REVIEW: VV, Kælan Mikla at Irving Plaza | 05.09.2023

Former HIM frontman turned solo artist Ville Valo wrapped the North American leg of his Neon Noir tour on Tuesday, playing the second of two sold out nights at New York City’s Irving Plaza. Valo, who now utilizes “VV” as his moniker, had tour support from Icelandic post-punk trio, Kælan Mikla.

As a teenager of the early aughts I, like many, first heard HIM’s music via their music bed features on a number of CKY and Jackass segments. What started as an extension of my love for skateboarding stunts and debauchery quickly took on a life of its own. I became a full-fledged HIM addict. I listened to every album religiously, drew heartagrams on just about everything; I even went so far as to buy a custom replica of Valo’s “Your Pretty Face” jacket off eBay and actually wore it. Thankfully for my own sake I have no photographic evidence of that part but you get the point: I was (and still am) a fan.

In 2017 I was fortunate enough to attend HIM’s final show in North America at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. I watched every song of their set with hyper focus, knowing that it would be the last time I would ever hear the band perform it live. While that remains technically true (VV’s backing band is entirely different, after all) having the opportunity to see, and especially to shoot photos of VV’s performance, which included plenty of HIM classics, was still very special indeed.

The Show

The night began with a beautifully haunting set from Kælan Mikla. It was a performance as dark sonically as it was visually, further elevated by the enchantment of the Icelandic language. There is an 80s vibe contained in Kælan Mikla’s wavy synths and drum machine beats, and the band harnesses these sounds in a unique and powerful way.

Vocalist Laufey Soffía has a commanding stage presence. Every movement was as intentional as the delivery of her vocals, blurring the lines between rock concert and theatrical performance. Sólveig Matthildur Kristjánsdóttir showcased an impressive versatility by handling synths, drum machine, and flute with great talent and precision. Bassist Margrét Rósa Dóru-Harrýsdóttir kept the vibe moving all the while maintaining a cool sense of confidence and deep immersion in the music she was playing. Kælan Mikla ended their set with “Hvítir Sandar” and took a bow to raucous applause from the packed Irving Plaza crowd.

Under the glowing light of a giant, slightly re-designed heartagram, VV took the stage and launched into “Echolocate Your Love”. Ville Valo grabbed the mic with a smile just in time to deliver the first verse to a crowd of screaming fans. The energy in the room reached a fever pitch when they followed with “Poison Girl”, the crowd realizing in unison that we’d be hearing songs both new and old.

Such was the cadence of the setlist, alternating between solo and HIM songs, and I loved the approach. I’ve been listening to “Neon Noir” nonstop and was excited to hear the new material for the first time. I also enjoyed the fact that many of the HIM songs were slightly reworked to fit the lineup and allow them to make it their own.

As is often the case for a Ville Valo performance, the evening closed with “When Love And Death Embrace”, perhaps my all-time favorite HIM song. It was, as it always is, the perfect way to end the show.

The Shoot

There is a lot of pressure that comes with shooting a live performance. So many elements are outside of your control, and you have a limited amount of time to adapt to those elements and get the shots that you need. That pressure mounts tenfold when it’s an artist of personal importance. Suddenly, even the clearest, most well composed shot is subject to intense scrutiny. You want to capture the artist in a way that, at least in some capacity, showcases the admiration and respect that you have for them. Sometimes no photo is or can be good. Such was my sentiment when I shot VV’s set.

Openers Kælan Mikla performed in low and sporadic lighting for the entirety of the set. It was a challenge to shoot but I think I fared well given the circumstances. A lot more patience was required in waiting for the light to come around, but the resulting shots were a satisfactory reward. Vocalist Laufey Soffía offered a variety of poses throughout the set which allowed me to get some solid shots of her.

Prior to VV taking the stage, I honestly felt a bit nervous. I’d be standing mere inches away from someone I’d listened to for decades, someone for whom I have a great deal of respect. And I’d be sticking a camera in his face. I was determined to get the shots I needed without being a bother.

The lighting was much better for VV’s set and shooting everyone was not overly challenging, yet I had a hard time getting a shot that felt right. Not to say that the shots were bad, but they just didn’t feel good enough. I didn’t just want a portfolio-worthy shot, I wanted an album of them; I wanted every shot to be my very best work. This is clearly impossible, and I knew that, but that’s the level of pressure that it felt like I was putting on myself.

After leaving the photo pit, I made my way upstairs, back down and up again, grabbing shots from as many perspectives as I could. At one point I found that Ville Valo was standing directly in front of the heartagram, which made for a nice composition. I sat there for a minute or two grabbing shot after shot in search of the right timing. I ended up with a few keepers, such as this one, though I did have to contend with the ceiling obstructing a portion of the logo. Still, I really like this shot.

I felt a lot more comfortable after getting these shots. Even if they didn’t turn out to be exactly what I wanted, I knew I had some shots that were “good enough.” The pressure is relieved a great deal once you have that confidence, and then it’s just fun.

Getting the opportunity to shoot VV’s performance was anxiety-inducing at the start but greatly rewarding in the end. Though I’m glad there’s no photo evidence of my high school attempts to mirror Ville Valo’s fashion, I am forever grateful to have plenty of evidence of this epic evening.