HIM burst onto the Finnish Rock and Metal scene in the latter half of the 90’s with what could best be described as a bang. From what could best be described as nowhere, their EP, debut album and the music video for When Love And Death Embrace came and charmed, disgusted, infuriated and, in general, forced people to react; they may not have become overnight sensations, but their rise from nobodies to a name on many peoples’ lips was fast. The band had their roots in the Rock/Metal scene in Helsinki, just like bands such as The 69 Eyes, Babylon Whores and Hybrid Children, but their markedly different, unique and, yes, lighter and poppier sound definitely put them apart from most of their peers. And though their music undoubtedly was based on a Rock/Metal formula, from their debut album onwards (this is where HIM entered my musical horizon), it’s been clear that HIM cannot be pigeonholed as just another Metal band. The light, poppy and accessible nature of their music caused lots of people to reject them as, I dunno, sellouts, mainstream gold diggers and trend bandwagon jumpers; this was, after all, the golden era of “Gothic Metal”, when melodic Black Metal, spearheaded by Cradle Of Filth and Dimmu Borgir, was rapidly growing in commercial success, Sentenced were taking the world (or Europe, or Finland at least) by storm with their romantically-tinged suicidal Metal, Nightwish were on the rise, and Europe was saturated by Gothic-tinged Metal bands such as Lacuna Coil and Moonspell. What many of course forgot to take into account was that HIM had been formed way back in 1991, and to my knowledge hadn’t made a massive change in sound like Sentenced had.
HIM courted controversy with a wider audience than just the Metal scene, though; already their name raised eyebrows, as it was an abbreviation of His (Her according to some sources) Infernal Majesty, and otherwise as well the band, led by singer Ville Valo, flirted with occult topics. You might need to put this in context: HIM’s debut was released just months before Satanic Panic spread like brushfire throughout Finland, thanks to a “satanic ritual murder” committed in Hyvinkää, Finland, where a bunch of people killed and dissected a guy they knew. Of course, these people were into Black Metal, and since the events of Norway were in fresh memory in Finland, and we’d had our share of “Black Metal terrorism”, the media had a field day. HIM sort of got involved in this due to the mostly superficial occult/satanic elements in their imagery, and I suppose it’s not far-fetched to say they courted it to some extent to use it as lever to get their name out there. Well, whether they did or did not, I’m sure it helped them. I remember my interest was piqued by the fact that some christian groups raised concerns about HIM, Black Sabbath and Dimmu Borgir performing at the festival Provinssirock in 1998, and certainly didn’t discourage me from buying the album; quite the opposite.
It is undeniable that Greatest Lovesongs Vol. 666 is a rather unique album, at least among its peers. For some time, after HIM had added a few more releases to their discography, it seemed like it was semi-acceptable in Metal circles to say you liked HIM, as long as you remembered to say it was really only their debut you liked, cuz that was still sort of heavy. Well, listening to it now, though there are a precious few heavier moments, the album as a whole is really not heavy as such. The Metal is more a background presence (even if, at times, a strong one), you can spot the influence and recognize that HIM’s roots lie in Metal, but already at this stage the band had evolved past any form of “pure” Metal into the darkly romantic Rock the band decided to dub “Love Metal”, probably as a provocation to those in the Metal scene who were all too hasty to write them off as another wannabe-gothic lite Rock band. Where songs such as Your Sweet Six Six Six and some other faster numbers do nod towards Metal, a song such as The Heartless is unashamedly poppy and light, with basically nary a Metal element. What most likely is often perceived as “heaviness” sounds actually more like a thick layer of distorted, warm fuzz, which really isn’t as much heavy as it is… well, fuzzy and thick.
Greatest Lovesongs Vol. 666 was in heavy rotation when I first got it, and for many, many years I didn’t actually even have any other HIM albums because I didn’t feel like the singles sounded worthwhile. Now, after having listened to all of their full-length albums in chronological order, I concede that they have some other good albums, but this one has stood the test of time the best; I was a bit surprised that I found Dark Light to be the most enjoyable album of the rest. However, in comparison to what was to come on future albums, there is a sound quite distinct to this album. I wouldn’t say it sounds like the bands’ vision of their own music was unclear at this stage, but singer and main songwriter Valo was yet to really tap the fullest potential of his candid sense for catchy melodies, and perhaps here are there the band do fumble just a bit with grasping their own style fully. On future albums the band would quite logically progress towards their modern sound, in my opinion peaking with Dark Light (along with this album), after which they were in a bit of a decline for the next two albums until Tears On Tape saw the band swing up again. It’s of course impossible to take off the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia which endear the album to me, but I feel safe in saying that otherwise, too, I would raise this album above the others, although maybe not with as wide a margin.
Like the album title (naturally, this is no “Greatest…” compilation, although some of my friends were a bit confused about it at the time!), the title of the first track is misleading: For You (Intro) is no intro. Clocking in at exactly four minutes, it’s a fully fledged song in its own right, and not a bad one at that, either. However, it pales in comparison to Your Sweet Six Six Six, which is one of the two or three best tracks on the album, with a suitably fast tempo and catchy chorus, and of course the slightly goofy, occult-tinged imagery HIM/Ville Valo cultivated at the time: take a basically pretty standard love rock song lyric, throw in an obvious occult reference and, voilà, the religious panic brigade will give you a hearty boost. I’m sure Mr. Valo had a field day; Valo himself has later stated there’s no “real” occult symbolism on the album, which in itself is pretty much stating the obvious if you bother reading the lyrics. Other highlights include It’s All Tears (Drown In This Love), which is perhaps the most genuinely Metal song on the album, and The Beginning Of The End; all three of these songs belong to the fastest songs on the album, which really isn’t surprising: HIM’s sense for melody has, in my opinion, always worked best in slightly faster songs (or choruses, at any rate).
The album has only really one weak track: the poppy The Heartless is somehow very annoying and intangible, it’s hard to get a grasp of it, and it just feels pointless. The video track When Love And Death Embrace is comes closest to being a second feeble track, but manages with its schlocky, sugary sweet melody to go overboard enough with the cheese to emerge on the other side and be, all things considered, pretty okay.
The album also contains two covers, of which the rendition of Blue Öyster Cults’ (Don’t Fear) The Reaper of course completely fails to match the classic quality of the original, but is nonetheless an original interpretation of the track, and HIM makes it fit well into the framework of their own sound. Perhaps it is descriptive of just how distanced from pure Metal HIM was already at this stage, that their rocked-up rendition of Chris Isaaks’ classic Pop/Rock love song Wicked World is much better, and fits the bands’ sound and style far better. Again, it doesn’t really manage to top the original, but it’s an interesting version that sits well at home with HIM.
I set out to write a piece about HIM’s discography in general, which evolved into a review of their debut, and I set out to write a far more dismissive analysis of the album… but listening to it whilst writing this, I discovered that I do, in fact, like the album a lot. Somehow I just didn’t feel it when I was listening to the albums in order, but putting it on and listening to it intently, that something which endeared me to it 16 years ago emerged once again.