Dark Empire - Refuge to Ruin
Nightmare Records
Thrash/Dark Prog Hybrid
9 songs (01:02:38)
Release year: 2012
Dark Empire, Nightmare Records
Reviewed by Cory

Formerly the purveyors of some highly technical power metal, Dark Empire have seen some major changes in the four years between 2008's Humanity Dethroned and their latest effort Refuge to Ruin. (Note: Having recently discovered the band, I did not have the opportunity to listen to Humanity Dethroned, only their first album, so I cannot speak for the stylistic changes on that album). First is the notable departure of vocalist Jens Carlsson (of Persuader and Savage Circus fame), replaced by Brian Larkin whom, from what I have been able to find, is fresh to the metal scene. Additionally we have a stylistic change from power metal to a more aggressive thrash/progressive approach. By doing so Matt Molite, the principle song writer, appears to be steering his ship into more creatively open waters. The question of whether or not this development is successful naturally falls to the ears of the listener, but in my mind the change is one that yields immediate rewards because Refuge to Ruin is an intriguing listen that is well executed and easily identifiable.

One thing I noted while going back and listening to Distant Tides was that while a very competent album, it basically sounded like Persuader. The vocals overshadowed much of the music on display because Jens Carlsson has such a distinct tone that reminds you of his other bands. Refuge to Ruin, on the other hand, does not directly sound like any other band I can think of. Sure there are hints of Nevermore in there, and Sanctuary beyond that. There are even some melo-death elements, due partially to the use of death vocals, that will bring any number of bands to your mind, but none of these definitively define Dark Empire on Refuge to Ruin. Instead they accomplish becoming a true hybrid, drawing from each to create their own unique identity and in this age of copies and formulas that is to be commended. Matt’s guitar work is the star of the show, and his playing is just as strong as seen on his previous work, however I believe he has placed more emphasis this time around on the composition and overall concepts of the song, rather than injecting riffs and leads everywhere he possibly can. On songs like A Plague in the Throne Room and Dreaming in Vengeance this works extremely well, with both being high quality ass kickers while not flooding the ears with unnecessary excess. The flip side of that is Dark Seeds of Depravity, which nearly falls apart due to an over simplified stop/start riff that I could not get into, but is ultimately saved by some interesting passages that develop later on. There is a balance to this style that I believe Matt is still working at finding, but for the most part he nails it. On the vocal side of the house Brian Larkin finds a comfortable home here, lending his rather mellow tones to the mix and never really straying too far in any particular direction except the safe one. On one hand this is perfect for the album in that it serves to smooth the transition this band is going through, but on the other you wonder what more he is capable of and hope to hear something slightly more involving in the future. Randy Knecht provides a sound bass line throughout, and drums are handled via session by Matt Graff. Given the challenging nature of the music, including multiple time changes and so forth, you can appreciate what these guys bring to the table.

With all that said, the individual songs are mostly in the good to great range. A Plague in the Throne Room and Dreaming in Vengeance are outstanding thrash/prog hybrids. The title track is an even better (and longer at nearly 10 minutes) journey through more melancholic pastures, incorporating diverse elements such as flute and acoustic passages. What Men Call Hatred is a pounding dark prog work that draws heavily from the Nevermore playbook, and album closer The Cleansing Fires steals the show with 14 minutes of diversity, melting all of the elements that make this album such an intriguing listen into one song that runs the gauntlet and comes out on top as the best.

The bottom line is that Refuge to Ruin is an absorbing listen that both separates Dark Empire from its roots and paves the way towards a brighter future. In making these changes, Matt and company have created room to breathe and grow creatively, and that leads me to believe there are even better things ahead for this band. Until then Refuge to Ruin is here to effectively kick your ass and join your collection as a respectable album filled with neck snapping riffs.

Killing Songs :
A Plague in the Throne Room, Dreaming in Vengeance, Refuge to Ruin, What Men Call Hatred, The Cleansing Fires
Cory quoted 85 / 100
Other albums by Dark Empire that we have reviewed:
Dark Empire - Humanity Dethroned reviewed by Ben and quoted 91 / 100
Dark Empire - Distant Tides reviewed by Ben and quoted 80 / 100
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