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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.