Ville Valo to bring Neon Noir cycle to an end with massive world tour
HIM’s legendary Ville Valo is saying goodbye to VV with a huge 2024 tour, which finishes up at London’s historic Royal Albert Hall in May.
When Ville Valo led HIM offstage, for the final time, at Helsinki’s 700-cap Tavastia club on December 31, 2017, they left behind not just one of the most obsessive cult fanbases in heavy music, but also a catalogue of songs that blurred the lines between alt.rock, goth and doom unlike anything that’d come before.
Forming all the way back in 1991 with Ville (his six-string bass substituting for a guitar), childhood friend/four-string bassist Mikko 'Mige' Paananen, and a revolving assortment of drummers performing under the ‘His Infernal Majesty’ banner, the balance between smouldering romance and big riffs was there from the outset. Mige’s departure in 1993 for national military service led to a temporary halt in proceedings, but his return in 1995 – along with the recruitment of guitarist Mikko 'Linde' Lindström, drummer Juhana 'Pätkä' Rantala and keyboardist Janne 'Burton' Puurtinen – saw them roar back to life. Recorded over 15 days in the summer of 1997, the beguilingly murky sounds of debut LP Greatest Lovesongs Vol. 666 caught the attention of dark hearts across the continent.
A quarter-century and a further seven LPs down the line, the band still polarises the metal community (their main support slot for Metallica at Wembley Stadium in July 2007 invoked a rather hostile reaction) but hits like Right Here In My Arms and Buried Alive By Love have lost none of their late-night rock club appeal, while deeper cuts like Venus Doom linger as proof that these lads could really push the boundaries when they wanted to. Looking back for this Top 20, it’s impossible to imagine anyone ever bettering their singular sexy/sinister appeal.
Bow down to the love metal kings…
HIM were leaning hard into the dark, vampiric romance by second album Razorblade Romance, with Ville shirtless against a pink backdrop on the cover, a cigarette drooping suggestively from his plump lips. Meanwhile, the album’s slinking sort-of title-track Razorblade Kiss comes on like a creature of the night trying to sweet talk its way into your boudoir. Curiously, Ville himself regarded the track as HIM’s version of KISS-style old-school rock’n’roll. We reckon it’s more likely to get you swinging hips rather than pumping fists, but it’s a banger either way.
The title-track to HIM’s eighth and final album Tears On Tape aches with a sense of bittersweet melancholy, as well as paying tribute to the artists who led the Finns down the love metal path in the first place. The prominent pianos, acoustic guitars and general sense of stripped-back sorrow invoke the spirits of the ’80s icons Ville grew up worshipping, like Nick Cave and Depeche Mode, while the deceptively heartfelt lyrics pay tribute to heftier doom influences. “It's my tribute to the music I grew up listening to,” the singer explained in interviews at the time. “It mentions church bells tolling and thunder roaring, and that's a dedication to the first Black Sabbath album and so forth.”
Although they were already major rock stars on their side of the Atlantic, it wasn’t until fifth album Dark Light that HIM truly cracked America. The massive songwriting of third single Killing Loneliness is a major part of that. Although the song can be read as a classic heartbroken goth-rock lament about the lingering effects of separation (‘Memories sharp as daggers. / Pierce into the flesh of today. / Suicide of love took away all that matters / And buried the remains in an unmarked grave in your heart…’), Ville himself has explained that the song is inspired by the struggles with addiction experienced by pro-skateboarder and close friend Brandon Novak. Indeed, Brandon's struggles would see him jailed in 2011, having forged prescriptions for powerful tranquillizer Xanax.
The fourth single from Razorblade Romance felt formulaic to the point of being overlooked on release, but it became a firm live favourite over the decades that followed. Rather than just a stereotypically venomous goth rock cut, rumour has it that the track was influenced by a very specific lady in Ville’s life and the destructive power of some of the most beautiful things around you. ‘A prey she was for the cruelty of love,’ he croons, sounding legitimately broken. ‘While its serpent inside crawled straight towards her heart / The coldest kiss love ceased to exist / While we grew apart like never before.’ Poor guy.
The near eight-minute closing track to 2003’s breakthrough LP Love Metal feels like an encapsulation of all the things that make HIM great. There’s a beautifully lightweight, classic pop feel – anthemic, yet baleful – to the instrumentation, with undulating riffs building towards a more unhinged six-string freakout. The title is a reference to a term the band used to describe their musical progression, while the lyrical narrative follows a man whose soul roams eternally in search of true love, gaining the answers to some of life’s great questions along the way. A different shade of black.
The second single from Dark Light perfectly captured that world-beating moment in time. Packing in a range of weird and wonderful instrumentation (a keyboard riff that’s eerily reminiscent of John Carpenter’s iconic Halloween score, theremin-alike synths) and lyrics that appear to pre-empt the undead angst of the Twilight books (‘Let me weep you this poem as Heaven's gates close / Paint you my soul, scarred and alone / Waiting for your kiss to take me back home’), on paper Vampire Heart should be an indulgent goth rock deep cut. Like a monument built of gleaming glass and polished bone, however, it earned recognition as one of the most cutting pop-metal tracks of the mid-2000s.
Almost as if they felt they’d strayed too close to the mainstream with Dark Light, sixth album Venus Doom saw HIM cranking up the hard rock energy and refusing to buff away the rough edges. There were a host of difficulties during the album’s making, with Ville’s break-up with fiancée Jonna Nygrén and the subsequent spiral into alcohol abuse weighing heavily, and it’s easy to see some of those issues reflected back in the sumptuous gothic doom of Dead Lovers’ Lane. ‘Despair has a face,’ he sings. ‘And all these wounds remain unhealed / Blessed to kill and enslaved / Are all hearts around love's will / Thrilled to start all over again.’ Dig deep enough and there’s real beauty in the darkness.
The second track and third single from 2001’s third album Deep Shadows And Brilliant Highlights is one of the softer hits in the HIM songbook, with some fairly obvious ’80s AOR influence, but there’s an infectious authenticity that maintained its status as a live favourite to the very end. An emphatic piano riff and some ghostly synths open up alongside one of Ville’s most iconic couplets (‘From lashes to ashes / And from lust to dust’) before powering out across three-and-a-half minutes of biblical drama (‘There's no smile of an angel / Without the wrath of god’) and sultry romance (‘In your sweetest torment / I am lost / And we sense the danger / But don't wanna give up’). An understated classic.
The on-the-nose song titles were still present and correct in 2001, but HIM’s songwriting had grown far more involved than in the early days. Throwing together acoustic guitars, pianos, understated percussion, sumptuous strings and haunting organ, In Joy And Sorrow feels a little bit like an updated, black-painted version Led Zeppelin-style classic rock. ‘Oh girl we are the same,’ roll out lyrics that feel like a dark hymn. ‘We are strong and blessed and so brave / With souls to be saved / And faith regained / All our tears wipe away.’ This is one of those tunes that had a far bigger impact on the late-2000s emo movement than it would get credit for.
‘Love's the funeral of hearts / And an ode for cruelty / When angels cry blood / On flowers of evil in bloom.’ With that first verse of the lead single from fourth album Love Metal, it felt like HIM won over a legion of new fans. Mopier and more melodramatic than second single Buried Alive By Love, The Funeral Of Hearts didn’t show their full hand; it was more like a fine-tuned example of the sound with HIM had achieved thus far, rather than a showcase for where they’d eventually go. Coursing with raw, organic spirit, though, it was hard for even edgier listeners not to be swept along into the lake of tears…
Based on William Shakespeare’s timeless romantic tragedy Romeo & Juliet, the lead single from Razorblade Romance was a potent reminder that HIM’s dark love stories were not a modern invention. The imagery of star-crossed lovers together forever in eternal repose is subverted to typically gothic effect all the same. ‘We are so young / Our lives have just begun,’ Ville sings. ‘But already we're considering / Escape from this world.’ Still in their pre-superstardom days, the singer actually disclosed that the lyrics to Join Me In Death were written in about 15 minutes before the song itself was worked out onstage over the following months.
Beyond their biological metamorphoses, butterflies have symbolic relevance across numerous cultures – of resurrection and immortality – with butterfly wings often being offered in sacrifice. Ville was deeply interested in the idea that you can’t get something new without sacrificing something old, and asks on this single from Dark Light whether you are willing to destroy something beautiful to get what you want. The big ’80s goth vibes here – The Mission and The Cult are both clear reference points – make it one of HIM’s most vibrant tracks.
The lead single from HIM’s brilliantly-titled debut LP, Greatest Lovesongs Vol. 666, feels retrospectively gloriously prototypical of the sounds to come. Crunchy guitars? Check. Swooning synths? Check. Mopey verses rising into a cathartic chorus? Get your hankies at the ready! Even that title could be read as a (barely) metaphorical description of precisely what the band sound like. ‘I love you / And you're crushing my heart,’ ring the simplistic lyrics. ‘I need you / Please take me into your arms.’ They would move on to subtler and more energetic displays further down the line, but there’s something enchanting about seeing the Depeche Mode / Type O influences stack up for HIM’s first meaningful step towards stardom. It was also the last song they performed live.
The Venus Doom title might seem a little abstract by HIM’s standards, but it’s actually taken from the name of a painting by David Harouni, which Ville had purchased while on tour in New Orleans. Having hung on the singer’s wall during songwriting, it was a subtle influence and would eventually be selected as the album’s cover art. The contrast between Venus (the Roman goddess of love) and doom was maybe the most high-minded of their trademark dark romantic crossovers. The heavyweight title-track, however – punctuated by passages of piano-driven light – sees the dark-romantic concept jacked-up on steroids, with Linde Lindström’s guitar properly let off the chain. Twisting and turning right to the end, the song’s fourth minute sees them dip into some gloriously shadowy epic doom before spilling into an outro that feels like its skating down your ear canal on razorblades.
Opening with one of the most iconic live sing-alongs in their songbook, the relatively ethereal fifth single from Razorblade Romance would go on to be an infectious fan-favourite: its willowy romance spiked with caustic poison. The title is a cheeky nod to epic American romance Gone With The Wind, while the lyrics focus on a beautiful young woman with a heart as dark as Ville’s own. The frontman has said that the song was actually completed almost as an afterthought when the rest of the album was already done, with the more relaxed mood bleeding into the music. It paid off handsomely, becoming a Number One hit in their native Finland.
While it’s unclear whether the sixth song and third single from Love Metal is a direct endorsement of the marital tradition, it is a clear tribute to the commitment that passes between two people when they fall in love with each other. ‘I know my church is not of silver and gold,’ echo some of Ville’s most powerful lyrics, emphasising that his place of worship is not a building, but the spirit of his partner. ‘Its glory lies beyond judgment of souls / The commandments are of consolation and warmth.’ The sumptuous instrumentation is emblematic of the pulsating darkness of the Love Metal era.
‘There are things you should know / The distance between us seems to grow / But you're holding on strong / Oh how hard it's to let go, oh so hard to let go / I'm waiting for your call and I'm ready to take your six six six in my heart.’ The poetry mightn’t have been all that finessed back on the second single from HIM’s first album, but it still cut right to the heart. Dig into those lyrics and there appears to be a curiously adolescent story being told about a long distance relationship slowly falling apart, but the real hook here is the full-pomp goth rock composition, which feels like a perfect centre point between Type O ghoulishness and Depeche Mode swagger.
The second single from Razorblade Romance felt like the first time HIM really nailed their surging, mainstream-baiting sound, catching the attention not only of runny-mascara goth kids, but also denim-and-leather-clad rockers out for a good time. Of course, the lovelorn lyrics are shot through with an inky sensibility (‘She's smiling like heaven is down on earth / Sun is shining so bright it hurts / All her wishes have finally come true / Her heart is weeping / Happiness is killing her’) but the glam rock swagger keeps the momentum, and the mood, soul-spinningly high.
Right from the rumbling first riff of the first track on Love Metal (supposedly also the first written for the record), it was clear that HIM’s attitude and aggression had picked up exponentially. Ville explained in a K! interview at the time that he’d gotten tired of the poppier sound the band had been toying with, as well as getting heavily into Norwegian punks Turbonegro, with that fast-and-loose feeling poured right into the music. Sounding like Black Sabbath throwing fists with The Stooges, Buried Alive By Love was a wonderfully high-octane evolution. The music video (along with those for The Sacrament, Solitary Man and And Love Said No) was directed by Ville’s friend Bam Margera, starred Juliette Lewis, inhabited LA’s Los Angeles Theatre, and would prove pivotal in getting a vice-grip on mid-2000s music TV.
Naysayers often point to HIM’s reliance on archetypical gothic romance and slinking aesthetic as some sort of proof that they shouldn’t be taken seriously. They should take 10 minutes to submerge themselves in the staggering brilliance of Sleepwalking Past Hope. Not just the longest track in their back catalogue, but also the deepest and darkest, the Black Sabbath influence is heavily pronounced here, with a huge doom riff sitting front and centre of the mix, while Ville’s vocals and a delicate piano line sporadically break the maelstrom. Taking in passages of shadowy prog and a grandstanding pop-metal crescendo, there are even shades of the arch morbidity that would later be successfully exploited by fellow Scandi-superstars Ghost. Inspired by Ville’s relationship with Jonna Nygrén, the singer has mused at length on the fragility of a relationship between damaged souls, but he holds nothing back with a Luciferean farewell for the ages: ‘My hell begins from the 10th and descends to the circle / Six hundred threescore and six / And from there I crawl beneath Lucifer's claws just for one last kiss.’ Pucker up!
HIM’s legendary Ville Valo is saying goodbye to VV with a huge 2024 tour, which finishes up at London’s historic Royal Albert Hall in May.
Whether it’s stealing “weird plastic ravens” with HIM or talking about his underwear onstage, touring with Ville Valo is never dull…
Ville Valo offered up an awesome 50/50 split between his VV solo stuff and HIM classics at Helsinki’s Tavastia club on Friday night…
Whether it’s playing to “20 people, plus a guy with a dog” in Nottingham or catching Tony Iommi side-stage while performing at Download Festival, Ville Valo has got a live story for pretty much every occasion…
Straight-to-the-heart solo return from Ville Valo, frontman of dearly departed Finnish stars HIM…
VV drops the next single from his upcoming debut solo album Neon Noir, which Ville Valo calls a “neat little Gordian knot of the gothic variety”.
Ville Valo has officially confirmed details of his debut album as VV, Neon Noir, which he describes as a “sonic step-by-step guide on how to survive”.
The Cover Story
Half a decade on from the end of gothic rock heroes HIM, frontman Ville Valo is gearing up to release his debut solo album. And in Neon Noir, not only did the Finnish icon find a reason to keep going during the pandemic, it also sees Ville still very much enjoying his dreamy journey into the dark side…