So here’s the thing about any solo work that Ville Valo would release—it was always going to pull some cues from HIM. That’s by no means a denigration either; HIM remain one of the most tacitly distinct bands that metal brought up in the last few decades, unafraid to delve into goth-pop and flamboyance that plenty would dismiss for not being the umpteenth identical iteration of the metal sound. At the same time, so much of HIM has persisted inextricably within goth and metal culture, in the heartagram logo, the ‘love-metal’ label that them and only them would really embody, and of course, Ville Valo himself, the vocalist that was arguably one of the lynchpin factors for the obsession around HIM. With a more luxuriant timbre and sex appeal that’s become something of a known commodity, he’s cast one of the more recognisable silhouettes within goth-rock.
So why not bring it back all up, to refill almost the exact niche left open by Valo himself? After all, in the six years since HIM’s breakup and ten since their last album, the absence of a similar band has been rather noticeable. Ghost get so far in those goth-pop-metal stakes, but they aren’t really the romantic types, are they? No, that’s Valo’s bread and butter, debonair and sophisticated with his classic goth angles firmly in place. Neon Noir finds him slot back in without missing a step, and doing so without being a wholesale remake of HIM’s inspiration which still carries through. Not only is it a natural step, but it’s one that gives Neon Noir such a profound shot of life. It feels like its own thing, burgeoning and weaving through some truly magnificent songs, and reinstating Valo’s presence in an undeniably big way.
It makes sense considering the sort of album this is, in which Valo’s demure, almost vampiric type of elegance is embodied in a monochrome painted exterior and the blood-red heart beating beneath it. Factor in the velveteen voice that makes light work of these songs’ obvious melodrama without overselling it, and Neon Noir is already a good bit of the way there. In all fairness, having a frontman like Valo onboard is a natural boon in itself, as shown throughout. He’s commanding yet vulnerable, moulded around the ideal persona to sell a cadre of nebulously described ‘goth love songs’ like these. You give a lyric like “Remind me how to decrypt the cipher written in the blood of my heart” to anyone else and it sounds like the corniest thing ever; give it to Valo and…okay, he doesn’t make it sound cooler, but he nails the exact tone it needs.
There’s no shortage of that tone either. Neon Noir is build on an unshakable bedrock of vibe, upon which it towers with impeccable reliability. Rock-oriented moments like Echolocate Your Love and Salute The Sanguine really aren’t representative of its greatest strengths, or at least where they’re brought the furthest forward. That comes more on Loveletting or Baby Lacrimarium, where jangling acoustic lines blend with synth and a frigid air for something more understated but incredibly enticing. Those swirling, softly-handled moments are where Neon Noir shines with diamond-like clarity.
Though to be truthful, it’s really only by a factor of degrees when there’s such a masterful streak of composition and realisation of ideas on this album. At its worst, there might be an outro that goes on a bit too long, or some diminished punch on the doom-flavoured Heartful Of Ghosts; otherwise, Valo is firing on all cylinders creatively. He definitely exudes the confidence and charisma to cast out his goth-pop net as he does, landing faster thrums in an almost dark-disco vein on The Foreverlost, or the blissful ripples of a brighter overall palette on In Trenodia. He’s hitting bangers practically every time here, on an album that really only gets more rewarding with each subsequent listen. The last stretch especially might seem to droop in comparison at first, but expanding the doom textures on Saturnine Saturnalia and Vertigo Eyes works better in the ongoing slow burn, and both wind up with barely a wasted second in their longer runtimes.
It’s just an exceptionally rewarding album to listen to for how much connects and resonates, a big part of which is down to the arrangements and production. Put simply, it’s already in hot contention for this year’s top player in terms of exceptional mood, in the cold air blowing through every track crystallises the hanging icicles of synth and post-punk guitar even more. That’s such a cool sound anyway, and the fact it’s made so consistently lavish and rich across Neon Noir without overreaching is so important in making this sound great. At no point would Neon Noir benefit from orchestral strings or empty-calorie bombast, compared to the restrained beauty and elegance it’s got down pat already.
Honestly, combing for major faults kind of feels like a futile practice. Maybe a tiny bit of tightening could be done here and there, but that’s the extent to which Neon Noir really feels lacking. It’s about everything you could hope for from a solo breakout—past legacies are blossomed from rather than wholly recreated, brewed in the existing pot with genuine intent to create something new and succeeding immeasurably. Top it off with a performer whose talent has been well-documented for decades and shows no signs of dulling, and Neon Noir is the early-year goth-pop stunner that hits all the right spots and then some. That ol’ infernal majesty has gone nowhere.
For fans of: HIM, Ghost, Type O Negative
‘Neon Noir’ by VV is released on 13th January on Heartagram Records / UMG / Spinefarm Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall