HIM Embrace Love & Death
by Jonathan Mander :: 2009
Every rock band would love to have a lead figure like Ville Valo. The heart & soul of the most successful rock band ever to come from Finland, Valo is pure charisma on and off the stage. He is also the perfect interviewee, capable of improvising banter that sounds interesting and is always quotable.
HIM is what it is largely because of Valo's vision. And that vision is a complete one: HIM is the whole package. In Finland rock bands tend to dislike the idea of branding – of having a clear concept. It is often considered commercial compromise. Yet the way Valo and his band have done it proves consistency makes the rock pose more complete. In fact, if the all the pieces didn't stick together with such authority, the whole set-up and playing around with musical and lyrical clichés might seem false. Now you sense a genuine vision at the heart of things.
Appropriately, HIM has even created its very own genre – of which it is the sole proprietor. Love Metal is exactly the kind of creation Valo is good at: it says a lot about what HIM is all about, it sounds compelling and sets the band apart from others making similar music.
Man of contrasts
Musically HIM represents classic heavy metal with a gothic twist. Valo's broad musical influences are allowed to slip in to bring some spice to the gothic rock. As the self-titled genre suggests, HIM has dipped its heavy metal deep into romanticism. And there is one other very Finnish element, which Valo says sets his band apart from other bands that delve in dark rock.
"The world is full of dark music, but no one else knows how to bring Slavic melancholy to rock. Pseudo-goth bands and their rural gloom are far from the essence of melancholy. That is where we are headed," said Ville Valo in an interview with Finnish lifestyle magazine Image in 2002, while making HIM's fourth album Love Metal.
In interviews coinciding with that album's release, Valo often mentioned his direct debt to heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Dio. Ever the man of contrasts, he was quick to juice up the comparison by saying the album was equally influenced by old Finnish folk singers such as Tapio Rautavaara and Reino Helismaa. When describing HIM's sixth album Venus Doom, Valo caught the ear of every rock and indie-pop enthusiast by saying it was a cross between My Bloody Valentine's Loveless and Metallica's Master of Puppets. HIM's leading man would rather make a statement that sounds exciting than be accurate.
But there is truth in Valo's examples, because juxtapositions are central to HIM's concept and music. HIM combines the juvenile and dirty elements of metal to goth's fascination with beauty, decay and death as well as soulful expression (mainly in Valo's vocals) of melodic songs through the ages. This vision results in song titles such as When Love & Death Embrace, Buried Alive By Love, Rip Out the Wings of a Butterfly and Heartkiller. Everything is performed in an earnest yet overstated way, which justify the clichés of the music and lyrics. The exaggerated romance of Valo's lyrics are like symbolic poetry instead of anything literal – although HIM did face some accusations, when Join Me (In Death) was interpreted literally as the band become more widely recognised.
Breaking through globally
The route to international acclaim started with HIM's first album Greatest Love Songs Vol. 666 (1997), which spread the band's reputation across the Nordic countries. In Finland things were off to a good start by then thanks to playing live as much as possible and releasing the EP 666 Ways to Love (1996), which included a hit – the cover version of Chris Isaak's Wicked Game. Razorblade Romance (2000) led by single Join Me (In Death) opened up the Central European market to the band, and took Germany by storm. The breakthrough beyond Finnish borders lead to follow-up album Deep Shadows and Brilliant Highlights (2002) having a more international team working on it. The result was a record generally panned as too polished and lacking the band's rougher edges, leaving straightforward melodic rock in the vain of Bon Jovi. Besides being an artistic letdown, its sales also disappointed.
Others might have been content with their moment in the spotlight and left things there. HIM and Ville Valo are too ambitious to be kept down by such a bump in the road. HIM went on to record and unleash Love Metal – the album that captured the essence of the band better than anything before that. It proved a success, reaffirming HIM's status as one of Europe's main metal bands. It also gave the band's reputation a boost in the U.S. Promotion across the Atlantic was further helped by Valo's friendship with Bam Margera, star of the Jackass tv-series. The band's fifth album, Dark Light, received a wide release in the North American market, and became the first ever Finnish album to earn a gold disc after sales of 500,000 copies.
With Dark Light and Venus Doom, HIM has continued to develop its sound even without straying from the love metal core. Valo touted Venus Doom as "HIM's heaviest album yet", which meant that the sound was more pared down and focused on the main elements.
In February 2010 HIM releases Screamworks: Love in Theory and Practice, which is the band's biggest international release to date. This time Valo promises "the most sexual album so far".
"Lyrically it is the most horny one we've ever made. It's got a sense of immediacy: 'I want it now, now, now'. It's not about being poetic or forlorn about something that it about to happen, it's actually about something that is happening at this very moment in time. I like the immediacy," Valo told Metal Hammer magazine near the end of 2009.
HIM continue to climb higher in the echelons of hard rock, and are not planning on coming down.