Tim Palmer (left) and Ville Valo at Finnvox Studios in Helsinki, Finland
You may not yet be familiar with HIM's music, but you've probably seen their symbol: the Heartagram, a pentagram with its top two corners rounded off. It symbolizes the group's symbiotic marriage of darkness and light, menace and melody in their self-described “love metal” — a combination of infectious hooks, driving rhythms and passionate, crooning vocals that wax poetic about the melancholy side of love. The music is Goth in spirit, metal in attitude and pop in accessibility, without losing its rough edges. The Finnish band has amassed a loyal following on both sides of the Atlantic during the past several years. Having a new song in the soundtrack for the movie Transformers movie certainly hasn't hurt their visibility.
HIM albums are like Star Trek movies: The odd numbered ones are good, the even numbered ones are great. The quintet's sixth album, Venus Doom, is their heaviest and darkest work yet, contrasting with the 2005 more radio-friendly Dark Light. It's an album rife with emotional turmoil, which is not surprising given that during the past two years, frontman/songwriter Ville Valo went through a tumultuous long-distance relationship, was victimized in a drugging and mugging incident after a show, and lost a friend to suicide. It was heavy stuff, but luckily he and his bandmates had a familiar friend, producer Tim Palmer, to guide them through the creative catharsis. Palmer previously mixed their 2003 Love Metal album and produced Dark Light, plus two songs on the band's greatest-hits compilation, And Love Said No.
“We reached the comfort zone, where everyone is relaxed, faster,” reports Palmer, who has also worked with Ozzy Osbourne, Tin Machine, Robert Plant and many others. “Trust is something that has to be earned and does not come automatically, but as we had all worked together in the past, we just got straight into it. [Co-producer] Hilli Hiilesmaa is a great engineer, and he and I work together well as a team, so it all made sense. We got a lot achieved in quite a short time.”
HIM's brooding Venus Doom — which charges through head-banging numbers like “Passion's Killing Floor” and melodic anthems like “Bleed Well” and closes with the psychedelic ballad “Cyanide Sun” — was recorded at Finnvox in Helsinki, Finland, during February and March 2007 and mixed at Paramount Studios in Hollywood in April. The album follows in the footsteps of its heavier cousin, Love Metal.
The group — Valo, guitarist Lily (Linde) Lazer, keyboardist Emerson Burton, bassist Mige Amour and drummer Gas Lipstick — was up to the challenge. They combined crunching, speaker-rumbling guitars with delicate melodies and fast-paced passages with slower breaks, balancing emotional agony with contemplative serenity. One wonders if the harsh Scandinavian winter and the area's history of moody art played any role in the album's contrasts.
“I was reading a lot of Scandinavian poetry, but it doesn't directly influence me; maybe the mood a bit,” explains Valo, who has the faces of Charles Baudelaire, Charles Bukowski and Finnish poet Timo K. Mukka tattooed on his forearms, and the eyes of Edgar Allen Poe on his back. “We recorded the album in Finland during the winter, so it was cold and dark. It's not necessarily depressing, but I've gotten used it to because I've lived there for some years. There are some heavy riffs that maybe needed some heavy subject matter, as well.”
Los Angeles transplant Palmer set off for Finland during the winter. He expected cold and darkness and was not disappointed. He went skiing at Mammoth Lakes, Calif., near Yosemite National Park, for two days prior to traveling to acclimatize himself to Finland's freezing conditions.
“Personally, I find being dropped into a new city to make an album is an exciting prospect,” he says. “It's hard to be away from family, but in return you can totally commit yourself to the music. The time lag was a bit of a problem. I was waking up at 5 a.m., and the band didn't like to start until 3 p.m. At the beginning, that was too much free time, but once music was recorded I used that time to edit and compile on my laptop [with Pro Tools LE] in the hotel. In Helsinki, I worked with Hilli, and this was great as he works a lot at Finnvox and knew the studio well.”
The producer reports that there were strong vibes in the studio when the group set out to record Venus Doom. “We were all excited about the new material and the band are all great players, so we were just having fun with it,” he says. “We decorated the studio, drank a lot of coffee, smashed violins, ate reindeer and even had time to drink a few beers.” Smashed violins? “For stress, some people have a drink, some pop a pill, some take Yoga and some get a massage,” he quips. “I smash up classical instruments.”
Whatever works. At Finnvox, the group recorded in a large live room using an SSL AWS 900 console and DAW controller with a sidecar of Neve 1081 preamps. They monitored on Genelec 1031A speakers. When it comes to mics, Palmer says he's no snob. While he is extremely fussy about what he wants to hear, “I couldn't give a damn how I get to it!” he declares. “If it sounds good to me, it's all good.” Palmer says that he likes “a lot of the classics,” and that the Shure SM57 is probably his all-time favorite microphone.
“I use it on guitar amps, snare drums and many times on a lead vocal,” he says. “I [once] tracked David Bowie's vocals on an SM58. For overheads and room mics, I generally use Neumann 87s and maybe Neumann valve [tube] U47s for the room mics. For Ville's lead vocal, we used a Neumann valve 67, a really nice one that the studio had. We tried many mics on Ville's vocal while we were tracking the acoustic B-sides, so when we came to do the album vocals we knew which mics we liked.”
Lipstick pounded on a Tama Starclassic kit, while Amour played a '76 Fender Precision bass through a Mesa Boogie amp and an old Prince combo. He also used a Hamer 12-string bass.
In the control room at Finnvox are, from left, engineer Hiili Hiilesmaa, producer Palmer, keyboardist Burton, Valo, drummer Gas Lipstick, bassist Mige Amour and guitarist Linde Lazer.
“Linde mainly used his Gibson SG guitar, but as we added overdubs, new parts and textures, we tried a variety of other guitars,” Palmer notes. “We often used an old semi-acoustic guitar that Ville owns. It is from the '40s and is called a Levin, and it sounded great through an amp. It has a really special sound. For the low parts, we used a Danelectro baritone guitar. We also used a Telecaster for some solos and an ESP Baritone. Burton had a nice old Wurlitzer, and the Roland V-Synth and Fantom synths. I think he had a Clavia Nord Modular, also.”
The distortion that's prevalent throughout much of the album came from a combination of amps. Palmer says that some songs “featured the Laney with a little Marshall and vice versa. I had it set so I could adjust the balance as the track began to take shape. Obviously, we could go for a different sound also by choice of guitar. For a lot of the clean parts and the textured overdubs, I often used a plug-in to create a distortion. I like the ‘classic’ [Line 6] Amp Farm plug-in, and I am a big fan of the Sound Tools bundle. It's wonderful to be able to fine-tune your plug-ins right up until the point of printing!”
Venus Doom includes some intriguing sounds beyond the regular rock instruments. Some screams from Valo are placed in background spots, while on the title track, a sample of a child screaming on a rollercoaster that Palmer recorded was used behind the main riff. Music box samples are also incorporated, notably on the ambient break of the 10-minute-plus epic “Sleepwalking Past Hope.” “I think one sample was taken from an old music box my father found in Germany in the '40s,” recollects Palmer. “It has an eerie quality.” The other sample was created by Burton and used in the ambient middle section of the title track.
One track was not recorded in Finland, but at a famous Los Angeles hotel on the spur of the moment. Valo got some inspiration and picked up his acoustic guitar, and the producer captured him recording the minute-long “Song or Suicide,” the shortest track in the band's history. The tune was inspired by a folk song from the '70s: “It's a quote from a folksy singer who died from a heroin overdose, Judee Sill,” explains Valo. “She had a relationship that was really bad, and in an interview she just said it was either a song or a suicide, so she wrote a song about it.”
“At this point, Ville was in a pretty dark place, and we were spending quite a few evenings at the Chateau Marmont just chatting and listening to music,” recalls Palmer. “I had my laptop with Pro Tools LE and an Mbox around, so after a few too many drinks we decided to try and record in the bungalow. It was really fun, and it was just an acoustic and vocal. It catches the mood well, and you can hear the cars moving along Sunset Boulevard at the end.”
The album was mixed at Studio C at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, which Palmer says has been his studio of choice for a while. “I love the huge control room,” he says. “I leave the room at the end of the evening without feeling like I have been closed-in all day. They have a very large J Series SSL and as much outboard equipment as you could wish for. The room is very true, so when it sounds good in there you are not in for any surprises later. The staff is very efficient and the room is very private.”
Venus Doom certainly marks an important step in HIM's evolution. The sonic contrasts are more striking and the songwriting more mature. “Many albums are a reaction to the band's last work,” offers Palmer. “Dark Light's more textured and warmer sound, I guess, are a reaction to the more edgy Love Metal. Venus Doom and its Black Sabbath riffs and complex arrangements are a reaction to Dark Light. I prefer Venus Doom because it is a step forward in songwriting and sonics. It is the sound of a band firing on all cylinders, not afraid to bring back the rock.”