“Sorrow Of The Angels” was a very important album for While Heaven Wept. It is far from perfect but it definitely paved the way for the later development of the band and its unique sound. Additionally, with “Thus With A Kiss I Die” it contains the first great epic composition by Tom Phillips. The band worked for six long years on "Thus With A Kiss I Die", so does this automatically make it the focal point of the album? Tom reckons so: “Just by the sheer length of it alone ‘Thus With A Kiss I Die’ became the focal point, and it was indeed a journey in and of itself. To this day, it is considered one of our most important songs, and for me, it will always be as such. It’s the only song that we have performed live at every single While Heaven Wept concert, and during the ‘Sorrow Of The Angels’ era, it was boldly the first song of the set! The majority of the song was written in 1990/1991 being that I fused together two early songs ‘Bound By Depression’ and ‘Dying’ … and I believe I also had the ending segment at that time … most of the parts that were revealed in later years were merely the bridge between, and those were completed during my stay with Solstice.”
Technically, there are only four songs on “Sorrow Of The Angels”, namely "Thus With A Kiss I Die", "Into The Wells Of Sorrow" and "The Death Of Love" plus the instrumental "September". Nevertheless, the playing time is quite hefty, so it is an unusual kind of album. Tom Phillips does not really think so: “’Sorrow Of The Angels’ absolutely is an album, not an EP; despite the advent of the CD with its capacity for longer playing times, to this day, we still arrange our releases with the LP format in mind. I’m of the opinion - especially as a music teacher - that the average attention span is no more than 45 minutes, as far as intense listening is concerned, and especially when the music in question is emotionally demanding. Additionally, I cannot count the number of times bands have felt obligated to use filler just to accommodate the available playback length, and this notion for me is completely unacceptable; only the music with real heart and reason should be a part of any album. Lastly, we obviously could’ve maybe the album longer … we certainly had plenty of songs in the archives (consider the ‘Empires’, ‘VOL’, and even the forthcoming ‘Fear Of Infinity’ are largely comprised of songs composed before ‘Sorrow Of The Angels’!), but this is where the vision comes in … the music tells us what needs to happen, and when people take umbrage at our album lengths or if there are any doubts, I always defer to ‘Reign In Blood’, ‘Hemispheres’, and ‘Permanent Waves’, which are all perfect, and in fact shorter in length than any of ours.”
"Sorrow Of The Angels” was recorded by three different line-ups in three different locations. So is it a coherent album at all? Tom does not have any doubts: “It is indeed coherent because all of the performances were taken from a single session, with the Paquin, Ingerson, Phillips line-up. The material was arranged in a specific order, and the rainy atmosphere unites everything into one complete entity. There were a couple other songs we recorded during that time but did not release publically that would have made the album a bit more diverse (although they are similar in mood to what was in fact released), but the ‘Sorrow Of The Angels’ one-dimensional grief absolutely represented the true monotony of depression.” This ties in neatly with my next question. Tom Phillips once described "Sorrow Of The Angels" more of an "emotional necessity than anything else". Listening to the songs today, does he still like the album from a (purely) musical standpoint? Here is his answer: “’Sorrow Of The Angels’, just like all of our albums, was first and foremost an emotional necessity indeed; despite the fact that the material contained within was all composed many years before, and referred entirely to the demise of a specific relationship, I was going through something similar … and in some ways worse … during the time of the recording. Musically, I still love the ‘Sorrow Of The Angels’ album; ‘Thus With A Kiss I Die’ is what I personally consider a milestone … a masterwork of mind. It took many years for the song to complete itself and required many twists and turns to reach the finale. ‘Into The Wells Of Sorrow’ obviously was one of the first songs we ever released, but the version on the ‘Sorrow’ album is the way it was always meant to be; I’ll always be extremely proud of the midsection as it was the first time we really experimented with counterpoint, and it still holds up for me today despite the fact it was all based upon intuition back in 1991 when it was written (as opposed to genuine knowledge of counterpoint/polyphony). The only song that wasn’t entirely successful in my opinion was ‘The Death Of Love’; at the core I love the original acoustic version ‘La Mort D’Amour’ that appeared on ‘Lovesongs Of The Forsaken’ … it’s not the song itself that I have a problem with, rather the arrangement on the ‘Sorrow Of The Angels’ album; a few years later we realized more of a hybrid of the two was the perfect marriage.”
As already mentioned, "Sorrow Of The Angels” was not an easy album to make at all. It took several attempts for While Heaven Wept to get it right. “There were three attempts in total”, counts Tom Phillips. “The first sessions resulted in ‘Lovesongs Of The Forsaken’ and the various compilation tracks/singles from the early 90’s, performed by the Paquin, Funston, Phillips line-up. The second attempt a year or so after the release of the first EP involved Kevin Hufnagel on guitar (Dysrhythmia, Gorguts) and Danny Ingerson (ex-Dysrhythmia) on bass/keys/viola, as well as Paquin and I. This attempt was aborted midway through the sessions because I felt the atmosphere in the studio wasn’t right, which probably psychotic, however at the time I felt it would be best to start over from scratch. The third attempt to record ‘Sorrow Of The Angels’ resulted in the album that we ultimately released, and this was done as a 3-piece (Paquin, Ingerson, and myself). The ironic thing is I’m still not happy with the album, so at some point, the fourth attempt, with the current line-up should solve that issue. It’s really not the music itself that I have a problem with, rather our performances and the production. It will be remedied sooner than later.”
So did Tom learn anything from all the problems he had with "Sorrow Of The Angels"? Problems is the wrong word, he finds: “I don’t think we ever viewed all of the ‘false starts’ as problems necessarily; we really just knew what we were trying to convey all along. I mean the vision for ‘Sorrow Of The Angels’ was very clear from the beginning, and we certainly came damn close to achieving this on the third attempt that everyone knows. The one thing I definitely learned was that it is never worth rushing anything to completion for any reason, and I’m again speaking of ‘The Death Of Love’ primarily. We were running out of money, and felt a lot of pressure to get the album finished. Ever since then, we’ve taken all the time we require to insure each release is exactly what we envisioned at any cost. This has resulted in my reputation for being a perfectionist and possibly being completely mad, but the bottom line is, when you have a real vision, passion, and emotional need, saying exactly what you need to say is paramount.”
Would While Heaven Wept have continued at all if Tom Phillips hadn't put out "Sorrow Of The Angels" (with all its faults)? This question goes back to it being “an emotional necessity”. It takes some time till he comes up with an answer: “I would say so; the fact is my ‘mission’ wouldn’t be complete until ‘Sorrow Of The Angels’ was realized exactly as I had envisioned it and heard it in my head. Perhaps there were some cosmic forces involved with this aspect too, as I was so emotionally unstable, suicidal that had I completed my ‘epitaph’ properly, who knows if I would still be here … and I’m thankful that there were these flaws. I would’ve missed out on so much if I followed through with my initial plan. Those flaws were the driving force to continue so as to finally ‘get it right’. After the album came out, I ended up joining Arise From Thorns, who evolved into Brave and that became my focus for a couple years; when that scenario went bad and other aspects of my life had deteriorated, the need for While Heaven Wept again was immense … this directly lead to the need for ‘Of Empires Forlorn’.
At some point along the way, I decided that I wouldn’t be satisfied until we have successfully recorded all of the material in existence … and we’re very close to ‘clearing out the archives’, but now there’s a couple more albums worth of new material! Also, the events of early 2009 reinforced the reality that I absolutely do NEED to do While Heaven Wept to maintain some semblance of normalcy (and sanity).”
At the time those four tracks from "Sorrow Of The Angels" were written, what was the stuff Tom was listening to most heavily? "Into The Wells Of Sorrow" reminds me quite a bit of Candlemass’ "Samarithan" ... Tom Phillips explains: “I know this is probably hard to believe, but given that is was the early 90’s, and I’d grown up fully immersed in the Thrash era, I was mostly listening to Nihilist/Entombed, Morbid Angel, Autopsy, Obituary, Sepultura, etc. Of course it was Candlemass’ ‘At The Gallows End’ that directly lead to the formation of While Heaven Wept, along with Fates Warning, Coroner, Trouble, and Slayer, but I was always at the forefront of what was the most extreme Metal at the time as a fan. That being said, we listened to a wide array of music even then: from Kitaro to Stravinsky to Return To Forever and Allan Holdsworth! I guess we were pretty sophisticated for a bunch of young Metalheads!”
"The Death Of Love" sounds a bit more Gothic, even (Dark) Wave in places, especially in the vocal department. Has While Heaven Wept been in any way influenced by bands like The Cure, Fields Of The Nephilim or The Smiths? Or Christian Death? “Sure … we listened to all of those bands too, especially once Jon Paquin joined the band”, confirms Tom Phillips. “He and I had a deep appreciation for all the bands on 4AD, Hyperium, Projeckt … particularly of the more atmospheric variety, such as Love Is Colder Than Death, Dead Can Dance, Stoa, Anchorage … but we definitely listened to a lot of Christian Death and Fields too. All this was sandwiched between Grave, Repulsion, and Rush! There absolutely is a Dark Wave influence in the music of While Heaven Wept, but I think it’s one of the more minor aspects (along with AOR) that occasionally surfaces unexpectedly.”
The material of "Sorrow Of The Angels" was composed when Tom Phillips was between 15 and 18 years old. That's astonishing. Very mature music for a teenager to compose. Has Tom been this "mature" as a person, as a human being as well (at 15 to 18 years of age)? This is what he has to say: “While I come from a middle-class scenario with some security and basic creature comforts, the emotional climate within my family was very complicated and I had to grow up far too soon. My innocence was long gone by the time While Heaven Wept began, and I basically mentored myself, rejecting anything that my parents tried to force upon me, from religious beliefs to their ways of thinking. It’s a very long, complicated, and depressing story really, and although it’s long past, we’ll never be the ‘American Dream’ family by any means. Intellectually, I was always very mature, however I wasn’t prepared emotionally to deal with some of the things that I have, and that is exactly where the naivety of the early material lies; the songs are very much all heart and overflowing with genuine emotions, but I tend to be a bit more pragmatic these days, as well as far less obvious lyrically. I suppose when all is said and done, the early material is fairly mature also because we shelved a lot of songs for many years, and allowed the identity of the band to continually develop before we made out first attempt to record anything.”
What was the weakest point of "Sorrow Of The Angels" and what made the album so special (in the evolution of While Heaven Wept)? Tom Phillips expresses a balanced view: “Well, as I’ve intimated, I’m not entirely satisfied with the results of ‘The Death Of Love’ as that song was the one that was rushed to completion; a couple extra days and we’d have changed the arrangement slightly for what I believe would be a better result. Also, the production was limited by the technology that was available at that particular studio, and we implemented what now would be considered ‘archaic techniques’ – though, there’s nothing like having three sets of hands riding faders on a mixing board. I still miss the organic nature of that. What I like best about ‘Sorrow Of The Angels’ is the totally raw emotion of it … it’s as real as it gets. Also, this album marked the first time we improvised live in the studio, and that started a whole other path within the framework of While Heaven Wept (I’m referring to the latter part of the bridge section of ‘Thus With A Kiss I Die’). I’ll always love the playing of Jon and Danny on those songs too … there are some really powerful climactic points and very appropriate playing throughout. In the end, ‘Thus With A Kiss I Die’ will always be the first great epic of While Heaven Wept, and we’ll surely play it until we call it a day. Which won’t be anytime soon!”
How satisfied is Tom in retrospect with his vocal delivery on "Sorrow Of The Angels"? Not that satisfied, it seems: “I’ve always hated my vocals … always … so ‘Sorrow Of The Angels’ is no exception to this. However, one of the real successes of the album is the very obvious emotion in the vocal delivery; while I might not be a fan of my timbre and while the performance might not be technically perfect, that is 100% absolutely raw emotion on display … when it sounds like I’m about to burst into tears, the fact is I was. In the end, that is the one thing I WOULDN’T change about the album, as I don’t know if such a visceral performance could ever be replicated … and fortunately we don’t have to find out, since we have the original ADATs for any future remixes and obviously Rain will be singing on any new versions.”
The material does feature a lot of acoustic guitar interludes. As the songs evolved, were those acoustic interludes within the songs always there or did they develop eventually? “The acoustic passages throughout the songs of ‘Sorrow Of The Angels’ were always there”, reveals Tom Phillips, “and in fact besides ‘Thus With A Kiss I Die’ all of the other songs were written on an acoustic guitar. This is exactly why there is a strong neo-classical feel to the midsection of ‘Into The Wells Of Sorrow’ for one example. I actually think that ‘The Death Of Love’ really needs more acoustics to be accurately realized, and we’ll sort that the fourth time around, ha ha.”
Do people sometimes get confused about the While Heaven Wept discography as so many different releases have come out on different labels? And some of the songs are to be found on more than one record (albeit often in an alternative version). Not always very easy to keep track of ... that’s why I think. Tom Phillips: “We make every attempt to maintain accurate discographies on all of our websites, but I could see how it could be confusing to someone that has newly discovered While Heaven Wept; the bottom line here is there are four full-length albums (including ‘Triumph:Tragedy:Transcendence’), another new studio album on the way (‘Fear Of Infinity’), the debut ‘Lovesongs Of The Forsaken’ EP, and a compilation of misc. tracks from over the years. What must be understood is that everything released prior to ‘Empires Of The Forlorn’ was extremely limited in quantity, and even that album disappeared prematurely with the demise of Rage Of Achilles Records. Once we reached our 20th Anniversary this past year, it was decided that we should commemorate that by giving newer fans one last chance to procure past releases in their original forms (in terms of audio content). That was really the whole point of the ‘20th Anniversary Series’ on High Roller Records too.”
And luckily, this is far from the end of While Heaven Wept ... You will find out soon!