The End Records digitally reissued HIM’s early albums in the United States this year. Previously, iTunes only offered a handful of albums and a few singles, so the reviews left by some of the first time listeners were pretty interesting. While sifting through the many “Ville Valo is a god” reviews, I came across “this is my first HIM CD, and I always thought they were a lot heavier.” I have to ask you, why would this person have expected something heavier? This self-proclaimed Love Metal band is constantly billed as a metal act… But is that what they truly are?
This question prompted me to listen to the entire catalog to see where the confusion can come in.
HIM originally released their first album Greatest Love Songs Vol. 666 in Finland in 1997 (2005 in the US). Ville’s baritone voice meshes quite well with the heavily distorted guitars on each track and the album is left with a clear gothic metal feel. Though, they do show their sappy side with ‘When Love and Death Embrace,’ the song is a nice break from an album that seems to want to cheaply prove its place in the metal genre by having 666 repeated 10 times within the lyrics, in the album title, a song title, and by having the album length at 66:06. If you do not tire from hearing the same number spit out repeatedly, Greatest Love Songs really is a great album.
Next in the line-up is Razorblade Romance (1999 FIN; 2003 USA), which may be the band’s most widely recognized album. This one starts off fairly heavy like the latter and eases us into the more soft rock side of the band. The pacing of this album is magnificent. Each song flows to the next without leaving you feeling like any track is out of place, and a metal fan can still get their fill while also secretly singing along with ‘Join Me.’ Though 6 out of 11 tracks are slow, it is still an easy listen for someone who prefers metal. I imagine Razorblade is a guilty pleasure album for some metal heads.
Deep Shadows and Brilliant Highlights (2001 FIN; 2004 USA) is noticeably more mellow than the former albums and is honestly quite boring. The first three tracks maintain the same pace and tempo, so as the listener I sat hoping for something different to happen. After feeling stuck in a rut, ‘In Joy and Sorrow’ starts up. I will say it is a beautiful song, but the slowness of it makes the strategic placement of the tracks to follow glaringly obvious. The listener begins to desire something upbeat and loud, so we are given ‘Pretending,’ a song that sounds made for radio. The next 4 songs play out like the beginning of the album in reverse, in that ‘Close to the Flame’ mirrors the pacing of ‘In Joy and Sorrow’ and so on. ‘Love You Like I Do’ was my favorite song on Deep Shadows, because it is the only one that truly stands out. However, it is not enough to save this from being a very forgettable album.
Love Metal (2003 FIN; 2005 USA) changes it up a bit and offers a few heavier songs, complete with Ville screaming choruses. Unlike Razorblade, the formula of this album is very methodical… Heavy, soft, heavy, soft. I feel like this simplicity in the track layout detracts from the skillfully written songs and as a listener I am left yearning for something a little more complex to feel a connection. As a result, the last four songs feel mundane and become forgettable. It seems as though the reason people still refer to them as a metal band after listening to the album is because the title insists that you keep the word “metal” in the back of your mind. Maybe a lot of metal heads are a forgiving bunch and the mediocre ending is dismissed or even overlooked.
In 2005 the band released Dark Light, which is also when they jumped head first into the soft rock world. Andy Wallace, a music producer in the United States, had been fired during the early stages of production due to making the album sound too “American.” Andy is probably pretty bitter toward the band considering Dark Light sounds about as a mainstream American as it gets. I am by no means a music producer myself, but this album sounds as if the person in charge of mixing found a filter they were fond of and laid it over every track, making this a very bland and anti-climatic listen. The most intriguing thing about this album is ‘Behind the Crimson Door,’ thanks to a barely audible reciting of Finnish writer Timo Mukka’s poem “Kadotettu.” I would recommend Dark Light to someone who wants to give the appearance of being into metal, without actually having to listen to it.
We were presented with Venus Doom in 2007 and are welcomed with the all too familiar sound of someone lighting a cigarette and exhaling before a booming guitar riff kicks off the title track. Despite habitually steering away from the genre, Venus Doom is proof that HIM is still capable of being a metal band. The band has said themselves that this is their heaviest and darkest album, and I agree wholeheartedly. There are points on the album where the distortion increases while Ville’s voice is so guttural the hair on your arms may stand on end. ‘Sleepwalking Past Hope’ is an emotionally heavy song and the longest song by the band to date, clocking in at 10:03. This single track is quintessential HIM; each band member has their chance to shine with a short solo, the listener can feel the looming sense of despair, and Ville’s vocals are brilliant. We then get a chance to recuperate and come back in check with our own emotions with ‘Song or Suicide’: a 1:11 acoustic track that sounds like Ville is in a room alone, trapped in his own thoughts. Venus Doom is the album metal fans have been waiting for from these guys.
My metal high is quickly dispelled as soon as I get to Screamworks: Love in Theory and Practice (2010). This entire album sounds like one big radio edit and is a strange mix of pop and rock. Valo’s screaming of some lyrics sounds very out of place with the pop vibe the album has. After finishing this album, it is very hard to believe the band ever had any qualm about sounding American. They must welcome it now since Screamworks was recorded in Los Angeles, California with producer Matt Squire (who has worked with the likes of Ke$ha and Katy Perry). I know it is unrealistic to anticipate another Venus Doom, but when you have a band that is a revered “metal” act, the last thing you expect is a pop album. After reading reviews of this album on iTunes, I am now convinced that most HIM fans will praise anything donning the signature Heartagram.
The latest edition to the band’s catalog is 2013’s Tears on Tape: a concept album following the theme of a mix-tape by starting with the sound of a cassette being placed in a tape deck, and at the album’s end, being stopped and ejected. Thankfully this shows the band is moving back into the rock world, though the title track is something you may hear on a mainstream soft rock radio station. “Forever and ever” is painfully screamed at the beginning of ‘No Love,’ indicating that Ville’s screaming days are behind him. It makes me wonder if that was the best take they could get or if he did it one time and they just went with it. Tears on Tape ends with two dark and gloomy tracks, ‘W.L.S.T.D.’ and ‘Kiss the Void’, that sound like they would have been better suited for Venus Doom. But the point of a mix-tape is to have a variety of your favorite songs with no regard to genre.
So the question stands: is HIM a metal band? This probably sounds like I have been harsh on the group, but they are not perfect like the myriad of HIM fans may argue. They have shown with 2 full albums that they are capable of creating metal music, but the remaining 5 are questionable. If a person can be surprised that the music is not heavy, that is a pretty good indicator that everyone has the band categorized wrong.
I find it very hard to believe that anyone could be asked to list a metal song and respond truthfully with ‘Funeral of Hearts.’ When you look at them overall, HIM may fit more into the Rock category. However, every now and then a band comes along and changes the face of the industry. This is part of the reason Black Sabbath is so beloved. HIM came onto the scene with a metal album, and managed to stay there by creating their own category that undoubtedly only suites them. In this sense, I can say they belong where they are. It is pretty hard to get kicked out of a category you created yourself. Kudos to HIM for being able to create their own niche in the metal industry.