Now three releases into their career, it's pretty evident that New Jersey's thrash/power/progressive metal act Dark Empire are a band that want to be taken seriously. With a new CD From Refuge to Ruin out on Nightmare Records, and a hot new line-up, the band are ready to show the metal world what they are made of. Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo caught up with founding guitarist Matt Moliti to talk about the bands history, the recent personnel changes, live plans, and of course the brand new album.
SoT: There's been some line-up shuffling over the past few years, with Jens Carlsson leaving, Urban Breed briefly coming into the band, and Brian Larkin coming in to take over the vocal slot. Can you talk a bit about these changes and any others since your previous album?
Matt: The decision for Jens to split with us was mutual. For Dark Empire to move forward we definitely needed someone who could be more committed, and more importantly within the US so that we could play live more, and with Jens being in two other bands and also living in Sweden, it really was in the best interest for the band to find someone else. As far as Urban goes, our former 2nd guitarist Andrew Atwood was good friends with him and had asked if he'd be interested. As I started to collaborate with him, it was really clear that we're both very dominant song-writing personalities. I don't want to give the impression that I'm a dictator within the framework of the band, but Dark Empire is ultimately my baby and my creative vision. So, to have someone who is both not really on the same page as me vision-wise and who also has very strong creative ideas of their own, it just wasn't the right chemistry. He did wind up contributing some lyrics to the title track, though.
As far as other changes, besides Andrew also leaving with Urban, we have a new bass player, Randy Knecht. Randy's actually been with us since 2008, when we did some shows with Odin's Court and Suspyre. Funny thing about Randy is that he lived in Sweden for a short time studying to be a guitar luthier, and he was actually friends with some of the guys in Persuader and had hung out with Jens on some occasions. So its such a strange coincidence that he joins a band back in New Jersey that Jens used to sing for.
SoT: Let's now back up a bit-for those who are unfamiliar with Dark Empire or perhaps just discovering the band, can you talk about the formation of the band and what you were all doing before?
Matt: The band basically started as a studio project of mine back in 2004. I was living on Long Island at the time (which is where I grew up) and it was really hard for me to find other musicians to play with, so I decided to just make an album and just find whoever I could online to perform on it, without really considering the logistics of where they were from. I was a fan of Persuader, who just had a demo out at the time, so I had contacted Jens to see if he'd be interested in singing on the material. He was, and the rest is history! Since then, I've relocated to New Jersey where I now work full time as a guitar teacher for an after-school lesson/performance franchise called the School of Rock. All the other guys also work as private instructors as well, and Randy also builds & repairs instruments.
SoT: There's a healthy vibe of thrash, power metal, progressive metal, and extreme metal in your music. Can you give us some insight into the musical influences of the band?
Matt: I really just like all kinds of metal. I love everything from Dio-era Sabbath and King Diamond to Death and Carcass. I also think its no secret that two of my all time favorite bands are Symphony X and Nevermore. Particularly their guitarists, Michael Romeo and Jeff Loomis, respectively, have had a huge impact on my guitar playing, with Jeff being a primary inspiration for me to start using 7 string guitars (which are featured for the first time on the new album). I do have to say, though, that despite all the metal influences, my favorite music is progressive rock, particularly bands like Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Rush etc. I really tried to emphasize that influence more on From Refuge to Ruin than any previous album by deciding to heavily feature the mellotron as opposed to more modern keyboard sounds, as well as using more acoustic guitar stuff and odd time signature changes. Ultimately, though, I think the biggest way that music has influenced me was to not be afraid to mix styles together. If you put on an old Genesis album, you'll hear that the music ranges from very light and pastoral to very dark and intense, often within the same song. So not being afraid to blend different styles of metal together to suit whatever emotion or atmosphere I'm trying to convey, I think that diversity is the way the 70's prog bands have mainly influenced me.
SoT: From Refuge to Ruin is your latest release-how did you wind up getting in touch with Nightmare Records?
Matt: I had a lot of friends in the business that recommended I get in touch with them. I was already familiar with Nightmare Records and I knew they did a really good job with their artists. So far, I can see why, Lance King has been really awesome to work with.
SoT: In addition to the great meshing of musical styles on the new CD, there are also some great vocal duels between Brian's clean vocals and Matt's extreme vocals, which seems to be something the band are getting more comfortable doing. Can you talk about the bands decision to go in that direction, mixing the extreme and melodic vocal styles?
Matt: That mix has always been in Dark Empire, even back on Distant Tides. I guess the only difference is that the ratio of clean to death vocals has evened out a bit more, because the music has gotten darker and heavier, so there are more spots where the death vocal is more appropriate now. Actually the band that originally inspired me to mix the vocal styles was Borknagar, particularly their album Empiricism. I appreciate the qualities of both vocal styles and enjoy the option of either or, depending on what the music calls for. If you want something to be particularly aggressive sounding, the death vocal might provide that better than a clean vocal line. But on the other hand, the dynamic spectrum is severely limited with only death vocals, plus you lose the melodic element.
SoT: There's an epic feel to many of the songs on the new album-what are some of your favorites and why?
Matt: My two favorites are definitely the title track and The Cleansing Fires. The title track is where I really got to let the prog rock influence run rampant. The 12 string guitar part with the flute melody in particular is taken straight from the Genesis how-to book. The tuning for the 12 string was even copped from the Genesis song The Cinema Show. Its unique in that the two center string pairs are in intervals as opposed to straight octaves. So as I'm fretting one string course, two different pitches are produced. It actually really limits what you can do, but what you can do sounds really incredible. And as far as The Cleansing Fires, I think it's just the ultimate culmination of all the tracks before it on the album. Like the whole album is just building towards that song. But besides those two, I'd have to say my favorite "shorter" track is The Crimson Portrait. The overall vibe and especially Brian's vocal performance on it, I think came out really well.
SoT: What kind of gear did the band use for the recording of the album?
Matt: I don't have any information on the drum set up, but for the guitar, I used a Soldano Avenger 100 Head into a Mesa 2x12 cab. A Maxon OD9 pedal was also used in front of the amp. The rhythm guitars are mostly a Jeff Loomis signature Schecter 7 string, and all the leads were on a Schecter Blackjack ATX-7 with Dimarzio pickups (a PAF7 in the neck and a D Sonic in the bridge). The Blackjack was also used to track the rhythms for the title track and The Cleansing Fires. The mellotron is, sadly, not a real one, but the samples used are from the M-Tron Pro library. I also tune the guitars down one whole step. The 12 string guitar was a Breedlove Atlas C250 and we also used a 6 string acoustic that Randy built. Finally, I think Randy used an Ibanez BTB going direct, but he currently uses his own custom-built bass.
SoT: The production values on From Refuge to Ruin are very high-who did the band work with this time around?
Matt: The production and mixing were once again handled by Jeremy Krull, who also produced and mixed the last two albums. The album was mastered by Scott Hull from Masterdisk. I'm definitely a bigger fan of how this album sounds than the last one, and I think that just has to do with the fact that Jeremy's become that much better as a producer and mixer.
SoT: How does the songwriting process work within the band? Where many of the songs for the new album written before Brian joined, or was he able to take part in that?
Matt: I wrote the lion's share of the music, but Andrew actually co-wrote the verse riff in The Crimson Portrait as well as the verse riff at the end of The Cleansing Fires, and Randy co-wrote the verse of Black Hearts Demise. Basically, I pull lots of all nighters in front of my Mac (and a cup of strong coffee) and when I have some songs fully demoed in Logic (recording software) I show it to the other guys and from there, they might make some suggestions, and some parts might change to suit the playing style of the performer. Brian wasn't around to take part in the main body of songwriting, but he did wind up writing all the lyrics and vocal melodies for Lest Ye Be Judged and The Cleansing Fires. Thats actually the first time I had someone else do that, because Jens never wrote any lyrics or melodies on the last two albums. He'd tweak my melodies a little and add in his signature vocal harmonies, but Brian is the first to handle vocal melody and lyric duties all on his own. I think he did a fantastic job.
SoT: Are there any plans to tour to support the new CD?
Matt: A full fledged tour remains to be seen, but we'll definitely be playing shows in and around the NY/NJ area and Northeast. It'd be nice if we wound up on some festivals as well. We'll be playing two shows at the end of May in NY and NJ. Check our Facebook page for dates!
SoT: If you could look into your crystal ball into the new 2-3 years in the life of Dark Empire, what do you see?
Matt: Another album out and continuing to gain new fans and exposure. Musically, I see us continuing down the path laid out by songs like The Cleansing Fires, Dark Seeds of Depravity, and The Crimson Portrait. I'm also interested in adding even more vintage prog rock keyboard sounds, such as a mini moog and more hammond organ. It'd be a challenge to make it work in the context of heavier music, but Dan Swano did it on his Moontower album, so... its possible!
(Click here to read our review of From Refuge to Ruin)