Aphelion is the furthest point from the sun, and in this case, the sun could represent anything that we aspire towards, dream of, pursue with passion, heart, fire.– Tom P.
Tom Phillips of While Heaven Wept is capable of writing intense and compelling epic metal that is like Farscape for the human soul. Instead of Moya, we are travelling through songs of the human experience, rich metaphor and aquamarine guitar playing that knows few limits.Prog rock can include anything from House Of Lightning’s mind blowing melodic riff and vocal amalgam of Floor meets Rush to something as different as Veil Of Maya’s Marc Okubo tearing through an intricate metal riff to a classic prog rock album like Selling England By The Pound. We celebrate the spiritual questions of a band like Om with our serious hats on but often dismiss high concept prog influenced records as grandiose. For all the ups and downs in my friendship with the Coheed and Cambria guys over the years, I will admit in a second that In Keeping Secrets… was a great album (perhaps still their best). WHH have been carrying the flame for earnest music for a long time.
Their latest Suspended At Aphelion is a very fleshed out, masterful concept album. How did they come to decide on the themes?
“Well, you’ve got to keep in mind that everything we’ve ever done has been out of personal necessity…to heal, to accept, to move on…and SAA is no exception; despite the imagery and metaphors throughout the discography, everything is based upon real people, events, tribulations, and above all, sincere emotions,” says Tom. “WHW is basically my vehicle for coping with both a lifelong depression and the tragedies, frustrations, chaos in my life. A catharsis so as to lead a “relatively normal” existence outside of the band. Every album pertains to different relationships.”
That said, WHH are also never tied to just one genre. Detract from Queensryche’s more experimental albums like Tribe or Dedicated To Chaos all you like, but they still have merit regardless if they were different from the classic heavy metal sound the band has returned to post-Tate’s vocal reign. Likewise, WHH can be brutal, dizzying or trippy within the same album.
To learn more head out further into space BELOW and may your voyage bring you back home…
Can you tell us more?
Tom: These are passages in time, like another chapter in an aural diary…so “SAA” covers ground from where “Fear Of Infinity” left off…things that transpired in the years between. I can’t say this was intentional, as it absolutely wasn’t; all of the music and lyrics come via revelation and at randomsomething along the lines of “stream of consciousness”, though there are times such as with “SAA” where it feels as though something greater is involvedwhere the music writes itself, and we’re merely vessels channeling it.
Point being, I had no idea what the lyrics meant initially -they were scattered scraps of thoughtstrewn across receipts, bar napkins, cigarette packs, random sentences saved in voice notes, etc.
It was much later…when the album was largely tracked (the basic foundation anyway) that I started to “connect the dots” making sense out of all that madness…and even then, it wasn’t until the complete narrative was laid out that I had any semblance of clarity. The same thing happened w/ Vast Oceans Lachrymose and Fear Of Infinity and it took Rain pointing out that FOI was in fact the completion of a journey that began with VOL; those albums were a journey through the stages of bereavement- in order and I didn’t realize it as I was LIVING it that said, I became more cognizant of thepurpose of SAA while we were recording it, but considering the music had existed for 2years prior, it was still a slow realization. Anyway,SAA is indeed a completely different journey circumstantially, however in some ways it parallels that of those two albums prior. I think the primary difference is this one is more “complete” in that, there are passages in the beginning which detail the ambition and pursuit as well as the ultimate failure and subsequent emotions on the journey to full acceptance.
How does Suspended At Aphelion reflect your journey as people and/or a band?
I guess I’ve already intimated how SAA relates to my personal story, but being that it (like all of our albums) is filled with dualities and open to interpretations, sung in first person, etc. what it really means will vary from person to person, inside and outside of the band. Based on your questions, it appears that you have sussed the primary themes of the album, but for the sake of your readers, first I’ll break that down and then get back to what you’d just asked:
Aphelion is the furthest point from the sun, and in this case, the sun could represent anything that we aspire towards, dream of, pursue with passion, heart, fire. This could beromantic, spiritual, intellectual/philosophical, practical, or I suppose even material in nature…but the latter is a fated and shallow endeavor regardless in my opinion…nevertheless, I’m talking about anything from seeking the meaning of life to struggling for sobriety, security in every sense to courting one’s counterpart…this is really what the first three parts of SAA are about. The reality though, is despite all of our efforts, faith, hope, resources, obsessions, sometimes things remain forever beyond our reach, and thus the remainder of the album is about coming to terms with that cold realization and cycling through the emotions as aforementioned, on the way to acceptance. The caveat here is that despite achieving acceptance, in this case it is bittersweet as emotions and dreams defy logic; even though you KNOW that the sun in unreachable, untouchable…truly accepting that…the yearning still remains.
Now, as far as how this relates to While Heaven Wept, even though that isn’t really what SAA is about, the fact is that we have always released the most sincerely heartfelt music possible, since the beginning and with the greatest possible sound quality given our knowledge and resources at any given time. In a perfect world, this would equate to some degree of “success” and mind you, if we manage to capture what we hear in our heads and the emotions are accurately conveyed, THAT is the only success that really matters but you know, there’s always that ambition to reach more people, have the luxury of massive recording budgets, be afforded opportunities on a grand scale…however, the reality is we’re not Iron Maiden, Metallica or even a Machine Head…and we never will be…but it would be a relief for once to not struggle, sacrifice, or succumb to realize this music and get it to those who actually care about it, however few they may be.
And it’s not just that…there’s the reality that most of the musicians involved have crossed bridges in life that Jim and myself have not…we’ve never given up, our lives revolve around music not chicks, careers, children, other pursuits…so it’s difficult at times to have worked for decades 100% DIY to reach Nuclear Blast Records and have powerhouse agents like Rock The Nation behind us, but find that we’re only able to do X number of shows any given year due to the circumstances of the others. In the end, I’d just like to be able to record all the music in my head and heart whether we release it or not and gig for the people that are dying to see us live, wherever they may be. I don’t think it’s unreasonable after 25 years and solid album after album to at least be in a position to do that, but that may always be another aphelion for me.
“Icarus And I” is an interesting examination of ambition. Do we set our sights too high as mere humans? I mean, your albums are pretty ambitious, haha. It is great to hear Suspended… or Scar Symmetry’s latest masterpiece Neohumanity and think of how infinite musical possibilities are these days.
It’s important to have ambitions, goals, and dreams…otherwise we tempt stagnation, malaise, resting upon laurels; there’s only one life to live and thus, it’s wise to make the most of it. The key, I believe is to not be too lofty or unrealistic though, I suppose some of the achievements in history were realized by those who didn’t limit their scope. It’s something of a quandary in that, you probably don’t want to knowingly set one’s self up for failure, but on the same token, he who dares, wins. It’s all about finding that balance…rolling the dice a bit, some calculated risks where you’re cognizant of the potential losses…but not rolling kamikaze in every instance.
When it comes to our music though, it’s never questioned; if it comes from the heart and soul, it’s “right” whether or not anyone else concurs…it’s not about anyone else, only ourselves, what we feel, need to convey, and want to hear on our own stereos as well. I believe that as long as these parameters are virtue, even if a path alienates or challenges the vast majority, it is the epitome of “keeping it true”. That said, there really hasn’t been anything “new” in music for centuries…it’s all been done before, and likely better in many cases…BUT, the filter of personality, experience, and emotion does yield fresh results.
How does it feel to have reached 25 years as a band and also to still have people finding your music through how good it actually is?
In my wildest dreams, I could’ve never seen WHW lasting 25 years let alone feeling more inspired than ever thinking back to the late 80’s/early 90’s. I mean, after all, the sole mission in the beginning was to pen my own epitaph and check out, but having never managed to get that right and after all the twists and turns of life, growing, experiencing, maturing…learning the difference between wants and needs, etc…fact is, I am fortunate and take pride in never having compromised. Yeah, it’s amazing to think that I’ve been doing this for more than half of my life, and considering all the musicians, trends, bands that have come and gone over the past quarter of a century…yet, here I am, here we are, still doing what we’ve always done. I know there are those who take umbrage with that notion on account of having labelled us or pigeonholed the band…but we NEVER ascribed to any style or genre…only true emotions…and in fairness, given the fact that we’ve taken YEARS at times between albums, outside of the band, no one really knew that things like “Vessel” or “Unplenitude” were concurrent with or predating “Thus With A Kiss I Die” (in its final form) and “Sorrow Of The Angels”. Anyway, it is a milestone, and I am glad we were able to commemorate it with an album that is worthy of 25 years in terms of its heart and spirit, as well as fearlessness. I don’t think that people find our music on account of “how good it is” as much as it finds those that “need” it…whether as an alternative to everything else out there that sounds the same as everything else, or because it truly resonates. In the latter cases, that’s really the most important thing to WHW outside of our own personal needs…if our music makes a difference in even one life, if one person feels more understood or less alone in their tribulations,then that’s a true success. Otherwise, while appreciated, accolades are about as valuable as criticisms as far as being poisonous, thus, we can’t get hemmed up with either or we risk tainting the purity of the music. The instant we start thinking as opposed to feeling, it’s over.
How did it feel to achieve this recording, when last note was plucked? Or better yet, when you got it back from being mastered?
Honestly, there’s always this sense that there’s still more to do…even when there isn’t; when you’re so deep under the microscope, it’s hard to see the forest through the trees ifthat makes sense. You see, after the very natural, organic process of channeling this music, when it comes to production and immortalizing an expression for eternity, the compulsion to nail it can be overwhelming…the obsession, the minutia, the madness. In the case of “SAA”, we truly followed the map the music itself had laid out for us…there’s so much going on, such dense harmonic content…the ONLY result that could be acceptable was insuring that every note of every instrument was heard and it is ,but this did involve going against some inclinations…to push things harder, etc. And while when all is said and done we did manage to realize this one almost exactly the way it was heard in our heads, I know we could’ve made it a touch heavier…which I will sort out for my own final master, but overall, it’s the closest we’ve ever come to nailing it nonetheless. It was an infinitely more gratifying, pleasant, and smooth experience compared to the arduous, soul crushing scenario in which “Fear Of Infinity” was realized and I think that this ultimately translates to the listener in the case of ANY album…I believe the ones that come together with relative ease, under extremely positive conditions…those are the ones that will resonate in the end.
What would the ideal concert setting be for someone coming to see/experience While Heaven Wept?
Hmmm…I’d say something intimate for sure, in lieu of a full stage production of Floyd or Kraan magnitudes…if naught else because the transfer of energy and emotion is vital to our shows , as close a connection to the audience as possible, much like how we’re always directly available via social media, etc. Also, the fact that we improvise a lot in theold Rainbow/Purple fashion, it’s best to be close to not miss anything celestial. Or dreadful haha! That’s the thing though…it’s all about a onceinalifetime EVENT that is shared…not just another “gig”…
Amen to that!
So, I think the best experience is probably in club as opposed to a huge open air festival, though those are cool for different reasons…probably not so much for experiencing WHW.Now, if you were to ask me what I thought would be the ideal setting as a performer…it would differ slightly from reality haha…not entirely…as we’ve had some fortune in this regard…omething closer to a theatre is preferred for a variety of sonic reasons…or any place where the music is the SOLE focal point not getting drunk, trying to get laid, no “Metal marketplaces” or competing stages. The closest we’ve come would be Center Stage in Atlanta, where ProgPower USA is held…that’s hard to beat in realistic terms. Otherwise, something like the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia would be amazing, or on a larger scale something picturesque/inspiring like Red Rocks. Our music would really come alive in places like these, where every detail could be heard on account of the acoustics/physics, etc. But in my wildest dreams, I most want to do something along the lines of what Floyd did in ’72…Pompeii…same deal, no audience but the crew and the ghosts…perhaps a handful of special guests/fans…but otherwise, an empty and ancient amphitheater. I’d also settle for the temple of Poseidon or something of similar ilk.
Is the band going to take a break from writing for awhile?
There’s so much music waiting in the wings that we could actually place a moratorium on the channeling of new things…but that’s both absurd and impossible…and when the cosmos deems a draught is due, that’s the way it goes; there have been plenty of times where there was nothing new manifesting…for YEARS…however, the deluge continues for now.Fact is, we “skipped” an album between Fear Of Infinity and SAA…the one that would actually make some sense out of how we went from one to the other, literally…it’s the “bridge” between them…at least in part; it’s 95% METAL…but there are a couple, maybe 3-4 songs that foreshadow the more complex harmony of SAA/expand upon then foundations of that found in Finality. Otherwise, it’s very different from SAA and all of our other albums…it’s probably the most “brutal” of the discography. We’re talking about material that was channeled between 2009 and 2011 specifically, for the record.THEN, there’s all of the new things that have unfolded since the completion of SAA…so far, this stuff is even more “out there” than this one was…heavier again, but VERY progressive in a Crimson/Univers Zero/Voivod kind of way…yet still WHW…there’s some things that are so far beyond “Icarus” but in that vein…I can’t believe it’s even possible myself! We’ve also got quite a bit of unreleased archival material from the past 25 years particularly from the first year or two, but it’s not limited to just that; in 1996 we recorded a different version of “Sorrow Of The Angels” (the album) a different tracklist when Kevin (Gorguts/Dysrhythmia) and Danny (ex Dysrhythmia) were in the band for example…and there are outtakes from most of the other albums, live recordings, etc. That said, it’s hard to address the past whenthere’s so much on the horizon, but I am sure a good amount of this will surface someday…well…if anyone actually wants to hear it. We’ve got to address the issue of the main discography being out of print before any spelunking transpires though…but if there’s enough of a demand and enough support, we’ll get it all out there. It’s funny that 25 years in, the next 10 seem as though they will be the busiest so far…but best not to let ambitions run rampant with the industry in the state that it is and considering our place in the grand scheme of things…in the end, it’s up to the fans, the promoters, and “powers that be”…we’ve got the material and the fire, but if no one buys the records that are out or goes to the shows, there won’t be other public activity…and I’m ok with that considering this is really all a private endeavor…but perhaps there’s a few people out there that want to hear where all this goes and understand the full scope of WHW. Only time will tell……..