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Friday, January 29, 2010

A-ha: Hunting High And Low


1) Take On Me; 2) Train Of Thought; 3) Hunting High And Low; 4) The Blue Sky; 5) Living A Boy's Adventure; 6) The Sun Always Shines On T.V.; 7) And You Tell Me; 8) Love Is Reason; 9) I Dream Myself Alive; 10) Here I Stand And Face The Rain.

For some reason, it is quite psychologically daunting to look back on the Golden Age of Synth-Pop and make a conscious attempt to stratify the chaff and the wheat. Somehow the gap between the likes of, say, Depeche Mode, with their clear interest in expanding the borders of the genre and using it to explore man's dark side, and, for instance, Modern Talking (a.k.a. «The Black Pla­gue of Eastern Europe» in the 1980s) always seems narrower and more bridgeable than a super­ficially similar gap between the likes of the Beatles and the Dave Clark 5, or Thin Lizzy and Fo­rei­g­ner, or Mötley Crüe and Guns'n'Roses.

Perhaps it has something to do with the instrumental minimalism displayed by all parties con­cerned (just how many classic synth pop melodies sound as if it took one cheap key­board and one finger to play them?), or by the common shared ugliness of the genre's obligatory requirements, such as electronic percussion etc. Most likely, people raised and reared on the genre will not ag­ree, but their generation (my generation, to be sure) is a cursed one in any case, and their opinions on the matter value about as much as an oil magnate's opinions on alternate sources of energy.

A-Ha (more correctly, a-ha with no capitals, but this looks horrid in printed text, so I will allow myself the sacrilege of capitalization) — Norway's pride and joy, and one of the major factors in the prolongation of the average lifespan of Norwegian population — probably symbolize the art of unpretentious synth-pop better than any other 1980s band. Without infringing on the gloomy Freudian territory of Depeche Mode, or on the decadent cosmic synth-rock turf of Duran Duran, they still manage to sound similar to both — and present a viable alternative for those who want their dance beats simple and stupid, and their mood elegant and romantic with no oddities. Is this awful? Is this beautiful? I don't know.

The music is definitely not very exciting. The trio of A-Ha does include a guitarist, Paul Waak­taar, but Hunting High And Low, the band's debut, does not ever let us hear him in full flight, since he seems to mostly be busy providing acoustic backdrops that are «felt rather than heard». He is, however, the principal songwriter for the band, which makes him the principal accused. Keyboardist Mags Furuholmen is responsible for the overall sound — one finger on the keyboard, remember — and then there is the band's biggest surface attraction, singer Morten Harket, the one destined to reap the biggest female harvest.

In all honesty, Harket is a great singer. Listen to 'Train Of Thought' and you might think, like me: 'Gee, I had no idea David Bowie could sell out to that extent!' But then listen to 'Take On Me' and you will think: 'Say, since when did James Taylor develop that kind of falsetto?' And it is not like Morten is consciously imitating anyone: he simply has an excellent range and is in perfect com­mand of his cords, and all the different moods go off quite smoothly. In conjunction with strong melodic hooks (vocal hooks) of Take On Me', 'The Blue Sky', 'Living A Boy's Adventure' and a few other songs, this definitely gives A-Ha an edge, and explains their huge commercial success better than any other reason. I freely and openly admit that some of these songs are prime exam­ples of the most gorgeous singing in synth-pop history.

Alas, if only the music were up to par. There is not a single track on the record that would whis­per "hey, what an interesting, original musical decision" in my ear. Without Harket's contributi­ons, all of this would go down the drain immediately: no complex riffs, no non-trivial arrange­ment touches, just a bunch of generic keyboard loops, drum machines, and «heavenly» keyboard effects to prove that Harket, like a true knight of the synth-pop order, is singing down to his wor­shippers from the faraway Electronic Temple on Casio Mountain. Predictable.

So, apparently, Hunting High And Low will not be appreciated in years to come as much as it has been appreciated upon immediate release, making the band a permanent chart presence and MTV's prime time darlings. But it still works well as an inspiring testament to the abilities of the human voice, and, for that reason, I give it neither a definitive thumbs up nor a decisive thumbs down — this would depend on whether I am in the mood for some great singing, or for some very, very crappy synthesizer loops.

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