Tuesday, June 27, 2006

a-ha: Norwegian purveyors of existential angst

Norwegian trio a-ha have been unjustly and perennially derided by so-called "discerning" critics as nothing more than a standard-issue new-wave outfit, or even worse, the progenitors of the horrifying boy-band epidemic of the 1990s. In actuality, nothing could be further than the truth.

While a-ha's signature tune remains the irrepressible and indefatigable "Take on Me", with its instantly recognisable chattering-synth riff, a-ha's other works are even more compelling, and, dare I say it, challenging and thought-provoking.

Perhaps toughened up by a youth spent enduring dreary Scandinavian winters, a-ha songs are typically elliptical, abstract and surreal, touching on cheery subjects like death, failed and/or twisted romances, and Kafkaesque existential angst.

Take the morosely bleak "Scoundrel Days" from 1986, for example. A close-to-the-bone account of a man on the brink, it details his impending mental collapse through brilliantly descriptive yet wonderfully oblique songwords: "For want of an option, I run the wind round, I dream pictures of houses burning, never knowing nothing else to do."

The 1993 masterwork "Memorial Beach" is even more riveting, a gloom-and-doom themed album addressing like-minded topics like mortality, betrayal, depression and psychosis. With self-descriptive titles like "Dark is the Night for All", "Cold as Stone", "Lamb to the Slaughter" and "Lie Down in Darkness", "Memorial Beach" has been criticised, even by longtime a-ha followers, as too much of a heavy-going affair. However, in retrospect, it remains their most mature and rounded work, despite the attendant darkness.

a-ha in the new millennium have produced even more persuasive works, with a newfound elegance and a sense of establishment only hinted at in previous projects. The title track from 2002's "Lifelines" could well be their most lavish yet, supported by subtle string orchestrations, superior synth work and, of course, Morten Harket's sturm-und-drang, operatic tenor, while "Celice" from 2005's "Analogue" is a more-than-competent stab at merging studied synth-pop aesthetics and visceral rock-out sensibilities. All fantastic stuff.


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