Out of all the bands I know of, none are as confusing to me as a-ha. Everyone has heard “Take On Me,” and it seems like half as many artists have covered it. If you ask a random person on the streets of any city if they’ve heard of the band a-ha, the chances of them saying yes are unbelievably high, whether it’s because they saw the video for “Take On Me” on MTV in the mid-’80s, or because they heard the Weezer cover of that same song. If they’re American, though, they probably couldn’t tell you much else, myself included. In fact, until recently, I thought a-ha was little more than a one-hit wonder from over 30 years ago, but they’re anything but.
Since 1985’s “Take On Me,” they’ve released several studio albums, written and performed a James Bond theme, and held the record for biggest paid rock concert attendance at one point, according to the 2001 Guinness Book of World Records (Guinness World Records, 156). Their most recent studio album, Cast in Steel, was released in 2015. I’ve wanted to listen to this album from the moment I heard of its existence, and I figured this music review was a great reason to do so, as well as to look into it a little deeper than the average listener. And, after listening a little deeper than I usually would, I found Cast in Steel to be one of the more vocally and harmonically beautiful collections of music I’ve heard in quite a while.
I have to be totally honest: my first impression of Cast in Steel was not so stellar. I did notice some mild, pleasing similarities to Coldplay’s sort of “epic” sound, namely in my favorite track, “Under the Makeup,” though it’s probably mostly in the instrumentation (it’s pretty hard not to sound epic with french horns and orchestral strings). However, past that, I was not particularly pleased on my first few listens. The non-orchestral instrumental parts that were performed by humans didn’t sound particularly difficult or interesting. The synth bass/drum machine combo heard in tracks like “Mythomania” and “Shadow Endeavors” sounded cheesy and, for lack of a better term, lame, at first. This couldn’t be the “Take On Me” band, could it?
Then I listened deeper, and everything changed. I must have been setting myself up to dislike Cast in Steel because once I dropped all my biases and let the music speak for itself, I fell in love. Once I stopped looking at a-ha as the
“Take On Me” band and looking at the music as just its genre, I really started to realize how beautiful it was. Harmonically, it sets itself apart from pop music with a little bit of complexity, but it’s not so unbelievably complex that it’s unlistenable. Chord progressions don’t particularly go anywhere odd, but they do go places that they don’t always go, and it helped to create something beautiful. It isn’t quite the crazy jazz-fusion chord structure I usually enjoy, but it’s still wonderful to me.
Morten Harket’s vocals are just as beautiful as they were in the ‘80s, that’s for sure. The man really makes a-ha what it is. He may not exercise his range as much as he has in past albums, but he doesn’t need to do so to sound wonderful. Every word he sings sounds like it comes from the heart. While it never ruins a song, I occasionally hear some vibrato that’s a bit too extreme for my tastes, though. I don’t generally listen to the lyrics of songs all that closely, but I’d consider them a mixed bag for this particular album. Some are very good, while others are far from that. But even when they aren’t particularly poetic, Harket’s singing makes up for it, to a degree.
As for the instrumental parts, I realized the simplicity is a good thing. Not every song needs crazy fast bebop licks to be good. I don’t even know why that was one of my complaints at first, I’m usually really into simplicity in music. Like I said earlier, I must have been setting myself up to dislike Cast in Steel because the instruments do their job of backing up the vocalist quite well. And the similarities to Coldplay’s sound may be because the lead singer of Coldplay, Chris Martin, is apparently a fan of a-ha. Perhaps it was Coldplay that borrowed the sound from a-ha in the first place? I’ll have to listen to some of their earlier albums to find out, which I’m certainly excited for if they’re anything like this one.
Now, mind you, this album isn’t quite a masterpiece, and it’s certainly far from perfect. The song “Door Ajar” is practically the antithesis to every compliment I’ve given this album. It has some interesting vocal work, but is otherwise the worst track on the album, in my opinion. Most of the singing, both melodically and lyrically, was just not as interesting to me as the rest of the album. This is also the one song whose backing instrumentals did not grow on me at all. Some other songs still don’t sound great to me, in that regard, but for the most part, I at least learned to tolerate them and appreciate the good parts. It takes a lot of self-restraint not to skip to a different song when I hear the beginning of “Door Ajar,” though. I’m not going to let one song ruin an album for me. After all, most albums I listen to only really have a handful of songs I actually enjoy. However, I would be lying if I said I enjoyed every track on Cast in Steel.
Overall, despite some trouble enjoying it at first, Cast in Steel turned out to be one of my favorite albums. It’s harmonically interesting, Morten Harket did a wonderful job singing, and the relative simplicity of most of the album’s instrumental parts lets the vocals take center stage, as well as make the more “orchestral” tracks stand out. I would definitely say it’s also one of the more consistently good albums I’ve heard, with only one song I can say I truly do not want to listen to. More than anything, this album makes me want to hear even more a-ha. It makes me want to listen to old albums to see how they got to where they are now and makes me want to pay attention to what they do in the future.
a-ha. “Cast In Steel (2015) | a-ha.” a-ha, a-ha.com/music/albums/cast-in-steel.
a-ha. “Stay On These Roads (1988) | a-ha.” a-ha, a-ha.com/music/albums/stay-on-these-roads-1988.
a-ha. “a-ha.” YouTube, YouTube, www.youtube.com/channel/UCeEi1My3KTXHT0SG1JkR9gA.
“a-ha.” Music Norway EN, musicnorway.no/artist/a-ha-2/.
Footman, Tim, editor. Guinness World Records 2001. Bantam Books, 2001.
“Take On Me – a-ha.” Last.fm, www.last.fm/music/a-ha/_/Take On Me.
World Entertainment News Network. “Martin: ‘I’m A Big Fan Of a-ha‘.” Contactmusic.com, Contactmusic.com Ltd, 23 Jan. 2015, www.contactmusic.net/news-article/martin-im-a-big-fan-of-aha.