Review Summary: In short, “Hunting High and Low” is a fabulous work of art with a couple of minor set backs.
The 80’s were an interesting time for pop music. The mainstream musicians had abandoned the popular disco trends of the 70’s and began experimenting with a more electronic based sound. As a result synthesizers became extremely popular. This spawned forth an almost overwhelming number of one hit wonder bands. A Flock of Seagulls had “I Ran (So Far Away)”, Soft Cell had “Tainted Love”, and who could forget a-ha and their hit song “Take on Me”.
A-ha is a Norwegian synth-pop trio that formed in 1982. After their hit single “Take on Me” reached the charts, they became extremely popular in the mainstream music scene. Unfortunately they were forgotten not long after they achieved success. They went on to record more albums and still tour to this day, but essentially their career ended as soon as it began.
Many of us make the assumption that the typical one hit wonder band has only one good song. Quite often that is true. But a-ha’s debut album “Hunting High and Low” is physical evidence that some times one hit wonders can make more than one master piece, and in this case, ten masterpieces.
Morten Harket – Vocals
Magne Furuholmen – Keyboards, vocals
Pål Waaktaar – Guitars, vocals
“Hunting High and Low” demonstrates a more creative and complex approach to writing synth-pop music. Many of the artists of the 80’s had the catchy keyboard melodies, the electronic drums and the memorable choruses, but their music lacked any real back bone. A-ha’s music consists of the same poppy trends but also contains multiple layers of synthesizers. Each synthesizer has a different setting, and this creates a chaotic, almost orchestral effect. Essentially the music has multiple things going on at once rather than simple background music with vocals over top of it. This makes the music more appealing to the listener who prefers a more complex style rather than pop.
But like I said, “Hunting High and Low” also has its pop side. Pop is essentially built around catchiness, and this album is jam packed with memorable melodies and interesting rhythms. An obvious example of this is “Take on me”. It instantly catches your attention with a simple, yet effective drum intro which eventually leads to an unforgettable keyboard melody. The song progresses into the sing along chorus that everyone knows and loves and continues to get better from there. But “Take one Me” isn’t the only memorable song off the album. Virtually every song on the album is catchy in some way, usually through keyboards or vocals. Some of the other notable tracks include “Train of Thought” “Love is Reason” and “The Sun Always Shines on TV”. Basically, this shows that both mainstream listeners and none mainstream listeners can appreciate this album in some way.
80’s pop is sometimes criticized for being repetitive and unoriginal. But “Hunting High and Low” does not fall into that trap. Each song is easily distinguished from the other. The fact that a variety of synth settings are used contributes to this. But this is also due to the simple fact that all the songs are structured differently. Many typical pop songs are linear and consist of intro motif/ verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/ending melody, but a-ha’s music tends to go off into more directions. For example “The Sun Always Shines of TV” has a climatic nature and alternates between loud exciting parts and quiet moments. It also contains brief instrumental sections here and there which aren’t quite as common in the pop world. Another important detail is that songs don’t always present the same moods and emotions. Of course you have your happy upbeat songs (Take on Me, Love is Reason) and your slow sad songs (the title track, The Blue Sky). But “Hunting High and Low” also contains songs of a, dare I say, epic nature (The Sun Always Shines on TV, Living a Boys Adventure Tale). Some of the songs hold the ground between happy and sad and emit a neutral ambiance (Train of Thought, I Dream Myself Alive). One could say that “Hunting High and Low” is an emotional rollercoaster which has its emotional highs and lows at various parts of the album. In other words, you’re not hearing the same thing over and over again.
Another quality that “Hunting High and Low” contains is Morten Harket’s magnificent vocal performance. He is easily one of the best vocalists from his era. This is due to two things. One of them being that he has incredible range. He can hit any low notes with ease, and can go fairly high as well. Most of us are aware of this because of the one high note in the chorus of “Take On Me”. He also hits the high notes on the intros to songs like “The Blue Sky” and “Living a Boys Adventure Tale”. He doesn’t act like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and over power the rest of the music with his high voice. Instead he waits for the right moments to take advantage of his range, and thus allows the listener to enjoy both his vocals and the other instruments in the song. A listener who is not familiar with a-ha’s music may find his high pitch voice to be somewhat irritating, but after a few listens it can be easy to get by. Morten Harket’s greatness is also due to his soulful voice. He can sing in a passionate and sorrowful nature in songs like “And You Tell Me” and the title track. Yet he can also force his voice into a much more vigorous and masculine state for songs like “Train of Thought” and “I Dream Myself Alive”. He can bring a tear to the listener’s eye, or empower them to do manly things. Either way, the vocals are great.
“Hunting High and Low” may be a great album, but it isn’t perfect. The music is wonderful, but it lacks the presence of a guitar. Pål Waaktaar is only heard at certain points of the album. Even when you do hear him, he isn’t doing much more than strumming his acoustic guitar. At times when he uses his electric guitar, you may hear him do some sort of riff or picking pattern. But his guitar his so heavily produced that it blends in with the keyboards and hardly stands out on its own. Any guitar lovers may not be happy with this album for that reason. Another flaw found in “Hunting High and Low” is generic lyrical content. Virtually all of the songs on the album deal with relationships (usually failed ones) which are probably the most common lyrical themes in pop music history. The words them selves are nothing more than bland and overly simple. For example: the title track is a beautiful sounding song which contains boring lyrical passages…
"Here I am and within the reach of my hand she's sound asleep
And she's sweeter now than the wildest dream.
Could have seen her
and I watch her slipping away
But I know I'll be hunting high and low"
These lyrics hardly have any real appeal to them. They aren’t clever in anyway. They aren’t deep or poetic. They aren’t even catchy. They sound more like a paragraph than a song. It is understandable however, considering that a-ha is from Norway and their first language is not English. But that doesn’t help the fact that the lyrics fall flat in comparison to the rest of the album. Again the listener must face the fact that nothing is perfect.
In short, “Hunting High and Low” is a fabulous work of art with a couple of minor set backs. Even though the lyrics and the guitar work are weak, the rest of the music stands out tremendously. It is a must-have for any fan of synth-pop, and it presents all the traits that people love about the genre. a-ha may have been a one hit wonder, but their other music remains exceptional to those who dug deep enough to find it.