Saturday, 26 March 2016

a-ha - Cool Scandinavian Pop Still Ignites Warm Flames - Manchester Arena, Manchester, 25.03.16

About seventy-five minutes into a-ha’s show at Manchester Arena, there is the sound of gently-plucked acoustic strings echoing across the open space. Frontman Morten Harket looks out at the relatively intimate crowd gathered at the barrier and smiles coyly, a demure expression playing across his still-youthful visage. “There’s quite a lot of you out there,” he notes drily. “Let’s hear you.” He stands back from the microphone, and for a minute and a half, as the band play softly around him, four thousand voices carry the refrain of Hunting High and Low together, like a celestial chorus above hushed strings and low-key drums, eliciting shivers in breath-taking fashion.

It’s a staple of big pop-rock shows, to hand over vocal duties to the audience, but by no means does it diminish the effect. There had been raised eyebrows when, after a retirement of only five years, a-ha ventured out of Norway again, new album and tour in tow. But on a live circuit populated by nostalgia, it is hardly surprising. It helps that latest effort Cast In Steel is an impressive return to form for the Scandinavian new wave trio, reaching #8 in the UK and justifying their re-emergence onto the scene.
Morten Harket and Pål Waaktaar-Savoy of a-ha perform
live in 2010. (Courtesy of Youtube)
They lean lightly on new material though, at their first full UK show since they bid farewell in 2010. Instead, they stick to an impressive array of hits and fan favourites that span their entire thirty-year career. Entering to graphics of windswept roads, rendered in foreboding monochrome, they strike up with a strident run through I’ve Been Losing You and Cry Wolf, all strobe lighting and crunching guitar. Live, they pack a broader punch than on record, more urgent and weighty. Dressed in leather jacket and shades, Harket cuts an enigmatic figure to begin, leaving chirpy keyboardist Magne Furuholmen to introduce the four-piece backing band who accompany them, though after he swaps his glasses for a rectangular frameless pair, he takes on the air of a debonair Specsavers model.

Unfortunately, he suffers vocally early on, though his range is magnificent; during the sweeping icy synth-orchestral grandeur of Stay On Those Roads, he hits the highs with a graceful ease. It’s the power behind his voice that is Harket’s weakness; there isn’t any to start with. Hit Move to Memphis sees him trill tremulously over Edge-like guitar work, whilst We’re Looking for the Whales is hamstrung by a lack of clout. But he gradually improves; The Swing of Things sees him project finely over swelling strings, whilst Crying in the Rain sees him harmonise with his female backing vocalist with an elegiac strength.
Magne Furuholmen of a-ha performs live in
2016. (Courtesy of
“We didn’t honestly expect to see you again so thank you for having us,” he states to cheers from the middle-aged collective of women near the front. All seem pleased to be on stage, even if Harket is more reserved than the others. Guitarist Pål Waaktaar-Savoy sports a grin every time he wrenches a bolt of noise from his guitar during the ominous, creeping Sycamore Leaves. Furuholmen looks even more excitable; during an acoustic version of Lifelines where he sings lead vocals, he flubs his second line and swears cheerily for the rest of the first verse, whilst during the urgent dance-rock of Foot of the Mountain, he dad-dances, throwing amusing shapes to the delight of onlookers.

Closing with the jittery synth-pop of Scoundrel Days, they return to encore with a pulsing, driving The Sun Always Shines On T.V., all clattering drums and snarling fretwork. They dial down for an acoustic take on new Radio 2-friendly single Under the Makeup, before leaving with the deliriously kitsch funk-pop of their James Bond theme The Living Daylights, its brass flares backed by graphics featuring silhouettes of scantily-clad women in a winking reference. They exit again, but the crowd remain on their feet, hollering, until the drum intro of Take On Me bursts into life, its euphoric keyboard riff signalling another mass-singalong. As Harket nails the high note to wild applause, there’s a tangible warmth to this mass act of musical communion. It seems, that after thirty years, this cool Scandinavian trio can still ignite the flames of excitement – and there are many only too happy to fan them higher.

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