In Australia, A-ha are known as 'one hit wonders' for the incredibly catchy pop song Take On Me, which was first released in 1984 and a hit almost twelve months later in 1985. The song was a giant international hit, and in The United States it peaked at number one. After that, success in Australia all but passed A-ha by, though Europe, and to a lesser extent Japan, continued to lap up their regular servings of disposable Euro-pop that Scandinavian acts seems so good at producing. Just watch the Eurovision Song Contest for ample proof of that.
A-ha is multi-instrumentalists Paul Waaktaar-Savoy and Magne Furuholmen, and vocalist Morten Harket. If Michael Jackson really wants perfect cheek bones and sculptured good looks, then he need look no further than Mr Harket, who at 42, is still impossibly good looking. The band had several more significant UK hits such as The Sun Always Shines on TV and I've Been Losing You, and composed and performed the title song to the James Bond film The Living Daylights, all of which were also lesser hits in Australia.
The talented trio released five albums before taking a seven year break in 1994, and have released two albums since, including the acclaimed Minor Earth Major Sky in 1999, which was the inspiration for the tour from which A-ha - Homecoming: Live at Vallhall comes. This show is the first night of a two night stint at Vallhall, Norway's purpose built soccer stadium. Filmed in their hometown, and broadcast on the Internet, the concert is now available to buy, and includes a very impressive array of extras that fans will love. The band performs all the 'hits' and several new tunes. Morten's falsetto is still strong and those high notes in Take On Me have not been compromised. There is no dazzling light show, or distractions such as video screens, dancers, lengthy guitar solos, and fireworks, but this is still an enjoyable 101 minutes for anyone with an interest in catchy Euro-pop songs and the occasional big ballad. Not every song is a winner, but most have something about them that makes them listenable.
Trivia: Take On Me was released as a single three times before it finally became a hit. A-ha was the first Norwegian band to have a US number one hit (ooh, big surprise!). Morten is a divorcee with two sons, Jacob and Jonathan, and a daughter Tomine.
A-ha - Homecoming: Live At Vallhall is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (full frame) and is therefore not anamorphically enhanced. Visually, there are a number of great things about this transfer, and a couple not so good. One of the good things is the sharp and detailed image, especially in the close up shots. It is also a very clean transfer and no marks or speckles are evident. Colours are very good, slightly oversaturated, with no evidence of chroma noise. For my first gripe, I am having a shot at the amount of blue lighting on stage. Of course this is not a fault of the transfer and therefore I cannot be too critical, but blue stage lights and DVD do not go together. Under blue light, there is a noticeable drop in clarity and colours start to bleed.
Black levels are deep and even, with no evidence of low-level noise. Shadow detail is as good as a live DVD gets, and is dependent on stage lighting that, in this case, focuses very much on the three main performers. There are some instances of aliasing on the usual offenders such as guitar strings, and major pixelisation during The Living Daylights, but as it occurs during a pan of the crowd, it's not the intrusion it could have been. As the disc does not include a time count (or even a chapter display), I can not give you the exact moment.
There is an audio choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1. Both are mastered slightly quieter than usual and you will want to give your volume control a nudge, but do it after you have selected 'Play' or you risk ear damage from the main menu. The Dolby Digital 5.1 is a very good transfer, and some thought has gone into the placement of sound. It has that typical 'concert feel' whereby most of the music is focused on, and across, the front speakers. Lead vocals are loud and clear and placed mainly in the centre speaker with backing vocals spreading out across the whole front. Rear speakers are used for music spillage, and for crowd noise which is well balanced between the front and the rear.
The low-level sounds are as good as any I have heard and are rich and deep. They are not aggressive, but have a real rumbling presence at times, and while drums are not really a feature of A-ha's music, synthesised bass is, and the front speakers are ably supported by the subwoofer which is frequently called on to fill out the sound. The Dolby Digital 2.0 transfer sounds a little flat in comparison, but still has the clarity and depth of the 5.1 mix.
For those that like to sing along, there are English subtitles for the lyrics and crowd banter which is mostly in Norwegian.
There are no problems with synchronisation, nor is there a layer change, which indicates that the extras and feature are on separate layers. This is a wise move.
The extras are a definite plus for this release. The running times quoted are not exact as many of the extras, like the feature, do not have a time counter. Humph!
The booklet is a neat little addition containing all manner of credits.
There are two bonus live tracks from a show in May 2001, and a far more intimate affair than Vallhall. They are presented in full frame and Dolby Digital stereo. The tracks are Early Morning and Summer Moved On.
For video lovers, there are four music videos from A-ha's comeback album, Minor Earth Major Sky. All are again Dolby Digital stereo with differing aspect ratios. All are clean, with good colouring and one or two are very interesting videos indeed. The four tracks are Summer Moved On, Velvet, I Wish I Cared, and the title track.
The Seven Year Itch refers to the seven years the band spent pursuing solo projects and runs for approximately 22 minutes. It is broken into three separate sections, one for each band member, and is narrated by a very annoying young Englishman with dreadful grammar and appalling diction. The very same chappy returns for the 22 minute interview, entitled The Ian Wright Interview. It is basically three separate interviews edited into one.
Backstage With Aa-ha is a short behind-the-scenes look at A-ha as they prepare for the upcoming show.
After Party Vallhall is just what it sounds, and lasts a little over six minutes. It is of dubious quality and focuses mostly on fans that have gathered to 'party' with A-ha. This is not overly interesting.
Lastly there is Notes which is eight pages of easy to read text and is a brief biography of the band.
Whilst I don't consider myself a serious A-ha fan, I am guilty of owning and enjoying their first two albums, and have listened to both more than once. It is inoffensive and disposable Euro-pop. I think it is unfair to label them strictly as one hit wonders, but many will beg to differ. To be truthful, they have only had one major hit here in Australia at least, so maybe the tag is somewhat justified. Either way, this is an enjoyable concert, coupled with enough extras to make it a very worthwhile purchase for fans, and contains enough good songs to keep all other pop lovers from accepting the challenge to take them on.