After 25 years While Heaven Wept is still going strong. Since they signed to Nuclear Blast with their previous album ‘Fear of Infinity’, their cosmically scaled epics also managed to reach a wider audience. Mastermind Tom Philips talks about their newest album , ‘Suspended at Aphelion’, a bold endeavor divided in 11 chapters.
A planet reaches ‘Aphelion’ when it is farthest from the sun. Suspended at aphelion could then mean that you’re stuck is the coldest, most lonely moment of your life with little hope of things getting better? Is that how we should understand the title?
That is certainly one way that it could be interpreted absolutely…the fact is that “SAA” will mean different things for different people. What the title means to me is fairly similar in that the sun represents anything that one might pursue: a life’s goal like a career, a romance, a spiritual pursuit, sobriety, inner peace…something that is pursued with passion and vigor. However, like Icarus, despite even the most desperate attempt, all the effort and hope one can muster simply is not enough. Then one must face this failure, come to terms with it…accept that some things may be beyond our reach; this of course results in a plethora of emotions - through which the albums ultimately cycles, and the acceptance in this case, is a rather bitter one…in that, the ambition and desire never fades, regardless of impossibilities. This is certainly a very cold and lonely place as you described.
You like to use astronomical concepts in your music. Are you particularly interested in astronomy?
I certainly have spent a fair amount of time searching the stars over the years, and also have long been a fan of “cosmic music” from Floyd’s “A Saucerful Of Secrets” onto Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze as well. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I am an avid student of astronomy, but I’ve certainly read my share of materials, watched quite a few programs, and of course, I don’t live too far from the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC either. In the case of WHW however, much like our use of oceans as metaphors in the past, outer space represents both infinity as well as inner space; how small we are in the grand scheme of things.
You’ve mentioned that the album should be listened to as a whole. Was it written specifically to work as one unit with each song flowing into the other?
“SAA” is actually a single, 40 minute epic song in 11 parts not a “traditional” 11 song album, and though all of our albums have been thematic…journeys meant to be taken as a whole, this is the first time it’s actually conceptual…a single, specific storyline, and indeed, this is just how it was initially channeled. While all of our albums are more rewarding when heard complete, in this case, it’s absolutely essential.
Could you tell a bit more about the story that holds the album together on a lyrical level?
Well, as I’d mentioned before, when discussing the title and the fact it is a single, large form epic work, it is all about having a dream or ambition, pursuing it with every ounce of spirit and heart available, failing to achieve it, and dealing with the aftermath of that failure…the surrender…the acceptance. What I can say in addition to this, as with all of our albums, it’s the story of my life, another entry in this ongoing aural diary…I had a specific sun that I pursued. The emotions conveyed are absolutely sincere, and that is what WHW has always been about. Additionally, one of the dualities of this album is that it is also in many ways the story of WHW itself as well.
You can celebrate your 25 years jubilee this year. How do you look back on this time. The good and the bad times?
We’ve certainly had our struggles over the years - from personnel changes in large quantities to personal and legal troubles, record labels going bankrupt to general consumer apathy (particularly in the USA)…but we have never betrayed our roots, compromised our integrity, or released an album that wasn’t from the heart. We may never be widely embraced or understood…we have our own signature sound, and it’s not for everybody…and we’re completely content with that.
You’ve invited some remarkable guest musicians like Victor Arduini and Mark Zonder from Fates Warning? Something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time already?
Over the years, there have been a few ideas thrown around as far as inviting some guest musicians - particularly for the album we “skipped” between “Fear Of Infinity” and “SAA”, and Victor was one of those…but when all is said and done, we’ve always ended up covering all parts ourselves in the past. The reality here is that over 25 years, we’ve made a lot of friends - from contemporaries to heroes and influences like Fates Warning, and in the case of Mark, it was through my work behind-the-scenes in bringing Warlord back to the stage; he simply offered his services in a nonchalant aside, and with Trevor’s career promotion coupled with the timeline for this album, it just made sense…and of course, we were honored to work with one of our heroes.
Similarly, in the case of Victor, we’d become friends over the years, I helped his band Freedoms Reign connect with Cruz Del Sur Music, and we certainly talked endlessly about the early days of Fates Warning, as that is the era that means the most to me. I had some material that was obviously ideal for his style on said other album, but didn’t want to leave him out of “SAA” either; what he delivered was beyond anything we’d anticipated - elevating parts 9 and 10 of the album to a level we hadn’t foreseen…it’s one of the most epic guitar solos in the history of WHW, and he considers it a pinnacle in his own career. I certainly agree with that!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my childhood friend - classical guitarist Christopher Ladd - who is also world-renowned, as well as cellist Mark Shuping, who handled all the strings on “SAA”; they became involved a little further into the recording process, based upon their specific skills as musicians as well as the quality of their instruments - which were vital as far as maintaing the organic and dynamic qualities we felt were paramount to the realization of this album.
Do you feel more comfortable now with the backing of a large label like Nuclear Blast instead of having to fend everything for yourself? Or do you miss having complete control over everything?
I still feel compelled to do as much on my own or in conjunction with the rest of the band as I can; it’s hard to “let go” of “old ways” having implemented the “Do It Yourself” approach for decades. I try to be as “hands on” as possible…and we are very much involved with nearly every aspect of WHW to this day…from being directly accessible to fans all the way through to major business decisions. Nuclear Blast hasn’t ever insisted upon us doing anything in a musical sense - we do have complete artistic and creative freedom…so not much has changed really…but they certainly have a much greater reach as far as distribution and promotion as well as more experience with business matters - which we may not always see eye to eye on, and that’s fine as long as there is a logic and justification. Usually we’re all on the same page, and I’m very happy with our collaboration, particularly in Europe.
Your older records are not so easy to find. Did you consider reissuing them under your new label? Maybe a s a nice box set or so?
I’m very aware of the difficulties finding our back catalog and for a reasonable price at that; this is one of the reasons we aligned with Nuclear Blast to begin with; it’s unfair for anyone to pay exorbitant fees for any album, and I want people in even the most remote circumstances to be able to locate anything we release without difficulty. There are points in our contract that cover the back catalog indeed, and I do have the rights to everything prior to “FOI”, but currently our focus is upon new music first and foremost…though I have no intention of overlooking or forsaking everything prior in the long run. I don’t know how many people would be interested in a box set, but it’s something I’ve considered for sure. I definitely want to remix/remaster the earliest releases at bare minimum - without altering their inherent qualities as all. There’s quite a bit of unreleased material in varies stages of completion that I’d like to address eventually as well!
Is there anything you want to add that you feel we haven’t covered yet?
Well, I cannot stress enough that “SAA” should be heard as a complete album, and additionally, that it may require several passes through to peel back all of the layers contained within it…this is one of those albums that reveals more every time it’s heard. Also, people should be aware that we didn’t push the levels too hard on this one; it was meant to be dynamic and not another entry in the “loudness wars”, so it may prove necessary to turn the volume up a little to “match” 2014 levels. Other than that, we hope to see everyone over there in 2015!