HIM'S Dark Light: how America fell in love with the new kings of goth

(Image credit: BMG)

In the wake of 2003’s Love Metal, HIM could almost taste the big-time. With America’s jaw exposed and the corporate firepower of Warners behind them for the first time, all Ville Valo’s men needed was the stone-cold masterpiece to tip them over the edge. In March 2005, they set out to make it, flying from Helsinki to the US state they’d long perceived as the spiritual home of rock stardom. 

“We had a dream when we started out as five Finnish bastards, that we’d get somewhere one day,” Valo told MTV. “And of course, it’s one of those dreams to record in the States, and preferably LA.” Naturally, California’s array of gleaming bells-and-whistles recording facilities didn’t suit the band, who favoured a two-month residence at the Paramour Mansion: a former nunnery perched in the hills of Silver Lake, whose eerie corridors of priceless gothic art meant Valo was turned outside to nurse his frequent Marlboro Lights. 

“It’s meant to be haunted,” Valo told this writer in Classic Rock. “We heard some crazy stories from the owners and we were hoping to get an otherworldly visitation during the night.” 

To Valo’s disappointment, nothing went bump in the night, though Paramour wasn’t short of a hellhound or two. Ostensibly provided for clients’ security, the band were held captive by a free-roaming pack of Alsatian dogs in the studio grounds, who drew blood from Valo’s hands until the singer learnt to placate them with sausages. Even then, he told me darkly, a rogue dog would sometimes find its way into the studio and “shit on our guitar pedals”.

They soldiered on. Before touching down in LA, Valo had gathered most of the songs “in my back pocket”, and settled on a conceptual theme that gave this album its title. “I’d read a book called The Dark Light by a Norwegian author [Mette Newth],” he told MTV. “It’s the story of a young girl, about 12, being removed from society to a plague hospital, and having to learn all the values of life while her fingers are dropping off. It’s sad but it’s very hopeful. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. 

“We thought that Dark Light was something you can’t forget,” he added of the marketing potential, “and it describes the contradictory nature of what we’re trying to do with the music as well.”

True enough, Dark Light’s paradoxical title bled into material that stood in the shadows while aiming for the stars. There was opener Vampire Heart, with its brazen lift of the Halloween theme and chiming riffs. There was Wings Of A Butterfly which fused echo-chamber guitars with a sugar-bomb chorus. There was The Face Of God, described by Valo to the Music OMH website as “like Achtung Baby-era U2 with the Queens Of The Stone Age meeting the Satanic Bee Gees. It’s got that very intimate stadium sound.”

Bolstered by Tim Palmer’s production, these were undoubtedly songs that soared on the radio. And yet, any accusation of selling out was offset by Valo delivering his most unflinching lyrics to date, channelling everything from 14th century Italian literature (In The Nightside Of Eden tips a hat to Dante’s Divine Comedy) to modern lost souls (Killing Loneliness took its title from the rationale given by US skateboarder Brandon Novak for his heroin addiction).

Inspired by the material, the band powered through the sessions, at one point finding themselves sufficiently ahead of schedule to charter a private jet to Vegas and lose their shirts at the roulette tables. Further excuses to down tools were provided by the view from Paramour’s window. 

“I think the biggest challenge,” Valo told the Live Metal website, “was to try and sing background vocals while they were shooting a Playboy video. All we could see was naked ladies running about, so it was really hard to concentrate.”

Finally, with tracking complete, the band switched coasts to polish Dark Light in New York. “The thing that was kinda sexy,” Valo told us, “was that we mixed the album at Electric Ladyland. They claim that Hendrix’s ghost is there, which I believe. I haven’t actually seen his ghost, but I have smelt it. It was the end of the night and we’d stopped everything. I was walking back up the stairs onto the street, and all of a sudden, I clearly smelt a big puff of hash. So I’ve not seen Hendrix – I’ve inhaled him.”

Perhaps Jimi approved of the music. He wasn’t the only one. Released in September 2005, in a sleeve depicting an austere HIM-embossed skyscraper amidst crashing waves, Dark Light walked the creative tightrope impeccably, establishing HIM as a global force (it was the first Finnish album to achieve gold status in the States) while locking down the hardcore. 

The one dissenting voice was that of Valo himself. “We’re not there yet,” he told me, Marlboro in hand. “But one day we’ll get there. I guarantee you that…”  

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.