~ The Black Prince of Finland ~
Black Prince. Or in Finnish – Musta Prinssi. That is how guitarist Esa Pulliainen described Ville Valo when the collaborative tour across Finland between Ville and iconic Finnish rock band Agents was announced in October 2018. And considering not only his clothing choices along the years, but also the music he created with love metal band HIM, and his inherent elegance and style, this description fits Ville Valo perfectly.
I have to admit this title has fascinated me ever since I read the news of the tour, and seeing Ville perform with Agents it became more and more clearly that he is indeed the Black Prince of Finland. And I am not just talking about this chapter of his musical career, but I am taking into account everything he has done on the metal scene since he picked up the microphone around 1991. Under the banner of the heartagram and singing about all possible aspects of love and sorrow, Ville Valo created music that is both rocking and deeply meaningful, blending the gothic metal aesthetic with groovy and upbeat tempos, hooky vocal melodies and soulful lyrics. With the release of “Razorblade Romance” in January 2000 he brought this type of music to the masses, so to say, enjoying wild success not only in Finland but across Europe as well, especially in Germany. And with the release of 2005’s masterpiece “Dark Light” also in the USA. Fun fact: HIM was the first Finnish band to receive Gold status in the US with “Dark Light” thus paving the way for other metal acts to conquer the New Continent. In between these two records, in 2003 HIM released “Love Metal”, the seminal album that defined their musical style in precise sounds and moods, and which is still regarded as one of their absolute best.
For many years I have considered Ville Valo a true-born rock star, his lifestyle, stage presence, and extensive knowledge of the metal scene (and not only) being the main reasons. Add to that his sense of humor, eloquence, and charisma, and you get an idea of what makes Ville Valo such an intriguing (some would even say mystical) person. Taking inspiration from the likes of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Type O Negative, but staying true to himself, he forged his own path with perseverance and gusto, thus creating a musical legacy that is both unique and familiar on the metal scene. And it is his sensitivity and candor that sets Ville apart from the rest. While HIM was a metal band to the core, his dark, romantic lyrics and passion have balanced the edgy and aggressive riffs coming from Linde’s guitar and such songs like “This fortress of tears” (especially the Vinnfox Relics version), “For you”, “Bleed well”, or “Disarm me” really highlight this aspect.
Unapologetic with his craft and faithful to his vision, Ville’s music and lyrics always ring true and genuine, his inner struggles and heartbreaks being the main source of inspiration for his compositions (“Sleepwalking past hope” or “Katherine Wheel” are perfect examples here). There is hardly anything in their catalogue (cover songs included) that feels fake or untrue, something not many bands can pride themselves with.
In a time where every (new) band seems to have their own style and genre (in my time here at LSM I have read my fare-share of such press releases), HIM were among the few that kept it real, and Ville stated in many interviews that he and the rest of the guys are fans that got inspired to play music by other musicians, which only adds to this sense of truthfulness that seeps from their music. He never hid the influences that shaped his music, and this is another aspect I admire and respect about him.
"I think the slight specialty about this particular group is the fact that we are not claiming that we are reinventing the wheel when it comes to music. We owe our gratitude and all our tricks to our masters – [Black] Sabbath, Type O [Negative], Paradise Lost, Anathema, My Dying Bride, Cathedral, Electric Wizard. All those sorts of bands, they are the ones that made us want to play music, and I guess what makes us special is that we're fans" – Ville Valo (THE SPOTLIGHT, 2013)
Possessing a wide vocal range (F♯1 – B5 according to The Range Planet), and a warm, silky, rich tone, the vocal acrobatics he is capable of are as spectacular as they are engaging, making his live performances something special. While many vocalists chose to be on the safe side of things and don’t really go out of their comfort zone that much, Ville pushed his vocal cords by experimenting and improvising a lot while on stage (and most likely off stage too, during band rehearsals). And this is yet another reason I see him as a true rock star. He didn’t exactly play it safe, instead trying everything from vocal fries to screams, and as such his singing is somewhere between Peter Steele and King Diamond (his comparison). And HIM’s performance of “Wicked Game” at Rock am Ring in 2010, complete with an interesting interlude, shows not only Ville’s charisma, but also stage presence and magnificent voice, as well as the band’s ability to jam together and sound cohesive (although the mix could have been better).
Moreover, in a 2018 article about the top 30 frontmen & frontwomen of the 21st century, Loudwire described Ville Valo (ranked at 14) as being “the greatest gothic crooner since Peter Steele. Valo embodies everything fans want a rock star to be” and I couldn’t agree more with these words. Too bad neither HIM nor Ville Valo got the credit and recognition their truly deserve on the metal scene.
After the disbandment of HIM at the end of 2017, Ville Valo was offered the opportunity to work with esteemed Finish rock band Agents and lend his voice to some unreleased demos from Rauli ‘Badding’ Somerjoki. Adopting a more mellow and soothing approach to singing, to fit the music and the mood of the songs better, Ville took a deep dive not only in the heart of Finnish melancholy but also in the culture and history of his home country, creating a wonderful and heartfelt tribute to Rauli Somerjoki as well as a nod to Finnish schlagers (pop rock music). If with HIM Ville had to sing in a more powerful and sustained way, hitting all those high and low notes, plus all those gritty screamed vocals he’s so well known for, with Agents he could let the many nuances and flourishes of his voice shine brighter. And every song from the album, but especially everything he sang live, brought a different nuance to his voice, from the bright, warm feel of “Paratiisi”, “Orpolapsi kiurun”, and “Kaunis maailma” to the darker tones of “Kuihtuu kesäinen maa”, “Ma haluan sun”, and “Illan varjoon himmeään” to the richness of “Valot”, “Kaita polku” and “Surujen kitara”, everything just sounds beautiful, melodic and deeply melancholy. Singing the songs not only for the audience, but also for himself and the rest of the band, the emotions and feelings were more than palpable during each performance and the fans’ engagement and sing-along made everything much better. As someone pointed out on Instagram, this was a love fest, and a much deserved love fest at that.
Now the question remains: what will happen next? Will Ville do some more behind-the-scenes work, like on the game Downward Spiral and EERIK’s “Fragments”, or is he planning a return to the world of heavy music with a new project? I lowkey wish for a second album with the Agents, comprised of studio versions of songs from this year’s tour (“Valot”, “Nuori rakkaus”, “Kuin runotar hän kulkee”, and “Kauas pilvet karkaavat” being just some of the titles I’d like on that album). But then again a HIM reunion (too soon ?) is just as welcome.
(Ville Valo & Agents live at Ruisrock, July 6, 2019)
Regardless of what the future may bring, it can only be music made with love and passion, and that is all that I, as a fan, could ever ask for. And since they say that ‘good things come to those who wait’, all we can do is wait and be patient, because, just like it happened with “Ville Valo & Agents” in February this year, the wait will be well worth it.