Wicked Game, Chris Isaak’s hit from his third album Heart-Shaped World, grew from cult to crossover after featuring in David Lynch’s 1990 film Wild At Heart. HIM first recorded it for their earliest demo recording, which led to its appearance on their first EP 666 Ways To Love: Prologue, re-recording it for their debut album, and again for the UK and US versions of follow-up Razorblade Romance. The classic ballad of unrequited love played a major role in getting the band noticed, first in their homeland, then internationally.
Ville Valo said he’d borrowed the Wild At Heart soundtrack album on vinyl from the library, then played his part in killing music (remember that?) by home-taping it. With guitarist Mikko ‘Linde’ Lindström, he attempted to learn the song from the dodgy cassette recording, “so we learned it a bit wrong. We didn’t hear the guitar parts too well from the bad quality tape. I also heard the lyrics wrong, so there were a few funny mistakes in those too.”
Nonetheless, something about the song’s subtle force and straining romance made a good fit with the band’s early aims, intentions and aspirations. Yes, they replaced the waftiness with chunky guitars and, to an extent, the poignancy with power, but they also magnified previously covert elements of lust and longing. It served to demonstrate the essence of HIM, a band who’ve gone on to show that you can sing about love without limiting yourself to hearts, flowers and topsy-mopsy bunny rabbits, and can do so with strength, darkness and compelling levels of ambiguity.
Baritone Valo worked at his dad’s sex shop in his teens, while soaking up the music of local singers as well as Elvis, Neil Young and prevalent, murkier others such as The Sisters Of Mercy, Fields Of The Nephilim, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Kiss and Depeche Mode. Schoolmate Linde, born the same year, was an introvert, given his first guitar aged ten. With bassist Mikko ‘Migé’ Paananen, they formed His Infernal Majesty in ’91. It was a risk to sing in English, to cross over, but those early demos and EP revealed a group of borderline-alarming potential. Then came this debut, their sound augmented by keyboardist Antto Melasniemi and drummer Pätkä.
Greatest Lovesongs: Vol. 666 – if you’re choosing a title, you might as well go big – emerged on November 20, 1997. Nobody had really seen its impact and commercial success coming. Platinum in Finland (where it reached No. 4), it also made the German Top 50. When released in the States in 2005, it nudged the Top 30 on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers rankings. Inevitably, given Valo’s fondness for brooding, brimstone-fuelled imagery, it was described as gothic rock or gothic metal, though he’s always emphasised that any references to Satan are symbolic, regarding ‘the darker side’ of love. Ville was philosophical: “We can’t do anything about that [label], but I think we are a special shade of goth, more tender than the others. In the Finnish tradition, our music is very melancholic.”
In many ways this remains HIM’s heaviest album, though its riffs merge with the more meditative side of British ‘goth’. The band’s sound (distorted, down-tuned guitars) relishes those atmospheres, doomy yet undefeated, sometimes morose yet always indefatigable. And with dashes of glam (with hints of vampiric androgyny) and Valo’s charismatic croon, they exhibited priceless presence, and twin weapons of grenades and grace.
With Asta Hannula offering female guest vocals on intro For You, that duality was established before HIM displayed their crunchy dynamism on the thrill rides of Your Sweet Six Six Six, The Heartless and Our Diabolikal Rapture. Valo’s poetic leanings came even further to the fore on It’s All Tears (Drown In This Love) and the six-minute surge of When Love And Death Embrace. And the band recalled another demo, their six-and-a-half minute version of Blue Öyster Cult’s proto-goth classic (Don’t Fear) The Reaper. Like Wicked Game, it was no lazy cover, stretching the song into new patterns with a real emotional tug. Sanna-June Hyde’s voice adds warmth.
In a deranged, fascinating twist, the album then includes hidden tracks numbers 10-66, which fill 666 megabytes but are silent, bar track 66, which offers the outro from the version of The Heartless from the 666 Ways To Love EP, bringing the album’s official length to 66 minutes and six seconds. Concept art or pretentious Beelzebub-baiting, it got people talking.
Four tracks emerged as singles over an 18 month period: When Love And Death Embrace, Your Sweet Six Six Six, Wicked Game and It’s All Tears (Drown In This Love). Blending the bravado of a debut with wise and savvy diversity, HIM’s hello set out their stall and lit their fuse.