Love Letter – Himsa

It’s hard to believe that there was a time before the steady stream of blasé lyric videos, but at the turn of the millennium, music video purveyor MTV had to “bring back” the music video. The artform was essentially replaced by trashy reality television and cartoons by the late 90s, but eventually came MTV2 – a quality sequel (well, for a few years) nobody really deserved. So I guess it only made sense that they also resurrected their metalhead favorite from the 80s and 90s soon thereafter – Headbangers Ball. After all, this era had a ton to offer. The NWOAHM movement was all the rage, metalcore was hitting its stride, and melodeath was pretty much the coolest shit ever. Given that the combo of Kazaa and my dial-up setup wasn’t doing me any good – true story: I waited days (plural) to download Meshuggah’s Chaosphere only to find out that some jerk just relabeled of Neurotica tracks (some truly evil bastards out there), this couldn’t have been better timing for a dude who had recently gotten his license and began to fall in love with hanging out at the record store – the internet, for me, sucked for digging up new tunes.

So as any good love story begins, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. In 2003, I caught the video for Himsa’s “Rain to the Sound of Panic”. Looking back on this video, there’s nothing remarkable about it. It’s a standard performance vid spliced with some creepy embalming imagery, but at the time, it really clicked with me. The morbid visuals mixed with the black and white shots of these dudes just headbanging like nuts. It felt so vintage and reinvigorating – a nostalgia for something I was simply too young for. In my head, it must have been the same thing that people felt watching Metallica’s “One” video for the first time. There was a realness, a visceral energy that felt like it hadn’t existed in forever (especially when your memory can only recall videos from bands like Korn and Alien Ant Farm). The stripped-down nature of that video was stark, powerful, I could feel the energy of their performance. The focus on instrumentation and their energy was captivating. Along with that, myself coming off a long-winded punk rock phase, John Pettibone (now in Heiress) couldn’t have been more magnetic. I’ll never forget his black fingernail polish as he gripped the mic. Dude was basically fucking Glenn Danzig fronting a thrash metal band. It couldn’t have been more perfect.

Now it seems naive: I ran out and grabbed Courting Tragedy and Disaster as soon as I could, blown away that they even had a copy. I mean, my local record store carried this band? It felt like luck; I couldn’t have been more psyched, and it’s likely that this excitement had me playing it ad nauseam. But unlike so many terribly irresponsible impulse purchases from that era (why was I buying so much soundalike metalcore?), Himsa were in steady rotation and got better with time. While their NWOAHM peers of that time were labelled mere “revivalists,” Himsa were seemingly left out of the conversation, despite offering a more interesting take than their contemporaries. Himsa weren’t paying homage. These guys were as fast and sinister as Slayer. Short of the chorus, “Jacob Shock” could easily pass as a Hanneman jam. These guys were as intense as their Swedish brethren (apparently, the only true measure of the badassery of a band in the early 00s). They didn’t just mimic or pay tribute to classic metal sounds, they made classic metal extreme – even by today’s standards. They were the right band at the right time.

2005’s Hail Horror picked up where Courting Tragedy and Disaster left off, refining their brand of not-quite thrash/Gothenburg/metalcore sound. Through my totally rosy glasses, it was about as perfect as a record could get at that time. I caused me to relentlessly air guitar like a doofus and probably damaged my hearing too young of an age. But how couldn’t I? This record had it all. Some songs even had it all. How did they think of this shit? How does “Sleezevil” move from a locomotive hardcore jaunt to melodeath to caveman death metal all without being a totally disjointed mess? Or the Pantera-esque grooves into the extended Swede phrasing guitars in “The Destroyer”? Or even the breakneck transitions in “Pestilence”? It’s unfathomable. Fortunately, I had an opportunity to see it for myself as the Dirty Black Summer Tour (featuring the likes of The Agony Scene, Scars of Tomorrow, and The Esoteric – I had to look up the last two because who remembers that?) came through town. It was an impossibly small show and I was bummed by the awful turnout, yet Himsa ripped it like none other. I wouldn’t have blamed them for tearing through their set (maybe even trimming it short) and getting the fuck outta dodge, but these guys played like they actually gave a shit and had fun, galvanizing their level of cool. In doing so, they became my personal barometer for cool.

Summon in Thunder followed suit. Once again, I’ll never forget picking it up. On one of the most cluttered days for quality releases that I can remember, I had to stop myself from buying a couple CDs – but there was no way this one was going back in the bin (September 18, 2007 was nuts). Again, they didn’t change much, but as they’ve proven before, they didn’t have to. They already mastered their formula: stack an album with a solid variety of persistently catchy and melodic riffs, write hooks that never approach the “too sweet” zone (because Pettibone is barking away like a ghost dog eternally at the end of his chain), establish a rhythmically compelling backbone that frequently mimics the Slaughter of the Soul-like tempo, slather the entire thing with killer harmonies and leads, and most importantly, avoid the decade’s trending scourge of ham-fisted breakdowns or good-cop bad-cop vocals. It really cemented a few things for me: a twin-guitar attack is an inherently beautiful thing, breakdowns are usually tiresome drek, and genre-bending and ambiguity is fascinating – not playing to a style. Granted, this lesson that could’ve been learned from a number of bands at this time. For me, Himsa were able to bridge this gap because they were so familiar, but they always sounded fresh and invigorating (and still do to this day, a credit to stellar production by Steve Carter, Tue Madsen, and Devin Townsend).

In essence, they helped me leave behind a world of music that took over my teenage years and broadened my musical horizons (the internet got better, too). And then… nothing. No impressive display of public shit-talking, no drama; they just quietly played their last show, and apparently they’ve gotten together for a reunion gig as recent as last year. Seems like they’re some pretty regular dudes who don’t hate each other. They moved on. Good for them.

And so, time went on, Himsa never lost its lustre. I never forgot ’em. They’ve stood the test of time. Unlike so many albums from that time, their final three records maintain their front-to-back quality. Today’s batshit crazy genre orgies seem to desensitize us to a more straightforward approach, but Himsa have proven to be a little ahead of their time. All this being said, a few times a year, I find myself sending a text message to a close friend of mine that says something along the lines of, “Holy fuck, Himsa is the greatest band ever.” I genuinely mean it. Then I dive back into their catalogue, burn myself out on this phenomenal final trio, and nurse my sore neck for a few days. And for those days, there’s nothing better.