Co-written with guest blogger & a-ha connoisseur Lax Madapaty
“If you have more to say, why wouldn’t you say it” said Paul Waaktaar at a press conference at the Norwegian Embassy in Berlin in March 2015. This was his rationale for the resurrection of Norwegian pop/rock trio a-ha to record the new album “Cast In Steel” – just a few years after they sang their swan song on their “Ending on a high note” tour. There is an inherent risk of diluting as opposed to expanding on a stellar legacy when a band returns to the limelight after having called it quits on a high. We’re guessing a-ha is aware of this and have immense confidence in their artistry to take that calculated risk. The highly anticipated “Cast in Steel” has seen the light of day today – and fans, critics, and skeptics finally have a chance to judge whether or not the band’s confidence was misplaced or well-founded.
About two months ago, the band debuted the album’s lead single – the adult contemporary-flavored “Under the makeup“. The song is a musical nod to the band’s “Lifelines” album era. It is also the album’s “red herring” in that it is not even remotely indicative of the predominant musical style on the album. “Cast in steel” showcases the band embracing their synthpop roots just as they did on their 2009 album “Foot of the mountain“. “Under the makeup” is somewhat ineffective in its ability to be a strong lead single primarily because it relies heavily on brilliant cinematic orchestration (which emerges much later in the song) to carry the somewhat lackluster melody through as opposed to the melody and production elements feeding off of each other. This represents a stark contrast to “Summer Moved On” – another post-hiatus song and the lead single off a-ha’s “Minor Earth Major Sky” album. That song shared some of the same musical ingredients with “Under the makeup” but those different ingredients reinforced each other. In doing so, they made “Summer Moved On” a modern classic that successfully transcended the boundaries of a-ha’s core fanbase. In comparison, “Under the makeup” pales in its ability to make a similar impact. Furthermore, the song has the elements of a grand finale as opposed to having the ingredients that signal the beginning of a new chapter. This aspect also impacts its place in the sequence of tracks on the album. It is track #2 when in reality it is probably more fitting as an album closer.
The songs on “Cast In Steel” flit between being mid-tempo and downtempo (with the two exceptions being “Forest Fire” and “Door Ajar” both of which are unambiguously uptempo). The album has a stylistic cohesion that attempts to unify the visions of three separate creative nuclei – Morten Harket & Peter Kvint, Magne Furuholmen & Martin Terefe, and Paul Waaktaar & Alan Tarney. It goes without saying that the album’s highlights are concentrated in the first half. The common element that unites the first half is the seamless amalgamation of synth-pop elements with rich orchestration which together blossom into an exquisite sonic tapestry. Any of these songs could have been a musical lovechild of a-ha and the Oslo Philharmonic during the rehearsals for their highly acclaimed Royal Albert Hall (London) shows in 2010. The highlights of the album are:
- “Cast in Steel“: If there ever was a single reason that justifies the band reuniting after announcing its dissolution, this song is that reason. The song’s verses are buoyed by sonic swirls of delectable Postal Service-esque electronica and light percussion while the achingly beautiful chorus drifts in a beautiful soundscape of lush string arrangements. Lead singer Morten Harket‘s vocals brim with a youthful innocence as he poignantly sings the following wistful lines of the chorus:
I’ll never get over what we said
It lingers, in my head
I’ll never get over what we knew;
One Hundred Percent to be true
To be right, to be real
Set in stone and cast in steel
We made a pact, eye to eye
Cross your heart and hope to die;
This song is bound to create a lump in the heart of anyone that listens to it. If there ever was such a thing as an exhilarating tear-jerker, this song is it. Who knew melancholy could be so seductive? This song screams “modern romantic classic” and ought to have been the obvious choice for the album’s lead single.
- “The Wake”: “Can’t change the one you love, I’ve made a few mistakes“. Penned by the band’s introspective lead singer Morten Harket, this midtempo song delves into the futility of trying to change others, through logic, emotion or authority. This approach is a trap that gets worse with every subsequent try. A complete acceptance of the other person in a relationship is key to the strength of that relationship. This song is that wake up call.
- “Forest Fire”: For those (especially in America) whose entire view of a-ha revolves solely around the band’s signature single “Take On Me“, this song might be the most familiar musical moment. Propelled by a long keyboard solo section (which sounds a lot like the one on the title track of their last album “Foot of the mountain“) courtesy of Magne Furuholmen, the song appears like the sonic cousin of “Take On Me“. While the songs benefit from almost the same tempo and strong keyboard presence, the difference lies in the fact that Morten Harket showcases a narrower section of his vocal range than he does on “Take On Me“. This song, according to us, is also a candidate for a single. In a world in which we held the reins of a-ha’s singles strategy, “Forest Fire” would be single #3.
- “Objects in the (rear view) mirror”: This mid-tempo song breaks the prolonged melancholic streak that permeates through the first four tracks on the album. The first ray of optimism on the album shines on this song – as the lyrics of the soaring chorus suggest:
Looking back in spaces sweet;
Now the world is at your feet;
Love will make your life complete;
We can stitch a life together;
With the fibers of the past;
It is also the first song on the album with a “Middle 8” – a component associated with a standard pop song structure. We think of this song as worthy of being released as the album’s sophomore single.
Our focus on the first half of the album might mislead the reader into believing that the second half ought to be ignored. This is not the case. The second half does have its moments. The first momentary upswing in the second half comes for “She’s humming a tune” – a song whose lyrics were written by Paul Waaktaar in 1984. The diary in which the lyrics were written was lost for 27 years, and was finally retrieved in 2011 thanks to the efforts of dedicated a-ha fan P.A. Stenersen. The second upswing in the album’s second half comes from “Giving up the ghost” – a dramatic song that has a sonic underpinning that is very reminiscent of the title track of the band’s “Stay on these roads” album. It also features brilliant vocals harmonies between Morten Harket and Paul Waaktaar. The expanded version of the album features alternate versions to songs featured on the 2009 album “Foot of the mountain“. The one that truly stands out from this bunch is “Shadowside“. This version of the song is probably the closest to the one that the band previewed at a Royal Albert Hall (London) performance when they were in the midst of writing and recording “Foot of the mountain“. That embryonic version of “Shadowside” possessed an inherent beauty that would not be out of place on Duran Duran‘s 1993 album titled “The Wedding Album“.
No album review is complete without a clear verdict on the merits of the album. In the case of this album, the real question is whether or not “Cast In Steel” is an essential expansion of the band’s legacy – and whether this album was worth reuniting for. We strongly believe that it absolutely is an essential expansion of the band’s legacy. It fully eclipses its predecessor “Foot of the mountain” in terms of quality and as a result, makes for a better swan song (if this is indeed) than “Foot of the mountain” was intended to be. That being said, it does not scale the heights of albums such as “Hunting high and low” and “Minor Earth Major Sky“. Both these albums derived benefits from a creative process that was truly collaborative. The resultant musical synergy between the three band-members was clearly greater than the sum of its individual constituents. “Cast in Steel“, on the other hand, is representative of an album of three solo artists with three distinct visions. The creative process here is quite reminiscent of the one employed for their “Lifelines” album. As a result, it yields fewer goosebump-inducing “wow” moments. To a-ha fans, “Cast In Steel” is the gift of a band that has never ceased to impress over a span of three decades – ever since they first took the world by storm with their debut album “Hunting high and low“. It remains to be seen how these new songs will translate to a live environment. We wait with bated breath and anticipation for the a-ha world tour to begin.
STAR RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
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Here is a full-length clip of the album’s title track below:
We are an American internet radio station that broadcasts worldwide. The station features an eclectic mix of current pop and rock music from both sides of the Atlantic alongside hits, forgotten gems, and rarities from the last three decades. The music of a-ha (both old and new) is a regular staple on our radio station. The music (both old and new) of a-ha is a regular staple on our station – including songs from the “Cast In Steel” album. We also play plenty of newer music by bands that rose to prominence in the 80s. Noteworthy examples include Tears For Fears, Duran Duran, Camouflage, Spandau Ballet, George Michael, INXS, Depeche Mode, Johnny Hates Jazz, Simple Minds, and Culture Club.
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