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"Set in stone and cast in steel
Made a pact, eye to eye
Cross your heart and hope to die."
Once upon a long ago, there were three young Pop star wannabes from Oslo, Norway, of all places: They had a dream of becoming an internationally famous band, so they went to London in pursuit of a recording contract. Here, they struggled for quite a few years, and it wasn’t until they released the single Take On Me for the third time that they — aided by an innovative, groundbreaking animated video — scored their first big, worldwide hit single (U.S No. 1, U.K. No. 2). 1985’s Hunting High And Low is one of the great debut albums of all time, reaching No. 15 on the U.S. Pop Album Chart and No. 2 in the U.K. Remarkably, the three young Norwegian guys’ second album, 1986’s Scoundrel Days, was an even more impressive accomplishment, a big leap forward in the trio’s musical development and their songwriting skills, in terms of both maturity and creativity.
For lack of a better description, a-ha’s tenth studio album, Cast In Steel, bears a certain resemblance to 2009’s synth-oriented Foot Of The Mountain, but the soundscapes are generally much more lush, intricately-layered, quietly melodramatic, dark, and bittersweet. Several of the songs marry slow-burning, sometimes icy electronic sounds with some of a-ha’s most string-laden orchestrations to date, but due to the subtle, elegantly stylized and tasteful production, the arrangements never sound overly bombastic — or sentimental and sugary. Rather, the soaring strings add an air of splendour and dignity to sweeping, windswept tracks such as Pål Waaktaar-Savoy’s Cast In Steel and Under The Makeup, as well as the Morten Harket co-writes The Wake and Living At The End Of The World. The latter is somewhat reminiscent of 1988’s classic hit single Stay On These Roads, albeit devoid of the overblown late-1980s production values.
Elsewhere, keyboardist Magne Furuholmen’s futuristic Mythomania is a testament to his self-acknowledged admiration for Depeche Mode, with its haunting vintage synth slithering sinuously over a static, electronic drum beat, bringing to mind more contemporary incarnations of rhythmically mechanical and instrumentally sparse songs like Train Of Thought (from Hunting High And Low) and The Swing Of Things (off the trio’s masterpiece Scoundrel Days). And then there’s that one song that actually does harken back to the 1980s. In 2011, Pål Waaktaar-Savoy retrieved some old, worn, lost notebooks (from the band’s ex-manager) containing lyrics, notes, diaries, and sketches — plus tape reels. Written during their mid-‘80s heyday, She’s Humming A Tune, a long-forgotten song, starts off with slight vinyl surface noise and chiming acoustic guitar, and then abruptly kicks full-force into an uptempo groove propelled by drums, frantic bass, and surging synths that capture a lovely, warm analog sound.
Following a-ha’s 2010 farewell tour (documented on Ending On A High Note: The Last Concert), the band released the comprehensive 2-CD singles anthology, 25, and what was supposed to be their very last single, Butterfly, Butterfly (The Last Hurrah). Therefore, it was all the more surprising when — just five years later — a-ha announced that they were releasing a new studio album. Equally surprising, at this late stage in their long-running, illustrious career, is the fact that Cast In Steel is among a-ha’s most accomplished and praiseworthy albums (alongside Hunting High And Low, Scoundrel Days, and Analogue).
In an interview, in conjunction with the release of Cast In Steel, Pål Waaktaar-Savoy stated that pre-fame a-ha never doubted their own abilities as musicians and songwriters, and that they always knew they’d be famous. Keeper Of The Flame (from 2005’s Analogue) depicts these early days of youthful daydreaming and anticipation of a great future. And the pride that a-ha take in their musical legacy is conveyed in the lyrics to Cast In Steel’s title track: “Set in stone and cast in steel / Made a pact, eye to eye / Cross your heart and hope to die”.
There are, however, indications that Cast In Steel might very well be the trio’s “last hurrah”. Once again the dynamics in the band created tensions, and, as has been the case for years, none of the band members recorded their parts together in the studio. Pål Waaktaar-Savoy even admitted to being somewhat unsatisfied with the end result, the final version of Cast In Steel, preferring earlier recordings of songs that subsequently were tampered with to a degree that wasn’t necessarily an improvement on the originals. The narratives, too, evidently address some sort of closure, as Morten Harket sings: “Can you see the end of things? / Can you see it happening? / Feel the ashes on the wind / Don’t you hate how everything / Falls / Just falls away.” The last two tracks on the album deal with leaving the past behind and facing an uncertain future — the regretful Giving Up The Ghost (“Giving up the ghost / That’s what hurts the most”) and the atmospheric Goodbye Thompson (featuring Beatles-esque harmonies): “What comes after what was / That was once strangely new / What awaits up ahead / For me and you”. Regardless of what lies ahead, the Norwegian trio have achieved more than most bands ever will, both creatively and commercially. If Cast In Steel does turn out to be their final album, a-ha would indeed end their time together on a higher note than if they’d ended it with Foot Of The Mountain.