GARDEN OF SHADOWS - Oracle Moon (2000)

Melodic death metal is a precarious genre for many reasons, not least of which being the necessity for riffs to continually evolve, morph, and re-invent themselves to keep stagnation at bay. This necessity is amplified tenfold when song lengths increase from your average four or five minute affairs to eight, nine, and ten minute monoliths, where repetitiveness is the bane of all creativity. Thankfully enough, Garden of Shadows supplant each fading riff with one that still rings with melody and mystery, and their atmospheres are so profound and gigantic that to say this is simply another good melodic death metal album is not giving credit where credit is due. This American band riffs like they’re Swedish, have atmosphere like they’re Finnish, and are as overlooked as many Russian bands are. More atmospheric melodic death metal acts like Insomnium, Be’lakor, and Suidakra hint at what Garden of Shadows create on their second and final LP Oracle Moon, but fall short in just how exceptionally realized an album like this really is.

Soaring melodies, enough riffs to last a lifetime, omniscient keyboards, and palpable atmosphere is what Oracle Moon is all about, and this 54-minute, 7-track record lets not a second fall by the wayside. Stylistically, the album is most closely related to Edge of Sanity, but it is far more entrenched in melodic death metal than Dan Swanö’s former project delved. Deep, guttural vocals dominate the verses, while keyboards linger in the background to inject atmosphere behind the celestial harmonies in a way that is not in any way overpowering or dominant. It is clear from the get-go that the focus of Oracle Moon is on unleashing waves of riffing that makes bands like Suidakra – who use quite a few riffs themselves – feel rather one-dimensional in the guitar department. The production places a clear emphasis on the guitars, vocals, and drums, so the bass does sadly become all bust completely lost in the distance, but overall the mix is clear and the keyboards are so wonderfully done it makes someone like me – who normally will tear an album apart for excessive keyboards – find them to be a critical component to the album’s aura.

Tracks like “Dissolution of the Forms” show how Garden of Shadows play with tempo changes, slowing things down to an almost doomy pace that reminds me of early Insomnium – a trait that I find to be simply delightful. This is not an album that it out to assault its listener with vicious riffing that so-happens to be tinged with a slight melody, no – it is instead an album that is weaving and wandering, layered with such care and complexity that you would think the members of Garden of Shadows to have years and years of experience – but you would be wrong. The band was only around for a scant five years, releasing one demo, their debut Heart of the Corona, and this, their swansong, Oracle Moon. So perfectly realized is the atmosphere, which invokes a stark sense of mystery and wonder with a distinctly somber edge, and so skillfully does the songwriting wrap dozens of riffs together so logically that their transitions go completely unnoticed. It would be nearly useless to nitpick; to say that the vocals are rather one-dimensional and don’t often change pitch, or that the bass is swallowed, because that is missing the point entirely.

Oracle Moon is, however you look at it, art. Its existence is for naught but itself, and that is part of its allure. Like a fine painting, its individual brushstrokes add up to a single image that flows like a placid river across the canvas, and it is the silent observer that makes what they will out of it: to be moved by it, to think about it, and to cherish it. Pretentious it may seem, but there are very few albums that I attribute this description to – Oracle Moon is one of them. It really is a shame that Garden of Shadows disintegrated after the album’s release, because if this was any indication they had the potential to become one of the well-known greats. In a way, though, I am glad that this album is what it is: a secret that those who look hard enough will find. Trust me when I say that your time with Oracle Moon will be duly rewarded, because this is one of the best albums the genre has to offer.

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