The best rock album of the year comes not from the States, but from Finland. Goth-rockers HIM (His Infernal Majesty) have been packing them in across the ocean for a while now, but Dark Light is the first disc that's seen the light of day from them on these shores.
That's a crime, because this is an amazing band. Its music has a mystery to it, and a surreal gothic overtone, but lead singer Ville sells the darkness with a romantically smooth delivery. There are plenty of pounding, anthemic guitar riffs and solos to keep the air guitarist in you busy, but the overtones of love and the afterlife lift almost every song to something more than just rock. It's transcendant.
Ville is an intriguing poet, as well as a uniquely charismatic singer, offering marvelous metaphors and lyrical juxtapositions throughout. He sings warmly of being "drunk on shadows" and of being haunted in "oblivion's garden." In the opening track,"Vampire Heart," he sings from the point of view of the undead, but with a richly romantic vein: "Hold me like you held on to life … love me like you loved the sun/scorching the blood in my vampire heart."
Every song is awash with eerie keyboards and strutting guitars, thunderous bass grooves and sharply spiked percussion. The opening track starts with what sounds like a guitar version of the theme from The Exorcist, before slipping into a stadium-ready rock song.
Then there's "Under the Rose," where an almost medieval chamber music riff opens the song before the throbbing chug of the bass kicks things up and leads the band into a can't-help-but-sing-along anthem as Ville sings:
"I've been burning in water and drowning in flame
to prove you wrong and scare you away
I admit my defeat and want back home
in your heart under the rose."
Another inspired lyrical moment comes in "The Face of God" as Ville sings with alluring emotion: "I dream what you're dreaming and feel what you're feeling/love's our shadow on the wall with the face of God."
And again, with a melancholy string section sighing against the crunch of guitars, he sings of the dark lure of love in "Killing Loneliness" when he both celebrates and curses the touch of a lover:
"With the venomous kiss you gave me
I'm killing loneliness
With the warmth of your arms you saved me
oh I'm killing lonlieness with you."
I've been listening to this disc for almost a month now, and I love it more each time I put it on. Dark Light will lure you into its seductive dreams, if you give it the slightest chance!
Playing the Angel
Depeche Mode is back, and doing what it does best — waxing eloquently about denied yearning, sinners, "Damaged People" and general melancholy. Much like its last CD, 2001's misleadingly named Exciter, the band's latest disc is heavy on brood and light on dance floor hits. But for Depeche Mode fans, that'll be just fine.
Playing the Angel opens with a siren wail that might make fans think a new hit like "Personal Jesus" is about to come strutting out of the speakers. But no. Instead it's a more ambient, darkly thudding beat that takes over, as David Gahan sings about "A Pain That I'm Used To." The song builds from a quiet complaint to a synth-wailing scream midway through. But the point is lined out at the start when he sings:
"I'm not sure what I'm looking for anymore
I just know
That I'm harder to console."
Gahan gives his most soulful belt on the disc's second track, a pounding synthesizer rocker inspired by the traditional spiritual "John the Revelator." Outside of the rollicking "Lilian" late in the disc (where they grinningly sing "pain and misery always hit the spot"), the techno-spiritual is the most "rocking" track on the album.
Martin Gore gets his rolling keyboard loops grinding after "Revelator," for the strangely sad "Suffer Well," which feels like the darker Depeche Mode of the late '80s. Another throwback song comes in the plinky throbbing synths of "Damaged People," where Gahan sings with frustrated passion of the baggage of a lifetime of losing:
"We're damaged people
praying for something
that doesn't come from somewhere deep inside us
trusting in the one thing
the one thing that life has not denied us."
More discordant siren-synths launch the grim reverberations of "The Sinner in Me," which slips seamlessly from minor to major key as Gahan sings:
"But you're always around
you can always be found
to pick me up
when I'm on the ground."
You can read it as a hymn to God or a thanks to a lover, but either way, it's a darkly brooding track.
Next up comes a hint of the band's poppier side, as Gahan croons in his upper register atop a growing percolating rhythm bed to relate the disintegration of a love:
"Things get damaged
things get broken
I thought we'd manage
but words left unspoken
left us so brittle
there was so little left to give."
In "I Want It All," Gahan bemoans "Sometimes I cry, sometimes I die for you." It's a lyric that can sum up this whole album's mood. Playing the Angel is a mostly somber, yet drearily beautiful statement by the band that wrote the book on synthesizer-based mood rock.
And even in the heart of darkness, Depeche Mode always offers a disguised ray of light; in the dirgelike "Nothing's Impossible," Gahan sings:
"even the stars look brighter tonight
I still believe in love at first sight
Playing the Angel is another dark but satisfying exploration of the wounded soul from the seminal synth-gloom band. Light a candle and play it at night.