While Heaven Wept is a band I expect excellence from and actively root for them to achieve it, almost as if I was in the damn band myself. Their Of Empires Forlorn album is one of the best doom releases ever and one I return to religiously whenever I need a good soul drubbing. Follow ups Vast Oceans Lachrymose and Fear of Infinity were very good, sometimes great doses of highly polished melodic doom, though neither could replicate that special something Of Empires possessed. With all the hype surrounding the writing and recording of Suspended at Aphelion, and the fact it’s a conceptual piece composed of one song with eleven movements, a fanboy could dream this would be their magnum opus rex. That Fates Warning alumni like Mark Zonder and Victor Arduini were onboard did nothing to extinguish my growing enthusiasm.
So, after marinating in this ambitious release for a week, I can say it’s still classic While Heaven Wept with all the elements they’ve experimented with over time, but this tries to be much more in both vision and scope. It strives for something more grandiose, epic and diverse while maintaining the band’s core style, and in some ways it succeeds and in others in doesn’t. It’s loaded with brilliant musicianship and interesting genre crossovers, but some of it doesn’t work and the execution and writing is hit or miss.
This mammoth composition opens with an entirely tasteful, familiar feeling piece titled “Introspectus,” which leverages the moody symphonics and ambient keyboard effects the band has long toyed with. Lovely acoustic guitars layer upon weeping cellos and violins while an ambient keyboard hum rumbles underneath. It’s classy, gorgeous and what we’ve come to expect from this band. It segues a bit abruptly into album set piece “Icarus and I,” which is instantly recognizable as While Heaven Wept and features those uniquely soaring vocal moments the band excels at. The band also attempts a darker, Dimmu Borgir eruption of symphonic blackness at chorus time, which is interesting, but so overly layered and chaotic, it partially disrupts the song. Some excellent keyboard flourishes and Rain Irving’s sweeping vocals pull things back, but every time they lurch into the blackness, things get loopy. It still ends up a good tune, albeit one that suffers for its ambitions.
From there we transition to a slow, roiling number called “Ardor” that builds toward a bigger, more bombastic style akin to Atlantean Kodex and it works, but lacks real gravitas. This leads to the touching ballad “Heartburst,” which pulls at the heart strings before exploding into a glitzy, Broadway themed ditty like Savatage used to write, and you’ll even hear hair metal ideas scattered alongside the jazz hands. The high points culminate with the schizophrenically proggy instrumental “Indifference Turned Paralysis,” which touches on Euro-power, thrash and black metal as it whirls this way and that in a twisting maelstrom.
From there, Suspended at Aphelion takes a significant downturn, hitting a rough patch of movements that aren’t exactly bad, but aren’t particularly gripping or interesting. “Souls in Permafrost” sticks out a bit due to a slight Sonata Arctica vibe to the writing and vocals, but things become too sedate and nothing much resonates until the penultimate movement, “Lifelines Lost” which is decently melancholy.
Aside from inconsistent writing, the transitions within individual songs and between movements can be disjointed. There’s a herky jerky feeling to the way the pieces fit together that distracts from the overall flow and hurts the album’s momentum. I suppose that’s the risk inherent in one long song intended to be experienced in its entirety, and that risk sees the band hoisted by their own petard on a few too many occasions.
In the band’s defense, they do a lot of things right. The sound is phenomenal, with a clear intent to deliver a rich dynamic experience with real peaks and valleys. Founder Tom Phillips remarked that he was well aware of the “Loudness War” prevalent in music these days and wanted to deliver an album audiophiles could get behind. Mission accomplished, Tom. Another big plus is the album length. Considering this is such an ambitious project with so many moving parts, the band showed heroic restraint by keeping things limited to a mere 40 minute run time, thereby earning copious Ego Suppression Points™.
Performance wise, there isn’t much to fault here either. Rain Irving sounds great throughout, dishing out ample pathos and pain with his soaring vocals, and managing to keep things delicate and understated when the music requires it. Phillips and Scott Loose play their hearts out and the album is dripping with beautiful, delicate solos, pristine harmonies and epic riffs. As a unit, the band is highly impressive, and it’s never their playing that lets them down, just lapses in writing and arranging that pulls things down a few notches.
Ultimately, Suspended at Aphelion is an inspired mess; part brilliant, part disappointing, always ambitious. It’s so front-loaded, it’s easy to hear the best moments and bail before the lesser selections drag it down, and that’s likely the best way to enjoy this over time. It may not be the album I hoped for, but it’s definitely one worth experiencing. Just approach with the hype train uncoupled and expectations fully managed.