Album title: Cast in Steel
Track Listing: 1. Cast in Steel; 2. Under the Makeup; 3. The Wake; 4. Forest Fire; 5. Objects in the Mirror; 6. Door Ajar; 7. Living at the End of the World; 8. Mythomania; 9. She’s Humming a Tune; 10. Shadow Endeavors; 11. Giving Up the Ghost; 12. Goodbye Thompson
Running Time: 42m 54s
Perhaps when Magne Furuholmen dropped his now-risible comment that “a reunion of ABBA is more likely than us getting back together” in 2009 he was merely setting up the hook for a-ha’s post-comeback interviews. At the end of their last run, they seemed to be a melting pot of barely-suppressed conflict and the 2010 farewell tour was the perfect vehicle for them to close the chapter and move on. In fact, I wrote as much here.
But an offer to reunite at Rock in Rio 2015 (they headlined the show in 1991 and set a world record for the largest paying audience of 198,000), kick-started a series of conversations and contract signings that led to a new album and a two year commitment to touring.
Guitarist, and primary songwriter, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy justified the return: “If there is more to say, why wouldn’t we say it”. And maybe a-ha are subconsciously searching for that perfect footnote, a review without mention of “Take On Me” or reference to cheekbones and posters on bedroom walls.
Well, you can’t change the past, but “Cast in Steel” is another mature, contemporary recording from the veterans.
The lush title track (think “Stay on These Roads” meets “Nothing is Keeping You Here”) portrays the power of love and friendship through simple lyrics: (“I’ll never get over what we said/It lingers in my head…To be right, to be real/Set in stone and cast in steel”). It’s affective and sincere and would probably be a hit single for any of a-ha’s younger peers.
Lead single “Under the Makeup” is even better. Dramatic strings, a sweeping melody, soaring vocals and evocative lyrics (“Meanwhile our hearts turn to stone/Shaped by wind/Boulders slowly molded over time/Here within”).
But don’t be fooled in to thinking that this album is going to be all about earnest acoustics and moving balladry.
Mid-tempo pop-rock number “The Wake” sees Harket stretch the register while Waaktaar-Savoy’s economic chords add colour to the melodic string and synth arrangement: (“Baby, this is a wake/You and I will not escape as time goes by/The world’s never been older/Your head on my shoulder/So close your eyes”).
Magne’s brooding “Mythomania” might be the most interesting track, a standout with its Depeche Mode-like synth, beat and dark lyrics – “Cold crescent moon on a red cross/It’s happening soon, it’s coming for us” – bridged by a memorable military-style percussion, piano and synth hook.
Furuholmen is also responsible for “Giving Up the Ghost“, another atmospheric number in the same vein with stark strings, beats, guitar chords, troubling lyrics and interesting musical bridges: (“Frozen lake, soon will flow/Frozen ground, soon to follow/But hey, everything is in your head/What you killed was never dead”). A real triumph.
The oddly hypnotic “Door Ajar” injects some mystique with its muted guitar riffs and unusual structure, and the brilliant “She’s Humming a Tune” with its hazy, layered synth lines and eerie lone guitar intro and outro, sounds like a “Scoundrel Days” companion piece.
“Objects in the Mirror” is a decent re-work of 2009’s “What There Is” and the Morten Harket-penned “Living at the End of the World” is an endearing and polished ballad that Diane Warren would be proud of.
The relentless 80’s throwback “Forest Fire” is deceptively catchy, while the curious “Shadow Endeavors” (which seems to be two songs fused together) has strong elements, but is ultimately let down by the chorus.
Slow-burning album closer “Goodbye Thompson” has a soothing, almost psychedelic groove -something that could have fit right in on 2005’s “Analogue” – and it’s another winner.
“Cast in Steel” is something of an oddity in their recent career. Typically an a-ha album is for a-ha fans but this sounds like a recording that could convert a casual observer who gives it a chance. The songwriting is consistently strong (each of the band members contributed quality songs), the production is excellent (and frequently interesting) and, for an album that plucks influence from all over the map, it’s all remarkably coherent.
In fact this is arguably their best album in over 20 years.