Dark Matters by The Stranglers
It’s hard to believe that almost ten years have passed since The Stranglers last entered the studio to lay down new material. 2012’s ‘GIANTS’ was the last offering and, since then, a great deal has happened both on and off the pitch, as you might say. During this time, we’ve seen Greece go bankrupt, a Royal wedding, 3 European Championships and 2 World Cups pass us by, the fiasco that was Brexit, mad man Donald Trump become the most powerful being on the planet, a legendary drummer retire, the ice-bucket challenge, Brussel Sprout flavoured crisps, and the world go mad over Pokémon Go (to name but a few).
Then, of course, a certain little bug called Covid-19. The invisible menace which shut down most the planet and has re-shaped all of our lives (in one way or another) over the past two years; causing untold heartache, misery and pain along the way. Yes, that evil little bastard which, back in May 2020, robbed us of the genius that was David Paul Greenfield – and to whom – this new album is lovingly dedicated.
‘DARK MATTERS’ is the 18th studio album by The Stranglers and one that up until the pandemic, had been in development for quite some time; with many an idea being floated around the band. However, due to the heavy touring schedule over the past number of years, it was only towards the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019 that the band actually found time to get back into the studio to physically begin work on the ‘chosen few’. Things were looking good, and at last finally beginning to take shape, and then everything changed…
The loss of Dave was simply devastating to everyone within the Stranglers community, and it is almost impossible to fully comprehend how it affected those directly in [and associated with] the band, such was his wonderful character and genuine love of everything he did. I was crushed and like many, believed this would spell the end to an adventure which had lasted for over 45 years, and the Meninblack would become no more.
It is therefore a testament to JJ and Baz that they were able to find that magic spark and the rejuvenative energy, which thus enabled them to complete the project which had been started all that time ago. It must have been phenomenally hard, but what we have as and end result is an album fuelled by pure passion and a steely determination to produce something really special and unique, which would also serve as a fitting tribute to their fallen comrade.
Of course, the lasting legacy on this album is indeed the fact that it has now become Dave’s last, and we are still lucky enough to have him here in full swing on most of the tracks [the bulk of his contribution being recorded/completed during 2019]. It’s also a fair to presume that this final version of the album (both in name and content) is somewhat different to what was possibly first envisaged or planned. No doubt, as a result of Dave’s passing, there were a few recordings that couldn’t be completed, and ideas that may have had to have been scrapped altogether. But this outcome has now allowed space for JJ and Baz to incorporate a couple of new numbers, that appear to have been motivated by the events of 2020, and which bring a little reflection and gravitas to the proceedings. And rightly so…
At this point, it’s also worth reminding everyone that this is also the first album without the mighty Jet Black on drums [Jet having retired back in 2015], and one which now serves as Jim Macaulay’s studio debut. It’s pretty amazing when you take in the fact that Jim has been on the road with the band for 8 years now. It’s effortless for Jim, and there were times when I genuinely forgot who was drumming when listening to these recordings, such is the ease with which he has slipped into the fold. Big shoes to fill, but he seems to have done up the laces quite nicely!
One thing that did strike me upon listening to this album is how it subtly picks up on themes and ideas from across all the different eras of the band. It’s very clever, and the more you listen, the more you pick up on some of these little nuances and characteristics within the songs. However, if you are expecting just a formulaic re-tread of former glories, then you will be sadly disappointed. Although it clearly acknowledges the past, this endeavour has a distinct identity all of its own.
I am by no means an expert in all the technobabble that many a fan uses when analysing a Stranglers song, and I wouldn’t know a Hammond from a Hamburger, but I will do my best to give you a feel for what you can expect from the upcoming ‘Dark Matters’.
Much like ‘Freedom Is Insane’ was piloted long before the release of ‘Giants’, ‘WATER’ has been a regular in the live set since the ‘Definitive Tour’ of 2018, and has become well known to the travelling masses. It was therefore the perfect choice to kick start the new album. Both songs are of the same stable, and are akin in build and presentation (not unlike how ‘Toiler’ and ‘The Raven’ follow similar lines when played side by side). The track has evolved beautifully, and has become far more refined and polished since its initial debut. Opening gently at first with just Baz’s guitar, Dave’s keys then slowly enter the fray, building up and up to the thumping arrival of JJ’s bass (and subsequent mighty keyboard overture), before dropping into the archetypal pumping combo of sounds we all know and love. It’s a great opener, and one we have waited to hear with anticipation, for what seems an eternity.
Much like ‘Water’, ‘THIS SONG’ has been in the set list for quite a while now, and has already become somewhat of a favourite amongst fans. As you may or may not know, this track is actually a cover of a song originally written by a great little Welsh band called ‘The Disciples of Spess’, which JJ & Baz fell in love with upon first hearing. It’s a cracking tune, which has now been well and truly ‘Stranglerized’, and builds on both the original and the early live performances we have seen on tour. The production on this track is superb. It has a pounding bass line, and the keyboards really shine through on this one (with nods to those on ‘Big Thing Coming’, and even elements of ‘Tank’ can be heard in the mix), and the sudden introduction of a booming gothic pipe organ halfway through brings an element of ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ meets ‘Phantom of the Opera’ to the proceedings (to great effect too, I might add). Dave at his very best.
The lead single on the album is of course ‘AND IF YOU SHOULD SEE DAVE…’, a beautiful and heartfelt tribute to the late keyboard wizard, for which most of you reading this will now know by heart. The touching lyrics trip many a memory, and the obvious lack of keyboards in the song serve as a poignant reminder of what we have lost. I defy any devoted fan not to have a lump in the throat upon hearing the line “this is where your solo would go….”
‘IF SOMETHING’S GONNA KILL ME (IT MIGHT AS WELL BE LOVE)’ is a track straight out of the Sony era, and has a very 80’s Stranglers feel to it. It reminds somewhat of the style of song you might find on ‘FELINE’ or on JJ’s often overlooked solo outing ‘UN JOUR PARFAIT’. There’s certainly a Euro flavour to this one. It could lay comfortably alongside tracks such as ‘European Female’, ‘Never Say Goodbye’ or ‘Last Tango in Paris’. Matt Bourne-Jones’ smooth brass accompaniment towards the end also drops in a little dash of ‘DREAMTIME’.
This was also the first completed track from the album to
make its official worldwide debut (on Liz Kershaw’s Radio 6 show back in March 2021).
As mentioned above, you can hear flashes from throughout the band’s history within a number of tracks on this album. Whether this was intentional or not, I do not know, but nevertheless it brings a little magic upon listening; none more so than on ‘NO MAN’S LAND’, which is probably the most evocative of the early albums – particularly the great ‘BLACK AND WHITE’. (‘Sweden’ and ‘Curfew’ being good examples)
Baz’s performance on the verses here are great, and very evocative of Dave’s vocal performance on ‘Peasant in the Big Shitty’. It’s a classic Stranglers tune which has an abundance of hooks and catches. JJ’s bass also sounds great here, and I think the phrase ‘Nobody Move, Nobody Gets Hurt!’ may well end up on a T-shirt or coffee mug before too long… and check out that instrumental! One of my favourites on the album.
The force that is ‘No Man’s Land’ is followed by the shortest and humblest song on the album, and probably the most touching. ‘THE LINES’ is a very simple acoustic number (written by JJ), about growing old and the passing of time. This song was conceived whilst the album was being pulled together, and was recorded in just one take, with no fancy editing or mixing. Many people were convinced it was JJ on vocals on this one upon initially hearing the track online, but it is actually Baz who provides the drifting vocals here, whilst JJ takes the lead on the lone guitar. It’s unusual to hear a Stranglers song stripped so bare like this, but it does make for a contemplative ending to the first half of the album.
There are overtones of the wonderful ‘Baroque Bordello’ in the introduction to side two’s opener ‘PAYDAY’, a song about the legacy of Alexander the Great no less! This is another track which was road tested [albeit extremely briefly] at the beginning of 2019’s ‘Back on the Tracks’ Tour. I’ll admit that I wasn’t too sure when I first heard this live, it felt like it was missing something, but I could never quite put my finger on it. It’s possible that the band felt the same, and was the reason it was dropped from the set so early? Whatever the reason, we have seen from the ‘Track Chat’ online, the band went back to the drawing board on this one, and have now birthed new life into it. It’s a different beast now, and has a greater depth compared to the version mentioned above. There’s also a slight flavour of 2004’s acclaimed ‘NORFOLK COAST’ album hidden in here too. One of the lines states: “Now that the fog has lifted, the sun has come along, bringing with it a whole new song”, which is spot on as this has become a great example of how a song can be developed and improved over a period of time. Absolutely no reason to be ‘Bisted and Twitter’ after blasting this one out.
We return to the acoustic arena for ‘DOWN’, a slow and haunting ballad from JJ which tugs at the heartstrings and has very melancholy lyrics. I am sure there will be many people for which this song will reach out to. The piano and guitar here are simply exquisite, and there’s a slight Spanish twist to Baz’s performance which adds an extra layer to the whole ensemble – it’s quite beautiful. This song reminds me of ‘We Were Lovers’ which JJ wrote for the Japanese anime ‘Gankutsuou’, and ‘In The End’ from 1998’s ‘COUP DE GRACE’ – a regular during the band’s occasional live acoustic shows throughout the noughties. This however is far, far superior and is (in my humble opinion), one of his best. Sometimes, the simplest of songs are the most arresting. JJ has also recorded versions of this track in both French and Japanese, and I shall look forward to hearing these versions over the coming weeks too.
‘THE LAST MEN ON THE MOON’ is the fourth and final track on ‘Dark Matters’ that has been aired previously on tour in the UK, and as with those previous, it has been given a loving overhaul in the studio. Out of the four, this is the one which has probably changed the least from what we have heard on the road. There are some classic melodies in this one, and another where the keyboards really shine. All the instrumental breaks are top notch here, and you also get to hear more of Jim’s repertoire as the song progresses.
Where do I begin with ‘WHITE STALLION’? Well, for starters, it’s probably one of the most bonkers tracks laid down for quite some time (or ever!). A song which focuses on the state of American politics, the Trump era, and the rising power of China – this will certainly be the marmite track of the album. You’ll either hate it or absolutely love it. In an earlier interview with John Robb, JJ pre warned us of the impending return of the infamous Stranglers ‘disco beat’ (not heard since the days of ‘Let Me Introduce You To The Family’), and true to his word it’s here in all its glory – but this is next level. It feels like it should be part of some big lavish Hollywood movie (fans of film director Luc Besson will definitely get a few ‘Fifth Element’ vibes from this one), and there’s a real electro-funk-night club ambiance to it too! This little ditty really took me by surprise, the production on this is absolutely huge, and they must have had a right blast cementing this one together. Of all the tracks on ‘Dark Matters’, this is the one I keep coming back to. I can’t stop playing it, and each time I have the urge to turn the volume up just a little bit more. It’s ridiculously over the top, utterly nuts, and quite frankly brilliant. “It’s The Stranglers Jim, but not as we know it…”
The album closers for The Stranglers have been hit or miss over the years, with the mighty ‘Down in the Sewer’ and superlative ‘Relentless’ being two of the big fan favourites. Whilst there are a few others which are notable, such as ‘Never To Look Back’, ‘15 Steps’ and ‘Mine All Mine’, the days of the big closing epic seem to be few and far between. That’s certainly not the case here.
The final track on ‘Dark Matters’ is an absolute gem entitled ‘BREATHE’. It’s not a growling, gritty rocker as the two noted above, but a gentle refrain which ultimately flourishes into a wonderfully grand and stirring conclusion – and one that lingers in the head for quite some time after the record has finished. Just as you think it’s all coming to a close, the band fall into a lively, freestyle (almost jazz like) finale, which ultimately brings the diverse voyage through the universe of ‘Dark Matters’ to an end. Again, there’s a real quality to the production here, and like its predecessor ‘White Stallion’, this is another that really stands out from the crowd. An amazing conclusion.
As a body of work, ‘Dark Matters’, is an absorbing experience. It’s very different to what has gone before it, and it’s one of those albums which should [on first listen anyway] be heard in its entirety without interruption. Placing these tracks together in this given running order, offers a certain narrative to this album which is very suggestive to everything that has been experienced in the world over the past few years.
There will of course be the usual doubters and nay-sayers [those who embrace only the early days of the band as gospel] who won’t give this Stranglers the time of day – which is a crying shame, as ‘Dark Matters’ is an intelligent, mature and beautifully crafted album; one born out of the toughest of times, and yet one still full of creativity and spirit.
I am of course being somewhat bias, as I’ve known these guys for nearly 20 years now, so this review is obviously very personal to me. Having said that though, I genuinely believe – as does JJ – that this album will stand the test of time, and I really hope it gets the recognition it deserves.
‘Dark Matters’ closes the chapter on this era of The Stranglers and – as of now – we don’t know where the next chapter in this band’s amazing story will take us, or if there will be another one at all.
One thing is for sure; if this album does indeed turn out to be the band’s swansong, then they’ve certainly gone out on a creative and emotional high.
I think Dave would be very proud.