[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
“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 ahead (“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 and 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

Summary
“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.

4star

Edit: Order from play.com here.

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7 thoughts on “[Album Review] "Foot of the Mountain" – a-ha

  1. You can read my response HERE

    Just below HERE

    *Kat strolls into what looks like a new, ultra swanky refurbed Nearvana* Very plush G:man. No plesiosaurs here. It’s g:lamourous, g:sleek, g:eluxe. It’s certainly a LOT better than my attempts at g:adjectives.

    I think we’ve generally had pretty divergent a-ha tastes over time (and the emphasis is on think, as it took me a few minutes to try to remember the word adjective just now – and TBH I didn’t remember it, I actually had to Google ‘noun, verb’ in order to find it out. Lucky I didn’t wing it and try ‘adnoun’)… but this time around I’m pretty much totally seeing this album the g:way. I think The Bandstand, Shadowside and Foot Of The Mountain (maybe even Sunny Mystery) are teetering on 4.5 star status, while Nothing Is Keeping You Here is a 3 star at best…..but I’m nit picking aren’t I? I’d love to say something controversial but I think you’re on the money.

    It’s a really solid, enjoyable album – but I’m not sure how many of the songs will end up in the a-ha all-time-greats list – lots of very good songs, but not necessarily any awesome ones. For the first two weeks I had the album I let it play through everytime…. now I’ve just started hitting the skip button every so often – for Riding The Crest and Nothing Is Keeping You Here, and less often for Real Meaning and Start The Simulator. It will be interesting to see how that develops…..

    The one thing that I really don’t like about the album is the amount of very low notes – there are waaaaaaaaay too many in Riding The Crest. That plus the sudden shift to hideous high ones in the chorus makes RTC rather stomach churning. Oh, and the fact that it’s strangely tuneless (I’d say it’s a song you’d pay people NOT to perform at Karaoke *shudders*) and highly irritating.

    Well worth the long wait……

    1. The decorators just left. Bit unhappy with some of the wallpaper work just behind the settee but otherwise it’s not g:bad. Um.

      Glad you agree with me. I knew it would happen eventually. And glad that you’re not really embracing this “Riding the Crest” thing either. The fuss and excitement over what’s – on occasion – slightly embarrassing, makes me wonder about the sanity of a-ha fans sometimes. Conversely I do like the low notes on RTC. And after hearing Morten perform at the VG concert I can see why he doesn’t want to flaunt too many of those out of tune high ones.

      Re the a-ha all time all greats list, well how many songs from 2000 onwards would be on that list? “Summer Moved On”? “Lifelines”? “Over the Treetops”? That’s about it.

      Ooh, the plumber just arrived. Apparently I’ve got a memory leak on the site.

      1. I think “Riding The Crest” is destined to be the “Cry Wolf” or “Touchy!” for the 00s…. it’s definitely a big sanity alert. Doesn’t just make me wonder about a-ha fans sanity but also a-ha’s. Sometimes I think they run with a ludicrously naff song just for the sheer fun of it.

        Some of the choices they make baffle me at times – recently re-read some stuff from TSOT book – and it said thay Magne and Morten rejected “The Breakers” when doing Lifelines….. insanity.

        On the all-time great list post 2000 – agreed, there wouldn’t be that many contenders – “SMO”, “Lifelines”, “Minor Key Sonata” and “Oranges On Appletrees”. Are YOU serious about “Over The Treetops?” I guess when I list “OOAT” I shouldn’t question anyone else’s judgement.

        Had a glance back at your initial (after 3 listens) FOTM review – and it seems a few songs have travelled up and down your ratings, though fairly marginally…. however it looks like “Sunny Mystery” and “Start The Simulator” have risen dramatically in your estimations… how do you think the album’s faring after repeated listens? I remember “MEMS” getting full listens regularly for the first months after it came out – and now….. poor thing hasn’t seen the light of day for years, apart from the occasional spin of “SMO” or “YNGOM”….. I wonder how FOTM will fare….

  2. I don’t seem to have a “reply” button to your last comment there. I can’t believe they rejected “The Breakers”. And they made a lot of good choices on that record (“Less than Pure”, “A Little BIt”). For the record, I was being mischievous about “OTT” as you obviously were being about “OOAT”.

    Re how the album changed after repeated listens, yes the last two tracks did take off for me. I had a feeling that “STS” would work; I think it has a beautifully gentle melody. But overall a few songs had a diminishing return such as the mentioned “RTC” (bearable at best) and “Real Meaning”.

    I’ve just realised I don’t listen to any of the albums in entirety and only “MB”, “Lifelines” and “Analogue” (usually the Paul compositions from the latter two) get substantial airplay.

  3. Katt and 9’er.

    First 9’er – love your review. I think that I have already told you this, but I should state this comment in the right forum.

    This album is still quite new to me, so I am still “finding” myself within, it however, FOTM, Shadowside, The Bandstand (if I get over the “plinkiness of the synth in parts – it should be the next single as it is rather ‘catchy’ – and don’t the record companies love that!) and MNGTH is wonderful in a dark way with a dirge beat although I think that Morten’s lyrical delivery on occasions in this song is “ever so slightly off”. Surprisingly, I like Real Meaning I like – but I feel sentimental today. Sunny Mystery could make a great dance song – I am thinking Ibiza and lots of fake tan and Syd and Vaughn on a mission – I am there baby!!!

    But back on topic (wow I am becoming more disciplined as I become older), RTC defintely IS the new Cry Wolf – I can’t listen to it – it hurts my ears. I first heard a bootleg of this song and had grave fears for the album. I still can’t believe that teh genius (aka Pau)l wrote it as it is more cheesy than Jarlesberg…….. I vascillate as to whether I think that NIKYH is a good song or rancid and putrid. I think that STS be a love and hate affair for me – like it one day, skip it another. I think that has a wanna be Bowie Ziggy Stardust sound meets I don’t know what. It is playing now and I asked Steve what he thought about it and he said “I’m sorry darling, but it is @#$%ed”…..he is probably right (whimper) as I have to realise that even geniuses cab get it wrong (“you never got it wrong/you always got it right”)

    As to post 2000 a-ha classic, I agree , if you are to look into that pure a-ha sound, they are a bit thin on the ground.

    For me it would be Lifelines (lovely – even husband sings along to it), MEMS, SMO is classic and I adore Time and Again and White Dwarf. Katt -I also have a think for YNGOM – but Valhall DVD version.

    Analogue is a great song – but not necessarily “pure (ie melancholic) a-ha.

    Could go on more (and you know I would )- but I will spare you all as I am getting rather bored of myself and breakfast beckons.

    1. Thanking you for taking the time, Cynner. It’s almost six weeks since I wrote the review and I think largely I’m unchanged in my opinion. I’m thankful that they recorded “Start the Simulator” which grows at a ridiculous pace on me. It really is quite something. I do jump between thinking RTC is a catchy couple of minutes of crappy pop to finding it absolutely embarrassing. I’m sure it’s going to be the next single and that disappoints me.

      I might have underrated “The Bandstand” by about a half star or so. I’d like to see it as a single but I doubt it would get much airplay. I don’t think any a-ha song will get much airplay no matter how good it is. Commercial radio just will not play the likes of a-ha, Simple Minds, Wet Wet Wet, Spandau Ballet, no matter how good the new single might be. That’s a pity but it’s all about the kids.

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