It's that time again, for another local metal CD review! It's my 10th since I started this monthly feature, and we're heading back to Sault Michigan this time around, as this month's review is of the only released album from defunct local epic death metal band Integrated System of Machines, entitled "Apocalyptic Vision"! Released n March 6th, 2008, it was available at the band's concerts, but is now out of print. Lineup information concerning I.S.O.M. is not easy to verify, so if there's a mistake in the band's lineup on this album, or an incomplete spelling, let me know! I believe the lineup that recorded "Apocalyptic Vision" included frontman Bob "Orb Hearthstone" Helsten (now of Powerslug), Chris Sevens on guitar, J. Rizzo on bass, End of Existence/Theater of Night keyboardist Craig "Tubesock" Harrison, Rachel Mender on operatic vocals, and Bart "Black Trab" Rennels on drums.
Currently, "Apocalyptic Vision" is available for free streaming on I.S.O.M.'s Reverbnation page, while I don't believe it's available for purchase on any major music download websites at present. Physical copies may be floating around at local merchants, so keep your eyes peeled! With 10 songs clocking in at over 45 minutes worth of metal, let us begin the review with the album's first song and title track! And remember, I'm not a professional reviewer, these are my impressions and thoughts as I hear each song in order on the album, if something's wrong, misstated, or lacking info, let me know! (Updated on November 6th, 2012)
"Apocalyptic Vision" kicks off the album with a 45 second slow dirge-like keyboard intro from Craig Harrison, which seems to set the tone for the song. Then the heaviness kicks in, and here's my first complaint: It sounds muffled. Nothing's badly played, it just lacks the punch and volume to pull me in because of the production. I imagine these songs would sound much clearer and be harder hitting live! That's not a critique towards the band though, they're certainly not at fault! Orb Hearthstone shows off his death metal vocals very well here, he has an awesome death metal voice that suits the band extremely well, it's too bad he and the band parted ways! Clear too, you can make out words unlike some death metal singers, and I always welcome that! Everything's very nicely mixed, each instrument's easy to make out! Craig Harrison's keyboards don't sound forced, Chris Sevens has some great riffing (though I would have liked a guitar solo), and J. Rizzo's not a bad bassist either, he has some good lines! Honestly, vocals aside, this song doesn't have a real "death metal" sound, the vocals are from where I get that comparison, the song itself has more of a progressive/power feel at points! Great opener, very headbangable, it gives you a good glimpse about what to expect in future songs!
"Road To Valhalla" is second on the album, and the first to feature operatic backing vocals from Rachel Mender. It's shorter and more to the point than "Apocalyptic Vision" was, though not as fast. It has more of a conventional song structure too, but it's still a good song! Orb still sounds great vocally, though the combination of Orb and Rachel singing the chorus simultaneously actually doesn't totally work, they're too different in style for it to really "mesh". Rachel has a good voice that harmonizes well, and aside from the chorus, she totally fits! My other major complaints: The chorus is more repetitive than it could be, and again, no guitar solo. But it is still a catchy song, I like the guitar work from Chris especially! Slower and shorter, yes, but still lively and despite my complaints, it's definitely not a bad song, I just expected more out of it.
Next is the band's self titled song, "I.S.O.M.", which is definitely the album's most commercial track. It's one of two on the disc that go under 4 minutes, it has a typical song structure, and Orb's not growling! He sings with a normal hard rock voice, and honestly, he should use it more, it'd give some extra variety to the other songs, as long as he doesn't overdo it. The chorus is great to sing along with: "Oh noooo, they try to integrate meeeeee!" Listen for yourself and you'll see what I mean. I like the drum intro too, though it would benefit from improved production! Amazingly, it's the album's radio-friendliest song that has the first solo, and though it's short and not mindblowing, it is still well performed, I wanna see more! The song also seems to end abruptly too. Though not their best or most original, it shows some diversity that the first two songs didn't show, and the band could integrate that into future songs! I can picture this making it onto radio if it had better production!
Fourth is "DaVinci's Code", and this is where the band starts to pull together all their best elements into a standout song! The opening builds in a way with some weird backing vocal chanting and instrumental work to a very catchy main riff! Here, Rachel's operatic singing completely works, it flows with the song and doesn't sound forced! Black Trab's drumming is really good, and Craig's keyboards add a nice atmosphere to the background! 3:10 in, the main vocals finally get more diverse, nice to see Orb throw in his clean voice to the heavier songs! And yes, we have a guitar solo! It's slow to pick up, but near the end, it really gets going! It's good, I just wish there was more! But like with the last song, it has an abrupt ending which I didn't see coming. It's fast and heavy and really well played, the band really is hitting their stride after some mixed results on the last couple songs. Definitely my favourite song so far!
After that, we get "Stays The Same", which has the most reserved start to any song so far, a very melodic softer opening with completely clean vocals from Orb, who really impresses me here, he has a pretty good range that I'd like to see him use more! A lot of these songs could work equally well, or better, with the normal singing in place of the death growling! After about a minute though, things pick up, with some awesome keyboard work and some good harmonizing between Orb's death growls and Rachel's operatic vocals, they definitely work better here! The song alternates between "soft and heavy" twice before we end with a guitar-driven section that sounds good, though an actual solo would have been a great capper! This song is one of the best examples of their varying styles, showing the lighter and heavier sides equally, I really like this song too! "Screams" begins the album's second half with a drum-driven opener and a cool chugging riff that comes about as close to typical death metal as you'll see on "Apocalyptic Vision"! There's even breakdowns past the halfway point! Despite the name though, there isn't a lot of screaming as much as just death metal vocals. Nice harsh ones too! This time, Rachel's singing is slightly drowned out, but it's not bad for accompaniment! The ending really works too, it has a lot of energy Black Trab's drums are really good! Excellent song, especially if you want something more "death metal"!
...OK, I change my mind, THIS is the most "death metal" song! "Words To Say" is absolutely the heaviest thing on this album, the riffs are brutal and Orb sounds especially fierce! It's also the shortest song, at 3:36, and they pack this song full! The backing vocals from Rachel Mender are really out of place in the chorus, which is not a critique of her abilties, she's really good, but it just doesn't fit. That aside, I'm really impressed with this song, this WILL get a mosh pit going at a live concert! The ending is especially fast, the guitar work has some good harmonics, I'm just missing a solo, the song could use a nice fast blazing solo! Great great song, this might just be my favourite! Track 8 is "March of the Norsemen", which is also the album's longest and it has an absolute epic of an opening, perfect for a march or entrance, almost sounds like it came from a video game! Not the heaviest or fastest song, but it's well crafted, possibly the best musically on the album! Awesome lyrics about vikings, and some excellent guitar work and bass lines! The best solo on the album is on this song too, they put all their talent into making this song the album's best, and it shows! It's not my personal favourite, but it's right up there, and you'll wanna check it out! Also, the ending is extra-fast, but also ends a bit abruptly....what's with that?
The penultimate song is "Last Time", which has a softer opening much like "Stays The Same", soft guitars and clean singing, but if you're expecting a ballad, think again! Nice , heavy, and relatively short, it gets the job done pretty nicely! Drums are well played, and for the first time, Rachel gets some extended solo singing passages rather than serving as a backup or additional singer! I know she's not with I.S.O.M. anymore, but it would have been cool to see her get more solo time on some new material! It's more of the same from older tracks, nothing mindlbowingly different, and no solo, but here's what surprised me: After about 3:08, the song switches to an acoustic guitar ending, Chris plays this well, this would fit especially well if this was the album's last song, but there's still one more to go! "Hunt For The Beast" is the album's closer, and it brings an awesome heavy onslaught to end "Apocalyptic Vision" on a high note! Not as heavy as "Words To Say" to be sure, but still quite a good song! The guitars and bass chug along in a very heavy fashion, the vocals harmonize well, and like I said with other songs, the drums are solid! Great closer in itself, but it ends in a way like "Last Time" did, with a slow section featuring one band member, in this case, Craig on the keyboards! Kind of a depressing slow end, but it completely fits, and makes you want more! Great closer, another highlight!
Overall, "Apocalyptic Vision" is a solid debut album from Integrated System of Machines! The band at the time had good chemistry, supported by some awesome death metal vocals from Orb Hearthstone, gome good guitar work from Chris Sevens, and consistently great keyboard playing from Craig Harrison! J. Rizzo's good on bass throughout too, no complaints there, and Black Trab keeps a good pace on the drums throughout! Rachel Mender sometimes got lost amongst Orb's growling, but she shone bright when the moment was right! For a first effort, you can't expect the world, and I didn't, but there is things to complain about, largest of which isn't the band's fault. The production isn't very good, every song on "Apocalyptic Vision" sounds muffled, and compared to other local bands' albums I have, it plays very quietly and the instruments, though mixed well, seem way too reserved than how the band's collective talent would show, especially the bass. But when I review albums, I review on their musical ability and my own enjoyment of their skill, talent, and writing, not production deficiencies. Maybe that's why I like "Born Again" by Black Sabbath so much even though the production's bad on that, I look for the talent, and I.S.O.M. have it!
I'd also have liked to have seen more solo work, Chris has talent but his solos could stand to be more varied, most of them sounded pretty much the same. He's a great guitarist, he just needs to work on his solos a bit. I'd, again, have loved to see more solo time for Rachel as a singer, hopefully Mara Raven (her replacement) gets some more solo passages on their next album! The production also gets in the way of otherwise-good drumming from Black Trab, and Orb's singing, though 100% awesome, could use some variance on some songs (for example, growled verses, clean choruses.) Maybe the new singer will be more varied? Still, complaints aside, remember this was their debut, and for an independent debut, I couldn't have asked for more! There's some real ambitious songs, a lot of headbangers, and great music all around! I heard that I.S.O.M.'s next album is going to be a concept album based around Hansel & Gretel, and if handled correctly with some better production, it will be something special! Pick up "Apocalyptic Vision" today, look past the muffled sound, and get your horns ready!
So that's this month's review! My next review will be in the second full week of May, and barring the release of a new album from a local metal band (you never know!), my review will be my long-planned re-review of Garden of Bedlam's debut EP! I've been unhappy with my original review of it for months now, so I plan to revisit it to give it a look more akin to my last 10 album reviews, and after that, we'll dip back into the archives this summer, with new releases dotted into the schedule where needed! Lots of albums to get to in the future, but let's not spoil anything I have planned, I want things to be surprises! But don't worry, there will be no skipped months, I have reviews lined up to cover over two years, and counting! And of course, if you have an album I don't (e.g. As It Stands, Infrastrate, Harsh Heads, old cassettes, etc.), LET ME KNOW!
News shall return soon, so stay tuned for all the local metal updates you can handle very soon! Thanks everyone, hope you enjoyed the review!