At five minutes to show time Saturday (March 14) and well ahead of headliner HIM, New York's Irving Plaza was already packed to capacity for opener Anathema, the U.K. band returning for the first time since its triumphant NYC show last September at the Gramercy Theater. However, Anathema was just half the story. The thunderous applause that rained upon the existential progressive rockers as they finished their six-song set was only a prelude to the head-splitting shrieks that erupted when Finnish hard rock act HIM claimed the stage.
HIM had the bittersweet advantage of pent-up demand: The band was literally on the eve of kicking off a North American tour last May when singer Ville Valo fell ill with severe respiratory problems. He'd been about to pick up a trophy at the Golden God Awards for having the most dedicated fan base when that tour was canceled. The Irving Plaza crowd's hysterical reaction to the group's arrival, built on word-of-mouth that it’s playing in top form, was swiftly proven correct. For the next 90 minutes, there was no letup in HIM’s massive performance or its volume.
HIM and Anathema both examine the turbulent pull of love and despair, with the latter band having evolved from a doom metal act into an inspirational style of rock. It was a tight fit for Anathema compared with Gramercy’s larger stage, but it didn’t inhibit the band's riveting performance of “Deeper,” farewell-my-love suite “Untouchable, Part 1” and “Untouchable Part 2,” and the high-flying “Thin Air,” which found a new crescendo every minute. Singer/guitarist Vincent Cavanagh led the way with brother Daniel (also on guitar) and co-singer Lee Douglas, serenading the room like an eternally faithful Romeo.
Unlike most frontmen, Valo’s presence is nonchalant and measured. That could be partially due to his singing style: He’s a slender guy who projects a Boris Karloff-esque croon, and that takes effort, no matter how relaxed he is at the mic. Valo left the frenzied motions to bassist Mikko “Mige” Paananen, who stomped around the cramped stage like a furious berserker. Guitarist Mikko "Linde" Lindstrom, drummer Mika “Gas Lipstick” Karppinen and keyboardist Janne “Emerson Burton” Puurtinen were just as invested, but it was hard to take your eyes off Paananen. He was perpetually on the verge of tramping offstage without realizing it.
HIM made the moment count by sticking with its better-known catalog, shying from its latest album, “Tears on Tape,” save for the title track and “All Lips Go Blue.” The latter track was in line with the relentlessly brutal tempo the band had on offer, putting the metal in the “love metal” tag the band was dubbed with long ago.
HIM's assault began with “Buried Alive by Love,” moving into the keyboard-driven “Wings of a Butterfly,” “Right Here in My Arms” and rippling groove fest “The Kiss of Dawn.” The first notes of HIM’s biggest stateside hit, sacrificial love song “Join Me in Death,” had the crowd singing before Valo could get started, and the band kept stoking the frenzy with the pleading “Your Sweet 666.” Its inspired cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” -— a dreamy lament that the fivesome turned into a fiery growl of sexual angst -— didn’t disappoint, and “Into the Night,” which helped bring the evening to a close, appropriately said good-bye with the words, “Into the night we ride/Scars wide open/Into the night, you and I, torn and broken.”