Brighter than neon, darker than noir – Ville Valo live at Helldone 2023, Tavastia, Helsinki 29.12.

Author John Wins - 31.12.2023

The dark night of Friday, December 29th, marked not only the return of Helldone, the traditional year-end indoor festival created by HIM, but it was also another chance to see or watch for the first time the enigmatic legendary vocalist Ville Valo in his natural habitat aka Tavastia, no matter the snow or rain outside.

The three nights in Helsinki would be opened by the British duo Zetra and on each day a Finnish band would perform at Semifinal too, which is located in the underground part of Tavastia. After the doors opened, it was already possible to see international fans, in large numbers, socializing or getting to know each other for the first time, given the popularity of the community that grew up following the doctrine of His Infernal Majesty.

Despite the show being sold-out, it was still far from full capacity when Zetra entered the stage, without addressing the audience. The duo makes an experimental and mesmerizing sound with just synths and an electric guitar, with the rest of the sound played via backing tracks. It’s difficult to explain the band’s sound in a few words, as they have a gothic/black metal look, but sound like a mix of doom and emo. It might remind you a bit of Depeche Mode, AFI and even A-ha. The show could have been a little more interesting if there had been some work on the lights, which remained in the same style throughout the entire performance, but it was still a satisfactory experience with even some fans singing their songs.

Just a few minutes after the musicians left the stage in silence, Pretty would be performing a few meters below. The seven members make an alternative rock sound, with strong influences from the early 90s. Vocalist Hene Jääsalo has a remarkable timbre which works very well with the dynamic between the layers of the four guitars.

When the clock ticked a few seconds after 23:00 and it was already impossible to find an empty seat on the stairs or a spot in the audience, the giant heartagram stylized as VVgram started to glow, in the same way it has been shining throughout the year 2023 on the huge and successful Neon Noir Tour. With the instrumental track Zener Solitaire as the intro, it was possible to see the silhouette of the four musicians take their places on stage and with the first chords of Echolocate Your Love the one and only Ville Valo arrives, making the audience bring their first of many smiles and tears of the night.

The first highlights of the show are not just about the singer, who is always charismatic in the simple way he smiles or with brief waves to fans, but also the quality of the sound mix and especially the set of lights, which makes the entire visual experience even more enjoyable for those watching and is captured in the hundreds of smartphones filming which appear over the sea of heads in the audience.

When The Funeral of Hearts started, it was time for some old fans to raise their arms and close their eyes, while the younger ones just watched. Many of the songs from HIM‘s time have arrangements faithful to the studio versions, as now they follow some backing tracks of choirs/keyboards and in the case of Funeral, the original version loses a little of what made it so special in the past live performances, but still draws sighs in the chorus when everyone sings together.

The setlist continued with The Foreverlost and the classic Join Me (in Death), both featuring backing tracks. The first one really showed how popular the new songs are as many young fans were singing out loud the verses, on the other hand the anthem released in 1999 remains a great timeless tune with the old fans, despite the lack of a live keyboardist on it.

The tracks of “Neon Noir”, released less than a year ago, work very well live and the self-titled track is one of the great highlights so far, with very nice work from the guitarists Mikko Virta and Sampo Sundström. While performing another cover from the HIM days, the first thing that takes us immediately to the era of each song is the way the fantastic lights work, in the case of The Kiss of Dawn, the orange lights bring us back to “Venus Doom” with the same colors as the cover art, although musically speaking Gas and Linde are missed, which was greatly felt in the grooves and solos.

Salute the Sanguine, originally released on the EP “Gothica Fennica Vol. 1”, was performed as its complete version, including the final part that brings a lot of that religious choir aesthetic present in Ville’s career, which also features an excellent performance from drummer Risto Rikala. Valo is known for his privacy and for being an introspective artist, so listening to some dialogue or a more effusive interaction during one of his shows is a rare thing. For example, his first “words” of the night happened after a fan gifted the lead singer a stuffed panda by the end of Rip Out the Wings of a Butterfly, with the excellent lights emulating the lighthouse from the music video.

Another well-known vocal characteristic of the singer is the way he perfectly uses his falsettos, as in Heartful of Ghosts, who has one of the best interpretations of the night. The Helldone event always caught the attention of fans during HIM‘s years because the band used to play new material for the first time or bring back songs from the past as a way to please their fans. When the backing track of a well-known keyboard intro started to echo inside Tavastia and some screams of “I don’t fckng believe it” were heard, it was certain that this 2023 version would also have the same aspect from the past. Gone With The Sin remains iconic 25 years since its release with the classic deep vocals of Valo.

Loveletting, the first big single from VV‘s debut, has two remarkable moments. Firstly, the quality of the voice filters that reproduce the same effects as the studio version and secondly, how the audience follows the rhythm of the music, keeping the beat alive in the palm of their hands. With the VVgram glowing yellow, emulating the cover art of the classic “Love Metal”, it was Buried Alive by Love‘s turn to shine with its contagious energy, featuring nice bass lines from Juho Vehmanen. Unfortunately, age catches up with everyone and the vocalist, who is almost 50 years old, has some difficulties reaching some of the high notes in one of the most technical tracks of his career.

During Run Away From the Sun we had another moment of pure admiration as old and new fans were singing together while red lights took over the stage. With another classic from “Razorblade Romance”, we had a bit of nostalgia listening to Right Here in My Arms, including a funny moment when a pair of panties were refused by Ville, but were given to one “lucky” fan in the audience. When Valo said in Finnish “we have one more”, it was time for Saturnine Saturnalia to close the first part of the setlist with its density and cadence, in the best love metal style. So, as usual, Valo left the stage as soon as his vocal part was finished, heading backstage holding his stuffed panda in one arm.

The encore began a few minutes later, already featuring another track from the most recent work. In Trenodia has lyrics that bring a lot of hope and had a perfect performance by Ville. The last surprise of the night happened with Killing Loneliness, from the album that conquered North America in 2005. Despite being an iconic track in the HIM‘s discography, some of the younger fans didn’t sing along, but in compensation, fans who were teenagers twenty years ago and grew up listening to “Dark Light”, recited the verses with great emotion.

Baby Lacrimarium was another well-received song, despite not being one of VV‘s most famous songs, it was a tight performance by the whole band. Everything has an end and when the three mirror disco globes on Tavastia’s ceiling began to shine, it was time to say goodbye through the sound of When Love and Death Embrace, present in the singer’s career since its release in 1997. After saying his last phrase of the night in Finnish, “Time to go home and sleep”, the vocalist said goodbye with a few waves and a wide smile on his face as soon as the last lines of the lyrics were sung, leaving us with the other four musicians to end the night after 19 songs that stir a lot of emotions difficult to describe, but very easy to feel.

Just like that ended the 1/3 night of Helldone 2023, which it is still a unique chance to witness these songs in the last days of a year, bringing a unique comfort for each of those present.

After more than 110 shows this year, there is something very captivating not only about the way Ville expresses his art, but how he connects so many people and their own stories. Each show at Tavastia includes friendships or romantic relationships that were born because of the soundtrack written by Valo and witnessing their hugs and emotional cries in each song, which speaks specifically to that person’s feelings, is something very unique that is immortalized with each new time they can see those songs live. These are the memories that remain alive and make every show worth it, and thankfully we still have Ville Valo as the voice of the shadows and light of our lives.

You can listen to Ville Valo‘s latest album “Neon Noir” here: