[Album Review] "Foot of the Mountain" – a-ha

Band: a-ha

Album title: Foot of the Mountain

Year: 2009

Track Listing: 1. The Bandstand; 2. Riding the Crest; 3. What There Is; 4. Foot of the Mountain; 5. Real Meaning; 6. Shadowside; 7. Nothing is Keeping You Here; 8. Mother Nature Goes to Heaven; 9. Sunny Mystery; 10. Start the Simulator

Running Time: 40m 49s

For their ninth studio album a-ha have returned to their synth-pop roots, the sounds that defined their early records before the move to a more organic sound in the ninties. The problem with the band’s recent output is that they have clearly been contributing material better suited to their solo pursuits – in guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy’s case, indie and sixities; in keyboardist Magne Furuholmen’s case, cynical acoustic weariness. The promise for “Foot of the Mountain” is that they will deliver a record written for a-ha and, in particular, for lead singer Morten Harket’s vocal range.

The Bandstand
The “new old” direction is clear in opening gambit, “The Bandstand”, a swirling, melancholic number that mixes dark beats with a strong business-like synth riff and squares it with Morten Harket’s high-pitched vocal. It’s a simple tale of humanity from a tense confrontation (“No need to worry, everything’s fine/I’ll take you away from this name-calling scene”) to the mutual consolation found late at night (“Cold and windblown on the old bandstand/You and I walking hand in hand/A neon glow shining down on us/Don’t wait up for us”) and it’s a belter.
Rating: ****

Riding the Crest
One of the most talked-about tracks prior to release,, a foot-tapping Erasure-style synth-pop number about how people find strength and self-assurance in life. “In your mind/You’re tall and brave… Internally, you make your own rules/You have excuses/The ones that you choose” seem to indicate a person who is in control. But the coping mechanism might not be all that natural: “There comes a time/You don’t even know what’s missing/Some sugar to make the pill go down…True to pre-existing norms/Truly wasted, at a rave/Riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave” puts a darker slant on what is an immensely upbeat song. A great beat, a so-so keyboard riff and some great vocal work from Morten who reaches low in to his register on a number of occasions.
Rating: ***

What There Is
It might seem aimless to use a whole verse to describe someone getting up out of a chair for a drink (“Empty glass/Gets another round/Squeaky chair/Makes another sound”) but in mid-tempo lament “What There Is”, the band balance such lyrical methods against more grandiose statements about life’s stark reality (“It’s what it is/It’s what it was/And what will be here/After us”). There is an effective use of backing vocals to get the main thrust of the song across suggesting that “you can make it all worthwhile” and can “set your name in lights” which is in stark contrast to the drinker who appears lost, maybe hopeless (“Your dark glasses/Sliding down your nose/Bring these proceedings/To a close”).
Rating: ***1/2

Foot of the Mountain
The title track and lead single (#3 in Germany) is undoubtedly different to the rest of the record, a bombastic pop-song with sweeping synths and soaring vocals more reminiscent of recent albums “Lifelines” and “Analogue”. The lyrical hook is the idea of how “silence” is powerful (“silence everything/silence always wins…silence always wins/So silence everything”) and happiness is a home away from the hustle and bustle of the city (“We could live by the foot of the mountain/We could stay there and never come back”). While not utterly convincing lyrically, it’s a powerful pop record and up there with the best singles they’ve released in a long while.
Rating: ****

Real Meaning
Riding a heavy bass synth on the intro, “Real Meaning” soon cedes to a more tender chorus (“You’re the real meaning of the sun/It shows you off to everyone”) and a beautfiully melodic piano refrain. As gentle as it is, the lyrics also point to a sadness with lines like “And I sure will/Miss us when we’re gone” and “Don’t fix you/And leave me/For some other guy”. The middle eight sounds Beatles-inspired but with Waaktaar-Savoy writing, it’s no surprise. Pleasant track.
Rating: ***

“Shadowside” is a beautiful depiction of extreme depression with the protagonist begging for help: “I don’t want to see myself descend/To the shadowside again/If you ever let me go again/To the shadowside, I’ll end”. The imagery of a “shadow side” is simple but effective and Morten’s falsetto leads us in to an extended, orchestra-backed closing.
Rating: ****

Nothing is Keeping You Here
More tasty adult rock with this melodic little number about a person at a crossroads in their life. A simple lyric is brightened up by a punchy rhythm and another strong keyboard riff. It reminds me of one of the middling tracks from their 1990 album “East of the Sun” – but better.
Rating: ***1/2

Mother Nature Goes to Heaven
If the early part of the album was synth-heavy, the band have stacked the middle with a rockier sound. The guitar-tinged “Mother Nature Goes to Heaven” throbs with a powerful bassline and a melodic chorus chord sequence. Dealing with a life that’s gone off track a little (“Things you could do asleep/In a not too distant past/Are trying your patience/Harder now”) the message is that these difficulties are nothing compared to the big picture (“It pales somewhat to the fact/That Mother Nature Goes to heaven”). Completely hits the mark and probably the best song on the record.
Rating: *****

Sunny Mystery
“Sunny Mystery” underlines how you can’t escape the past (“You can climb the highest mountain/To try dissolve the memories/In case you never knew it/You can’t undo it”) or understand what lies aheadĀ (“No one knows for sure/The outcome of this sunny mystery”). The life analogy gets a little overwrought at times (“Life is the dream that you wake up to/Dreams are the life from which you wake”) but this is an effective andĀ urgent dark number.
Rating: ****

Start the Simulator
Possibly the most contentious song on the album is the peculiar, ambient “Start the Simulator”. With a minimal synth instrumentation that increases gradually and the lyrical quirkiness that evokes 2005’s “White Dwarf”, it seems the band have thrown together a prize turkey. But the strength is in the subtlety and it’s the eccentric feel that turns this in to a beautifully addictive piece of music. A surprisingly fitting finale.
Rating: ***1/2

“Foot of the Mountain” is a tight, cohesive album, sensibly restricted to 10 tracks that checks in well under three quarters of an hour. It’s a far cry from the bloated hour-long efforts of recent years, usually inflated with 2-3 completely unnecessary filler tracks. Not only do they get that right but it seems largely they’ve avoided filler material this time around with only the unambitious but inoffensive “Real Meaning” seeming like it might be more at home on a Magne solo record. In spite of not being a fan of synth, the material works and is an album they should be rightly proud of.


Edit: Order from play.com here.