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Interview

While Heaven Wept's Guitarist Tom Phillips Reveals Details On New Album "Suspended At Aphelion"

While Heaven Wept is, beyond any doubt, one of the front-runners of the American prog metal scene. Their unparalleled mingling of contrasting sonic landscapes, dynamics and sweeping melodies has seemed to reach a new pinnacle thanks to their brand new album “Suspended At Aphelion.”

Basically, this is a long 40-minute track (divided in several parts) that transports the listener from top notch progressive sounds to filtrations with Black Metal, Spanish guitar acrobatics, and dramatic dynamic changes.

We interviewed the band's leader, guitarist Tom Phillips, about the development of this impressive recording, the history of the band and the future to come.

Oscuro: Since 2009's "Vast Oceans Lachrymose," While Heaven Wept's fans have been waiting relatively short periods of time between new studio albums. Why is this happening? Is it because of your involvement with a proper record label like Nuclear Blast?

Tom Phillips: Unquestionably, this is the result of having a budget provided by Nuclear Blast as opposed to having to scrape together the entirety of our recording costs - which, given the symphonic/multi-layered nature of WHW is quite a bit more than the average Metal band. While, we still will reach into our own pockets as needed to successfully complete a record as envisioned, it’s nowhere near the balance left when we were 100% independent. Unfortunately, this also means we have to give up our rights to the recordings in some capacity, but I can live with the trade-off…especially in this day and age, where there are entire generations out there who steal music. I could no longer justify spending 25K out of pocket with little return. This isn’t our primary source of income, we simply want to insure enough of a return to record the next album… it’s not and has never been profit driven.

All that said, there are other reasons for the lengthy gaps between albums in the past as well; there have been line-up changes and labels that went bankrupt, as well as time set aside to accumulate the instruments we felt we needed - in some cases going so far as to design them ourselves and have them built custom.

Oscuro: To what the "Suspended At Aphelion" title refers to?

Tom Phiilips: “Suspended At Aphelion” literally means being trapped at the furthest point from the sun. This, like all WHW output from past is very much metaphoric; the sun represents anything that someone dreams of or aspires to…something desired passionately that is pursued heroically - but still ultimately beyond reach, and despite finally admitting that to oneself, despite the futility, the yearning bitterly remains. It’s going to have a different meaning for each listener, but should resonate with everyone as it is human nature.

Oscuro: Judging by the seamless flow of the album, its many textures, and the clearly identifiable intro ("Introspectus") and outro ("Restropectus") the overall impression is that this is a sort of quasi-conceptual album. Is this the case?

Tom Phillips: It’s not even “quasi”; it absolutely is a conceptual work, given that it’s in fact a single 40 minute song, with a very clear “plot” and reoccurring musical themes/progressions. All of the previous albums were thematic in nature, and likewise journeys meant to be taken as a whole, but this one actually requires this; it will not make any semblance of sense otherwise. There are no “singles” on the record; it’s “all or nothing”. I know it’s perhaps a lot to ask of people in the “iTunes age”, but I believe that those who persevere will find some reward in this.

Oscuro: While Heaven Wept's music is usually labeled as 'epic', 'ethereal', 'progressive', 'uplifting' etc... "Suspended At Aphelion" can surely be described using these adjectives. However, such attributes seem to be amplified to further extremes on this new recording. The quality of the performances, the arrangements, production values, and songwriting are also top. Is this, in your opinion, the band's definitive magnum opus?

Tom Phillips: Until recently, I would not even hesitate in saying that “SAA” was the pinnacle of a 25 year journey - however, I know now that there is much more to come…new music has been flowing again since the completion of the recording, and it’s as exciting and magical as “SAA” was when it came to me, from wherever it does. What I can say is that it is the culmination of the past 25 years in one song, and everything that WHW has ever represented or strived for up to this point in time.

Oscuro: How, in your opinion, the work of producer/engineer Kevin "131" Gutierrez, impacted the sonic quality of "Suspended..."

Tom Phillips: Kevin has a methodology that works for him in most situations, that’s developed over the past decade since we recorded “Of Empires Forlorn” with him… However, most of that went straight out the window with “SAA;” we had a very clear intention and approach that challenged him in a variety of ways… Actually, it was a point of contention at first, until the music was digested and we were quickly on the same page once the rubber hit the road.

You see, since the album originally was born as a MIDI creation (after I transcribed the guitar parts into Guitar Pro, and subsequently developed the arrangements for the other instruments), it was flawless, inhumanly perfect, and we were very cognizant of this. So, it was vital that once we started actual tracking, even using the MIDI as a guideline, that everything was completely humanized… organic, imperfect and dynamic.

What Kevin brought to the table beyond technical prowess was an efficiency that is unparalleled; despite the magnitude of this endeavor and the intricacy involved, we ended up tracking everything in the shortest amount of time that we’ve ever managed. Some of this can be attributed to us being more prepared than ever before, but the reality is a lot of the parts evolved during the actual recording process. Anyway, Kevin and I ultimately had this synergy where we were on the same page from start to finish, often not even needing to exchange words at all…we just “knew” if a take was right or if some other move had to be made.

I truly believe that because the sessions ran so smoothly on account of Kevin’s demeanor and skills…both with the machines and with the personnel involved, it was a totally pressure-free, creatively abundant experience…which in turn translates to a successful realization that even the listener can “feel.”

Oscuro: Stylistically-wise, "Aphelion" proposes a plethora of contrasting landscapes. The listener can find pseudo-Melodic Black Metal moments, the use of Spanish guitar, dramatic changes of textures and atmospheres, etc... All these are mixed with the band’s progressive edge and grandiloquence. Would you say this is your most cosmopolitan album to date?

Tom Phillips: It certainly has the widest scope musically compared to anything else we’ve ever done, being that it incorporates every influence of ours, along with all of our individual pedigrees. The musicians involved have extensive resumes running the gamut from jazz to serious classical music to death and black metal - and everything in between, so the result that is “SAA” is completely natural to us, even if it is unexpected for the listener.

I know there’s a lot of people out there who wish we would record the same album over and over again, but that’s simply never going to happen; we don’t see any point in retreading territory that we have already successfully navigated, especially when there are plenty of other bands out there today that do that better than we ever could…and that doesn’t even get into the issue of sincerity - which in and of itself is vital to WHW. Another aspect of this evolution is quite literal: everything we’ve released prior to “SAA” consisted largely of archival material…in some cases songs that were more than a decade old…obviously we have grown as musicians and that is surely reflected in the album too. The irony here, despite the fact that chances are extremely slim that we’ll hear any other release in 2014 that sounds anything like “SAA.” I personally feel like there’s so much further that we can go…and that is exactly what we’re going to do; there’s no regression in the future of WHW.

Oscuro: As the main composer of the band, how did you approached the writing process for this new album? Were there any pre-established parameters you adopted before and during composing the new material?

Tom Phillips: The thing is, “SAA” essentially wrote itself; I’d love to take credit for it or say there was some ingenious plan all along, but quite frankly, it just “happened.” I have no idea how or where this music came from; and the music just kept coming. When all is said and done, what you hear on the album is basically identical to how it revealed itself to me.

There was a bit of collaboration with the band in terms of finalizing the arrangements, but for the most part, again the music just guided us from start to finish. Even in the case of Part 6, Jason brought that to the table complete, though we altered a detail or two during the recording process. Jim, Rain, and Michelle, along with Mark and Victor all absolutely had significant impacts upon the final results, having given me some additional melodies or rhythmic fodder…in fact, everyone involved put in their two cents by the time the album was done…even Kevin.

Oscuro: WHW's sense of melody is a distinctive cross between classical and progressive music. Can you explain the origin of that particular gift you seem to have for developing such beautiful and emotive melodies?

Tom Phillips: First and foremost, everything we do has to come from the heart and soul, via revelation often spurred by emotional catalysts in real life…and when I say often, I really should say “always.” Beyond this, it’s really again the cosmic way the music guides everything. Usually when we try to do anything that involves force or over-thinking, it leads to a dead end. Nothing we’ve ever released has been a product of conscious intention…only pure, sincere expression of real emotions.

Oscuro: Once again, Gustavo Sazes designed the cover art. Can you tell us about the cover concept and how it relates to the overall album?

Tom Phillips: Basically, I explained the meaning behind the title of the album to Gustavo and let him “go off” with very little input from my end; I didn’t want to impede his creative flow whatsoever, and he was brimming with ideas based upon the rather sparse information I presented him with. In the end, we concurred that the point furthest from the sun would be very cold, so there’s an aspect of frigidity to the cover…and the brightest stars appear to be quite distant as well…I think that is what drew both of us to this particular nebula - which incidentally we both agreed upon without dialogue…more synergy. Anyway, the map layered into the cover this time is of ancient origin, but Gustavo took it a step further conceptually by removing the compass points…there’s no indication of North from South, thus even if you possess the map, you’re still lost. The cover is a literal interpretation of the title more so than the visual metaphor that was “Fear Of Infinity.”

Oscuro: Are there any clear tours plans at this point to in support of "Suspended...?" What's the next step for the band?

Tom Phillips: We’ve got a few things booked for 2015 that haven’t been announced yet, however I can lay out our general ambitions as far as touring over the next couple years is concerned: we intend to make at least a couple trips over to Europe this time - and insuring we reach several countries that we’re long overdue a visit. We also will be arranging a tour of the USA that will more or less ring the outer perimeter of the country, with a couple forays in between, and this will again mark several firsts for us that are extremely overdue. I do know that the EU is our first priority, if for naught else the fact that our label is based in Germany…but also, our entire discography was EU only until “Fear Of Infinity.” We’ll keep everyone posted via our website and social media outlets for sure, but I imagine this will take us well into 2016.

Apart from this, we’re absolutely going to record the album we “skipped” next, and it’s guaranteed to have heads spinning again, being that it’s VERY Metal, and very much the antithesis to “SAA.”

Oscuro: While Heaven Wept has been a band that has faced many struggles and challenges over its two-decade long career. However, it seems that you're now living the period of relative stability and that has allowed you to become even more productive, creative and consistent. Are the 'difficult' days behind you—a thing of the past?

Tom Phillips: There’s always going to be challenges. First of all, being in a band period isn’t easy - let alone maintaining one for 25 years; everyone involved is at a different place in their civilian lives, has different eccentricities and goals…not to mention in our case, we’re spread out over 5 States geographically. Just in terms of organization and diplomacy, it’s a struggle sometimes.

Beyond this, there are expectations from our business partners and audience that do add some degree of pressure. However, we try to keep all those wolves at bay so to speak. Anything external that seeks to influence must be distanced via very clear walls, so as to insure we do “keep it true” and never compromise our integrity.

The bottom line is, I know now that I have to continue with WHW to remain sane and lead a relatively “normal” existence, and I know that I will heed the music at any cost, for it is I and I am it. Fortunately, it’s true that things have been rather stable for some time, but I don’t take that for granted…after all the past line-up changes, label catastrophes, fortunes that have come and gone, I know nothing remains the same indefinitely…but I do know that as long as I’m breathing, WHW will continue.

Oscuro's avatar

Ramon Martos Garcia proudly writes for Metal Underground.com, PureGrainAudio.com and other metal/rock related websites. He's the owner of an indie record label and runs a site about Metal album covers, And Justice for Art.

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