Having released what was probably their heaviest album to date in the shape of 2007’s Venus Doom, one would have been forgiven for expecting HIM to continue drawing from the darker depths of their inspirational well for its follow-up, which arrived three years later, in February 2010.
Indeed, with their metallic core now exposed – like a battle-damaged Terminator, albeit one played by Johnny Depp rather than Arnold Schwarzenegger – it felt as if the band might be abandoning the pop trappings that had made them so accessible on preceding efforts, trading these in for the aggression of many of the bands from whom they originally took inspiration.
It was no small surprise, then, that with Screamworks – or Screamworks: Love in Theory and Practice, Chapters 1–13 to give it its full, winkingly pretentious title – the band instead launched themselves in the opposite direction, shedding much of the previous LP’s anger and forlorn overtones to create one of their most accessible recordings yet.
Unsurprisingly, this note-worthy shift was the result of an apparent upturn in Ville’s own life, and this sense of optimism and hope echoed not only within the spirit of the music but also in the lyrics, which erred alarmingly close to the positive: the singer appearing to open his heart, both to love and to life in general, after a lengthy period of acute disillusionment.
While in many ways the album marked a return to the approach of those early records, the melancholy and impending sense of doom were traded in for an affectionate, even sentimental approach. A cursory look over the lyrics to songs such as the joyful and vulnerable Scared To Death (‘I am scared to death to fall in love with you’) or the more bombastic Heartkiller (‘Love, for you I’m waiting, anticipating… It doesn’t have to make any sense at all/Come hither and we’ll fall/In love, for love/I’m crawling out of patience baby’), it’s obvious that, thematically, the band had taken a step away from the death-obsessed territories of old. Instead of lamenting lost love, the words here reflect a writer entering into a guarded embrace of new love – a potent archetype indeed.
Of course, as Ville later revealed, the dark shades on Venus Doom were as much a reflection of his declining health as a declining love life, a predictable by-product of a decade spent putting away alcohol at a rate notable even within the unusually well-lubricated country of Finland. With doctors warning him of impending heart failure, the frontman set about becoming clean, a mission accomplished long before Screamworks was released. It might be coincidence, of course, but it’s hard not to suspect that this change of lifestyle accounts – at least in part – for the more uplifting dynamic of the record, as well as its cleaner sound.
That’s not to say that the record is necessarily more sedate; indeed, there is a tangible nervous energy present, perhaps fuelled by some of that impatience mentioned in the lyrics, or simply a reflection of those ‘new love’ butterflies. Ville’s vocals in particular are especially expressive, the singer peppering his delivery with screams, and even touches of falsetto here and there, witnessed on tracks like Dying Song or Like St. Valentine, a punky, rocking number with a particularly vitriolic vocal climax.
It is, of course, the singer’s vocals that take centre stage throughout, yet while the other members’ performances are characteristically restrained, here and there they echo the same exuberance of the frontman, an occasional solo slipping out to add fire to the belly of this beast.
Nonetheless, there’s no denying the more polished touch to the songs found here. Synths frequently dominate, and while songs such as Katherine Wheel, Like St. Valentine or Love The Hardest Way have a certain futuristic vibe about them, for the most part Screamworks nods to the past. A definite ‘retro’ influence pervades many of the songs, with touches of classic 80s goth rock surfacing, as well as an apparent electro pop/rock inspiration from the likes of Depeche Mode. Closing number The Foreboding Sense Of Impending Happiness – a title that neatly sums up the concept of the record as a whole – is soaked in a mid-period Sisters Of Mercy atmosphere, while also touching upon more modern references with its Nine Inch Nails-esque electronica.
It’s an effective approach, swapping the visceral hit of HIM’s back catalogue for an album that highlights Valo’s lyrical playfulness, along with a sense of occasion that sometimes borders on the melodramatic. Pop and melody have always been integral parts of the group’s arsenal, and Screamworks wields both with confidence and finesse.