Review Summary: Accidentally wiped out in their prime
By the mid-90’s, death metal was splintering pretty hard into sub-genres. It was a musical Wild West out there, a true potpourri of influences hybridising with the genre in a myriad of ways. The one that turned out to stand the test of time was a melodic blend with NWOBHM, which has gone on to influence countless bands all over the widely understood metal realm. However, that wasn’t the only manner in which death metal bands flirted with melody two decades ago. A number of acts, such as Amorphis and Tiamat, took cues from progressive and psychedelic works. This often resulted in more plodding, down-tempo works with the riffs losing a fair share of metallic edge. The style largely died out, probably in no small part because those albums often turned out to be but transitional works on the way to a more throughout embrace of the progressive inspiration.
Scum was one of the representatives of that style, their moniker a misnomer from their grimy beginnings akin to their compatriots Xysma. Their sophomore effort Purple Dreams & Magic Poems was released the same year as Slaughter of the Soul, offering an accomplished glimpse of how melodic death metal might have turned out in a parallel universe. The register shift in the impassioned guitar melody near the outro of anchor track “Flames of the Silver Sea” remains arguably the most spine-tingling moment in the genre’s history. They had a real good thing going, but a follow-up never materialised. As it turns out, the whole album was tracked and ready to go, but death metal’s waning popularity led to the band getting unceremoniously ditched by their label. Two decades later, the recordings resurfaced on a completely unrelated label.
Garden of Shadows finds Scum in continued development, growing as musicians and refining their style. Crucially, they retain all the strengths that made Purple Dreams & Magic Poems the smashing record it is. The guitar leads have greatly honed their chops (the Crypt of Kerberos-style neoclassical afterthought to “Golden Seeds”), but never forego the song’s greater good for technical showboating. Case in point – the ten-minute juggernaut “Trilogian Tales” has a quick burst of flamboyant fretboard torching over a fast riff, but the moments that really stick with the listener are the recurring melodic theme and variations thereon, along with a particularly inspired phrase over a mellow section about midway through. The riffing continues its flirtations with all sorts of 70s guitar music, along with some cues from recent developments by their contemporaries. You can smell some death n’ roll swagger in the groove of “Rise Like Morning Star”, and some of the interplay between the two guitarists reflects an acute awareness of the Gothenburg scene just across the border. Both of those are but influences and the sections manage to retain a distinctly Scum feel. The vocals still have about as pleasant a timbre as growls can possibly get, and the singer continues his forays into whispers and spoken word to vary up the dynamics. When combined with the fact that the voice is buried in the mix for some reason, Garden of Shadows may well be one of the best entry points to music with harsh vocals this side of Emotionless (courtesy of As Autumn Calls).
There’s but one thing keeping Garden of Shadows from ascending into the top ranks of the undisputed underground classics. That’s the lack of a “Flames of the Silver Sea” tier track on the record. There are ample moments of greatness on the album – “I Am Messiah” with is masterful tension flow, the whiplash-inducing outro to “Mountain of the Hawks”, P.T. Askola’s finest hour in the heartbroken wail of “Black Swan”, the feel-good vibes of the Maiden’esque outro. The musical growth is extremely apparent, and the fact that a band that had a clunky “House of the Rising Sun” cover on their debut but two years prior was now belting out competent ten minute epics is nothing short of awe-striking. However, while the material on hand was still inspired and played with a great deal of conviction, the stars didn’t align quite as well as they had for one track a year before. Garden of Shadows with “Flames of the Silver Sea” on it would make a formidable contender for one of the finest melodic death metal albums ever released.
Listening to the album makes me very curious how Scum’s career may have panned out had they not ran into label trouble. Given the nature of their melodic influence and a track record of how bands with a similar approach tended to progress over the years, I always assumed Garden of Shadows was a polarising record created on the behest of the faction most keen to embrace the mellowness, leading to internal strife, a subsequent implosion and the record being buried. This is anything but the case – Garden of Shadows is a confident, competent record retaining the band’s unique edge while enhancing their palette with improved musicianship and subtle nods to then-current developments. Seeing how everybody and their brother are reuniting their 90s death metal bands these days, along with the band’s decision to finally release their lost album, the singer’s eagerness to discuss the old days and the only musically active member’s decision to leave Spirit Disease in 2015, one can hope a Scum reunion is in the works.