Issued on vinyl via High Roller Records in 2009, “Vast Oceans Lachrymose” is not only While Heaven Wept’s musically most diverse album to date, it’s also their best! The work starts with the 17 minutes+ opener "The Furthest Shore", a song with an almost Speed Metal beginning, followed by an (Pink Floydish) acoustic interlude. A really wild and diverse number ... The vocals by new singer Rain Irving do sound a bit like (late) Metallica in certain parts of this song. And this is just the beginning! Tom Phillips takes over describing While Heaven Wept’s absolute masterpiece: “’Vast Oceans Lachrymose’ is absolutely the greatest While Heaven Wept journey so far, in that no two songs are alike, but they all work together to form a cohesive whole, and in terms of our ambition to achieve a ‘continuous flow’. I believe we were very successful with regards to this album. Vocally, Rain recalls a wide array of singers really, although the Metallica reference is, if anything, a minor detail related to the similar way Hetfield and Rain end certain words. I hear everything from John Arch and Klaus Meine to Dennis DeYoung and even myself in Rain’s voice, and that is what makes him ‘world class’ in my opinion. The ironic thing being I really forced him to ‘push the envelope’ and go beyond his comfort zone in several instances; Rain’s trademark delivery is much more in the Buddy Lackey/Devon Graves vein of things … sweeping and melodic … but ‘Vast Oceans Lachymose’ is a very ‘wordy’ album, and that required more than a few ‘machine gun deliveries’.”
While Heaven Wept’s other great epic number is called "Thus With A Kiss I Die". Tom Phillips compares the two: “Essentially, ‘The Furthest Shore’ is as if ‘Thus With A Kiss I Die’ were turned inside out in a musically sense; ‘Thus’ was very funereal and Doom oriented on the bookends, while the midsection was a maze of time signature changes and color variations. ‘The Furthest Shore’ is the exact opposite, with only one brief Doom Metal passage in the middle. I long for the opportunity to perform a few concerts with only the epics … which would include the two aforementioned songs alongside ‘Finality’ from the forthcoming ‘Fear Of Infinity’ album.”
As by now most people know, a certain Rain Irving joined While Heaven Wept as the new lead singer in 2008. How did this change the band’s style, songwriting and overall sound? I got the impression that Rain won over While Heaven Wept’s fanbase pretty immediately, did he not? Tom Phillips makes one thing clear: “The addition of Rain really had zero impact upon the songwriting as all of the music was written years before, and in fact recorded primarily in 2005. The signature sound of While Heaven Wept was also long established years before as well, but what Rain did bring to the table was a much more controlled vocal style and what I consider to be a golden timbre. Being that he, like the rest of the band are all established songwriters in their own right, we haven’t even begun to tap into the possibilities as far as writing music together. We won’t even know what the results of a true collaborative effort between all of us will be until after ‘Fear Of Infinity’ in fact, since it will be comprised of the other songs originally intended to appear on ‘Vast Oceans Lachrymose’ that were set aside to make room for ‘The Furthest Shore’. But, as far as Rain winning people over, there was a time when all I heard was ‘there cannot be a While Heaven Wept without you singing’, and once I played the most skeptical the results with Rain, they were all like: ‘Oh. Yeah, he’s amazing’. If anything, the addition of Rain has expanded our audience greatly, and it makes sense … his voice is very pleasing to hear and professional. I might be more emotionally expressive, but too much drama is probably never a good thing. In the end, it was the right decision to bring Rain in, and it’s freed me up to focus on my primary instrument. And subsequently, I can listen to ‘Vast Oceans Lachrymose’ as much as a fan as a participant!”
Before joining While Heaven Wept, Rain was singing for progressive Metal outfit Altura. Did Tom ever see him live with Altura at all? Or did he just listen to him? Did Altura release any official studio CD's? Here’s the answer: “I never saw Altura live, but was aware of their existence and because of the fact I ran a large Metal section at a Tower Records here, I received their one and only album ‘Mercy’ as a promo back in 1996. When Rain first contacted us as a fan via MySpace, I didn’t even realize who he was at first until I investigated his own pages further, and then it all ‘clicked’ for me … that’s when I revisited the music of Altura then explored his own Every Waking Hour project. Once I saw that he was also living in Virginia, the cogs started turning in my mind. I’d wanted a dedicated frontman for years, and this seemed like an extremely viable possibility. At first he was reluctant to step into my shoes, but I knew what I heard in his voice was perfect for us. Regarding ‘Mercy’, it was released via Magna Carta/Shrapnel in the US and Roadrunner I believe overseas, it sold far more copies than anything any of the rest of us have ever done, and is considered a Prog Metal classic in the vein of Dream Theater, etc.”
Tom Phillip’s once mentioned that "the whole band was only ever in the same room to rehearse a total of four times since 2004". Not a healthy situation, I would say. Initially, they tried to "rehearse" the material for the album by sending each other mp3's through the Internet. This does not seem to have worked. I am glad it didn't as I think music today suffers from relying too much on technology (think Pro-Tools). What's Tom’s opinion? That’s what he thinks: “Actually, we only ever had those four rehearsals as a full band prior to Rain joining us, and since then only an additional four! The way ‘Vast Oceans Lachrymose’ was developed absolutely involved sending files through the Internet so that everyone could learn their parts, and then I visited each member one-on-one to go over the minute details. I know this sounds absolutely insane, but the reality is that we live in five different states, which would be the equivalent of five different countries in the EU … the members the furthest apart have literally ten hours drive time between them. When we began recording the album, most of us were present in the studio together, and we did have to finalize some of the arrangements ‘on the fly’, but that’s about the extent of it. Regular rehearsals simply are not possible for us, which is regrettable but this also speaks volumes of the level of musicianship I’ve surrounded myself with. As for Pro-Tools and so forth, while I recognize the value and convenience of it … technology makes it possible to complete tasks that would have taken hours in the past in a matter of minutes, but I totally despise the whole ‘plug-in’ fad as of late, where everything sounds sterile and the same. When we were mixing ‘Vast Oceans Lachrymose’ we referred to four Metal Hammer Germany compilation CD’s and every damn one of the bands on there had the same or similar drum sound … it was eye-opening. Needless to say, we have since made it a point to always insure our albums do not sound like anything else out there. Even though ‘Empires Forlorn’ was a Pro-Tools album, we tried to keep it as organic as possible … no click tracks, lots of outboard analog gear, no ‘industry standard’ plug-ins. In retrospect however, I think we could make that album far more organic today … not that we will re-record it, but we will definitely remix it in a more analog-dominant environment.”
Personally, in 2009 Tom Phillips went through the toughest time in his life, with cancer reaching his family a second time within a mere two years. What gave him the strength to carry on? The belief in the music of While Heaven Wept? It’s not very easy for him to speak about those tragic events: “I was so completely and utterly devastated by that which was happening within my family (even if we’re not particularly close, it’s still flesh and blood and was heartbreaking) and also in my personal life. I really was at the lowest point I’d been both emotionally and spiritually since the inception of While Heaven Wept. I spent many weeks drunk and catatonic, torn apart inside and wondering if I’d ever find my way out of that Hell. In a moment of clarity, it dawned on me that it was always While Heaven Wept that helped me through the hardest times of the past, and I realized that what I needed to do was refocus on that music. Initially, the first baby steps involved the song ‘Finality’, but once I visited Rain the first time and we did demos for ‘Vast Oceans Lachrymose’, the little spark turned into a raging inferno … and we haven’t looked back since. We spent a brutal number of hours in the studio working on the album, sometimes 24 or even 36 hours at a time, but Chris Salamone and I were very much driven to take everything to another level in terms of the production. At one point towards the end of the process, I actually collapsed and thought I was having a heart attack. We really pushed the limits of our health and sanity completing the album, but in doing so, I cycled through all the stages of bereavement and came out whole for the most part on the other side. ‘Vast Oceans Lachrymose’ saved me from the Hell of myself and literally kept me alive … despite almost killing myself in the process.” Very philosophical words. And very wise words, too!
With "To Wander The Void" (which does indeed remind me quite a bit of early Fates Warning, as mentioned in the album booklet) and "Vessel" While Heaven Wept have written two of their most accessible numbers to date. Is this the overall direction future albums of the band will take? A very speculative question indeed. Tom says: “Not at all. Those songs are actually the oldest songs on the record! They had been sitting in the archives since the early 90’s, and it wasn’t until the newer songs like ‘The Furthest Shore’ or ‘Vast Oceans Lachrymose’ were revealed that we knew it was time for them to surface. ‘Fear Of Infinity’ is actually a much darker and less accessible album in every way; it’s extremely dark, the aggressive parts are more aggressive, overall it’s less progressive … but the eight songs that comprise the main portion do ultimately ‘connect’ to create a larger work … and the nineth, ‘Finality’, is an entity unto itself. It’s still clearly While Heaven Wept, but there are more tinges of Viking-era Bathory or even latter day Immortal on one hand, and on another there’s a few songs that were originally recorded during the ‘Sorrow Of The Angels’ era but not released that will be surfacing finally. I would say the overall atmosphere of ‘Fear Of Infinity’ is much more akin to ‘Sorrow Of The Angels’ in fact, rather than ‘Vast Oceans Lachrymose’ … but yet, it is even more diverse than ‘Vast Oceans Lachrymose’ as well.”
Actually, I think "Vessel" is a real masterpiece. How did the songwriting of this piece evolve? When did Tom first have the idea for this perfect lead vocal melody? This number is destined for greater things! Here’s the rundown of the musical evolution of “Vessel”: “’Vessel’ was basically written in its entirety in 1992. I thought it was 1993 when we were including the dates on the album, but recently checked my original notes/lyrics and it was in fact written in 1992. Back then, it was called ‘Sailing Within’ and at some point mutated into ‘Shipwrecked Within’, before it became ‘Vessel’. Believe it or not, one of the unreleased tracks from the ‘Lovesongs Of The Forsaken’ era is in fact ‘Sailing Within’. The only real differences between the original version and what appears on ‘Vast Oceans Lachrymose’ is the bridge section, which changed around 2004 or so, and the chorus is a bit of a variation that we came up with at Rain’s house … the whole ‘Tonight’ delivery came out of nowhere while we were standing around a fire, drinking beer. Rain’s biggest contribution to the album was the vocal melody at the end of the song, and that was an idea he originally had for all of the chorus sections, but I determined we should arrange things a bit differently. I guess I’d known the song to be a certain way for so long, that it was hard for me to hear it otherwise. However, that last ‘hook’ of Rain’s totally completed it for me.”
What kind of vessel are While Heaven Wept singing about anyway? “It’s all metaphoric really”, reveals Tom. “The vessel in question really is referring to how I’ve developed as a person over the years. My values, morals, how I’ve strived to never repeat the same mistakes twice. It’s genuinely a love song in the end, but it’s not as simple as that either; it was me extending my hand to someone in particular, but even before it was completed, she abandoned me.”
So it’s a love story after all? “Guided by our hearts aflame like the stars above, the journey to heaven begins with this deepest of loves ..." Tom Phillips gets into more detail: “It’s really an A-B conversation. The irony of it is that on the surface it appears to be the most positive song of the entire discography, but even when we were finishing it in the studio, it was actually the most gutting of them all for me, as I knew she was gone. If you were to arrange the songs of ‘Vast Oceans Lachrymose’ in a different order, it would be more conceptual than thematic; if you approach the album like a Tarantino film, there’s a lot of flashback and foreshadowing going on. The truth is all revealed in ‘The Furthest Shore’ … ‘for a fleeting moment, I clutched the debris of my vessel now flotsam’. The vessel was destroyed, and my heart and hopes sunk with it.”
"Living Sepulchre", on the other hand, is pretty fast and straight-forward. Would this composition rate as While Heaven Wept's fastest ever number? This seems not to be the case: “’Living Sepulchre’ is not at all the fastest song in the discography … there are some even more so on ‘Fear Of Infinity’, but it’s not at all straight-forward; there are some very complicated passages, especially on the drums. I don’t think a lot of people realize how much of an influence Arcturus had upon While Heaven Wept, and this song definitely stems from that … in many ways, it’s madness personified in music, much like ‘La Masquerade Infernale’. Something else that is ironic about this song is I cut out my favorite passages because the music told me something wasn’t right … so there’s a whole other body of a song waiting in the wings for after ‘Fear Of Infinity’.”
What were the press reactions to "Vast Oceans Lachrymose" like? Did everybody agree that it is While Heaven Wept’s best and most accomplished (yet also most diverse) album ever? Tom Phillips confirms: “The press reactions were nothing short of astounding. We really couldn’t believe how strong and positive the response was; we were sure that in following our hearts we were going to alienate all of our fans and that everyone would think we were totally crazy with almost no Doom Metal whatsoever, a new singer, even blast beats … but we had to stay true to ourselves, no matter the cost. It’s extremely flattering that ‘Vast Oceans Lachrymose’ was embraced so warmly almost the world over, and we regret doubting the support of our true fans, but there’s never any guarantee things are going to work out favorably when you’re following your heart.” A very fitting closing statement indeed!