In 2003, Ville Valo was busy pouring scorn on the state of music. “Most European rock sucks,” he bluntly – some might say arrogantly – informed journalists. While the members of Opeth, Arch Enemy, Cradle Of Filth and numerous others might have disagreed, you could see his point. Next to the platinum-plated goliaths of America, bands from this side of the Atlantic were minnows. Where was the ambition? Where was the steel? Where were the hits?
Ville was better positioned than most to criticise. HIM’s first three albums had seen them cut a buccaneering swathe across Europe. Join Me In Death, from 1999’s Razorblade Romance, had become a No. 1 hit in Germany, turning them into the unlikeliest pop stars since David Hasselhoff clambered atop the Berlin Wall. In the face of their brooding charms, other countries had crumpled like Victorian virgins suffering an attack of the vapours: Italy, Spain, Poland…
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But there was one hold-out: Britain. Over here, if HIM were known at all, it was as the band who did that cover of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game a few years earlier, the ones with the singer who looked a bit like a girl after an especially rough night out. Beyond that, they were about as welcome as an outbreak of bird flu. They had spent half a decade knocking at the door, only to find the occupants hiding behind the curtains, pretending to be out.
All that changed with Love Metal. HIM’s fourth album was the one where they finally cracked the UK; the point where this bunch of velvet-and-leather clad Finns finally came in from the cold, plonked themselves in front of the fire with a large glass of red wine and proceeded to sleep with our girlfriends. Metaphorically, of course. Well, mainly.
Their success was partly down to timing. Nu-metal was on its last legs, its cupboard of ideas stripped bare by chancers and latecomers; pop-punk was stuck in a deep, depressing rut; and the post-hardcore brigade had yet to sweep their fringes across their faces, gut their sound and rebrand themselves ‘emo’. For a collection of eyeliner-bothering reprobates, it was theirs for the taking.
Of course, none of that would have mattered a jot if the band hadn’t delivered musically. Love Metal might have been a tongue-in-cheek title – it was and is a genre of one – but the album did exactly what it said on the tin. This was Charles Baudelaire as re-imagined by a bunch of Scandinavians who grew up listening to Black Sabbath and Neil Diamond: a lush, intoxicating noise that conquered by seduction rather than brute force. Not only that, but it was more focussed and more direct than anything they’d put their name on before. It wasn’t just the best album HIM had made to this point. It was the one where they finally showed the world their true face.
The opening one-two of Buried Alive By Love and The Funeral Of Hearts was the perfect calling card for the doubters. The tracks couldn’t have been more different from each other: the former was a fast, sinewy blur propelled by a nagging riff; the latter was a crushed velvet ballad with all the doomed romance of an Anne Rice novel. But together, they encapsulated everything you needed to know about HIM.
They might have been the album’s marquee tracks, but Love Metal was no two-trick pony. There was enough here to impress even the flintiest of hearts. Darkness and despair ran through the veins of Sweet Pandemonium and Soul On Fire, while the Bon Jovi-gone-goth Fortress Of Tears left a trail of broken hearts and bloody necks in its wake. The lovelorn Endless Dark stepped neatly between big, chiming, 80s- style chords and restless acoustic guitar, while closing track Love’s Requiem was an epic eight-minute hymnal that referenced Type O Negative and presaged the more challenging elements of HIM’s own 2007 album Venus Doom.
Even the album cover was important. Its predecessors had all featured Ville in various states of louche disarray, but here they finally placed the Heartagram front and centre. It became an instantly recognisable motif – the sixth member.
Nearly two decade on, Love Metal remains the most significant tipping point in HIM’s career. It busted them out of the euro-metal ghetto and suggested that Finland wasn’t quite the musical backwater everyone thought it was. Its success in the UK was a huge achievement in itself, but it also provided a solid stepping stone for their subsequent success in America, where they were wholeheartedly embraced by the Jackass crowd. It was an unmitigated triumph artistically, commercially and personally. But most importantly of all, Love Metal was the album where HIM truly discovered just who they really were.