Integrity’s Dwid Hellion On New Album, ‘Howling…’

Photo by Tina Korhonen © 2017, all rights reserved.

Photo: Tina Korhonen

Integrity is a band that seems to mean a lot of different things to different people. Which makes sense when you’ve been creating music spanning three decades; one would tend to pick up followers in different stages of their lives which attach meaning to what you’re doing as it applies to their own experience. But even within that spectrum of things Integrity stands out, cultivating a near fanatical level of devotion that’s rare even in this mass of subculture. And for good reason. From humble beginnings as a nasty bastard of hardcore and metal through a constant genre defying growth Integrity seems to constantly unlock new secrets in frontman and creative iconoclast Dwid Hellion’s psyche.

“Arcane and often forbidden knowledge has always been a subject matter that has attracted me. I enjoy learning and reading about a variety of topics. In particular, I gravitate towards books that explore occult/religious themes. My reading habits tend to bleed themselves into my music, artwork and lyrics,” Hellion states when I bring up how he’s in a constant state of dynamic motion when it comes to expanding on the foundations he set in the late 1980s. “I try to keep myself entertained. Making music and artwork is a great way to distract myself from the real world and its trappings. Sometimes an escape is necessary and inviting.“

The material world is in a constant state of flux, more so now than it seems in a long time. Musicians and artists tend to take these kinds of moments to push their own agenda; some out of a genuine sense of altruism and human/civic duty, others out of a sense of opportunity, the chance to exploit people who are susceptible to subtle manipulation. Does Hellion have any political motivation with his music? “I have no political aspirations. I am not trying to save the world. I am content with watching the world eat itself.” But where have we, humanity, gone wrong? “Well, I think human society has always  been ‘going wrong.’ Entirely wrong. It has been quite a long and utterly successful fall. I admire its dedication to self-destruction. The end of the world exists for every generation in humanities history, it will always be the end times. Destruction always breeds rebirth and endings always usher in beginnings.”

Interesting (an understatement) times breed interesting (another understatement) art. And while one’s perception could state that the world is indeed falling apart, Integrity deliver the monster that is Howling, For the Nightmare Shall Consume (due on Relapse July 14th). With this new record comes a new lineup and a new chapter in Dwid’s lengthy creative memoir. I had reservations initially because the last album, the complex Suicide Black Snake, is possibly my favorite page in this book. But my reservations were quickly pushed aside as Howling… is every bit and as complex and (for lack of a better word) adventurous as its predecessor. Building on every floor, from the basement to its current level, that Dwid has constructed, I believe it’s housed rooms that anyone who has followed the band would be pleased to inhabit.

The last time I saw Dwid was just down the street from my house at Richmond’s United Blood fest in the early spring. We talked about the new record and he mentioned to me that it was painful to do, something that made him nauseous and anxious when he listened to it. Later, I asked him to elaborate: “When you reveal emotion in music, it can often times be overwhelming. My recordings deal with deeply personal topics. Even recorded experiences being played back can often trigger the initial feelings associated. A forgotten, yet familiar scent that rushes back memories of a childhood trauma. A taste that reminds you of a distant love long faded from memory. Stealing moments of time through music and art, caging that emotion so that it can infect others, that is our burden.” I press further on the idea of why it’s important for artists to work through these kinds of unpleasant emotions. He states “That is the essence of the blues. Too often people forget that metal is deeply rooted in the blues. Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil long before anyone thought of heavy metal. The purity and misery of the blues had set the bar for all metal music that would follow. As for art, I would say when art does not evoke the most sacred and personal of emotions from the depths of its creator, then that art is usually just a simple, shallow blur existing without substance, without a soul. You must Infuse your soul into your work, using it as a bridge to escape the flesh prison and its confines. This is gospel, this is transcending the flesh. Take for example, the Lomax field recordings of imprisoned chain gangs, their music is purity, it is salvation.”

I don’t think anyone can listen to Integrity and not feel a sense of malevolence, of malice and of suffering. But there are also moments spread through the catalog that are of pure joy (the Misfits cover of “Hybrid Moments” on Closure is one). And witnessing Integrity live, you can see Dwid revels in the catharsis of the moment.  So what about people who feel that one cannot express joy when their work expresses negativity? “Fortunately, I do not associate with anyone who is unable to enjoy themselves. I think the world is much more complex than a black & white, one-dimensional perspective. Existence would be rather bland to be limited to only experience the world through such a rigid scope. Multiple levels of personality are what make individuals interesting.“

This line of thought brings up eternal questions, questions of an existence that we each experience in our own, private way. What makes us… well, “us?” What drives the creator? “Self satisfaction. To create for your own satisfaction. I am unable to differentiate myself from my creative side. To build universes with words and sound. To entrap ideas within a visual collage, to capture time with ink on paper, scratching it with a razor to breathe life into it as stains and grain reveal a new soul that even I had overlooked “ But as someone who is both a visual and sonic artist is there a way to pick a favorite child? “I do not have a preferred medium. I find that they both afford a similar reward. You can not have a favorite tool.”

As I’ve begun to rapidly approach 40, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what I could have done differently as a youth. Is there still time to read, experience and learn the things that I probably should have when I was wasting my life away in my 20s? And of what of the newer generations? Does Dwid have any advice on where to turn to grow and expand your mind? “LSD was a great help for my mental development. I approached LSD intake in the same way that MK Ultra used it on their subjects/victims. It was revelatory, it opened my world and the flesh dream parted like fog.”

Photo: Tina Korhonen Photo: Tina Korhonen

He continues:  “The Old Testament is a book I highly recommend. It offers so much depravity and violence, imagination and allusion. Any and all books about faith and religion. Usually the ones with the most followers are the most depraved, and therefore the most interesting.“

I’ve often heard variations on the phrase that artists don’t really tend to know where to stop with a painting, or that they know the exact moment. Painting seems to be a lot easier to overthink and a lot more difficult to undo. Does the same concept exist within music? Is there ever going to be a time where someone, like Dwid, who has walked a lifelong journey in exploring creation, satisfied enough to say “fuck it” and walk away? He explains “I am not chasing a dragon with this There is no hope for escape. The albums are a form of conversation and storytelling. Philosophy and sermon. And a means of exercising and exorcising my soul. I do not expect the answers to life’s mysteries to reveal themselves so easily. Though, I would be ecstatic to find those answers before my death. I am resolved to the chase and know that the catch itself, is something far beyond my grasp. I continue the hunt within the darkness until the forest relents itself to the light.“

I think of certain artists who have cultivated greatness but then seem to coast on their past achievements. And while thinking of this I randomly recalled that Dwid is a massive fan of Danzig. Rather than tug the thread of artist longevity I thought of a record that helped guide me down a bleaker path in my life decades ago, Danzig IV. For curiosity’s sake, I asked Dwid what his favorite song on the record was. “Every song on that album is incredible. I listen to Danzig 4 as a full experience, not as individual tracks. To be honest, the first four blues-driven albums by Danzig are untouchable.” And he’s absolutely right. I don’t know of more than a handful of records that had the impact of viewing it as one singular movement instead of a collection of songs (especially at the age I was when it came out) than IV.

As we come to the end of this lengthy conversation, I put forth the simple question that if Howling… was where someone was introduced to Integrity where would he want to point them to next? Where to avoid? His response is the perfect conclusion: “Integrity is not for everyone. Those who enjoy it, understand it.“

Photo: Tina Korhonen Photo: Tina Korhonen