Now there’s more than meets the eye…
It would be difficult to assess the history of synth-pop without taking into consideration Norway’s own considerable contribution in the shape of a-ha. The 3-piece outfit need little introduction, having chalked up an extensive history of chart-busting records that have blended together a talent for melodic pop with a particular Nordic melancholia.
Their 1985 debut album Hunting High And Low set a high bar for the band, particularly on the back of the phenomenal ‘Take On Me’. That iconic single (and equally iconic video) was the catalyst for the band’s phenomenal success, but the album it features on includes compositions that remain a testament to the combined talents of Pål Waaktaar-Savoy, Magne Furuholmen and Morten Harket.
Following their 2018 Electric Summer tour (see TEC review previously) a-ha mulled over a tour performing Hunting High And Low in its entirety again (the band had previously performed it back in 2010 – and at the Royal Albert Hall). This increasingly popular live format (as used by acts such as OMD and Blancmange) not only offers a showcase for a particular album from a band’s catalogue, but usually a second half of assorted songs to lend some balance to the performance.
Hunting High And Low is the perfect choice for a-ha’s venture into this concert approach, particularly given its importance in the band’s history. “With the song selection and the set in the album’s running order, it will turn it into a totally different type of show to anything we have done before,” suggested Pål prior to the tour, adding the concerts would “pull your mind and mood back to when Hunting High And Low was made, which for us was a time when we were living in the same tiny apartment in London and working on the songs 24/7. By when the album was finally released it had been a long and bumpy ride, and we poured all our ambitions into the record as if it would be our one and only shot.”
The Hunting High And Low tour also coincides with the 35th anniversary of the release of the original version of ‘Take On Me’. But, as a statement issued on behalf of the band declared: “it is about more than revisiting ten favourite songs. It is also about tapping into the sense of adventure which first brought a-ha to London: a recognition that they have never stood still.”
Choosing the Royal Albert Hall for the concert only adds to the prestige of this special live show. Its wide curving terraces still manage to lend a sense of intimacy into the performance with a wall of a-ha fans eagerly awaiting for kick-off.
The band have also made an effort to bring onboard a strong visual theme for the Hunting High And Low tour (courtesy of Knut Helgeland, Icarus Wilson Wright and Stu Farrell). This includes some stunning projection work offering a variety of engaging images, including cinematic landscape shots as well as real time footage of the band as they perform. Throughout the performance, Magne Furuholmen will also act as MC to talk a little about the album – while also delivering some dry wit in the process.
But to offer an overture of sorts, the first video to play against the darkened stage area is a work by Michael Patterson. These oddly mesmerising images look like a comic strip come to life – a technique involving tracing over live action footage to render a dynamic sense of mood. It was Patterson’s work that was later utilised in the award-winning video for ‘Take On Me’ and later ‘Train Of Thought’ (in fact some of the footage here was worked into the video for ‘Train Of Thought’ when it was released as a single).
In keeping with Hunting High And Low’s original running order, the set kicks off with ‘Take On Me’, its familiar opening bars getting a huge cheer from the audience. As with a lot of a-ha’s early material, there’s a timeless quality at work here although the mash-up of the projections play around with the comic strip aesthetic that marked the song’s promo video as an instant classic.
It’s a mood that carries over for ‘Train Of Thought’ as an immersive red light fills the stage. Pål hugs stage-left on acoustic guitar, occasionally throwing a glance at the projections that show scenic rail footage interspersed with more shots of the band in action. Meanwhile, Morten delivers the song’s often enigmatic lyrics (“And his mind once full of reason/Now there’s more than meets the eye”) with a confident tone.
A brief MC segment from Magne follows, greeting the London audience and inviting them to look back at 1985 at the debut of Hunting High And Low Meanwhile, Morten requests the assembled crowd’s combined vocals to accompany a soaring performance of the title track.
By contrast, ‘The Blue Sky’ has a funkier groove to it compared to the album version. There’s a heavier bass element at work here, while Pål has switched out his acoustic guitar for an electric one to give the song more impact. Meanwhile, striking city nightscapes fill the screen.
The familiar reedy tones of ‘Living A Boy’s Adventure Tale’ tracks closer to the album, but with a sturdier feel to it. The haunting mood of this outing accompanied by suitably desolate astronomical images.
The opening bars of ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’ (with Morten’s eerie falsetto notes) gets a massive cheer from the assembled fans who, as the song reaches its break, begin dancing in unison to the Pål Waaktaar-penned classic.
At the song’s emotional ending – and after an extended cheer from the audience – Magne ponders a question: “Hands up anyone who’s old enough to remember the 80s?” This gets another big cheer and a thrust of hands, allowing Magne to consider the history of Hunting High And Low. “It’s about 33 years since we played this for the first time. Thanks for giving us your time – and your money!”
Then its straight on through the album’s remaining songs, including a more lo-fi take on ‘And You Tell Me’ and a brooding ‘Love Is Reason’ before throwing in another curveball.
On record, ‘I Dream Myself Alive’ is an icy slice of pop, but as Magne hints in the intro, it’s also a song that originally started out in a much different place. The result here tonight is a much busier, more robust take on the song that’s closer to the original demo version. Yet despite this different arrangement, there’s still something fragile in the delivery of Morten’s heartfelt vocals (“I knew this world would break my heart”).
With the end in sight, it’s time to roll out the album’s closing number. A choral intro matched, with stormy cloud images, segues into a muscular take on ‘Here I Stand and Face the Rain’. The song gets an extended outing here which at one point seems to turn into a Mags/Pål jam.
As fierce lights strobe across the stage, the drums beat a final tattoo and this performance of Hunting High And Low comes to a magnificent end.
A brief interval follows, which allows the audience to ponder on a-ha’s legacy while also exploring the broad range of merchandise on sale. As well as the obligatory T-shirts, there’s tour programmes, mugs and even official a-ha socks! For those attending with VIP tickets, you even get a special a-ha candle to walk away with.
But then it’s onto the second half of the evening’s concert. For this segment, the band mix things up a little by dropping in some of their other hits along with more left-field choices from their extensive musical history.
Opening with a pensive ‘Analogue’, the title track of their 2005 album, they swiftly move onto the driving rhythms of ‘Foot Of The Mountain’, which gets a rapturous response. Pål strums away on an acoustic guitar and all three a-ha members offer vocal harmonies on the bittersweet tune’s chorus (helped by an enthusiastic audience).
Blue light floods the stage as the band drop a little further back into their musical catalogue. ‘The Swing Of Things’ has a particularly coiled energy to it. It’s tough not to feel moved by the emotional heft of lines such as:
When she glows in the dark
And I’m weak by the sight
Of this breathtaking beauty
In which I can hide
Once again, this arrangement is worked into an extended jam with some effective guitar riffs care of Pål. By the time the closing lines of “What have I done/What lies I have told…” Emerge, the entire RAH seems to be singing along with it.
Delving into their 1990 album East of the Sun, West of the Moon, they opt for a more reflective approach with a wistful cover of ‘Crying in the Rain’. This, in turn, is followed up with a more blues-orientated ‘Sycamore Leaves’.
At this point, the audience feels on relatively safe ground with what’s being served up from the setlist. So, it’s certainly an unexpected surprise with what comes next. “This is a new song” offers Magne, “…so you can’t sing along”.
‘Digital River’ (actually a shelved track from 2015’s Cast In Steel album) opens with a plaintive piano intro before opening into a more solid composition with a tight vocal delivery from Morten. It’s got some of his classic high notes in the mix along with some engaging synth hooks, coming across as a much more ‘old school’ take than more recent a-ha outings.
But a-ha still know how to choose just the right tunes from their live arsenal to really get the crowd moving. As a result, a euphoric ‘I’ve Been Losing You’ really lands with an impact. At one point, indulging the front row, he offers the mic to some lucky fans to sing a line or two.
‘Stay On These Roads’, by contrast, seems like a perfect closer. Its Nordic charms has the RAH crowds swaying their arms as they join Morten in singing its touching lyrical content. For a moment, winter is indeed gone.
But with the audience hyped up, an encore is inevitable. With the a-ha logo looking proud on the projection screen, the venue darkens for the cinematic glory that is ‘Scoundrel Days’. “We believe through the lies and the hating/That love goes free” offers Morten as a suitable reverie.
Going out on a high, a-ha serve up their very own Bond Theme with the polished imperiousness of ‘The Living Daylights’. With the crowd singing along, Magne can’t help but draw things out by encouraging first one part of the RAH to sing the chorus, then the other. It’s a perfect moment of chemistry between band and audience.
It’s difficult not to acknowledge the impressive musical legacy of a-ha, judging by even the brief catalogue of songs displayed live here tonight. While some of their contemporaries might labour at bringing a vitality to their own three-decade old songs, there’s some sort of spark in a-ha’s performance tonight which suggests a band half its age.
Special thanks to Barry Page.