While Heaven Wept: Forever Grieving
19-Sep-2011 Words: Mark Grimshaw
Latest release: Fear of Infinity (Nuclear Blast/Riot!)
While Heaven Wept have to be one of metal underground's biggest musical gems, although they have only just now made the jump to the mainstream thanks to Nuclear Blast. With their newest opus Fear of Infinity only recently out, we decided to question bandleader, Tom Phillips.
Of Empires Forlorn - While Heaven Wept’s second full-length album – was one of the most monumental records of 2003. It was an album full of beautiful sorrow and melancholy and has since become a favourite of many doom metal fans. However, another two full-lengths on and While Heaven Wept have all but disregarded their original roots, instead introducing a more progressive influence. Aside from this new adaptation, the band have also changed labels for their latest release. With all these new changes, not to mention a more stable line up, we wondered if front man Phillips is finally satisfied after over twenty years of slogging it out in the business.
“Certainly one of the primary motivations for aligning with Nuclear Blast was in fact to secure extensive distribution and promotion, so as to alleviate the difficulties many people have faced in procuring our releases,” Phillips explains. “Over the years, the releases on smaller entities more often than not resulted in having to turn to online auction sites and extortionate prices, particularly in more remote locations, but also even the United States. The new deal should sort these issues out in a profound way, and in that regard we are very satisfied with Nuclear Blast indeed.”
Signing to Nuclear Blast will no doubt help the band and their cause with both promotion and distribution, as we have already witnessed. But having chopped and changed record labels with almost every new release, there can still be no doubting that the process must have been extremely frustrating for Phillips over the years. So does this talented vocalist and guitarist then perhaps feel that all of these problems may have helped hinder the band's success?
“Without a doubt; labels going bankrupt, and a revolving door of band members, (definitely) slowed things down over the years”, he says. “But the fact that we were an entirely DIY entity until Fear of Infinity, with a very strong emphasis on maintaining integrity, as well as unwilling to compromise neither our ideals, nor our actual needs, surely had a greater impact; when you’re a band of people living from pay cheque to pay cheque, barely making ends meet in our personal circumstances, to afford elaborate productions ultimately meant spending years at a time on albums.
"Further, we’ve turned down more recording contract offers in the last twenty one years than many bands will ever receive in their entire careers,” he continues. “A recent review of the latest album intimated that our circumstances were ‘admittedly self-imposed’, and there is some truth to that really. We ascribed early on to the punk - and also King Crimson - approach to the industry, and in the end – even having signed to Nuclear Blast – we have never compromised musically. And we couldn’t, as the music of While Heaven Wept has always come from the heart, from real life, and we don’t know any other way. I wouldn’t allow the band to continue if there was ever a moment where the heart, soul, and inspiration wasn’t there.”
Though the band still consider their career successful, it could be said they have definitely deserved much more, and sooner, than their position has warranted. Of Empires Forlorn alone – an album seriously under-rated and overlooked - should have launched the band onto a bigger stage. We ponder if Phillips has at least been frustrated at the band not receiving the proper recognition that they so justly deserved, earlier.
“Honestly, I’m not really bothered about garnering recognition, or mainstream success,” the guitarist affirms. “If an album accurately conveys the emotions and sounds like what I have heard in my head, then it is a success. This is the only definition of ‘success’ for me. What I mean is, I have to live with the results first and foremost, and if an album expresses what it was intended to, then we’ve done right. Period. In the end, Of Empires Forlorn did result in a global phenomenon for While Heaven Wept, albeit on a much smaller scale than say the ascendancy of an Opeth or a Sabaton. But coming from the sub-underground, doing it all on our own, to cross over into mainstream publications and receive glorified accolades, was mind blowing and humbling.
"Every time we release a new album, there is a fear that it’s ‘gone too far’ or that it’s ‘too different’ and Of Empires Forlorn was no exception. There are still many people out there that consider Empires… our finest moment, and I appreciate that perspective as much as those who instead consider Vast Oceans Lachrymose or Fear of Infinity to be; in the end all of these albums will be represented equally in our concert set lists, as every one is a microcosm of a different era and a different ratio of the same elements.”
As suggested above, Of Empires Forlorn may have been considered a ‘doom masterpiece’, but as the years have gone by, the band seem to have drifted away from their original roots, now leaning towards a more progressive slant. Was this an intentional or conscious decision made by the band or just a natural progression?
“The irony with Vast Oceans Lachrymose and Fear of Infinity both is that a good amount of the material on those albums pre-dates Of Empires Forlorn, so it’s actually both a regression and natural progression simultaneously. While we’re constantly channelling new music on a regular basis, after twenty-one years and only a handful of proper releases, there is an extensive backlog of material waiting in the archives – or there was, until the completion of Fear of Infinity anyway. We’re almost caught up to 2009-2010, barring a couple of ancient compositions that have yet to surface. The way these albums come together is very organic, and the music itself dictates the paths we take; each album is a journey unto itself, meant to be undertaken as a whole, thus there is a very specific ‘flow’ that the music communicates to us. This often results in dusting off songs that we adored all along, that didn’t fit within the atmosphere, or flow of previous releases, such as was the case with ‘Vessel', 'To Wander The Void, 'To Grieve Forever' and 'Unplenitude' (sic). These were no ‘throwaway’ or ‘filler’ songs - they just didn’t flow with the other material focused upon during the Lovesongs of the Forsaken, Sorrow of the Angels or Of Empires… eras. When all is said and done, while we retain the same influences since the beginning of the band, we’ll never do the same album twice.”
Given While Heaven Wept’s history, we have no misgivings that what Tom tells us will certainly be truth.