After five years on United Artists Records and a vibrantly successful career, The Stranglers, managed to leave their first label with an all-time best seller in “Golden Brown.” This left them in the enviable position of a bidding war by labels eager to add them to their roster. Epic Records won their hand and immediately, the changes came fast and furious. Not that the never-quite-punks weren’t strangers to growth and change from the start, but the acoustic guitars and Simmons drums of “Feline,” their debut for Epic were certainly unprecedented. Long-time fans of a certain disposition wailed and gnashed their teeth, but I was onboard with the program. Their next album added backing vocalists and …the horn section.
The Stranglers: Aural Sculpture 
The Stranglers: Aural Sculpture – CAN – CD 
- Ice Queen
- Skin Deep
- Let Me Down Easy
- No Mercy
- North Winds
- Punch = Judy
- Mad Hatter
“Ice Queen” kicked off the 1984 Stranglers album as if it were a seamless continuation of the band’s preceding “Feline” ethos. The belligerent [but accomplished] “punk” sound of 1977 was a distant memory as the bend were exploring finely etched pop music in this era. Hugh Cornwell has said that he saw the band as filling the space in the market that the recently retired Roxy Music left open. A certain sophistication was up front these days. The thuggish bass of J.J. Burnel had been dropped and he was now playing with an accomplished subtlety. Drummer Jet Black had added Simmons drums to his kit the last time out and they were still there. “Ice Queen” could have easily been a track on “Feline.” At least until its midpoint.
It was there that the horns added a syncopated riff that had an electrifying effect on the song from that point onward. Interesting… Who would have expected horns in this band? But the new producer this time out was Laurie Latham. Fresh off of producing hits for Paul Young. The Stranglers had had a successful four year run with Steve Churchyard producing some of their biggest hits and Latham was the new blood. The lowing trombone portamento hooks in “Ice Queen” dovetailed nicely with what J.J. Burnel was doing on his fretless bass. The horns served were not cliché and were unexpected, so I was fine with this new wrinkle, but would the band and producer overplay their hand? Elvis Costello’s album had been overwrought.
As it turned out, discretion really is the better part of valor! The horn section only appeared on three songs here and was used sparingly and with good taste. And unlike the OMD album, both the performance and the material using them was of a higher caliber. “Punch + Judy” opened with a showcase of stacked brass that was actually breathtaking. This was a sound that horns were meant for and little else could have achieved such an impact, but the song was of two minds. Given the metaphorical subject matter of the tune, the impressive use of horns in the song’s chorus sat cheek-by-jowl with a cartoonish use of the horns that actually brought to mind the “Batman” 1966 TV series for me. There was even a sax solo on the song’s outro that was tastefully jazz-inflected and made me want to hear more.
Finally, the last song on the album also used the brass section. “Mad Hatter” began with a jaunty swing with vibes leading and smooth BVs over a simple, and relentless programmed drumbeat. The horns only entered on the middle eight as a tantalizingly brief four bar trombone solo. The trombone only re-entered the fray on the fadeout. Well, I say always leave them wanting more. There was no shortage of sax solos in the soporific 80s. but outside of the ska revival, trombone solos were pretty thin on the ground.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Like with OMD, the horn section would “adhere” to The Stranglers for the next few albums until 1990, when Hugh Cornwell left the band following their “10” album. Making for a decidedly different live prospect as documented on the “All Live + All Of The Night” album. “Aural Sculpture” has always been a favorite late period Stranglers album for me. The singles are great and the deep cuts like “Ice Queen” and especially “North Winds” were strong additions to the band’s canon. I bought it immediately upon release just to have the magnificent “Skin Deep” in the Record Cell as soon as I could. I’m not entirely convinced by the BVs here; I felt the band had always acquitted themselves admirably on that score. But the horn section actually added to the experience of this album.
GRADE – A-
NEXT: Scientific Americans