While Heaven Wept: Suspended At Aphelion
Twenty years ago, when I was in college, I was in the thick of my hippie phase, playing in bands and singing in the choir and doing all those things that college kids do. One of my buddies in the choir was this guy called Tom Phillips and we would often kill time before and after (and sometimes during) class hanging out in his car and listening to music. Sharing a love of prog-rock, Tom would school me on some of the more adventurous metal bands such as Fates Warning, Candlemass, and Saint Vitus, while at the same time we’d rage to classics like Black Sabbath and King Crimson. Those car sessions were some of the most fun I had in college. We talked a lot about his own project as well, a doom metal outfit called While Heaven Wept, and he gave me a copy of their first demo. I was immediately struck by the epic nature of their music – it was symphonic, it was complex, it was cinematic, clever, and also very dark. That tape has remained one of my most prized pieces of my vast music collection.
After the semester ended I fell out of touch with Tom and since I wasn’t really following any metal at the time, I also fell out of orbit with While Heaven Wept. Every so often I would pull out that old purple cassette and wonder what became of them. Thanks to Facebook, over the last year or two I got back in touch with Tom and found out, happily, that not only is While Heaven Wept still active, they are stronger than ever, having released four acclaimed studio albums, all while still being based in Woodbridge, VA.
Which brings us to this point – the release of the fifth While Heaven Wept album, Suspended At Aphelion, and it is hands down their finest hour. A full-blown concept album, it is essentially a single extended suite of music that is both dark and uplifting, light and heavy, metal and prog. Aphelion is that point in a planet’s orbit when it is at its furthest from the sun and that is the running theme of this album – cold, isolation, all that stuff that makes for the best doom and gloom. But orbits always eventually swing back so there is hope within these dense layers and that is one of the things that makes this album so successful.
Another thing that makes it, of course, is the music. And the music on this disc is nothing short of majestic. Starting with dramatic strings and classical guitar (“Introspectus”), this album quickly pulls you in to a sparse, peaceful place before the 12-minute “Icarus And I / Ardor” combo , one of the strongest parts of the album, blows it all wide open with a feel that is somewhat reminiscent of the ending to Rush’s 1977 opus, “Cygnus X-1”, with some sick keyboard lines that recall Pete Bardens’ work with Camel. The vocals shift between forsaken and panicked, as the mood allows, Rain Irving further proving to be a fitting addition to this band. “Heartburst” recapitulates earlier themes on piano with a stark, desperate lyric that soon gives way to a massive, full-on Pink Floyd jam. This track is probably the closest WHW comes to being “accessible” on this disc – a power ballad for the forlorn, if you will. “Indifference Turned Paralysis” starts off with some spacey analog synths which reminds me a little of Doctor Who incidental music from the 80s but then explodes into the kind of math-metal that would make John Petrucci jealous, featuring some very clever time changes and outstanding drumming from Mark Zonder. “The Memory Of Bleeding / Souls In Permafrost / Searching The Stars” blends strings, piano, and precision vocal harmonies in a way that makes the listener yearn to hear this album performed with an orchestra and choir. Wagnerian in scope, this is yet another highlight of this intense outing. Inching closer to the finish line, “Reminiscence Of Strangers / Lifelines Lost” features some of Tom Phillips’ most inspired guitar playing, in an extended solo that is equal parts Tom Scholz, David Gilmour, Dave Murray, and Brian May. A most dramatic way to end a most dramatic album. A short instrumental string-quartet coda, “Retrospectus”, closes out the production and if you close your eyes you can see the credits roll.
The thing that I always liked about that old While Heaven Wept tape was how much prog ends up in their music. While that can be a trait in some areas of metal, it is not always the case in doom metal, which often ends up sounding more like goth bands like Bauhaus, but with attitude. Some of the bands originally within that sub-genre, like Anathema, have managed to transcend the genre to become something altogether greater. Other bands, such as My Dying Bride, have remained firmly rooted in their sound. While Heaven Wept, however, has managed to straddle the two camps brilliantly. This is dark music, and at times it is heavier than all get out, but there is also a great deal of light that balances the dark and it is that balance that makes this music so compelling. It is not metal for the sake of being metal, and it’s not prog for the sake of that either. Most importantly, there is a keen attention to detail in this music but it does not feel over-thought. A lot of that comes down to the production. It could have been easy for Phillips to just crank it up to 11 and go balls-to-the-wall with this album, but he reeled it in and gave it a purpose that goes beyond the sum of the individual movements.
It’s pretty well known that I am a total sucker for a concept album so I might be a bit biased when I say that this album is a masterpiece. But, trust me, it is.
Written by: Chris Anderson