Cast in Steel is a triumphant return. It's wonderful to hear one of the most underrated bands of the last three decades back with such a powerful musical statement.
The Norwegian pop trio a-ha is known in the U.S. primarily for their dazzling '80s new wave classic "Take on Me", a #1 hit from October 1985 that boasts one of the most iconic videos in MTV history. The follow-up single, "The Sun Always Shines on TV", reached #20, but that was the last time the band touched the Top 40 in America. Around the world it's a been different story. They've recorded a string of outstanding albums and have scored multiple hits over a remarkable thirty year career, including such gems as "I've Been Losing You", "Manhattan Skyline", "The Living Daylights", "Dark is the Night for All", "Summer Moves On", "Forever Not Yours", "Celice", and the brilliant "Nothing is Keeping You Here". The trio has enjoyed a remarkable 27 chart singles in the UK, and in their native Norway they've hit the top of the pop chart 16 times. In no way, shape or form should a-ha be considered a "one hit wonder", despite what some Americans may think. A-ha has performed before massive crowds around the world, and have built a large global fan base. In 2010, following the tour in support of their 2009 album Foot of the Mountain,, a-ha announced they were disbanding. They didn't go quietly, though. They embarked on the "Ending on a High Note Tour" and released a comprehensive two-CD singles collection, 25, which includes what was supposed to be their final track, "Butterfly, Butterfly (The Last Hurrah)".
Earlier this year the trio surprised and delighted fans by announcing an a-ha comeback, with a new album and tour dubbed Cast in Steel. They whetted fans' appetites with deluxe vinyl reissues of their classic first two albums, Hunting High and Low and Scoundrel Days. Finally released just this week, Cast in Steel continues where the excellent Foot of the Mountain left off, a modern and fresh pop sound, not awash in nostalgia but definitely with a few nods to their golden years of the past.
Cast in Steel is loaded with great tunes destined to become a-ha classics. Morten Harket's velvety tenor might not be as dexterous as it once was in its higher register, but his voice remains absolutely lovely with an expressiveness, gravity and depth that have come with experience. The band mixes their trademark synthesizers with layers of acoustic and electric guitars, ornamented at times with strings and brass. Cast in Steel is somewhat downbeat and contemplative, but there are a couple strong uptempo pop nuggets that would sound great on the radio.
The album opens with the largely acoustic-based title-track which has a soaring melody with elegant strings and brass performed by the Macedonian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The ensemble is also featured on the first single, the lush ballad "Under the Makeup". Harket's glowing voice is bathed in orchestral grandeur, with a ghostly theremin weaving amidst the wash of sound. "Under the Makeup" is an aching love song with cinematic sweep and passion that builds to an emotional fever pitch as additional harmony vocals join for the last run of the chorus.
"The Wake" is an intense synth-rocker built over a jittery rhythm and guitar lines that are somewhat reminiscent of New Order. "Forest Fire" has perhaps the strongest synthesizer hook on the album -- it's a more uptempo track, with a jagged guitar riff and hard-driving drumwork by Karl Oluf Wennerberg, who handles percussion duties for most of the album. With its ferocious drive and epic chorus there is little doubt "Forest Fire" would make an excellent single.
"Objects in the Mirror" is one of the more guitar-oriented tracks, with the spectral swells of synthesizer relegated to a supporting role except for bursts that erupt in the introduction and after each run-through of the chorus. "Mythomania" has an eerie old-school new wave vibe with retro synths slithering sinuously over a weighty electronic beat. It's the only song on the album in which the band sounds like they are intentionally hearkening back to their '80s roots -- it wouldn't be out of place with the other tense guitar/synth creations on their 1986 masterpiece Scoundrel Days.
The frantic rocker "She's Humming a Tune" has a breathless urgency and excitement to it, especially during the main refrain. A melodic wall of guitars, synths and Harket's emotive vocals surges out of the speakers with ferocity. The foreboding, synth-heavy "Shadow Endeavors" finds Harket singing beautifully in his upper register. "Giving Up the Ghost" is another shadowy synthpop track with a soaring string arrangement floating over the heavy rhythm and ominous vocal. The enigmatic "Goodbye Thompson" closes the album with a sense of mystery and bittersweet melancholy.
Morten Harket, Magne Furuholmen and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy created a thrill of excitement amongst their fans when they announced a reunion, but even the most dedicated would have been hard pressed to imagine they'd return with an album so compelling. A-ha has never been more experimental with differing sonic ideas and textures as they are on Cast in Steel. It's clear the album isn't a halfhearted comeback attempt -- they really went for it. There aren't any zany upbeat dance tracks to try and remix to death and fit in with what gets played on Top 40 radio these days. There is not one particular song that towers above the others -- it's solid all the way through. It's not a lazy retread of "Take on Me" or any of their other older hits. Cast in Steel is a triumphant return. It's wonderful to hear one of the most underrated bands of the last three decades back with such a powerful musical statement.