There often exist several layers to a musician’s artistry, with the artistic identity of certain musical acts off-record being just as crucial to their art as their persona on-record.  Talking about ill-famed punk GG Allin is practically impossible without discussing his degenerate status both on-stage and off-stage, with his bloodied, nude live performances, tendency to assault concert-goers and promise to commit suicide on stage one Halloween (which was thwarted by a series of poorly-timed prison sentences) mirroring his masochistic, hyper-individualistic tendencies in his personal life.  Whilst not all artistic characters such as this are overtly aggressive and provocative, there has nearly always existed a trend amongst punk and metal acts to be as outrageous and monstrous as possible, as is perhaps best exemplified by the infamous Norwegian black metal scene of the 1980s and 1990s, with bands such as Mayhem plastering a photo of their vocalist, Dead, after his suicide, on album covers and using his skull to fashion necklaces, whilst internal feuds in the scene led to Varg Vikernes of Burzum murdering Mayhem’s guitarist, Euronymous.  Although few musicians of this breed are still active to this day, Dwid Hellion, the sole constant member of notorious Cleveland metallic hardcore band Integrity, is often looked to as a beacon of depravity and wickedness in contemporary metal and punk music.  From his admiration for mass murderer and cult leader Charles Manson — having released Manson’s music through his record label — to an instance in which he somehow came into possession of a severed human ear and nailed it to his roommate’s door, Hellion prides himself as being a hellraiser, but oddly enough, the extent to which he shaped the American metalcore scene of the 80s and 90s has led to the Hellion name being looked upon rather fondly as a bellwether in his field.  Yet, amongst Integrity’s devoted fanbase, the metallic hardcore outfit are respected both for their contributions to the development of the intersections between punk and metal, and for their undying savagery.  Despite their influence on more mainstream punk and metal groups, Integrity have always retained somewhat of an underground status, but their 12th full-length album, Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume, marks the band’s debut on the popular and prolific label Relapse Records, who have overseen some of the most significant punk and metal releases of the year thus far, including records from Iron Reagan, Ex Eye, and Dying Fetus.  Despite the label change and yet another line-up change, with Hellion now having recruited Domenic Romeo on guitar, Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume unequivocally lives up to the levels of grit and doom that the music world has come to expect from Integrity.  As for the actual quality of the music across the record, however, the group comes through with somewhat of a mixed bag, with both some of the most structurally adventurous songs of their career and some of their most rudimentary appearing throughout the tracklisting.  What’s more, whilst previous Integrity albums have struck a perfect balance between capturing a sense of dirt and dirge in the band’s music, whilst preserving the power and intensity that comes as a pre-requisite on any Integrity record, Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume doesn’t quite achieve this equilibrium at times, leaving some spots in the tracklisting lacking in the bite and potency of past releases from the group.  Even still, Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume emphasises a more progressive and diverse side to Integrity’s evil stylings that has seldom existed in such an abundance on previous records.  As such, the evolution present across the album tides over Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume as a compelling listen, even if it falls short of Integrity’s standards of pure ferocity at times.

 

Much of Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume can be divided between the tracks that play towards the metal-tinged hardcore punk of many of Integrity’s most celebrated albums, such as Humanity Is The Devil and To Die For, and the cuts that bring in inspiration from all corners of the metal map.  Black metal has unquestionably always had a profound influence on the band and their aesthetic sensibilities, just as whiffs of Darkthrone-esque, tremolo-picked riffage have sometimes snuck into their songs in the past, but tracks such as Blood Sermon practically ditch any semblance of punk and pursue a straight-up black metal sound.  Similarly, many of the longer, more progressive songs incorporate passages that reek heavily of sludge and doom metal, whilst some of the briefer, breakneck-paced tracks lean closer to heavy metal and even potentially thrash metal than Integrity’s usual hardcore punk propulsion.  With Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume likely standing as Integrity’s most definitively metal album thus far, whilst presenting quite the Satanic smorgasbord of styles, there are certainly some hits and misses amidst the experimentation evident throughout the tracklisting.  As such, pinpointing precisely why certain songs fall short of what Integrity seem to be striving for can prove rather thorny, as it can be difficult to find a through-line that connects many of the missteps over the course of the record.  Perhaps the recurring theme amongst many of the weaker cuts from Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume is that Integrity occasionally overstep their abilities as a band.  I don’t necessarily mean this in a technical sense, rather the group tries to capture certain sounds that they don’t always seem entirely capable of completely bringing to fruition, at least not with the potency required to entirely execute some of these ambitions.  The flagrant Motörhead worship of Die With Your Boots On is a prime example of this, in that the band seems to simply go through the motions of exactly what one would expect from a song inspired by Lemmy and his partners in crime, which is exacerbated by the awkward fit that Hellion’s voice makes for this approach, although there will be more on that later.  A noticeable feature of Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume before even pressing play is the length of many of these pieces.  Although Integrity have not shied away from the occasional progressive epic in the past, much of the outfit’s most revered material is comprised of the high-speed intensity of their two-to-three-minute metallic hardcore tracks, such as those across To Die For.  The fact that Integrity’s latest effort should boast several songs that clock in at around the seven-minute mark, therefore, is sure to raise some eyebrows and, like much of the album, there is undoubtedly a disparity in the success with which the group sticks the landing on these cuts.  Instrumentally speaking, Serpent Of The Crossroads is one of the most well-executed of the more progressive pieces, with the song, as the title suggests, slithering between sludgy sections of heart-wrenchingly powerful guitar harmonies, serpentine riffage and sluggish drumming.  The succeeding song, Unholy Salvation Of Sabbatai Zevi, on the other hand, squanders much of its seven-and-a-half-minute duration on rather directionless, doom-infused passages that are missing the strong melodic tones or overall intensity of Serpent Of The Crossroads in order to drive the composition towards a forceful conclusion, instead lingering too long on passages that hinder the song’s sludgy momentum.  Unholy Salvation Of Sabbatai Zevi is followed by 7 Reece Mews to round off the trinity of the uber-progressive songs that land in the middle of Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume, with Integrity striving for a sort of Southern gothic funeral march that pulls from country music, of all places, and the result is surprisingly and impressively impactful.  Undoubtedly, 7 Reece Mews sticks out like a sore thumb in the tracklisting stylistically speaking, but the languid drumming that supports some shimmering guitar chords and Hellion’s sudden switches between spoken-word, Americana balladry and yelled vocals all fit in perfectly with the doom and gloom of the rest of the record.  From the dynamic and texturally-varied black metal of Blood Sermon to the wailing, thrashing bruiser that is Hymns For The Children Of The Black Flame, Integrity unequivocally execute much of the stylistic variation displayed across Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume with incredible finesse, but there are too many instances of the exact opposite for the record to feel like the cohesive exploration of myriad sounds from under the metal umbrella that it surely could have been.

 

As has been briefly alluded to, there exists a recurring drawback that unfortunately affects a great deal of Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume, and that’s the consistency in the production, specifically relating to how well it supports Hellion’s vocals.  I feel that a disclaimer is necessary for me to say that Hellion’s signature shouts have often been one of the strongest aspects of much of Integrity’s past work, but his distinct, raspy cries are also clearly quite hard to work into a recording for maximum effect.  Of course, when the production is handled very well, Hellion sounds like an absolute animal and the album will always be better for it, but much of Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume exhibits the flip side of this attribute.  Although I would potentially describe Hellion’s screams as thin, I don’t mean this to say that they lack intensity or abrasiveness; quite the opposite.  At the best of times, the frontman’s vocals capture a semblance of dirt and grime evocative of certain black metal vocalists, which does wonders for complementing the evil edge to Integrity’s harsh, caustic stylings.  With such a specific style of vocal delivery, however, comes a balance that needs to be found in the production.  Without the proper instrumental support, Hellion’s shouts can feel weak and left out in the cold, whilst overcompensating with particularly thunderous production can drown his voice out, emphasising the strain that already exists in his screams.  Unfortunately, this is a balance that is seldom struck across the course of Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume.  The layers of blaring guitars on the aforementioned Die With Yours Boots On, for example, overpower Hellion’s vocals in the mix, to the point where he sounds as if he’s fighting a losing battle for dominance with the instrumentation, which exacerbates the hoarse tension in his voice.  On the other side of the spectrum is the also aforementioned Serpent Of The Crossroads, which, despite boasting one of the best instrumentals on the album, witnesses Hellion’s vocals strain in a rather unpleasant manner.  In keeping with the emotive urgency of the track, the frontman aims for a more tonally-varied hue to his voice that strikes some melodic touches amidst his shouting, which, with the right vocalist, could have been used to fantastic effect to bolster the emotional weight of the song.  Hellion, however, struggles to pull this off, with his voice sounding especially tense and stiff, whilst his attempts at some of the more melodic roars see the vocalist lose any power or forceful resonance in his voice when he delves into his lower register.  It’s at points such as these wherein it’s difficult not to imagine how other vocalists would fare over some of these songs.  Just as it’s much easier to imagine Lemmy overtop the propulsive heavy metal of Die With Your Boots On, hearing a track such as Serpent Of The Crossroads merely makes me wonder how well someone such as Josh Middleton would be able to capture the heartrending potency of the cut’s emotional heights, given that the Sylosis frontman has achieved a very well-rounded melodic yell on recent projects.

 

With the impressive breadth of stylistic experimentation across Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume, one can only admire Integrity for the risks they take over the course of the tracklisting.  Even if not all of these bold endeavours pan out entirely effectively, the success of songs such as 7 Reece Mews, which stands as likely the most unique track the group has ever produced, warrants nothing but respect from an artistic perspective.  With Integrity now 12 albums deep into their career, I personally feel as if further experimentation from the metallic hardcore veterans should be welcomed with open arms, as the best moments across Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume exhibit an appetite for stylistic adventure like nothing Integrity have displayed in the past.  This being said, the shortfalls across the album are no less substantial, but with many of them relating more to the production and overall sound of the record, as opposed to the success with which the outfit execute their sonic evolution on certain songs, future releases from Integrity to brandish this degree of experimentation could undoubtedly turn out far more consistent and well-rounded.  In the meantime, however, despite its glaring faults, Howling…For The Nightmare Shall Consume has only increased my admiration for Integrity and I will embrace any further experimentation from the metalcore luminaries on future undertakings.

 

The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10