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Draped from top to bottom in fluffy fantasy imagery worthy of Rhapsody (of Fire) and sporting enough colorful Rococo – and frou frou dresses to warrant an endorsement from local Renaissance – and Kera boutiques Tokyo, Japan power metal combo Cross Vein offers a measure of restraint compared to their earlier work on their third album “Gate Of Fantasia”. Cross Vein might be a showcase for frontwoman Julia Nishimura but lead guitarist duo Yoshinari Kashiwagi and Masumi Takayama are the true stars here. “Gate Of Fantasia” is still as over-the-top as flowery Japanese power metal tends to get but it never indulges in the symfo excesses and vocal eccentricities that made “Birth Of Romance” and “Royal Eternity” so memorable. On “Gate Of Fantasia” Cross Vein, for the lack of a better word, has matured into an experienced and well-traveled act that balances world-class musicianship with orchestral pomp and cinematic grandeur.

To describe Japanese power metal to the uninitiated, it more or less is a merging of Stratovarius’ “Infinite” and Rhapsody (of Fire) circa “Dawn Of Victory” with something wild as, well, Children Of Bodom around “Something Wild” and “Hatebreeder” with the combined opulent orchestral accoutrements of each. Usually, but not always, these bands are female-fronted and tend to draw as much from J-pop, and classical music as from visual kei. Uniforms, cosplaying, and costumes are not a prerequisite but are seen often enough. As with idol-oriented bands there are offshoots, splinter bands, and side-projects. Despite the incestual nature of their scene Japanese power metal bands usually are fully conceptualized entities with a distinct musical direction/vision. Vocal stylings usually take after either Timo Kotipelto or Fabio Lione and for every Julia Nishimura, Rami, or Ibuki banshee shrill babe there’s a rock tigress like Haruka Yoshikawa, or Sin Isomer. Whether it’s steampunk vampires, cross dressing, yuri girls, or the Lolita equivalent of the assorted wardrobe of a Spanish gothic horror throwback – Japan has it all. As of this writing neither Haruka Ayase, Aki Maeda, or Nicole Ishida are fronting any of these bands, but a man can dream. At this point we’re far more interested in the contents of Julia’s ballroom dresses than in those of our promo folder. Oh well…

Cotton-candied is perhaps the best way to describe a record like “Gate Of Fantasia”. The biggest difference this time around is that Cross Vein has adopted a more measured songwriting approach on their third album. “Birth Of Romance” was completely written by Yoshinari Kashiwagi. “Royal Eternity” saw more contributions from Masumi Takayama. “Gate Of Fantasia” on the other hand is a very collaborative effort between guitarists Kashiwagi and Takayama with each composing half of the songs. Compared to earlier albums Nishimura has reined in her glass-shattering shrills and her vocals are akin to post-health scare Rami for the most part. Which doesn’t really change that Cross Vein is still really fluffy, cuddly, and, well, regal for the most part. In case songtitles as ‘隠されしエデン ‘ (Hidden Eden), ‘星屑の軌跡’ (Stardust Trail), or ‘Immortal Beauty’ and ‘Brilliant Star’ weren’t enough of a giveaway. Then there’s ‘Masquerade~交響曲第25番~’ that, as the title suggests, is arranged around a segment from Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183/173dB from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. ‘Immortal Beauty’ is a strange groove/power metal hybrid, and ‘Fate’ is the prerequisite sappy ballad that albums like this can’t go without. However it’s on the heavier songs that Julia is able to show what she’s capable of. Whether she’s crooning, singing, narrating, or flexing her operatic chops Nishimura always shines. Surely it’s a matter of time before we’ll see Julia branch out and embark on a solo career.

Providing the necessary kawaii factor is Julia Nishimura whose octave range is only matched by predilection for dressing up in the cutest dresses and what have you. Her wedding pictures are just adorable. In fact the photoshoots alone make Cross Vein worth checking out for any redblooded male. “Gate Of Fantasia” turns up the early Tim Burton aspect compared to the glamour photography that adorned “Royal Eternity” in 2015. This is probably what Dimmu Borgir would sound like if they ever had the courage to ditch their whole overcooked and preposterous black metal image. “Eonian” is, after all, power metal in everything but name. If their latest single ‘Existence’ is anything to go by Cross Vein shows no signs of reining in their orchestral pomp anytime soon. If anything it sounds very much like the earlier ‘The Revival’ single. “Gate Of Fantasia” sounds grandiose and fuwa fuwa when and where it matters. That Kashiwagi and Takayama were able to not go for complete overkill makes “Gate Of Fantasia” that much stronger in the long run. This might not be as utterly over-the-top as “Royal Eternity” and “Birth Of Romance” but sometimes a little goes a long way. This is the kind of album you want to hear again and again.

Now defunct New York grindcore unit Brutal Truth observed in 1992 that “Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses” and they couldn’t have been more right in that assessment. Marlborough, Massachusetts death metal upstarts Abnormality have been experiencing a meteoric rise in popularity. They made a name for themselves with their independently distributed “The Collective Calm In Mortal Oblivion” EP and inked a deal with Sevared Records (which embodies about the worst of United Guttural, Pavement/Crash Music, and Comatose Music, combined) on the back of its success. “Contaminating the Hive Mind” followed two years later and their ascending popularity helped Abnormality secure a contract with Metal Blade Records. The presence of one Mallika Sundaramurthy certainly helps but it would all be for naught if she was merely a pretty face. No. Abnormality has a penchant for writing chunky death metal that is groovy and technical in equal measure. They aren't afraid of a good hook or guitar solo either.

The past four years have been a period of great unrest; political, social, and otherwise. Abnormality has always been inspired by socio-political events but “Sociopathic Constructs” is the first time the Bostonians dedicate an entire record to the subject. Sundaramurthy (who now lives in the Czech Republic) and her men aren’t going to let the current political climate and turmoil pass without taking a stand nor without a fight. This is a band that wants to be remembered for being on the right side of history. Sundaramurthy has every reason to be foaming at the mouth looking at the increasingly theocratic – and totalitarian state of her first adopted home. Professional con man and supposed savior of the fundamentalist Christian Wrong Donald Trump has somehow been elevated to the country’s highest office and things have been getting worse from there. In his first (and, hopefully, only) term the Orange Idiot has facilitated widespread corruption and cronyism, has seen to the systemic oppression of minorities, the erosion of civil liberties, the abolition of women’s rights, and the dismantling of what little social security existed in the Land of the Free. America has entered a second Dark Age, one of religious superstition and proud anti-intellectualism. “Sociopathic Constructs” is a scathing polemic against the current powers that be.

Sundaramurthy has always had a razorsharp pen and songtitles as ‘Fabrication Of the Enemy’, ‘A Chaos Reserved’, ‘Vigilant Ignorance’, and ‘Hopeless Masses’ in their repertoire it will surprise absolutely no one that “Sociopathic Constructs” pushes their socio-political angle to the fore. Abnormality isn’t as overtly political as, say, Dying Fetus or Fear Factory but that doesn’t remove that “Sociopathic Constructs” has some of this band’s finest work on the compositional – and lyric writing front. Mallika has always been a marvelous woman that serves as an inspiration to many of her sisters. She’s an outspoken and fiercely intelligent woman; a feminist, veganist, and small business owner. On “Sociopathic Constructs” Mallika once again showcases why she’s one of the best frontpersons in the business. She truly is the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the underground. The rest of the band (yeah, apparently there are other people in Abnormality outside of Mallika, as hard as it may be to believe) doesn’t falter either. Guitarist duo Jeremy Henry and Sam Kirsch unleash a veritable maelstrom of concrete riffing schemes with rhythm section Josh Staples (bass guitar) and Jay Blaisdell (drums) meting out swift punishment without resorting to random chaos for its own sake. We were more than a little indifferent towards “Mechanisms Of Omniscience” but “Sociopathic Constructs” is the record we always knew Abnormality had in them. Which is to say, “Sociopathic Constructs” absolutely and categorically slays. Everything has been building up to this. This is the album where Abnormality fulfills its potential.

One of Abnormality’s greatest strengths has always been their sense of propulsion and drive. “Sociopathic Constructs” is what Disgorge would sound like if they played with the chunk of early Cannibal Corpse and the technicality and production value of Brain Drill. This is what we hoped the Drill’s “Boundless Obscenity” would have sounded like or what Suffocation’s “…Of the Dark Light” would have been if they fully shed their skin and the pretense that they still had anything to do with the Suffocation that wrote “Breeding the Spawn”. Abnormality answers the question what Cannibal Corpse would have sounded like had they persevered with the technical direction of “Butchered at Birth”. Abnormality has always excelled in merging California informed technicality and percussiveness with a level of intensity not unlike Québecois death metal. Hopefully the current climate - social, political, and otherwise - will inspire Mallika, and Carolina Perez (from Queens, New York combo Hypoxia) to revive their sometime feminist death metal side-project Castrator. If there ever was a time for that, that time is now. What better reason than the serial sex offender holding the highest political office in the land?

Art does not exist in a vacuum (no matter how much certain demographics might prefer to delude themselves into thinking otherwise). Art reflects the society in which it was created. “Sociopathic Constructs” is one such creations. This is a record that couldn’t have been released in any other time than the year 2019. The Talibangelicals have been working overtime to transform America in the great Christian theocracy they’ve been so long desiring. Never mind that the Land of the Free is collapsing into the state of the backwater banana republics they’ve been bombing into submission for the last several decades. The War on Terror has been on of the greatest swindles of modern history and the US military-industrial complex has always been a savage imperialistic beast that always takes but never gives. “Sociopathic Constructs” does absolutely take no prisoners and its message of disconformity and protest is loud and clear. No longer can we afford to idly sit by as the world burns to a cinder. “Sociopathic Constructs” might not have the storytelling capacity of an “Operation: Mindcrime” exactly, but as a loosely conceptual recording this couldn’t have come at a better time.