Well it has been a long time coming and we all know the tragic circumstances that plagued its late stage gestation. The fact that the album is tied in with the last major tour that the band will do, the poignancy of the material with respect to the loss of Dave Greenfield, now recognised quite rightly as a British musician whose virtuosity has placed him among the ranks of the greatest rock musicians of all time, has heightened the media's interest in the album. 'Dark Matters' has had the most coverage of any album probably since 'Black & White'!
For my part I am still absorbing the tracks and my opinion, for all that it is worth, will be shared in the coming days. In the meantime here are some of the music press's online reactions to this their 18th studio album.
Uncut Magazine 10th September 2021
Death puts the Men in Black in sombre, elegiac mood.
Even punk didn’t want The Stranglers: the movement for damaged outcasts drew the line at these Surrey brutes, seen as too thuggish, ancient, sexist and straight. Before that, pub-rockers too thought themselves above this glowering crew, with their corduroy-wearing biochemistry graduate singer, 37-year-old jazz drummer with a taste for home-brewing, a brooding bassist ever itching to use his karate skills, and a hippie keyboardist whose unfashionable solos inspired flashbacks of the verboten Doors, though he expressed a preference for Yes. Such faces certainly didn’t fit Malcolm McLaren’s Situationist programme, leaving them as uncomprehending rock press pariahs, blindly lashing out at their tormentors.
And yet the blows keep coming. Their once terrifying drummer and founder, Jet Black, retired in 2015 with enough health problems to give Python’s Black Knight pause. Like Don Corleone near The Godfather’s end, he no longer runs things, but still offers wise counsel. So when Dave Greenfield, their jazzy, proggy keyboardist, died from Covid-19 on May 3, 2020, it was Black who told the last original Strangler standing, Burnel, to press on.
The band’s 18th album, Dark Matters, was largely finished before Greenfield died, when lockdown windows allowed Warne to visit Burnel’s French home, and was completed remotely. After the snarling insensitivity that once defined The Stranglers, it’s reflective and poignant. Even if you strip away the late touches acknowledging Greenfield’s loss, the mood is suddenly grave and inevitably valedictory. “We’re a bunch of old guys now,” Burnel agrees, “and I wanted our music to reflect that.”
Greenfield might have generally been the quietest member of the band, but when they started to play, it was him, head bowed at the keyboard, who always set the mood, his fairground swirl energising the others. So it still is on Dark Matters, as the opener Water sees his playing surge and then explode into a mighty Stranglers riff, Warne’s guitar and the keyboard then trading slashing blows. In an album that took nine years to cohere, Burnel’s lyric, with water a metaphor for the Arab Spring’s thirst for democracy, sounds sadly stranded in history.
And If You Should See Dave… is the most notable posthumous addition, with Burnel considering “things that should have been said, eternal regrets”; “This is where your solo would go”, he adds, the lush music arranged around that gaping absence. “Innocence has left this house, to wander among the stars”, begins Burnel’s other new lyric, on If Something’s Gonna Kill Me (It Might As Well Be Love), showing Greenfield’s almost sanctified Strangler status, somehow stood apart from their bruising battles. “Our glory’s far behind us”, Burnel acknowledges, “and I miss ya”.
The Sunderland snap of Warne’s vocal bites down with relish on This Song, a co-write with Mathew Seamarks that imagines burying feelings for a sundered relationship with manic completeness. The Stranglers’ bracing, unapologetic bile rises here. Payday, too, rains contempt on callous leaders with a nod to the history-steeped lyrics of No More Heroes: “Alexander was never the same after he speared his old companion/It led to Ptolemy and Cleopatra…”
But it’s Burnel’s husky, burnt-out ballad voice that defines Dark Matters. The Lines counts life’s cost in the face in the mirror, Greenfield’s honky-tonk organ shadowing a country strum. Down is a sunken elegy sung to Spanish guitar, ’til hopes rise again like the sun. Breathe is the best and last song here, beginning as a ’60s pop chanson. Greenfield’s synths dance above its final minutes, the keyboardist both in a world of his own and with his bandmates one last time, until the only sound left is a transmission signal, blinking out, leaving the survivors in limbo. If wouldn’t be the worst way for a last Stranglers album to close.
Louder Than War 11th August 2021
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 channeling 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.
Classic Rock Magazine 14th September 2021
The Stranglers: Dark Matter and the death of Dave Greenfield.
Forty-four years on from their first hit and almost 10 since their last album, The Stranglers have weathered storms and return with a new record dedicated to late keyboard player Dave Greenfield.
There have been times recently when it’s seemed as if the whole world of music had gone into slow motion – if not suspended animation. Shows and festivals cancelled en masse, albums and tours postponed and then postponed again… But the gestation of The Stranglers’ new album, Dark Matters, has made those timelines look like mere blips by comparison.
If we point out that opening track Water was written as a contemporary response to the 2011 Arab Spring (when anti-government protests and uprisings took place in much of the Arab world) that gives you an idea of when the songs began to take shape. Some other ideas have even earlier origins.
“We’ve got a hard and fast rule,” frontman Baz Warne says, “whereby nothing ever gets thrown away.”
Hence ideas that first emerged even before The Stranglers’ last studio album, 2012’s Giants, have slowly been firmed up into a spiky, eclectic set that shows how the grouchy rumble of the classic Stranglers sound has long-since diversified. Maybe that was inevitable, given that two cornerstones of that sound are now no longer in place.
The elder statesman of the group, drummer Jet Black took a dignified bow out of the band as an active member in 2015, and the declining health of the now 82-year-old prevents him from having an active working role in the band. He’s still part of the set-up “in a consultancy role”, to use Warne’s words, but his robust playing is absent from Dark Matters, the band’s eighteenth and latest studio album.
Thankfully, keyboard player Dave Greenfield did contribute, putting his distinctive sound on eight of the album’s 11 tracks. Then the band were dealt another, more heart-breaking blow when Greenfield passed away in April 2020, after he caught COVID-19 while in hospital with heart problems. With the band’s Final Full UK Tour already postponed due to the pandemic, the question inevitably arose: is this the end for The Stranglers?
When Classic Rock talks to bassist and founder member Jean-Jacques Burnel in southern France, where he now lives, he pauses for thought before addressing this understandably emotional subject.
“Well it was the same as when Hugh [Cornwell, guitarist/singer] left the band over thirty years ago,” says Burnel, his gentle Home Counties tones reflecting the fact that while he has French parentage he was born and bred in London and Surrey. “I thought: ‘Well, that’s it,’ you know? The others talked me into keeping it going. But then you can’t replace a guy like Dave.
"I mean, there are people who play just as well as Dave, because he’s got disciples. But my first thought was: ‘Well, okay, let’s finish what we started [the album] and that’s it, really.’
“But I spoke to various people, and we had all these shows on sale, and they were still selling. I’m thinking: ‘What the fuck? Don’t they know that Dave has gone?’ And they do know that Dave is gone. I said to our agent: ‘So what the fuck is this all about?’ He said: ‘I think they want to hear the music.’
“The Stranglers isn’t really about personalities any more, I don’t think. It’s just about a certain musical imprint that has been around for quite a while now.”
Nonetheless, there’s no doubt as to which Stranglers personality their recent single was about. And If You Should See Dave… is one of several songs on the new album to touch on issues of ageing, relationships and mortality. But, unsurprisingly, given the context, it’s the most moving.
It’s a faintly ghostly meditation, built around shards of sun-dappled surf guitar, chiming bells and Burnel’s whispering vocal, which admits the powerful feelings that so many of us experience when we lose someone close: ‘How does it feel to be left in mid-conversation, no less / And things that should have been said, now left as eternal regrets?’ And yet at the same time there are touches of affectionate humour there as he sings: ‘No one told him I was waiting with a glass at the bar… see you at the bar?’
Towards the end he then admits: ‘It would be nice to say hello, this is where your solo would go.’ Hence the “conscious decision” not to have keyboards on the track (which topped the iTunes download chart briefly in May).
The video for And If You Should See Dave… pays further visual tribute to the song’s subject: a girl, with a keyboard propped in the back seat of her car, roams around Los Angeles, crossing paths with such curiosities as a rat (norvegicus, we presume) crawling across the pavement, and signs referring to ‘The Men In Black’, passing venues such as the Whisky A Go Go and the Regent Theatre, where The Stranglers played several notable shows, the latter being the scene of their last US performance with Greenfield.
“I honestly think he would have loved the song,” Warne says of Greenfield. “Because he loved that West Coast American sound, which is kind of the vibe it has. His wife also loved it. When we saw the video it was lump-in-the-throat time.”
And so the surviving Stranglers consists of Burnel, the sole remaining founder member, and Warne, the guitarist who took over as vocalist in 2006 but who has been with the band since 2000, along with drummer Jim Macaulay, who co-wrote several songs on the new album.
Anyone concerned that Burnel’s days as a thrusting bass monster might also be numbered can at least be reassured by the fact that he’s a famously fit individual, who as well as being a keen motorbike fan teaches karate, and achieved his Seventh Dan in Japan six years ago.
“This vehicle I inhabit, it’s taken me round the block a few times,” he says. “So I have to keep it serviced much more often than it used to. And I mustn’t abuse it as much as I used to! But I’m pretty fit for a bloke my age, yeah. I can do fifty to seventy push-ups at one go, I’ll do a few hundred crunches on a daily basis. And I’ll try and lift my motorcycle up if it drops.”
Even people in peak condition aren’t immune to the coronavirus, though. Back in May, when trying to meet up with his bandmates for the first time in 16 months, while en route to Calais Burnel was told that his PCR covid test had come back positive. He had to return home. Given that Burnel is 69, well inside the generations that are more at risk from the virus, he was perhaps fortunate not to suffer any symptoms, and talks of the episode with a faint air of puzzlement.
“I had no symptoms, but then you think, shit, maybe I’ve still been spreading it about. But then everyone I had been in contact with in the week before, they all had to test and they were all negative. So maybe mine was a false positive?”
He finally made it across the Channel to the UK in June, and plans to be involved in promotional activities for the album here, as well as touring with the band from January.
These days, of course, The Stranglers have reached a stage of their career where they don’t need to prove a great deal, but there’s a broad range of songs on Dark Matters that manage to retain trademark elements of their sound, not least Greenfield’s keyboard runs on songs such as Water, with its pounding tribute to the Arab Spring protesters, and Payday, which echoes the band’s 1977 hit No More Heroes in its gutsy combination of Burnel’s inimitable bass churn, freewheeling organ and Warne’s malevolent vocal attack.
Elsewhere, the beautifully poignant Lines has just an acoustic guitar accompanying Burnel tracing his own ageing process as he whispers: ‘There’s triumph and disgrace in the lines on my face’, while the piano lament Down is laced by Warne’s Spanish guitar. While there are mellow moments on the record, though, they’re offset by its fair share of gnarly rage.
The staccato jerkpunk of No-Man’s Land, for example, takes dead-eyed aim at a selfie-obsessed culture, sneering: ‘Stop thinking of yourselves for a minute,’ (in a lyric written by drummer Macaulay), and Payday accuses society of becoming ‘bisted and Twitter’.
Burnel endorses these sentiments. “It’s slightly pointed towards people who seem to want to believe any conspiracy theory going,” he says. “And a lot of that is spread by social media. Such as refusing to be vaccinated because you believe the government is trying to plant a chip in you or something. It’s quite a selfish thing. We’ve become so self-important that we have to share the minutiae of our lives with the fucking world.
"Why? I’m not on any of these [social media channels]. I’ve had too many years of being criticised, and it’s just toxic. And I think we’ve collectively created a monster. I don’t see too many positives in it. You can call me an old c**t to my face, and I really don’t care, but I find it’s a distraction from real life.”
These sorts of lyrics reflect a band who, while having voiced some pretty boorish sentiments, have always been unafraid to experiment and to make social comment.
“I think the British press, especially music press, always really wanted the rockers to be either rock'n'roll animals, or arty and intelligent,” says Burnel. “But you can never combine the two. But I always thought we did.”
Although Jet Black is still an honorary band member, Macaulay has been drumming with the band for nine years, while Baz Warne has been a Strangler for 21, first as guitarist, now as singer – a considerably longer tenure than original Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell. But that doesn’t stop some people from considering that anything but the classic line-up is an inferior facsimile. Including Cornwell, who in 2018 said that since he left the band in 1990 their songs “have been sequestered by a bogus version of the group with only two original members”.
Burnel laughs when he is reminded of this. “We’re more successful than ever now, and he isn’t, so I think it’s a bit of sour grapes on his part. I mean, after all, it’s a bit hypocritical for a bloke who, if he does two sets, will play one set of Stranglers stuff.
“I think he’s quite bitter,” Burnel continues. “We did this movie, for instance, a few years ago, and he won’t give permission for it to be released. That’s a shame, because the only person slagged off in it is me – by Hugh!”
The current Stranglers line-up has sounded pretty formidable in recent years, and Baz Warne for one, insists that this is now a band “champing at the bit” to get back out and play, and he hints strongly that The Final Full Tour won’t mean the end of The Stranglers as a live act.
“We didn’t want to do another twenty-, thirty-date tour of the UK,” says Burnel. “We’ve done it almost every year for so long, and although it’s enjoyable it really does tire you out.”
“It was all publicised and all arranged before Dave passed away,” says Warne. “And once the dust settled and we were even able to speak about it – because we didn’t want to talk about it for months, you know – we decided, well, we should honour the dates. And once we announced we would do that, the response, the love and respect we received, was quite overwhelming. I do recall sitting with moist eyes, reading some of the things people had said: ‘You’ve got to do it.’ ‘You must do it.’”
As for what comes next, Burnel isn’t looking too far ahead. “I’ve always said we think of every album as if it’s our last,” he says. “So you invest yourselves entirely in it. If we started thinking about the next thing, we wouldn’t give ourselves a hundred per cent to this. But I’m writing. I don’t have creative diarrhoea, but I do write regularly.”
One thing in no doubt, though, is that The Stranglers’ next live show is going to be an emotional occasion.
“When these shows do happen, they’re going to be highly charged,” Warne says. “I can’t even begin to tell you how it’ll feel. And then after that, who knows?”