Life can throw you some strong curveballs, and Finnish gloom rockers HIM were pitched a harsh, fast one when their drummer Gas Lipstick suffered from unexpected and unexplainable nerve problems that hindered his playing abilities and put the band on hold for nearly a year starting sometime in 2011. "It was fairly devastating for each and every one of us," frontman/songwriter Ville Valo confides to The Aquarian. "Gas is the oldest guy in the band and has been playing drums since he was five. He's never had those troubles before, never had any physical ailments regarding drumming, so he was really surprised and didn't know how to take it. Since the doctors couldn't really give a proper prognosis, they just kept us waiting."
Gas' health issues raised many scary questions. Would he be able to play again? If not, what would it do to the band? Would they be able to go on without him? "I'm really glad we waited it out," admits Valo. "It took about eight months, then miraculously enough he was all good. I think that gave us a boost of energy, a kick in the butt, and we got most of the material for the [new] album done in a very short period of time." The band has been actively touring again since last spring.
Released last year, Tears On Tape is HIM's eighth studio album, and following in the perhaps unintended tradition of the band's discography, it is heavier than their last release, the poppier but still excellent Screamworks: Love In Theory And Practice. Every even numbered HIM album turns out to be the heavier one, with the odd numbered ones being more ear-catching in a commercial sense. Valo divulged that he has joked about that recently.
"If you don't like the poppier stuff, just buy every second album," he remarks in his typically self-deprecating fashion. "It would be kind of easy because you know you're not going to get the next one, but the one after is going to be really good. It's kind of cool to be in a band that has hardcore fans who love one album, while others think it's shit and like another one, rather than having this one overnight success album that you're always trying to top. We can take some liberties when it comes to being creative."
The latest HIM platter has more direct, compact songs like "All Lips Go Blue," "I Will Be The End Of You," and the standout track "Hearts At War," eschewing the epic tendencies of other heavier releases like Love Metal and Venus Doom. The 13-track album clocks in at just over 40 minutes—only two cuts are over four minutes long—making it the band's shortest studio album ever. Valo deems the new tunes to be "melancholy minimalism." One could surmise that the more straightforward structures stem from the songwriting process and the fact that Gas has gradually been getting back into the groove, so to speak.
"It's probably a combination of all of that," muses Valo. "But at the end of it, I think that when I work on the ideas for a song and then we go to rehearsals, we just go with the flow and see where the song takes us. On the previous album, I wouldn't necessarily say it was over polished, but there was a lot of production on it, a lot of stuff going on. We wanted to have it be a bit more bare-bones this time around to give more space for the guitars and those little nuances and not be as keyboard-driven." He jokingly concludes, "I think that we succeeded in that, even if it's not a good album."
A refreshing musical twist found on Tears On Tape lies in the four mostly keyboard-laced instrumental pieces that offer a respite from the other nine guitar-driven tunes and also imbue the CD with more goth overtones. "For me, those interludes, especially with the intro for the album, are reminiscent of Dario Argento's Suspiria," says Valo. "He had an Italian prog rock band called Goblin do a lot of his soundtracks, so it reminds me of that and John Carpenter's soundtracks as well. That late '70s/early '80s B-slasher horror-type vibe."
Some of these intriguing interludes recall the spooky, moody music that Swedish label Cold Meat Industry has been releasing for over 25 years, including neo-symphonic/metal crossover artist Mortiis. Being an adventurous Scandinavian listener, Valo is certainly familiar with that label's quirky, often experimental sounds. He feels that Tears' moody ambient instrumental "Trapped In Autumn" possesses a Cold Meat-type vibe.
"It's odd and kind of spooky," he states. "It's nice to have what I call breathers since the songs are pretty fast, in-your-face, and energetic. If you just listen to all of the songs, it gets exhausting after a little while. You have to wipe the sweat off your brow, so it's good that there are little moments that people can relax for a wee bit before the guitars hit back in. It's tough to create symphonies with just five instruments—we're trying to make them as dynamic and harmonically interesting as possible without having 150 tracks per song."
Beyond music, Valo has been influenced by iconic writers such as French poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, Finnish novelist Timo K. Mukka, and German-born American writer Charles Bukowski, most of whose visages are tattooed on the HIM frontman's body. When asked if he has a basic reading list he might suggest to fans unfamiliar with those literary icons, Valo feels that it is better to just explore their works and discover what one likes.
"Baudelaire and Rimbaud are fairly easy in a way, but they're usually collections of poems," notes the singer. "If you want to read Baudelaire, you can get The Flowers Of Evil [Les Fleurs Du Mal] everywhere. It's about poetry, and poetry can be five lines that could change your world or the way you see the world, as opposed to prose. It's a different thing. With some authors like H.P. Lovecraft, who I've always adored, I think it's better to read a lot of his stuff to get the overall vibe as opposed to just concentrating on one story. It depends on the way of writing and on the artist.
"If you read a bit of Baudelaire and move on to reading Women by Bukowski, I think that the contrast is really interesting," continues Valo. "To be headed in this turn of the century French vibe and all of a sudden you're in this totally different mindset, as opposed to reading just one kind of thing or listening to one type of music. It's good to watch comedies and then watch horror because then the horror feels way more guttural and deeper."
Contrast has certainly been a big part of HIM's music as well as their famous Heartagram symbol, a pentagram with the upper two sharp edges rounded out to form a heart. The singer believes that the Heartgram, which has become an enduring, endearing symbol, is popular because of its simplicity.
"Besides the Christian cross and the swastika, it combines the two most basic symbols in the world and the ones that leave a lot for the imagination," explains Valo. "A heart is a heart is a heart, but then the pentagram has so many meanings. For some people, it's something anti-religious, and for others, it's something way earlier and paganistic. For some people, it has to do with the decline of Western civilization. It seems to excite the imagination, and everybody tends to see it in a different way. It's fairly easy to draw, so that makes it pretty easy to remember."
Now in his mid-30s, Valo grew up at a time when logos and symbols were far more commonplace for mainstream rock bands than they are today. "Since I grew up listening to music at that time, it was really important—[like] Led Zeppelin with the four symbols and all that stuff," recalls the singer. "Symbols are so strong. They don't necessarily have to mean anything as long as they get your mind working. They might work on a subconscious level."
See HIM at Irving Plaza in NYC on March 14 and 16, and at the Theatre Of Living Arts in Philadelphia on March 15. Tears On Tape is available now through Razor & Tie. For more information, go to heartagram.com.