Album Review: Giants – The Stranglers
For European bass players of a certain age, The Stranglers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel is more than just a revered player of the instrument. Amid the cultural milieu of the UK punk scene of 1977/78, he was the only bassist worth listening to. His fast, furious, in-your-face bass style was at the fore of The Strangler’s first three glorious albums and, as such, inspired a generation of players to crank up the volume, roll on the treble, and bop menacingly at the front of the stage, scaring the bejabbers out of anyone who might cross their path. Forget the posturing Paul Simonon (The Clash), who didn’t really master his instrument till the band’s third album, or the root note rudimentaries of Glen Matlock (The Sex Pistols), Burnel’s was the only name that mattered to wannabe punk and new wave bassists. No bass player looked cooler, played better, or had such a mesmerising stage presence. Best of all was that his bass sounded incredible. His tone was like that of an angry John Entwhistle, or Chris Squire with a serious strop on: surly with a heavy dollop of menace.
Were you to meet it walking down the street, it would probably head-butt you just for the sake of it. However, that was a long time ago and in the intervening years The Stranglers have undergone a number of member, and stylistic, changes, although the core trio of Burnel, drummer Jet Black and keys player Dave Greenfield have remained constant throughout.
‘Giants’ is their seventeenth studio album, their first in five years, and their second with Baz Warne in the guitarist/vocalist spot. It’s also an absolute belter, with the band sounding as magnificent as they did in their prime. Central to this is the throaty rasp of Burnel’s chilling bass timbre, placed – right from the opening instrumental track, ‘Another Camden Afternoon’ – exactly where it should be, at the very top of the mix.
Burnel’s bass playing has always been about impact. He keeps his parts simple when the song demands it (for example, on the album’s title track), letting his tone do the work for him. Other times he will unleash wonderful, spiralling bass patterns that will have you reaching for your own instrument in order to indulge in the joyous pleasure of playing along. ‘Giants’ shows that his ability to write a catchy bass line remains undiminished. ‘Mercury Rising’ has a fabulous twisting part that thrills the heart to listen to; ‘Time was once on my side’ is propelled by a sneaky variation of the old Johnny Kidd ‘Shaking all Over’ riff; and his bass line to the country shuffle ’15 Steps to Heaven’ is like a well-tuned engine, purring to perfection. Some delightful acoustic bass chord plucking introduces the album’s sole laid b[l]ack track, ‘My Fickle Resolve’, whose vocal harmonies conjure up memories of their 1980s hit, ‘Skin Deep’. Indeed, Stranglers aficionados might point to the odd recycling of old ideas (for example, ‘Freedom is Insane’ has a distinct whiff of ‘Toiler on the Sea’ to it; the bridge part of ‘Lowlands’ riffs on ‘Curfew’), but these feel more like conscious reference points – self-referential nods to their own back catalogue – as opposed to regurgitation simply for the sake of it.
If their previous release, 2007′s ‘Suite XVI’, was the album with which they fully embraced the musical legacy of their early years, ‘Giants’ continues in that vein. At its heart are great songs, skilfully crafted, and with each musician’s part thoughtfully considered. The key to its success is that the band sound fresh, full of a vitality and vigour that belies their longevity. This is a fine record by any act’s standards and a worthy equal to anything The Stranglers released in their heyday. If you are a fan, you won’t be disappointed; if you’ve never bought a Stranglers album before, then this is as good a place to start as any.