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Dark Empire's Matt Moliti Gets Personal About "From Refuge to Ruin" and The Band

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Band Photo: Dark Empire (?)

Whether or not they’re harbingers of a prog-thrash revolution is for time to tell, but the men of Dark Empire have made a definitive statement in the release of their third album – they are here to destroy and rebuild the prog-thrash multiverse. With “From Refuge to Ruin” (reviewed here) just released on March 27th, the band has been receiving accolades from many sources, in large part crediting the work of the band’s lead guitarist and main songwriter, Matt Moliti. Able to shred and riff both mindfully and proficiently with the best of them, Moliti is more than a guitar prodigy for his ability to make the wildest of solos actually fit within the song without becoming a practice exercise.

Moliti offered some of his time to catch up with MetalUnderground.com’s Frank Serafine to answer a few questions about himself, the band’s past and present, the new album, and the surprising influence of prog rock and video game music on his writing. He also tells about working around a neurological condition that interferes with his fingers, making his playing that much more impressive.

Frank Serafine (Progressivity_In_All): On “From Refuge to Ruin,” was there a goal to take the music in a different direction than the past albums?

Matt Moliti: I always strive to evolve the Dark Empire sound from album to album. You can hear that between our first and 2nd albums, as Humanity Dethroned was also pretty different from Distant Tides. There’s always that period right before I start writing where I look at the previous album and figure out what elements I want to keep, what I want to shed, and what I want to add. I think no matter what, the core of the Dark Empire sound, to me, is the fusion of traditional metal and extreme metal influences. So going with that foundation, I think “what can I add to that to continue to evolve the band?”

This time, it was to really bring out my prog rock influences even more than on previous albums. I always had them, particularly in songs like “The Forgotten Sin” and “Prelude/Haunted,” but I felt the time was right to bring that to the forefront. So there is a lot more odd time signature work, a bit more adventurous chord progressions, and of course epic songs like the title track and “The Cleansing Fires.” It’s also the first time I’m writing exclusively on 7 string guitars, so that definitely affects the writing process and sound of the band.

It makes me want to inject a bit more death and doom metal style riffs into the mix. And last but not least, having a new vocalist is of course going to change the overall sound. Even before picking Brian, I knew I wanted to find someone with a more Dio-esque vocal style than Jens, and Brian fits that bill pretty well. He can still sing plenty aggressive, but is able to also clean up well, whereas Jens was kind of 100% full bore grit all the time. So I think I Brian’s delivery fits the more progressive direction the band is going in.

Frank: What made you decide to incorporate more synthesizers, flute, and other classical goodies?

Matt: That’s the prog rock influence again. The whole layered 12-string guitar stuff with the flute and mellotron is totally a Genesis thing. I actually even stole the 12-string tuning I used for the title track from the Genesis song “The Cinema Show.” It’s unique in that the two center string pairs are tuned to different notes instead of the usual octaves, so when you fret one pair of strings, two separate notes are produced. Actually, even though we didn’t use any of the authentic keyboard instruments, none of the keyboards being emulated are digital synthesizers; they’re analog. The mellotron used tape playback, which is one of the reasons it has that spooky mid-fi sound.

Frank: Have you ever heard the soundtrack to the video game, Diablo II? Your twelve-string passages and series of diminished notes on both flutes and guitars bring to mind a lot the twelve-string and flute from that soundtrack. If so, do video game soundtracks often inspire you or is the comparison purely coincidental?

Matt: I can’t say I’ve heard any of the music from Diablo II, but when I was a teenager I was hooked on Final Fantasy games big time. I always loved the music from those games and thought a lot of it did sound very prog. Sure enough, I wound up reading that Nobuo Uematsu, the composer for the games, was influenced by that music as well. I can especially hear ELP and Kansas. Actually, for fans of Nobuo’s music that haven’t heard Kansas before, go check out the song “The Spider.” That’s totally Final Fantasy boss music!

Frank: Who is the main songwriter and how much was written by other members of the band?

I wrote about 90% of the music on “From Refuge to Ruin,” but on “Humanity Dethroned,” I wrote everything. Our former guitarist, Andrew Atwood (who left right before the album was to be recorded, but was present during the demoing stage) co-write the verse guitar riff in “The Crimson Portrait” with me, as well as the last verse riff in “The Cleansing Fires.” He also contributed lyrics to the title track. Our bassist, Randy Knecht, co-write the verse riff for “Black Hearts Demise” with me, and Brian wrote all of the lyrics and melodies for “Lest Ye Be Judged” and “The Cleansing Fires.”

That’s actually the first time anyone but me has written the vocal melodies/lyrics for a Dark Empire song, and I think Brian did a tremendous job with them, especially on “The Cleansing Fires.” It’s also a huge weight off of my shoulders to be able to just focus on the music part, then hand it over to Brian for the vocals. I definitely want to continue doing that in the future.

Frank: Is the music written out before played or taken to the band first to be elaborated on?

Matt: I usually demo everything in Logic (recording software for Mac). We don’t actually even perform the songs as a band until we start rehearsing for shows. After the songs are demoed, individual parts might get changed a bit to suit the performer’s style, particularly a lot of the drum parts. Or in the studio we might spontaneously decide to do or add something different than what was in the demo.

Frank: Could you give us a track-by-track breakdown of what you believe the lyrics deal with on each song?

Matt: There is a slight lyrical theme running through the album of deterioration. Things going... well... from refuge to ruin, basically, haha. So, some songs talk about deterioration of government (“A Plague in the Throne Room,” title track), deterioration of society (“Dark Seeds of Depravity,” “What Men Call Hatred”), and deterioration of relationships (“The Crimson Portrait,” “Black Hearts Demise”).

“Dreaming In Vengeance” is about a dream I had where I had gotten into an altercation with someone I was having issues with (in real life) and, in the dream, they had attacked me, so I kind of grabbed their arms and threw them off of the edge of a cliff, and I woke up right as their nails had dug into my forearms and I could still feel the blood running down my arms from the dream. It was a really powerful image and I immediately wrote the lyrics for the song after that.

Brian would be a better person than me to ask about “Lest Ye Be Judged” and “The Cleansing Fires,” but I believe “Lest Ye Be Judged” is about people on the internet who pass judgment on others thanks to the anonymity of the internet, and “The Cleansing Fires” is based on the real life news story of an Austrian man who had kept his daughter locked in his basement for years, beating and raping her. Pretty dark stuff.

Frank: Do you actively look for different chord voicings for the guitar parts in the songs?

Matt: Not necessarily different chord voicings, but I’ll try to add interest by layering different parts. One thing I really like to do is have one guitar play power chords and have a 2nd guitar strumming octaves of a sort of counter-melody to what the power chords are doing. Or with the 12-string parts, layering two different chord arpeggiations on top of one another so that when you hear the two simultaneously you get the impression of a much larger chord being played. It’s really about a sort of more orchestral style writing, where you can have a chord structure or counter-melodies played through several instruments as opposed to just one.

Frank: How many years have you been playing guitar, and are you classically-trained, had some instruction, or are you completely self-taught?

Matt: I’ve been playing for about 16 years now. Growing up, I had a guitar teacher who really helped in my early development, but for all the metal and shred stuff, I was self taught through watching instructional videos by guys like John Petrucci, Paul Gilbert, and Michael Romeo, and also lessons on the Chops From Hell website. When I went to Berklee I had Joe Stump as a private instructor, so I learned a lot of the whole neoclassical style through him. I was only at Berklee for two semesters, but I did learn a lot about more theory based stuff and ear training.

Frank: What is your favorite use of a mellotron in a tune?

Matt: I think in the Genesis song “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” right at around 3:47 where the song breaks down and these massive choir mellotron chords come in. There are a few other moments that I love from them and King Crimson and Opeth, but that one is probably my favorite.

Frank: How many takes did you go through to get the entire mind-bending 1:40-long lead part in "Lest Ye Be Judged" recorded? How about the bass tapping?

Matt: Haha, well, I didn’t track the entire 1:40 in one fell swoop, but each “chunk” of the solo is one solid performance. As far as how many takes, I don’t remember them taking much longer than average for me, actually, we did put video up of me tracking the solos in this song, which you can watch here:

The only part that took me a long time was the part that starts the solo that the bass winds up doubling, and that was mostly because... well I didn’t know it at the time, but I have this really rare neurological condition called focal dystonia where the neurons in my brain that control my first and 2nd fingers are sort of “fused” so it’s really difficult for me to perform passages on the guitar that involve those two fingers working together, especially of really technical nature. Its task-specific, too, which is even stranger, because it only happens when I pick up the guitar (typing on a computer keyboard, for example, things are fine).

I was officially diagnosed last March, even though I’ve shown symptoms of it gradually getting worse since 2007 or so. Really the only thing to do is to find ways to work around it, so that’s what I’m doing now, and I can play our whole setlist while avoiding my 2nd finger for the vast majority of it. I’ve had to rewrite some solos from the Humanity Dethroned songs, but many of the solos on From Refuge to Ruin avoided the 2nd finger anyway, just sort of subconsciously, because it was just easier.

There are ways to rehabilitate from it, but it takes a long time, sometimes years for many musicians, and I’ve only just started. You pretty much have to rewire how your brain works. Right now I’m just focused on keeping a positive outlook and being thankful that I can still perform professionally and have a career in music despite the condition.

Frank: Has the lineup for Dark Empire been fairly solidified with this album?

Matt: It’s still a little early to tell, but the vibe amongst the performing lineup is the best Dark Empire has ever had. We all have a great chemistry, both musically and personality-wise, and that is really hard to find, especially among six musicians (myself, our live 2nd guitarist, Christian Colabelli, Brian, Randy, our live keyboardist, Harris Bergsohn, and our live drummer, Matt Graff, who also did the drums on FRTR).

Frank: Who would you most like to collaborate with?

Matt: I think it’d be fun to work with Dan Swano. That guy’s so underrated. I love Edge of Sanity and I love his solo album, “Moontower.”

Progressivity_In_All's avatar

Frank Serafine is an avid writer, music producer, and musician, with five albums to his name. While completely enamored with metal, he appreciates a wide range of music. He also works full-time at the American-based performing rights organization, SESAC.

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