If any can look past the status of a-ha in the States as a one-hit wonder, some might call this Norwegian act the poor man’s Depeche Mode. After all, a-ha has followed in similar sonic fashion between the dark (Analogue, Minor Earth Major Sky) and the atmospheric pop (Lifelines, Hunting High and Low). Between going on hiatus during the late ’90s and the band’s performance at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in 1998, no one seemed to notice a-ha’s strong following in the UK that stands even now. With the summer of 2009 past us, the cold seasons are a wonderful time to visit a-ha’s ninth studio release titled Foot of the Mountain.
Initially heralded as a return to form, Foot of the Mountain delivers some alterations – as much as can be expected. Considering the lack of exposure in the West, a-ha managed to remain in European hearts and American obscurity, staying active and taking to task any preconceptions of what gave us ’80s staple “Take On Me”. a-ha did not try to fix what wasn’t broken, and instead, opted for different approaches to a tried and true sound. Developments to the key of speedier dance beat presentations circa 1985 gave way to dreamscapes and late-Depeche Mode melancholy a la 2002’s Analogue.
Foot of the Mountain strikes up the long lost tempo and brings a-ha back to relevance slightly, rehashing Lifelines while cranking out volume and lyrical depth, run-off from the group’s moody era. “The Bandstand” and “Riding The Crest” display echoes of (you guessed it) Hunting High and Low‘s “Take On Me” mixed with Depeche Mode’s Playing The Angel, a fine stirring of dark and light to make for pleasingly happy mediums launching this album into blissful pop. This continues on until the title track placed at the fourth spot, a mild sense of Rush playing into a tone that believes itself to be more epic than it really is. It’s a slight letdown for the titular track but a nice song for background music.
“Real Meaning” tries to be The Beta Band and falls only a fraction short of its mark, due to a-ha’s partial return to ’80s pop in the new millennium. It’s not so much a flaw as it is listless and dated. That sheen of time-touched nostalgia graces few songs on Foot of the Mountain, but only “Real Meaning” suffers in any tangible way. Coming out past the stunningly bleak “Shadowside”, we have “Nothing Is Keeping You Here”. Honestly, Morten Harket is an exceptional vocalist, and he thankfully displays his somber and surreal range on this record. “Nothing Is Keeping You Here” presents Harket effortlessly covering broad sound without becoming a total braggart. Unfortunately, the buck stops there, as it feels like the whole group gave up and let Thom Yorke finish the album off past “Nothing…”. (Dead giveaway here is closer, “Start The Simulator”, which plays out like an In Rainbows B-side.)
Foot of the Mountain is a passable record attempting to recapture latent charm without jumping over — or into — the shark. This of course is when you look past its closing, leaving seven songs that could most definitely be no one else but a-ha. The amalgam of ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s here can be slipped into any play list with ease, providing the band with a very wide base of operations. Despite the feeling of generic sound that some will not be able to shake off here, a-ha puts out a mid-grade release for Europoppers and soft rock listeners galore. a-ha is most definitely the poor man’s Depeche Mode, but we refuse to make you feel guilty for listening, since this band seems to do its thing so well.
Consider that the alternative is moping about because you missed Depeche Mode at Lolla or (gasp) waiting for Radiohead’s new material.