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Of the great American female-fronted intersectional powerviolence/grindcore surge of the 2010s only California’s Maladjusted, Iowa’s Closet Witch, and Michigan trio Cloud Rat have survived the purging of the subsequent soon-to-be decade. Internationally, German unit Svffer is still going strong and so is Riposte from Paris, France for that matter. In the nine years since explosive domestic - and international acts as Bastard Deceiver, Buried At Birth, Curmudgeon, Deathrats, Necklacing, Sacridose, Idiots Parade, and Rape Revenge all came to an end. In the four years since the superb "Qliphoth" Cloud Rat traveled the world playing shows, released a number of different splits, and later compiled them on the "Clipped Beaks // Silk Panic MMXVIII" double-album. With “Pollinator” Mount Pleasant’s most celebrated export returns in grand form in what is easily their most incendiary since 2013’s “Moksha”. The "Do Not Let Me off the Cliff" companion EP was released simultaneously, compiling all of the more eclectic material written and recorded during the “Pollinator” sessions.

Not a lot has changed in the Cloud Rat camp since they started out in 2009. Stability is what has allowed Cloud Rat to become the force of nature they are today. The only significant change is co-founder/drummer Adrian Lee Manges bading his farewell after "Qliphoth". The then-quartet was reduced back to its original trio format with electronics man Brandon Hill switching to drums. In recent years the trio have taken to recording with J.C. Griffin at Lakebottom Recording House in Toledo, Ohio. In the past they’ve worked with Brian Uhl, Fernando Pena, and Jonia Whitney for artworks, but more recently they’ve taken a liking to the drawings of Renata Rojo. What hasn’t changed (and probably never will) is that Cloud Rat understands the simple principle that “less is more”. Their recordings are utilitarian and minimalist. Not in the sense that they are underproduced, but that they are plain, honest representations of their sound. Overproduction is the bane of underground metal, especially in grindcore/powerviolence.

“Pollinator” very much dispenses with any and all pleasantries and cuts straight to the chase. Cloud Rat hasn’t been able to survive this long and remain this prolific for no reason. Their self-titled debut from 2011 was legendary in underground circles. Infamous even, if you will. In the tradition of the best Napalm Death and Nasum records it fired off 11 songs in 18 very short minutes. Every pressing ever sold out in record time. After two records of straight-up grindcore Cloud Rat stretched their legs and experimented a bit on "Qliphoth". Grungy guitars, ambient electronics, post-metal melodies, and a more pronounced hardcore-punk bend have been part of the Cloud Rat arsenal arguably since “Moksha”. "Qliphoth" built thereupon but never betrayed the band’s primal grind/hardcore past. Madison and her men will probably never pen something as misguided as “Fear, Emptiness, Despair”, “Darker Days Ahead”, or “Head Cage”. Which won’t stop them from throwing in a bit of experimentation, mostly by covering the unexpected non-genre song here and there. “Moksha” had the Neil Young cover ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’, “Clipped Beaks” had ‘Fish In A Pool’ from Electric Deads, and Cloud Rat takes on the popular evergreen ‘Al Di Là’ as sung by crooners Emilio Pericoli, Betty Curtis, Jerry Vale, Sergio Franchi, and Al Martino here. The only somewhat experimental cut is ‘Luminiscent Cellar’ that starts out as a dreamy shoegaze song before turning into a black as pitch semi-sludgy droning doom cut that could have come from Burning Witch. ‘Perla’ is a truly phenomenal closer to a record that recombines everything of past albums.

Speak of intense. After a decade in the studio and on the road Madison Marshall still sounds as fiendishly pissed off as ever. What a voice and range this woman has. If we were to compare Marshall to anybody it would be J.R. Hayes from Pig Destroyer, late Nasum frontman Mieszko Talarczyk, and Benümb’s Pete Ponitkoff. Madison combines the thousand voices of Hayes with the intensity of Talarczyk, and the percussive guttural delivery of Ponitkoff. Which was pretty much anything and everything she did on the first two records. That never stopped her from integrating spoken word as far back as the 2011 self-titled. From “Moksha” onward, and on "Qliphoth" in particular, Marshall really came into her own and impressed thoroughly. It almost makes you hope she’d invite Veronica Mars (Buried At Birth), Christine Cunniff (Deathrats), Jaydee Perales (Sacridose), Petra from Idiots Parade, or the Closet Witch herself, Mollie Piatetsky, to provide some growls and screams on whatever they commit to tape in the next few years. Madison is on fire on this album, and a decade hasn’t dulled her in the slightest. She sounds absolutely friggin’ livid. Can you really blame her? Stupid White Men are pillaging the nation. America has become a backwards banana republic and the laughingstock of the civilised world. She has every right to be freaking indignant.

In 2009 Cloud Rat was just another newcomer in a counterculture scene bursting at the seams with young talent. Today the Michiganders are experienced veterans and an institution in their own right. They are slightly more poetic, sophisticated in ways that many of their peers are not; but above all else, they put their money exactly where their mouth is. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and in times of rampant anti-intellectualism, the cult of 45, the erosion of civil rights, and deliberate ignorance and increased backwardness borne from religious fervor and imagined persecution a band like Cloud Rat is needed now more than ever. In these dark Orwellian times where Nineteen Eighty-Four is no longer a work of fiction but our shared reality; when terms as “post-truth” and “alternative facts” are used unironically by elected officials with such alarming frequency that they’ve become commonplace. Facism has reared its ugly face in your favorite colors red, white, and blue; and it carries a Bible in one hand, and a gun in the other. Promises to “drain the swamp” have become an open invitation to join the scalping. Charlatans, grifters, con men, and swindlers man just about every position of power. The One-Percenters are rewriting legislation on the books. As Queensrÿche asked in 1988, “who can you trust when everybody’s a crook?

The queen of candy-colored Rococo – and frou frou dresses Julia Nishimura and her revolving cast of sharply dressed men (generally referred to as princes) are back. On their debut "Birth Of Romance" Cross Vein played completely over-the-top flowery power metal that sounded like a perfect synthesis of Italian – and Scandinavian variations of the genre, "Royal Eternity" continued largely in the same vein, but hinted at a more measured approach. "Gate Of Fantasia" fully capitalized on their newfound restraint and was significant for exactly the same reason. “True Castle” – surely a stopgap EP to whet our appetite for their fourth album – harkens back more to the pre-“Gate Of Fantasia” days and offers two new songs (including instrumental versions) or 20 minutes of brand new music.

Since 2017 things have been relatively stable in the Cross Vein camp. There haven’t been any notable changes in personnel since “Gate Of Fantasia” other than bass guitarist Ookatsu Shōyō being replaced by Zary. The once so volatile line-up has solidified and (besides Julia eventually embarking on a solo career) it’s unlikely that there will be any more Cross Vein splinter projects. 2013-2014 rhythm section Nakano Yosuke (bass guitar) and Kouichi Shimizu (drums) branched off with frontwoman Miki (実稀) to form Octaviagrace in 2015. Even though Ibuki (息吹) left in 2009 (and later fronted Art of Gradation and Disqualia, both tragically shortlived constellations with plenty of initial promise) her solo debut didn’t materialize until 2018. “True Castle” is a twofold release that not only premieries two new songs, but offers the same two songs in instrumental form as a bonus, or padding, whichever you prefer. It follows the same template as the “The Revival” single from 2017 and as always the artwork is pretty amazing. Like “The Revival” before it “True Castle” indulges the central duo's aggressive inclinations after the more measured direction that "Gate Of Fantasia" took last year.

These two new songs ‘True Castle’ and ‘Existence’ offer the best of what the two principal songwriters typically specialize in. ‘True Castle’ is a high-speed power metal rager that very much sounds like something from “Royal Eternity” and “Birth Of Romance” and is likely a Yoshinari Kashiwagi composition. Well, maybe “rager” is a bit of a stretch for what is by all accounts a triumphant, uptempo cut with an arrangement and orchestral – and choral accoutrements that oozes classic Rhapsody (Of Fire) vibes. As a bonus there’s a guitar – and keyboard solo trade-off that could’ve come from a pre-2003 Children Of Bodom album (or back when they still worth taking seriously.) In comparison ‘Existence’ is more measured sounding and probably from the hand of Masumi Takayama. While there always has been a sense of technical flair and something of an progressive undercurrent to Cross Vein’s music it has never been so pronounced as it is here. It’s difficult, if not to say impossible, to estimate whether that is indicative of the band’s future material or not, but it’s an interesting development for a unit that has largely set its formula in stone over the last couple of years.

While Ibuki (息吹) was the early voice of Cross Vein Julia Nishimura certainly has become their most identifiable and iconic frontwoman since debuting in 2010. Shrill would be one way of describing Julia’s vocals, glass-shattering another. Over nine years and three albums Nishimura’s golden pipes are one of Cross Vein’s greatest assets. On “True Castle” Julia is her kawaii self and, thankfully, she continues to sing in her native Japanese (despite both tracks being Englisht titled). There are no instances of forced heavily accented English, something which prevented Lovebites highly-publicized Nuclear Blast Records debut “Clockwork Immortality” from unlocking its full potential. Not encumbered by having to appeal to the international market Cross Vein is content to remain a titan force domestically. Due to the sheer intensity of their attack, the relentless optimism, and triumphant technicality Cross Vein is best enjoyed in limited dosages. Offering 2 new tracks, and a total of 20 minutes of music, “True Castle” has the ideal duration while offering a glimpse of where Cross Vein is headed in the future.

“True Castle” doesn’t so much chart new waters as it offers a slight refining of the direction Cross Vein has been specializing in since “Royal Eternity”. Just like on the earlier “The Revival” single Julia doesn’t feature on the cover (even though she did on the earlier “Profusion” and “Maid Of Lorraine” singles) and “True Castle”, at least visually, seems to be a callback to the “Moon Addict” days with artwork that very much looks like a stylistic continuation of “The Revival”. Those pining to see Julia and her dresses again will in all likelihood have to wait for the fourth Cross Vein album. There’s a point to be made that Cross Vein might just be a tad much for the average power metal fan, but bands like Twilight Force, Frozen Crown, Elvenstorm, and Dragonforce are drawing massive crowds despite, or maybe in spite of, their inevitably tacky conceptual nature. The closest thing you could call Cross Vein is fairytale metal, or Tim Burton metal. Whichever description you prefer, “True Castle” very much manifests that the Yoshinari Kashiwagi-Masumi Takayama songwriting partnership continues to pay dividends. As sugary and shiny as Cross Vein tends to be they are emblemic of Japanese power metal in the sense that they do it better than the European masters. That fourth album cannot come soon enough. Let’s hope Julia’s on the cover again.