Let's face it, Integrity are the greatest band of all time. I know it sounds like hyperbole but this week, Organized Crime Records issued a remixed version of their landmark 1995 album Systems Overload to coincide with the fact that the group's classic early '90s lineup would be reuniting this winter and this markedly improved-sounding version of the album just confirms the fact that Integrity are, in fact, the best band ever. If you already vehemently disagree, you may want to stop reading now.
Admittedly, the world was a very different place when Systems Overload was unleashed 18 years ago. Although it's hard to believe now, this metalcore masterpiece was released on Victory Records—but then again, this was also a very different Victory Records. That's right, before the label threw literally any band with swooped haircuts and ADD song arrangements into their neon marketing plans in order to capitalize on whatever trend was fading from the "underground," they were a well-respected hardcore label whose roster also included Earth Crisis, Strife, Bloodlet and Warzone. (As far as the rockabilly act Hi Fi And The Roadburners go, we don't really understand why they were involved but at least they're better than most of the acts on the label today. Erimha, we're looking in your direction based solely on the corpse paint in your press photo.)
Growing up in Cleveland, I should know that there isn't a whole lot to do aside from pointlessly rooting for losing sports teams and hanging out in the Dunkin' Donuts parking lot but Integrity's frontman Dwid was able to channel that lack of stimulation into a recipe for pure evil. For example, when the band's classic debut Those Who Fear Tomorrow kicks off with a sample from Charles Manson, it's not to create controversy, it's because they're kindred spirits. Dude started his own label called Holy Terror (and eventually released some of Manson's original recordings), had an experimental noise band called Psywarfare who toured with Japanese noise acts like Merzbow, and—maybe most sinister of all—would trade rare Integrity vinyl for Don Ho merchandise. There is something about that which just pushes it over the edge.
Systems Overload was released at a time when hardcore was going through a huge shift with classic Revelation acts like Gorilla Biscuits and Youth Of Today calling it quits while the vegan metalcore act Earth Crisis was releasing their first eco-warrior full-length Destroy The Machines and Strife were riding high on their debut One Truth, ill-advised ballad and all. Systems Overload starts out with "Incarnate 365" (the Manson samples included on the original release have been removed this time around to focus on the much more prominent guitars), a midtempo rocker that features plenty of dive-bombs and cymbal crashes before the pace goes double-time accompanied by a shredding guitar solo that wouldn't sound out of place on a Slayer album. This may not seem like that big of a deal now but at the time there were either traditional hardcore bands or metal bands and Integrity essentially bridged the gap between these two worlds, inspiring countless nightmares in the process.
Then there's "Armenian Persecution" which is about the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and is a literal precursor to one of my favorite podcasts, Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. Admittedly, the song was a bit biased ("some Turks deny but they fucking lie," Dwid screams at one point) but it also forced kids like me to research one of the first modern genocides, a fact that's even more impressive when you consider that most of the band's peers were singing empty anthems about "being stabbed in the back" or reciting vague cliches about friendship. If Dwid taught a class about atrocious historical events and the occult, there's no question that I would have spent way less time in high school cutting class in order to smoke cigarettes in the woods.
That said, it wouldn't be a Clevo hardcore album without the requisite shit-talking and Systems Overload has one of the best jabs in the form of the minute-long ripper "No One," which was dedicated to an ex-bandmate. (Ah, yet another hallmark of Cleveland hardcore, the ability to write a song calling someone out one minute and then form a band with them the next. It makes hip-hop beefs look quaint in comparison.) Sure, lyrics like "Who's gonna back you up now, alone in your own little crowd, thinking you're the one in control, your stupid shit is getting so old" may not earn Dwid an honorary English degree but the vitriol between each syllable is palpable and meshes perfectly with the relentless courtesy of powerhouse guitarist Aaron Melnick.
I'll admit that despite listening to Systems Overload hundreds of times over the years, I still don't know what a fair share of the songs are about. My personal favorite, "Salvation's Malevolence," has something to do with the devil but what's more important is the spoken-word breakdown that leads into Melnick's tapping guitar solo. Ditto for "Grace Of The Unholy" which warns of "a new horror for every horizon." Hey, maybe Dwid had a prescient vision of Victory Records' future roster after all? Ultimately it doesn't matter if you can understand the premise or even comprehend the words of these songs, their relentless power shines through—and that's even more true of this new mix. While there are 25 people listed as former members of Integrity on their Wikipedia page, there's something undeniably special about this lineup of the band and what they were able to create in a world where they were complete outcasts from the way they looked to the enigmatic beliefs they espoused.
So there you have it, my argument for why Integrity are the best band ever. Chances are you disagree and that's fine, but it's difficult to listen to Systems Overload and not be consumed by the madness, brilliance, and brutality that was Integrity in the mid-'90s. As Dwid scribbled on a vinyl copy of this for me years ago, "Release The Fiend, Jonah, Release!" I'm still working on it, whatever that means.
Jonah Bayer is a freelance writer who co-hosts the weekly podcast Going Off Track and plays guitar in the screamo act United Nations. He also wrote the liner notes for the 15th anniversary of Integrity's 'Those Who Fear Tomorrow.' He lives in Brooklyn but still has a 216 area code. Stalk him online at @mynameisjonah.