[Album Review] “Cast in Steel” – a-ha

Cast in Steel

Band: a-ha

Album title: Cast in Steel

Year: 2015

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.



This is Charlie: The Rescue

This is Charlie

Charlie has had something of a vagabond lifestyle. I don’t knowCharlie in Car how it started for him but, about a year ago, someone rescued him from an Orlando pound and put him on Craigslist in a bid to find a home for him. A friend of mine adopted him but when he moved to a dog-free dormitory in August, Charlie was once again in need of somewhere to live.

I met the dog – a Pitador – about six months earlier when visiting Orlando and fell in love with him. Sure, most dogs are friendly (ok, not this one) but there was a charming effervescence about Charlie. When I heard he was once again in need, I felt compelled to help him find a home.

Operation Charlie

Since my friend had already moved, I arranged to put the dog in boarding in a clinic in Casselberry, Florida, while I investigated possible rescues.

It was difficult working remotely from Illinois, but I reached out to three places in the Orlando area. The first one was Orlando Bully Rescue, who say they will respond to an email within 72 hours. But they didn’t – no reply at all. The second one was Sniffing Snouts who provided a number that went to voicemail. My voicemail went unanswered. The third place I approached was Ruff World Animal Rescue. I sent an email and a photo and underlined how critical the situation had become for this dog. But, once again, my email was not responded to.Charlie floor

Charlie was running out of time. As a pitbull mix, and a black one at that, the numbers weren’t in his favour. If he went to a pound then eternal rest was more likely than him finding a home. Read this for some insight. Here’s a quote about what really happens in shelters:

“If your dog is big, black or any of the “bully” breeds (pit bull, rottweiler, mastiff, etc) it was pretty much dead when you walked it through the front door.”

Sadly, that was Charlie’s future.

The boarding kennel – Animal Clinic of Casselberry – were supportive and allowed Charlie to stay for two weeks but said there was a limit on how long they could keep him.  They were all very fond of him, describing him as sweet and friendly. This made things all the more difficult for me. Nice Charlie

So given the lack of response from rescues, I agonized over what to do.

At the eleventh hour, I made my decision – I booked one-way flights and a rental car and headed down to Orlando on Friday 29th August to extract the target (Charlie) from enemy territory (euthanasia).

When we arrived at the clinic in Casselberry, Charlie was happy to see us, blissfully unaware that we were his guardian angels, or whatever you’d like to call it.  Having got reacquainted, we headed off to our hotel before embarking on our 1200 mile journey home the next day.

Why did we have to drive? Airlines have strict rules about having what many term as “bully” dogs in cargo.  A dog like Charlie requires a specially-reinforced $500-600 crate in order to get him on the plane. So we had no choice but to drive cross-country with him. Luckily he was a great passenger, comfortable in most positions in the car including, oddly, straddling the console between the front seats with his paws and head while standing in the back and resting his ass against the back seat. For hours.

One more thingCharlie Three

So after almost 24 hours in the car, we arrived back in Illinois. I felt kind of zoned out, not just because of the tiredness but also in a “what just happened?” kind of way.

And you’d think that would be enough activity for one day but, having not thought far enough ahead, we discovered that there was nowhere really appropriate for Charlie to sleep on his first night in Illinois. So we put him in the bathroom, determined to put up with his whining for 10 or 15 minutes until such time that he got tired and fell asleep.

Within a few minutes I heard a sloshing sound, followed by what sounded like the toilet seat slamming down. It seems Charlie was both curious and thirsty.

First thought was “did I flush?” Second thought was, “this can’t continue”.

To keep the peace, I spent what was left of that night (admittedly, not long) sleeping on the bathroom floor with him. When I lay down on his blanket, the toilet drinking and the whining stopped. Charlie just seemed so content to be where he was. I’d not slept on a bathroom floor since I was about 24 and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t mine.

Help! Rescue me! And other songs…

I didn’t particularly want a dog. I just didn’t want Charlie to be put to sleep. I didn’t think it was fair.

It was disappointing that the rescues Charlie hatdidn’t even respond with a PFO when I reached out to them.  I understand they are busy, perhaps inundated. But they are the ones with the knowledge and experience. If they can’t help directly, perhaps they can share information that would have given Charlie a second chance that he, at that point, did not have.

If I add up the cost of flights, rental car, petrol, hotel, kennel boarding and services and, since then, the cost of a cage, food, neutering, skin treatment, flea tablet, well, it’s a lot of money. And it’s money that I would have donated a large portion of, had a rescue communicated with me and offered help.

Maybe I’m just a foster home for Charlie right now, but it has bought him time that he didn’t have in Orlando. The Humane Society estimate that about 2.7 million animals are put down every year in the US. Now pets aren’t for everyone but it’s kind of tragic that these creatures who will generally give you unconditional love are put through this. Woof.

Charlie pose

Nearvana blogging in 2012 – the stats

Once again I was a s-h-one-t blogger this year. I think I’ve become far too concerned with offending or rubbing people up the wrong way (rubbing up against people is actually a lot of fun) so often refrain from posting my sometimes-obtuse views. Maybe in 2013 I can shed my tender skin and reveal the scarred, lizard-like guts that surround my skeleton.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,100 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 4 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.