I was first introduced to HIM’s greatness by Myke C-Town, AKA (to quote one disgruntled J. Cole fan) the “40-year-old emo piece of shit” from Dead End Hip-Hop. On his main channel, he posted a video of his favorite 10 albums of all time, and among them at #3 was RAZORBLADE ROMANCE, the Finnish rock act’s sophomore record, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. I had seen the record among Allmusic’s recommendations to me, but its 2.5-out-of-5 rating and my repeated confusion at Allmusic’s idea of what I personally like drove me away from it. Myke’s words convinced me to look past the sickly artwork of lead singer Ville Valo and the effeminate stereotypes that detractors harangued the band with, and these Finns quickly became one of my favorite bands, a madly catchy, surprisingly diverse, shamelessly-not-metal goth rock act that I sadly never got to see in concert before they disbanded in 2017. One of Myke’s comments stuck with me, and lead me to rethink the whole idea of virtuosity and what makes for great musicianship:
“I literally did not stop listening to it for four days… some of the catchiest and most infectious goth rock songs that I’ve ever heard… sung by someone who I feel like has one of the best rock voices… not to mention some of the best guitar work. It’s really understated how great the guitar work is on this album.”
HIM call themselves a love metal band, which is largely inaccurate outside of a debut that lyrically fit that template but musically might as well have been a different band. When my taste was more unrefined and opinions more uncouth, the hallmark of metal seemed to be its heaviness: the more distortion you ad on, the louder you crank up the guitars, the more metal you are. This quickly became an obviously stupid mnemonic that I replaced with an equally stupid one once I started listening to the metal that established critics actually enjoyed; the “thinking man’s” metal involved flashy solos, complex chords, and prolonged song lengths that allowed you to show off all your well-honed technical abilities. None of this is to disparage metalheads that go for sheer volume, guitar virtuosos who have put in the work to master their instrument, or ambitious songwriters who can pack enough unique ideas into a song to keep up its freshness into the double-digits of runtime, but none of those parameters of greatness seemed to account for why Myke had praised the guitar work on RAZORBLADE.
As mentioned before, HIM’s first record, GREATEST LOVESONGS VOL. 666, feels like a HIM record in so far as the writing is entirely earnest, corny diary poetry that juxtaposes the romantic and the macabre. There are great songs on it—the Chris Isaak cover of “Wicked Game” in particular is so obvious and perfect that I’m surprised no other metal band had done it before. But the record has too much stodginess and crunch to the guitarwork, and it’s nowhere near as tight as their later material. RAZORBLADE ROMANCE is where the band discovered their greatness talent: economical rhythm guitar work that provided a sturdy backbone without obfuscating the rest of the mix.
Mainstream rock and metal music that passed for metal on the radio in the 2000s ran into two very different problems. Post-grunge, Nickelback especially with their ballads and their less electric work, had little in the way of rhythm work. The leads were listless, the drums plunk and plod, and the songs feature little definition and thus little worth remembering. On the other hand, harder-edged material from bands like Three Days Grace had too much in the way of rhythm, as the main guitar riffs stomp all over everything without any color or flourish to it. It was catchy, sure, but only in the bluntest of ways, without any melodic richness beyond one ugly tune that was often indistinguishable across their catalog and their peers.
When Malcolm Young, the rhythm guitarist for AC/DC, passed in 2017, Anthrax’s Scott Ian praised his “intensely powerful, percussive, and economic style of playing” and his “uncanny ability to wring only the necessary notes out of his Gretsch.” Upon relistening to RAZORBLADE ROMANCE, the album’s sense of balance and economy is its greatest asset. The guitar work is great not because it’s flashy, complex, or especially heavy, but rather because it does exactly what it’s supposed to do. HIM’s guitar work can be craggy and blaring to convey a sense of menace without overpowering everything else, or it can keep up the pace with tight, crunchy flourishes that get lodged deep into your head, provide percussive momentum, and give enough color to stand out from their other work. It provides the perfect backbone for keyboard hooks like on “Join Me In Death” and ”Resurrection,” or the sorrowful guitar leads of “Bury Me Deep Inside Your Heart” and “Right Here in My Arms.” Listening to that balance in contrast to something like Nickelback or Three Days Grace reveals the understated brilliance and restraint of HIM, something you’d never expect from the album art or their writing.
Unlike Myke C-Town, I’d struggle to call RAZORBLADE ROMANCE their best work. DARK LIGHT is basically the same album but better, and while VENUS DOOM does not succeed in crossing MASTER OF PUPPETS with LOVELESS like their frontman wanted it to, it’s still their most textured and imposing record. Nevertheless, I have to thank RAZORBLADE and C-Town for making me think long and hard about what makes guitar work great. As Vallo once said of their first record: “First you’re ashamed of it for a couple of years, then you understand it’s good parts.” While it’s easy to toss them aside as campy, blatant in their influences, and shamelessly un-metal, RAZORBLADE and HIM combined pop and metal with a surprising amount of craft and tightness to their rhythm work, which is a legitimate claim to greatness outside of heaviness or complexity that should be recognized by metal fans, critics, and other bands alike.