If you were a teenager in the 2000s, emo served all your needs. It was just as
rebellious, tortured and dramatic as you hoped to be yourself, and it also served up a host of teen heartthrobs. There were the dark charms of My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz, and Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco just for starters. But into this febrile, and almost exclusively aggressively American, atmosphere came a dark force from Europe.
Ville Valo, the frontman of Finnish self-coined “love metal” band HIM (His
Infernal Majesty), had an unrivalled outsider appeal by virtue of his roots in
the far north, and he was hard to beat as a rock icon. The cover of the band’s
second album, Razorblade Romance (2000), found a bare-chested Valo staking his claim as the most androgynously beautiful man in rock since Marc Bolan, a fag hanging louchely from his lips, the waist of his leather trousers slung dangerously low on his tattooed navel. HIM’s music was based on gothic rock and classic heavy metal rather than emo’s punk influences, but it shared its lyrical themes of emotional pain and teenage angst, and they were just as ready-made for posters on bedroom walls.
Now, over two decades since he sent shockwaves through the world’s sullen youth, and approaching ten years after HIM split, Valo is back with his debut
solo album, Neon Noir, out this week. Valo has called it, intriguingly, “a teary
mascara marathon between Robert Smith and Ozzy, with a dash of hope”.
HIM formed in 1991 when Valo was still in his mid-teens. Their opening salvo was a 1996 EP released only in Finland, which included a cover of
Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game. It got them noticed and became their calling card
when they also stuck it on their first two albums, starting with the cunningly titled debut Greatest Lovesongs Vol. 666 (1997).
But it was Razorblade Romance that really announced the band’s arrival. Singles Join Me in Death, with its moody piano motif and nihilistic lyrics, and
Right Here In My Arms, which showcased the sound they would pursue forever after, were both No 1s in Finland. But between Valo’s obvious appeal and the band’s anthemic, accessible music, HIM attracted hordes of die-hard fans far from home too.
While the band would become hate figures to parts of the music press who
condemned them as musically formulaic, derivative of gothic rock acts like Type O Negative and The Mission, and ultimately just a bit silly with their adolescent-love-poetry lyrics, the sales spoke for themselves. Fifth album Dark Light (2005) saw them break America and by 2017 when, after eight albums, the band announced a farewell tour to the shock of their devoted fanbase, they had become a major Finnish cultural export.
Nothing was then heard from Valo until he popped up in 2019 with an obscure Finnish project, teaming up with Esa Pulliainen, guitarist with veteran Finnish band Agents, to record an album of songs by the legendary
rock singer Rauli “Badding” Somerjoki. Somerjoki’s solo albums of the 1970s
and 80s are classics of Finnish rock, and his early death in 1987, the year he would have been 40, compounded his iconic status. The album, Ville Valo and Agents, found Valo recording extensively in his native Finnish for the first time. A solo EP was released in mid-March 2020, but then the world turned upside down, and Valo disappeared.
Despite the length of the hiatus, Neon Noir picks up the musical reins directly
from where HIM left off, with a gothic lavishness and melodramatic melancholy, and their Black Sabbath-influenced heavy metal doominess
leavened with the post-punk and synth-pop sounds of Valo’s youth in the 1980s. This will be a nostalgia trip for those who were into HIM twenty years ago, but it has plenty to offer in its own right.
From the searing, dramatic opener Echolocate Your Love, to the ponderously
murky Heartful of Ghosts, this is compelling, dark rock with a fine-tuned pop sensibility and a bleeding heart. Valo’s voice is ethereal and authentic, ditching the vocal histrionics of HIM in their pomp, and this is a sensitive, highly atmospheric record.
Made by Valo entirely independently during lockdown at home in Finland and coming five years after HIM’s final gig on New Year’s Eve 2017, the album marks his emergence from a double hibernation, and he will even be venturing out on tour, playing three sold-out shows in Helsinki this weekend and five dates in the UK in March. And as Valo restyles himself “VV”, complete with a new take on HIM’s trademarked “heartagram”, Neon Noir signals a true rebirth.
VILLE VALO in five songs
HIM, Wicked Game (1996)
Showcasing Valo’s impressive vocals, influenced by Nick Cave and Depeche
Mode’s Dave Gahan and with a range from gothic depths to tortured falsetto, this cover announced HIM to the world.
HIM, Join Me in Death (1999)
The lead single from the breakthrough album Razorblade Romance, this was
the band’s first No 1 in their native Finland but controversial for its apparent allusions to suicide.
HIM, The Funeral of Hearts (2003)
The lead single from Love Metal, which was named after the genre the band
themselves coined, was typical of HIM’s lyrical floweriness: “Love’s the funeral of hearts/ And an ode for cruelty/ When angels cry blood/ On flowers of evil in bloom.”
Ville Valo and Agents, Ikkunaprinsessa (2019)
Originally recorded by Finnish rock legend Rauli “Badding” Somerjoki in
1982 with the band Agents, Valo made a complete gear change to record this
and other Somerjoki songs with the band for an album release.
VV, The Foreverlost (2022)
The latest single from debut solo album Neon Noir harks back to 1980s
British goth rock and has all of HIM’s trademark blend of anthemic power
and heartfelt tenderness.