’s what Water does as reflects its subject matter in that classic old school lysergic way of the band – painting pictures in your head musically and mystically. It sounds like water and is a liquid slice of punk prog with danceable powerful and yet strange time structures dealt with by Jim Macaulay  – the comparatively young buck drummer who has really stepped into Jet Black’s shoes and will make the old codger guffaw with pride at his taking up of the mantle. The track sets the album’s stall and embraces the prog epic stylings of The Raven period – the rising bass lines and bubbling keyboard magic, the driving yet off kilter song structures and the lyrics that look at the big picture sung by JJ channelling a rich James Douglas Morrison croon. 

Team Stranglers are on fine form – this is no tribute band and very much an ongoing creative concern. The album is restless with this creativity and explores all the band’s nuances and classic textures. The classic clipped JJ bass sound is back to the fore threading the tracks together (like all old school Stranglers fans I look to the bass sound to see if the band is on top of its game – it’s one of the classic sounds in British rock) and Baz Warne is on fine form all over the album which his bluesy guitar lines swerving from melodic to quirky and his vocals maintaining the balance between belligerent and sensitive.  

The album comes in all shapes and sizes and the earlier clutch of tracks released to the public only give part of the story with their melodic introspection. There is plenty of old school tough gnarl on the record like on the second track that rasps in with the rat pack mentality of the Rattus period.   This Song sounds so Stranglers it’s hard to believe that it’s actually a cover brought in by album producer Louie, who once produced a band called The Disciples of Spess who had a tune called, This Song Will Get Me Over You which still lurks on Spotify. 

One Stranglerfied it’s become classic riot period Stranglers and full of grinding bass, driving drums and a huge chorus snarled and cajoled by Baz Warne as he works his way around yet more classic Dave keys. The playing on the track is faultless and like the rest of the album, the musicianship is on another level. All the band’s classic hallmarks are back unlike the fallow nineties period when they seemed to lose confidence in their own sound. Since the 2004 Norfolk Coast album its been a journey of rediscovery as the band woke from their nineties slumbers.

Dark Matters is full of classic twists and turns as the band make sense of their own eclectic nature. Already released and very well received, the touching lament ‘And If You Should See Dave’ is a touching JJ paean to their fallen brother in arms and contours up his spectral presence that hangs over the album. The tracks introspective musings and glorious chord changes are reminiscent of classic sixties French pop and it’s a heartfelt touching moment that even leaves a space for the played keyboard solo which you can imagine in your head. 

If Something Is Going To Kill Me (It Might As Well Be Love) is soaked in the romantic side of the band that initially emerged in the Feline/Dreamtime period. Those autumnal baroque and lush melodies were even hinted at even in the early days on their own Princess Of The Streets or their cover of Walk On By or and it’s that song’s writer Burt Bacharach that is the key here with his classic, timeless sense of crooning melody dripping from the track which also features a Chet Baker style trumpet break at the end as well as nicely off kilter keyboard as the main chassis.  

There is so much diversity on the record as the band explore all their nuances. The Stranglers were never really playing by the rules – they were out of step even in a time when being out of step was au fait. The Stranglers have always prided themselves on their range of styles, their restless creative range has always been the core to their experience and Dark Matters further explores this making the early promotion of the record tricky. Just how do you choose a defining single from an album as far ranging as this? Even at their thrilling belligerent gonzoid peak there was always something else about the Stranglers. The late period band further explore these styles trying to make sense of who and what they are. 

If the previous two tracks are the sensitive melodic Stranglers they are not the sound of the whole album – fear not doc marten wearing older fans there is plenty of snarling Stranglers here like on No Mans Land which, like Payday a couple of tracks further down the album are full of plenty of snarling action, fast running bass, scratching scrapping guitars and guttural vocals with the vowels bent out of shape and killer hooky choruses – classic Strings. Both tracks also have killer bass lines with Payday having one of those classic Burnel Baroque Bordello style 4 string workouts as Baz delivers an unlikely vocal about Alexander the Great and Greek classics! Both songs also great old school Stranglers intros. 

The introspective sparse acoustic confessional of The Lines deals succinctly with ageing The Lines and Down is a lush melodic affair and a sumptuous mournful ballad dealing with the black dog of depression. The atmospheric The Last Man On The Moon is a bass driven epic with added classic Stranglers and already a live favourite with its driving bass line and film score vocal harmonies. 

There is also the welcome return of the moody soundscapes and almost film-score wide open spaces on the album’s two climactic cinematic tracks that close the album and sound like nothing else the band have done. White Stallion has a 4 to the floor disco kick drum, a driving bass intro, a pummelling post punk groove, a choir, berserk strings and an off kilter melody. It’s glacial in its ambition as it warns about the rise of China and the unstable geopolitics of the 21st century whilst sounding like Hans Zimmer on steroids. This is a dystopian film score and it really works in its bonkers brilliance. Breathe sees off the album with a quirky and atmospheric of jazzy soundscape that drips with a perfumed sensuality that sinuously builds into a triumphant and climactic ending even with its introspective nature. 

The perfectly named Dark Matters could be the band’s last statement and there would be logic in that. It could also be a launching pad to a new era – there are plenty of enticing angles left to explore and plenty of creative powder kegs left. Being this inventive this deep in a career curve is unexpected even after the bold statements of the Norfolk Coast, Suite XVI and Giants albums that put the band back in business. Dark Matter  is bigger, bolder, more eclectic and wider in scope. It somehow sounds both idiosyncratic and modern. Ironically for an album that deals with the ghosts of the past it is also surging forward and shows that daring to explore your own creative obsessions is the only way forward.

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The Stranglers: Dark Matters – album review

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.

22 COMMENTS

  1. Monsieur John,
    As a Stranglers fan since 1977, I cannot thank you enough for writing this eloquent review.
    Belle Plume!

  2. “The Stranglers were never really playing by the rules – they were out of step even in a time when being out of step was au fait.” Absolutely spot on John.

  3. A tribute band with only one original member … If Debbie Harry left Blondie and was replaced by Adele , would it still be Blondie. Let’s get this straight when you buy any record it’s about the vocals … They just playing on the name.. Now if they started from fresh do you think this album would be even played .

    • Your comment is nonsensical, was Beethoven and Mozart about the vocals? – the music needs to be judged on it’s merits not the history of the band

    • I find this really curious. By this account a band is only its front man/woman. They go and the band is no more. Why should that be? Many bands have changed their line up over the years. It would be rather astonishing if they didn’t. Cornwell left when he did, was replaced and the band continued. Bands change evolve, like everything else in life. Sometimes they’re worse, sometimes better, sometimes different, hopefully moving forward and developing their work. What’s the problem. You seem to want everything to remain as it was. How dull music would be if that were the case.

  4. A triumphant review by John here. He always said The Stranglers would have to make the next lp the album of their lives. It certainly looks that way. Often revered, never dissolving, they’ve put the Doc Marten in once again. Beautiful piece.

  5. Some of the stuff they’ve done since Hugh left has been absolutely awful and puts me off buying this even though I rather like what I’ve heard of it.
    I find most music since the 80s soulless and pointless and I think most classic bands just recycled their old records after that time, without the suss and energy; ironically I was accused of living in the past for having this view when we can see exactly who is living in the past. We’ve all been ground down by this cruel, merciless, selfish, cynical, hard-faced society and it shows in the music.

  6. Géant était moyen. Suite xvl excellent. Ma vie est traversée par les stranglers depuis l age de 14 ans j en ai 57 .les men in Black sont mes compagnons de route tout comme les damned.

  7. Lots of good reviews out there on the net. In fact the only negativity I’ve found is from those who still miss Hugh Cornwall who left 31 years ago.

  8. Brilliant review John, just listened to the album and I am really chuffed. The track No Mans Land typifies what you were saying about previous overtones it’s a throwback to Peasant in the Big Shitty and Do you Wanna. I do think they lost their way a little in the 90s from Written in Red (92) to Coup de Grace (99) although still having their moments but after John Ellis left and Baz arrived it was destined to change. Baz has left his footprint more and more but it’s the same size boot as the Stranglers. He deserves a lot of credit to transform and enhance rather than return or disregards. Love it!

  9. I think that the review is spot on, and I would add that the ‘since Hugh left’ argument is a little worn now. Frankly, the boys were getting stale/dull before he left, and yes I lost interest for some time but saw them at a Festival a few years back, listened to – and bought – the fine Suite XVI, and have seen them live three times since. Superb.

    yes the 90s stuff not great, and I had my doubts about going to the final tour without a hero on the keyboard, but this album is a great way to finish, which I kind of hope they now do.

  10. The Stranglers without Hugh Cornwell is not, and never will be, the Stranglers. What you have here is, at best, is a tribute band. They should have laid it to rest years ago.

  11. Great review.

    Jet Black and Dave Greenfield told JJ they wanted to carry on. Today we have Baz and Jim with Jet has consultant. If they are good enough for Jet and Dave and JJ, then they’re good enough for me.

    These ARE The Stranglers.

    Thank you Dave for everything.

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