The announcement of a new a-ha album last year was something of a shock – and a great surprise. After having disbanded in 2010 (mostly) because of personal issues and the need (at least for some of them) to do things outside the band, it sounded like an act of courage to admit that they still had something new to express as the popular trio they had been since the early eighties, knowing that their comeback would make themselves a laughing stock after the long so-called “Ending on a High Note” farewell tour five years ago.
Then, of course, came the anxiety. Was this reunion motivated by economic reasons? Was the new album meant to promote the forthcoming tour, and not the other way round like it is supposed to be when you consider your work more as “engaging” than “entertaining” (in Morten Harket’s own words)? Would it turn out to be an unfocused collection of songs from each member’s solo career under the common pavilion “a-ha”, as it was reported already back then that they did not work together in the studio, but in three very separate camps? To these questions only the music could answer properly, and all that was left was pure speculation among the fans and the critics, until the new album, their tenth and first since the critically acclaimed Foot of the Mountain (2009), landed on the first days of September.
There has always been this feeling with a-ha that they never quite achieved their potential, because of internal tensions resulting in albums quartered in contrary directions; because of the expectations of the public and the majors which signed them; because the legacy of the iconic “Take On Me” permeates everyone’s conception of the band, preventing them from going into more extreme territories. As Paul Waaktaar-Savoy put it in The Swing of Things (2010): “We could have taken a much more obscure path and still been so much more than what we are now. Bands like Talk Talk and Depeche Mode managed it. They took control of their own careers and made the necessary choices. We never did that. We’ve watered ourselves down by playing safe. We didn’t withstand the pressure – we simply weren’t difficult enough. We could have been weirder, but still very commercial. I think all of us feel that equally. The problem is that we’re a bit dumbfounded if something we do doesn’t sell so well.” Still they are a multi-faceted band, whose strength, alongside the unique voice of Morten Harket, has always been the overtly melodic essence of their music – and not the use of a particular sound, evolving from the synthpop of their first outfit on Hunting High and Low (1985, not miles away from Tears For Fears’ The Hurting released two years earlier) to their rockier incarnation during the nineties, and their more recent indie-pop songwriting, with song-structures full of twists and corners, lots of chord changes and absence of anthemic choruses without sacrificing anything to the inherent drama of their hooks.
The last decade also marked a reappraisal of the band and its legacy, allowing people as different as Chris Martin and Christian Fennesz to say how much they have admired the music of a-ha. Whatever sound they had, whichever producer they worked with, the band always transcended the sonic aesthetics to offer meaningful, superior pop music, at times light, at times melancholic, at times even darker but always beautiful, like some kind of Beach Boys for another generation. There is always more than meets the eye on an a-ha song, not least in their broader solo careers, from the indie rock of the first Savoy records to the collage experimentation of keyboardist Magne Furuholmen – himself respected as a visual artist in his own right – who collaborated in the late 90s with the people that were creating Khmer and Electronique Noire around the same time. Good as it is, a-ha’s first single ever, which petrified their image for the decades to come, is actually quite unlike anything they have done ever since – until they tried to get back to that spirit for Foot of the Mountain, deciding for once to write and work together around some dogmas, producing perhaps their most focused album ever, with riffs spanning multiple tracks and their rejuvenated tunes sounding fresh through the use of dissonant and unpredictable chords created by the synthetic soundscape, featuring also interesting and glitchy sounds on a couple of tracks. It sounded like the perfect way to come full circle, immediate and still requiring time to be fully appreciated.
Considered then – wrongly – as their swan song, Foot of the Mountain gradually became a special place for me, that would be hard to top for a band so much distorted by tensions and compromises. I was obviously extremely excited by the announcement of the reformation being driven by the impulse to make new music, but there were some reasons to fear too. During the five-years break, besides his interesting implication in the Apparatjik collective, Furuholmen’s musical work included co-writing one song for the Backstreet Boys as well as writing and producing albums for three of his “talents” after he was a mentor during the first season of the Norwegian adaptation of TV-show The Voice. Waaktaar-Savoy co-worked with a former Idol contestant, and Harket’s own studio work sounded like the kind of music you usually hear from these singing competitions. True, none of these albums were complete rubbish, and each offered moments of real pleasure for people who like to be secured in their taste. It is difficult to leave aside one’s own presuppositions and representations, still whoever judges the quality of the music based on the credibility of the artist is a fool – especially in pop-music. But, contrary to these records which sounded safe and predictable and did not document the development of its members as songwriters, a-ha’s music somehow managed to never sound cliché, thanks to the never forced, but still very expressive inflexions of singer Morten Harket, to a songwriting more complex and layered than the average, and to a production that always succeeded in keeping edges and proved a real attention to the actual sound – not only the efficiency of the tunes. Even when they worked on Analogue (2005) in Kensaltown Studio with producer Martin Terefe, they released something much more tense and exploratory than the mellow tones associated to the post-Britpop acts usually recording there. Coming from another time and more indie ways of making music, a-ha have managed to maintain a clear identity and still a high level of relevancy through three decades, putting out dozens of really strong and varied songs, even if this tension between being bankable (also meaning: not having to take all the responsibilities by oneself) and expressing oneself artistically has probably prevented them to give their best work – and to be more radically this or that.
Contrary to Minor Earth׀ Major Sky (2000), also released after a six-years hiatus, which was a complete departure from the previous album, Cast in Steel is a reinforcement of elements that were already present on Foot of the Mountain. The first five tracks are probably the most immediate a-ha songs – at least they are the perfect continuation of some of the aspects found on this album, itself presented in its time by the band as a sort of back-to-the-roots.
It kicks off with two ballads written by Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, that reach their full emotional power during the choruses, both enhanced by orchestral arrangements courtesy of Jaga Jazzist’s leader Lars Horntveth. The title-track starts with a delicate and subtle synth loop that unfolds throughout the song, perfectly complementing a classic but effective mix of acoustic guitars, bass (played by another Jaga Jazzist’s member, Even Ormestad), drums and strings that add a welcomed level of variations in the otherwise circular structure. It sounds quite close to “Nothing is Keeping You Here” from the previous album, sharing some of the same chords progression and a similar production, but gets much more directly emotional than anything from the band since long. The lyrics are simple, as is the melody, yet it drags enough complex feelings in the different musical sections to prove that Waaktaar-Savoy has lost none of his touch. The soaring vocals and the simple yet subtle lyricism of the songwriting also prevent it to fall into cliché.
First single “Under the Makeup” follows on the same path. The construction and chord sequence are slightly more sophisticated (recalling a-ha’s supposedly last single, “Butterfly, Butterfly (The Last Hurrah)”, from 2010), yet the simple melody make them appear seamless. The album mix is somewhat diluted compared to the single mix, the strings turned down such as it sounds less like the James Bond-ish thing it was originally, but leaves space to interesting sonic details – from the melodic bass of Even Ormestad to the sparkling of the brass, the processional drumming and the use of a theremin. Here again the shamelessly emotional impact of the chorus harks back to the kind of songs Waaktaar-Savoy used to write during the 80s, and the song is strong enough to stand proudly besides such anthems as “The Sun Always Shines on TV” and “The Blood that Moves the Body”. The lyrics, simple as they are, have this quality of honesty from someone feeling sharply the affective aspects of his life, and, trying to stay true and communicate his vulnerability and isolation, turns them into sincere things of beauty.
The next three songs build on the kind of uptempo, riffs-oriented synthpop the band developed in the first half of Foot of the Mountain. “The Wake” is a song co-written and co-produced by Harket with partner Peter Kvint, and it definitely sounds closer to his solo album Out of my Hands (2012) than to the sophisticated pop-music that a-ha stands for. It is lighter than the two previous songs, and even if it shares some of its rhythmic elements with Foot of the Mountain‘s opener “The Bandstand”, it does not reach that level of success for the sake of a more predictable and hazy songwriting. Contrary to Waaktaar-Savoy’s ability in the first two songs to make even simple chords sound fresh in the way they collide with the melody, here there is nothing to be impressed by. When meant to take part of an album, there are two kinds of songs, the ones that stand out on their own, and the ones that make sense next to the other tracks inside the context of the whole record. “The Wake” clearly belongs to the latter category, like most of the songs written by Harket for a-ha through the years, with a melody and vocal range that hint to some of its neighbours, and a production that has just the right level of corners and depths through the mix of programmings with real instruments to not feel too polished. The problem is that, contrary to Harket’s usual moody ballads, it is shamelessly commercial, but somewhat fails in its attempt to make huge and extrovert its otherwise intimate subject – something a-ha has always been good at.
Next cut “Forest Fire”, co-written by Furuholmen and Harket with Terefe and Kvint (the first time there are so many songwriters involved on a single a-ha song), sounds like an attempt to re-make the title-track of Foot of the Mountain. But, contrary to this song that had so much going on, and whose genesis is as fascinating as its final result (as documented on the bonus disc of Cast in Steel where its original version is included), “Forest Fire” sounds retro Europop, and has simply not such a strong identity, even if there is something addictive about the keyboards riff. The fire metaphor in the lyrics is a bit overused too. Then again, a decent tune, but not of the standard they have accustomed us to expect. It is probably the kind of song people who only know “Take On Me” relate to a-ha, but it does not feel that natural for them to do so. What is more, it would probably have been more in sync with the overall uptempo direction of Foot of the Mountain. It is the most immediate song on the record, but at the same time it requires a few listenings before being able to fully appreciate its details.
Things start to get better again on “Objects in the Mirror” which sounds like an outtake of “Foot of the Mountain”. It is the doppelgänger of “What There is” (with which it shares the same production team – Steve Osborne and Erik Ljunggren alongside Magne Furuholmen): it has the same kind of synths and strings arrangement with variations all along the way, but with real drums and the exact guitar and bass sounds of closing-track “Start the Simulator”. It also has the fade-out ending so often used in their previous synthpop attempts. And the trademark Morten Harket vocals, punctuated by onomatopoeias like “hum”, “yeah”, “ha!”, that still manage to sound natural. In terms of songwriting, it is really close to the song “All the red lights” that Furuholmen wrote for Martin Halla’s first album Winter Days, released in 2013. But the production contains more layers, and the construction makes it a more interesting journey. It succeeds in staying true to the core of a-ha by maintaining an equilibrium between accessibility and sincerity, making the best of the pop-song medium both expressively and commercially. And it is a song that bridges the gap between the rather light first tracks and the darker electro-driven songs on the second half of Cast in Steel.
Yet, at this point of the record, you start wondering whether there is still room for a-ha in 2015 as the relevant pop band they have been from day one, or if this record is meant to be an addendum only destined to their (truly faithful) fan base. Indeed the band seems to be willing to embrace its legacy, going back to some of the elements that made them famous in the first place. Even if its chorus is classic post-Millenium’s Waaktaar-Savoy, “Door Ajar” certainly has echoes of “Blue Sky”, in the way its two-words title is repeated several times over a simple F-Am chords pattern, whereas the lyrics recall those of “Scoundrel Days”. The title-track of their sophomore album from 1986 is even quoted in “Shadow Endeavors”, at the end of which a section from the original demo that did not make it to the final version, is juxtaposed to a completely different song. And “She’s Humming a Tune” is actually a song written around 1984, during the very beginnings of the band, which was not recorded at the time and whose lyrics were eventually lost and only recovered in 2011, a few months after a-ha disbanded. It probably felt natural to test it with Harket’s voice when Waaktaar-Savoy and him decided to start playing around some ideas together a few months later, without telling anyone, and with no reformation of the band in mind at that point in time. It sounds like the perfect encounter between “Scoundrel Days” and “Days on End”, and is probably what the title-track of that album would have sounded like with real drums and bass. Morten Harket’s effective “Living at the End of the World” is a nod to the power ballads they already gave a try with the title-track of their third album Stay on These Roads (1988). But, strangely enough, the second half of the disc proves that it is actually the contrary, and by looking back at what made them who they are in the first place, a-ha show they are still relevant and meaningful in 2015.
The tracks on the second half of Cast in Steel hold pretty well together, regardless of who wrote and produced them. Sure, the production on “Living at the End of the World” is a bit sugary, with its pop-rock aesthetics supported by strings and lying upon a cosy bed of programmings. It would have been more at home on Analogue, next to songs like “Birthright” and “Keeper of the Flame”. But the remaining songs, whether written by Waaktaar-Savoy or Furuholmen, and produced by Tarney or Ljunggren, are surprisingly cohesive and, yes, adventurous. The already mentioned “Door Ajar”, co-produced by Tarney, features lots of analogue synths mixed with electric guitars, intelligent programmings that leave a lot of space for the melody to resonate, and heavily processed vocals in the last part that sound absolutely unlike anything a-ha had done until then. It manages the tour de force of being both their most experimental song AND the one that eventually sounds the most like what you would relate to the essence of a-ha. It is probably the kind of electro-pop music they wanted to make on Minor Earth׀ Major Sky but did not achieve at the time because of pressures from the record company – and probably of a less assumed will to go that heavily electronic. You cannot help but think that this is the kind of music that bands like The Beatles or The Kinks would have done if they had formed today, with the tools of our time.
“Mythomania”, written by Furuholmen, is conceptually the follow-up to “Cosy Prisons” from Analogue. Once again the production makes it sound really different from what you would expect from a-ha, and certainly has a Depeche Mode vibe. But both the structure (progressive pop with juxtaposed sections) and the lyrics (plus the way Harket sings them, using both his lower and higher range) transcend its commercial appeal to make it a truly interesting and challenging track. Synths come to the fore and there is a sense of excitement in the way programmed and real drums mix together to give heights to what may otherwise not be the most interesting composition on the disc. “She’s Humming a Tune” opens (and fades) with slightly detuned guitars played over the crackles of a vinyl, giving it an unexpected vintage feel before turning into the proper classic 80s a-ha song, loaded with gritty synths and guitars. “Shadow Endeavours”, another Waaktaar-Savoy song (and the second co-produced by Tarney), is almost a-ha goes IDM – and for the best of it. As in “Door Ajar” the programming is great, adding some offbeat patterns that make it sound even more interesting. There are lots of micro-details on the background during the verses, which almost give the impression that sampling methods were used. The melody is fantastic, the lyrics quite literal about what the band was doing at the time, and the collage of the coda brings the song into a completely different direction, while the transition still sounds completely natural. “Giving Up the Ghost”, the final track written by Furuholmen works as some kind of a diptych with “Objects in the Mirror”, opening with the same guitar motive, which adds coherency to the album as a whole. Once again, it is progressive pop, featuring some of his best songwriting ever in the way the sections work together. It is the same kind of cold penultimate track as “Sunny Mystery”, the only song from Foot of the Mountain written solely by Furuholmen, and features some goth guitars, strings, and voice-over over a dark soundscape of electronica. “Goodbye Thompson” (the third and last track co-produced by Waaktaar-Savoy and Tarney) is as fitting a closing-track as the title-track was a beautiful opener. The band have a tradition of ending albums with weirder and more complex songs (think of “You’ll End Up Crying”, “Mary Ellen Makes the Moment Count” or “Start the Simulator”), and this one is no exception. It has an hint of “No Surprises” in the intro, but then goes into more uncharted territories – at least for an a-ha song. There are a lot of things going on with the use of the stereo, and the way guitars, choirs and synths interweave, until the last notes resonate and let it open to what (hopefully) might come next. And it has some of the best lyrics in the band’s history, both simple, moving and accurate. As often there is a sense of things ending, as they seem to be about moving away from one place, but the engrossing power of that song, its energy despite the feeling that nothing lasts forever, gives a sensation that new things may happen between the lines.
With its 12 songs Cast in Steel is definitely not a focused album, but at the same time this method of working separately has given them the liberty of doing whatever they wanted with their own material, and has made it sound more playful and radical without needing to compromise in order to have a “band sound”. For sure, it sounds more like a collection of songs coming from different places and covering all the aspects of their career (from the emotion to the pomposity; from the catchiness to the melancholy) than like the perfect pop album they would be able to produce if they decided to really work together. But at the same time they prove, at least over the course of five songs – the three co-produced by Waaktaar-Savoy and Tarney and Furuholmen’s two cuts co-produced with Ljunggren, “Mythomania” and “Giving Up the Ghost” – that they are able to create music that is relevant today and sounds like contemporary artpop.
It is not a perfect album, and feels more like an attempt of working again under the same pavilion and thus composing things they would not have otherwise. Maybe it would have deserved a less democratic or more focused approach, instead of offering incarnations of all the sides of the band, from the soaring and emotional ballads to the darker angles of their electronic experimentation. But that is the way it is, and even if the album is a bit uneven, none of the tracks are a worthless addition to their catalogue anyway. Still Harket’s compositions are not on the same level as those of his two colleagues, and when we know that at least twice as much material has been recorded and produced and “only” 12 songs have been chosen during what has been described by the band members themselves as a painful process, we can only dream of hearing the remaining tracks produced by Waaktaar-Savoy with Tarney, hopefully in a deluxe edition pretty soon. At the same time, we have to take the album as it was meant to be: a circumstantial object documenting where these three individuals are at this point of their life when they decide to create something “together”. They have a long tradition of songs dealing with their own status as a band and the relationships between them, and some of the tracks here can definitely be interpreted that way. The really simple cover strengthens that, and the booklet offers background pictures of Furuholmen’s ceramics work Imprints, which works according to himself as a diary of sorts.
The music of a particular artist is like a territory, we need time to pace it, some of its details appear only at the umpteenth journey, and its extension adds more depths, layers and meaning to the whole space it occupies. In the context of pop-music, where there is always more than just the music going on (it is an industry and it has to be good under certain standards), it is all the more interesting to imagine what kind of tensions hold together these three men with a common fate, and make their individual paths intertwine. It is a better album than what I hoped for, but not as good as what they would be able to produce if they used their tensions and history to work together in the same direction. Cast in Steel proves they are closer than they probably know themselves. But their sincerity might be what makes them so endearing, and the fact that they condemn themselves to play second fiddle next to more commercially successful acts makes their music more honest and human. And true. And it is priceless, in a Western world struggling for points of reference and models, to have something that embraces the traditional ways of entertainment to offer something more.
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