Album review: A-ha

A-HA: FOOT OF THE MOUNTAIN ** UNIVERSAL, £12.72

APART from a brief hiatus in the mid-1990s, A-ha have never stopped making music since they formed in Oslo in 1982. Yet they remain enshrined in posterity as those three sculpted pretty boys who became the pop pin-ups of 1985 with their worldwide hit Take On Me. Three years and several massive hits later, their huge commercial reach began to wane, to the evident relief of the band.

Inevitably, with the passage of time (and the creep of nostalgia), they have undergone a reappraisal, winning the Q Magazine Inspiration Award in 2006. Both Coldplay and Keane would go along with this distinction, having cited the Norwegian trio as an influence on their songwriting. With hindsight, their approbation should have been taken as a warning.

Foot Of The Mountain, A-ha's ninth album, is conveniently billed as a return to their synthpop 80s heyday, following a period when they favoured acoustic instruments and released an album called Analogue. All this actually means is that synthesizers were used in the making of this album (along with omnichords, stylophones, Mellotrons and other vintage hardware).

Although the trio – singer Morten Harket and instrumentalists Magne Furuholmen and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy – are enviably well-preserved specimens of manhood and Harket has retained his athletic vocal range, including effortless falsetto, Foot Of The Mountain is not some wide-eyed trip back to their soaring pop roots but an unwaveringly underwhelming collection of wishy-washy songs.

Subdued opening track The Bandstand is a glacial, almost catatonic take on New Romantic synth pop with whimsical lyrics, inspired by Waaktaar-Savoy's arrival in his current home of New York.

He has described the following Riding The Crest as "electro blues", influenced by Arcade Fire's Neon Bible album, but all I can hear is a disposable chiming nursery rhyme keyboard refrain, an elusive tune, some square, slightly embarrassing drug references and a slight hint, not for the last time, of Keane, whose Tom Chaplin shares Harket's comfort with his upper range.

Individual projects by Waaktaar-Savoy and Furuholmen have fed into the material. What There Is, a re-recorded version of a Magne Furuholmen solo cut, is another antiseptic electro glide with nothing to say lyrically, which half-heartedly sketches out a dull scenario then descends into outright clichs such as "you can make two wrongs a right".

By this point, Harket is sorely needing to exercise his voice on some uplifting melody. The title track boasts the first chorus of any note – this one of equivalent quality to, say, a middling effort by Keane or one of Gary Barlow's inoffensive turns on the current Take That album.

It's another piece of whimsy, celebrating getting away from it all and living a simple, idealised life ("we could make us a white picket fence"). Sadly, it doesn't get any better than this.

The sterile synth ballad Real Meaning is too dispassionately delivered to invest any ache in the potentially plaintive lyrics "don't fix me, it breaks my heart to see you try, don't fix you and leave me for some other guy".

Only a glimmer of melancholy seeps through Shadowside, an otherwise formulaic plodder about fighting depression. Nothing Is Keeping You Here deals with transience and restlessness but sounds as tentative and middle-of-the-road as the rest of the album.

Mother Nature Goes To Heaven offers the faintest whiff of retro kitsch, in as much as it recalls a certain strand of po-faced early 80s Euro pop with its earnest ecological warning. Sunny Mystery is closer to those insipid chillout club compilations where the target listener is too zoned out to raise any objection to such vacant cod philosophy as "life is the dream you wake up to, dreams are the life from which you wake".

Closing number Start The Simulator weaves the technical jargon from the Apollo space missions into a would-be hypnotic mantra. Lyrics such as "switch to Omni Bravo, B bus under volt" make as much sense as anything else on the album and sound a lot more poetic. But ultimately this is a failed experiment in that synthesis of cold, scientific language and warm, organic melody which Kraftwerk have achieved so immaculately throughout their career. This one ends up sounding more like the bonus track on an early Depeche Mode album.

Various band members have spoken of the passion on this album – a bewildering claim, once you have heard the results. There is no fire in their clinical craft, nor even, at the other end of the scale, any Norwegian ice. Foot Of The Mountain is just tepid.

CRITIC'S CHOICE

Unicorn Kid

ABC2, Glasgow, 1 August

One for the kids (aged 14-18) as 8-bit bedroom boffin Unicorn Kid, aka Edinburgh teenager Oliver Sabin, pumps out the sugar rush bleeps at this School's Out For Summer gig. Under-16s must be accompanied by a 16-18-year-old and the glee commences at 4pm.

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