Photo by AJ Johansson

Beyond the Heartagram: Ville Valo live at Tavastia, Helsinki

Author John Wins - 16.1.2023

It was a rainy night on Friday the 13th in Helsinki, but while the rain poured outside, it didn’t bother the fans waiting in line to enter the legendary Tavastia club. Despite being mid-January, the atmosphere already seemed similar to the old good times of Helldone, for a few reasons: fans from all over the world, the first of three consecutive nights and the soundtrack embodied in the voice and figure of the one and only Ville Valo.

Ville, now using VV as an alias for his solo project, had just released his debut in this new sonic endeavor. “Neon Noir” was released worldwide on the same day and on the same night the musician prepared the debut of a new tour and his returns to the stage, singing his odes to love and death.

Inside the venue, the atmosphere was exciting. Fans who didn’t have the chance to see HIM in the past, others who have been with the band since the beginning and well-known figures from the Finnish and international metal scene turned their eyes to the stage of Tavastia, the club that has been associated with the Finnish musician since the beginning of his career in early ’90s.

The opening band Kælan Mikla, which will accompany VV on the European tour, is an Icelandic trio, which makes a very introspective, dense and captivating rock between new wave and gothic. The three members couldn’t hide their smiles and the joy of seeing the audience enjoy what they heard.

When the clock advanced, it was already possible to see the new “VV-agram”, an updated version of the iconic Heartagram, as the only “backdrop”. Promptly at 21:45, the initials VV gleamed alone on the structure of the symbol, having the sound of the instrumental song “Zener Solitaire” as the chosen intro. With an atmosphere of a mass, the believers received the musicians who accompany Ville, until the moment that the vocalist arrived on stage, smiling, excited and already catching all eyes. It was time to turn off the lights and let Valo be the brightest source to shine.

In a very clean and minimalist stage, the night started with one of the best singles of the new work. With green lights, “Echolocate Your Love” has the energy and a good taste of what the rest of the show will be like. Valo stands at the edge of the stage, almost reaching the audience while he starts this new moment in his career.

As previously mentioned in interviews, the setlist would be 50% new material and 50% old known songs. The first sample of old material came with a classic, “Funeral of Hearts“. For being the first show of this new era, Ville constantly checks if the musicians are ok and if everything is going according to plan. The first difference we can notice between the new musicians and the classic HIM lineup is that they try to find an approach more similar to the studio versions. FOH’s solo, for example sounds far from Linde’s punch and live style, which can be off-putting to some ears and hearts.

The excellent title track of the new work has in its lighting the perfect contrast to let Ville sing and realize that some voices in the audience joined the singer, which is impressive as the song had its world premiere a few hours before the live premiere. Small details, like the subtle hand movements while holding a handkerchief, let the neon colors set the tone for the show so far.

Right Here In My Arms” takes us back over 20 years to when “Razorblade Romance” dominated the charts. The live version we were used to has changed and now has an approach more similar to the original version’s arrangement, but the end with a wave of synchronized handclaps remains timeless and beautiful to watch.

Drummer Risto Rikala does a beautiful job on “Loveletting“, which also highlights the backing tracks that are being used throughout the gig, such as keyboards, synthesizers and vocal harmonies. Not to mention some of the filters/effects that emulate the studio versions, like the vocal introduction of “Buried Alive By Love“, giving it a charm. Once again, Mikko Virta and Sampo Sundström do a different job on the guitars, looking for another approach.

If BABL has difficult vocals, which make the vocalist sweat, the ballad “In Trenodia” has a more serene and pleasant line to perform. The four backing musicians interact with each other and show great musical chemistry as Ville closes his eyes and lets introspection take over his true interpretation in the spotlight of the stage.

Photo by AJ Johansson

The anthem that won North America, the massive hit “Wings of A Butterfly“, has a striking and perfect bass in the execution of Juho Vehmanen, but the most interesting thing is to notice the lights emulating the same effect of the lighthouse, present in the official music video of the song. With two guitars, the arrangement is a little more faithful to the original version.

Heartful of Ghosts” is the most melodic song on the new album, but it finds Ville acting as a maestro, checking each musician individually, exchanging smiles with some of the faces in the front rows and letting guitarist Mikko Virta put a lot of feeling into his chords. The previous song serves as an interesting appetizer for “Join Me”, that steals the spotlight with its classic intro, despite sounding bittersweet without a keyboard player present. Almost 25 years after its release, the chorus of the audience in “this life ain’t worth livin’“, continues to draw genuine happiness from the frontman’s face.

Jujo’s bass work and Risto’s drums convey the chorus groove of “The Foreverlost” and its new wave vibe, although the backing tracks sound a little odd, as neither musician sings along with Ville, letting the song have the same backing vocal lines recorded on the disc.

In HIM‘s days, each song had a different live version, which we believe may happen in the future in his solo career, but “The Kiss of Dawn” received the same arrangement as the radio edit version. Linde has his presence felt, mainly in the solos of the group’s original songs, despite the competent work of the new duo. Ville doesn’t pursue the same low vocal approach, letting the harmonies help him to deliver a performance more comfortable.

Run Away from The Sun” is one of the most beautiful songs on the new album, although it was officially released three years ago. With a similar sound from the times of “Tears On Tape”, here the harmonies do a beautiful job as Ville puts his feelings on a completely red colored stage.

Photo by AJ Johansson

It’s important to point out how the material from “Neon Noir” sounds consistent and pleases the fans in attendance. It is noticeable when looking around and seeing people singing and surrendering to the choirs of some songs.

The last song before the encore is nothing more, nothing less than “When Love and Death Embrace” or “MUBBELS“, as written in the setlist and always attracting fans’ curiosity about these initials. With the guitarist Mikko lightly playing his clean guitar, the venue has its lighting decorated by some mirror balls, bringing all that atmosphere of an end, always present in the career of the pioneers of Love Metal. The lack of keyboards is felt again, despite having the same original arrangement sounding on the backing tracks. Ville continues to deliver a magnificent performance, drawing tears from some of the fans and, as usual, leaving the stage after his part is over. It’s strange to say the least to not see a familiar face, just four new musicians alone on stage with the new heartagram in the background, performing such an iconic song by a band so dear to those present that night, but it’s not the end yet.

A few minutes after the stage is empty, the quintet returns to add some fire to the performance. “Soul On Fire” will be 20 years old soon and it’s still a song that sounds fresh and powerful live. The bright and warm colors illustrate well the return for the encore and the arms move in the audience.

Photo by AJ Johansson

Salute The Sanguine” has all the classic elements of Valo’s acclaimed career: references to the occult, love, death and heavy music. The guitar intros do a perfect job, but Ville remains absolutely magical as he captures the eyes while he sings or when he counts tempo with a snap of his fingers, letting his rings shine, while the ode to vampires bounces off the walls of Tavastia.

A last mention of HIM‘s career for the night comes with “Poison Girl“, getting some screams and euphoria from those present.

Old fans know that throughout the Finnish musician’s career, Valo was never a big fan of talking to the audience, letting his lyrics speak for themselves during the show, but before the last track of the night, Ville made a speech, introducing each member who accompanies him, thanking his parents and girlfriend for their presence and even joking with a fan, who asked the musician to speak in English, since all the brief introductions of the night, including the quick final monologue, were in Finnish. She did not have her request granted, but got some smiles.

With the third track of the EP “Gothica Fennica”, the night began to end with the first sounds of synthesizers of “Saturnine Saturnalia“. The track, with more than 6 minutes, packs the show so far in a sublime moment, with lights that play between red and purple, Ville sets the final tone, drawing tears from an audience that seems to have “a cup that will never run dry”.

The musician’s classic departure after a short “Thank you and good night”, closes the opening chapter of what VV live is all about. It’s not HIM, it doesn’t manage to sound like HIM, but it also doesn’t want to be HIM, even when revisiting the back catalogue.

Photo by AJ Johansson

On the other hand, the new tracks sound great live as 10 out 13 songs were played that night. Valo remains a force of nature at being the center of attention without walking more than 10 feet in any direction. Constantly checking in with his new road buddies, the musician doesn’t seem to be nervous, on the contrary, he tries to interact with the quartet, but the chemistry still seems raw, for being something so recent. At the same time, of course, it’s his solo career. The spotlight is literally his and his presence is purposefully ahead of the others to highlight that. Time passes for everyone and even though his voice sounds slightly different than before, he still sounds unique. Nor should it be an easy thing to look around and not see his childhood friends, who together won the world, but the vocalist tries not to look so much to the past, putting more emphasis on the performances of new material and it is in these moments that he doesn’t kill the light but turns it on and makes himself the brightest source of it, colored by tones of darkness and neon.

His Infernal Majesty is gone, but the feeling of that Friday the 13th was that a true Love Metal king will never lose his majesty, especially for his faithful followers, that will follow him no matter where he goes. No matter the final destination, it is always comfortable to come home.