Over the years, While Heaven Wept has transcended the confines of doom, shedding their skin and becoming a progressive band. Long gone are the days when they played solemn, thunderous doom, with slow tempos and epic melodies. At some point, the band decided that they could do more than color within the confines of doom’s limited playbook, so they recruited a new singer and started moving in proggier directions. “Vast Oceans Lachrymose” was the first step, an album that was incomplete, but still one of the more beautiful pieces of music of the year. The follow-up was even more scattered, but without the massive hooks that allowed the band to make a few mistakes along the way. As they ventured further away from their original identity, the struggle to find a new one was obvious.
“Suspended At Aphelion” finds that band fully in progressive mode, a forty minute album made up one of track, separated into sections. This kind of album-length writing is a staple of the progressive world, but it’s one that requires not just an acute sense of songwriting, but a series of ideas strong enough to warrant the criticism that will come with such creative indulgence. Albums like this can’t just be decent, they have to be amazing, or else they will rightfully be accused of being more about the idea than the music.
Buying into the clichés, the album opens with three-plus minutes of orchestral swells, serving as the overture to the record. That leads into the first segment, the twelve minute “Icarus And I”, which will further test the patience of anyone who isn’t a fan of prog. The track is a bit of a beast, with poorly snarled harsh vocals, some riffs that come straight out of black metal, and a chorus that I swear I heard on “Vast Oceans Lachrymose”. It is certainly an odd way to start the album, with fifteen minutes of music that doesn’t play to the band’s strengths.
The good news is that the band’s sound is as epic and lush as ever, and Rain Irving’s vocals are a captivating balance to the music. The bad news is that for all that While Heaven Wept can do right, they don’t package that into songs and albums that come close to matching their talents. They have moments here and there, but they indulge their inner artist too often, producing songs that don’t seem to go anywhere. They get caught up in the beauty of what they can paint with sound, without realizing that they haven’t actually captured an image.
Take a song like “Heartburst”, for example. The strings that underpin the clean guitar figure are beautiful, and Rain gives a passionate vocal performance, but where is the song? There is nary an interesting melody or motif to be heard. It’s the sonic equivalent of being distracted by a shiny object. It’s great, until you realize the whole thing has been a con job.
I don’t want this to come off as harsh as it sounds, but “Suspended At Aphelion” should be so much better than it is. I know While Heaven Wept can do better, because I’ve heard it. There’s no reason why they can’t play this style and create an album of epic prog that blows me away. But this album isn’t that. There are moments, like the hooky “The Memory Of Bleeding”, that remind me of the best moments of their past, and that only discourages me even more about this record. While Heaven Wept bought so much into the idea of making a concept album that they forgot the most important thing; they’re making an album. What they’ve captured here is beautiful, and it has compositional skill behind it, but it’s not an engaging listen. This is music for the people playing it, not the people listening to it.