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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.

We have a long history with Britain’s self-proclaimed barbarian metal kings Bal-Sagoth. Our introduction to the world of Bal-Sagoth came with their 1996 magnus opus “Starfire Burning upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule” and we voraciously anticipated and consumed every of their subsequent albums. No other band, before or since, has combined ancient history/mythology, pulp (science fiction) literature, horror, and raging primitive death/black metal in such a engrossing and truly cinematic fashion. Bal-Sagoth was the purest escapism, a phantasmagorical world of heroes and magic, a dream to get lost in. To say that we worship Bal-Sagoth in a godly way wouldn’t be far from the truth. Whether it was the more traditional death metal of their underappreciated debut “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria” or the transitional “Battle Magic” and their more power metal influenced trio of albums on Nuclear Blast Records, a new Bal-Sagoth record was always an event and cause for celebration. In 2006 the self-produced “The Chthonic Chronicles” was released and the band descended into an extended hiatus. After nearly twenty years the Bal-Sagoth saga had apparently ended.

Now, 13 years after “The Chthonic Chronicles”, erstwhile Bal-Sagoth alumni Jonny (keyboards, synthesizers, piano) and Chris Maudling (lead & rhythm guitars) return to the fray with the equally Robert E. Howard inspired Kull. Kull was the protagonist of Howard’s 1967 short story Exile of Atlantis and a warrior-king from the Thurian Age. Kull was formed in Yorkshire, England in 2012 and now seven years later debuts on Black Lion Records without so much as having formally demoed in any capacity. It’s rather evident that “Exile” was conceived as a potential Bal-Sagoth effort. All the known Maudling signatures are accounted for and it very much is structured as a typical Bal-Sagoth album. Joining the Maudlin brothers are fellow Bal-Sagoth alumni Alistair MacLatchy (bass guitar) and Paul Jackson (drums). Bal-Sagoth had the benefit of having Byron A. Roberts, the creative force behind the band’s elaborate 6-album high fantasy concept and a supremely gifted vocalist in his own right. Kull is Bal-Sagoth in all but name, except without Roberts and with Tarkan Alp in his stead. Alp, should there be any lingering doubts, sounds like an understudy of Roberts – and a good one at that. Longtime devotees will immediately recognize the differences as well as the similarities between the two. This is not the master, obviously, but Alp clearly is a strong surrogate.

For those who know how and where to listen “Exile” will sound instantly familiar as the Maudling brothers haven't changed their formula since "The Chthonic Chronicles" in 2006. ‘Imperial Dawn’ is a cinematic introduction in the post-1996 Bal-Sagoth tradition. ‘Set-Nakt-Heh’ has a few riffs and blaring horns that sound as if they were lifted from ‘The Empyreal Lexicon’. It’s strange hearing the signature triumphant melody that typically is to be found during the latter stages of the second half of a Bal-Sagoth record in the opening track. The feast of familiarity continues with ‘Vow Of the Exiled’ as it almost verbatim copies the introductory riff schemes from ‘The Voyagers Beneath the Mare Imbrium’ before effectively retreading ‘Of Carnage and A Gathering Of the Wolves’ territory. ‘A Summoning to War’ very much sounds as lost chapter in the saga of gentleman-adventurer Doctor Ignatius Stone, the central character in “Atlantis Ascendant”. ‘Hordes Ride’ very much recalls something as ‘Draconis Albionensis’ and even has a few vocal patterns that sound as if it was meant as a continuation or follow-up to that track.

‘An Ensign Consigned’ is a busier and overall more aggressive cut that recalls ‘The Scourge of the Fourth Celestial Host'. ‘Pax Imperialis’ is a recombinant of ‘Callisto Rising’ and ‘Behold, the Armies of War Descend Screaming from the Heavens!’ and cements the ties “Exile” has with the fourth Bal-Sagoth record “The Power Cosmic”. ‘By Lucifer’s Crown’ opens with primal riffing not heard since the days of “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria” or at least ‘Star-Maps of the Ancient Cosmographers’ from “Atlantis Ascendant”. ‘Of Stone and Tears’ sounds like ‘In Search of the Lost Cities of Antarctica’ and even has a similar ending synth effect. ‘Aeolian Supremacy’ sounds like the epic conclusion to the ‘The Splendour of a Thousand Swords Gleaming Beneath the Blazon of the Hyperborean Empire’ saga whereas ‘Of Setting Suns and Rising Moon’ is the same kind of blast-heavy closer as ‘The Thirteen Cryptical Prophecies of Mu’. Why ‘Aeolian Supremacy’ and ‘Of Setting Suns and Rising Moon’ weren’t switched is a question for the ages. The closing 1:50 of the former is the ‘Valley of Silent Paths’ that should have concluded the record.

“Exile” is closest to “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria” in terms of structure while musically it forges onward with the direction of “Battle Magic” and the later Bal-Sagoth albums. There are a few puzzling choices along the way. ‘Of Setting Suns and Rising Moon’ is a stellar closing track by itself but clashes with the serene ending of ‘Aeolian Supremacy’. It’s almost as if the Maudling brothers had written two Bal-Sagoth closing songs and decided to put them back to back instead of using one here and the second on the follow-up to “Exile”. It’s more than confusing to hear Kull end its album twice in a row. At a gargantuan 55 minutes “Exile” is as long as “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria”, “Starfire Burning upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule” and “Battle Magic” but unlike the latter two foregoes the expected mid-album synth instrumental and the concluding atmospheric mood-piece. “Exile” would perhaps have benefitted from trimming a good ten minutes (cutting ‘Hordes Ride’ and ‘By Lucifer’s Crown’ would amount to as much) and with the addition of a two/three-minute instrumental in vein of ‘At the Altar Of the Dreaming Gods’ or ‘Six Keys to the Onyx Pyramid’. That “Exile” doesn’t end with the prerequiste synth epilogue slightly dampens the experience of this being a repurposed Bal-Sagoth album, but then again the album ends TWICE. Once with ‘Aeolian Supremacy’ (that should have ended the album)… and then again.

Where Kull falls a bit short (well, that would being charitable, at the very least) of its ambitious forebear is in overall presentation. Bal-Sagoth had some truly spectacular artwork that frequently bordered on that of a paperback novel or an old-fashioned movie poster from the sixties through eighties. Whether it was Joe Petagno’s horror-infused snowbound vista of a mighty warrior on “Starfire Burning upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule”, the space battle and gleaming armor-clad warlords from “The Power Cosmic”, or the grand collage canvas from “Atlantis Ascendant” (both from Martin Hanford) a Bal-Sagoth record always stood out from the pack. Kull does…. less so. “Exile” is rather drab-looking. What Kull misses here is a colorful and heroic canvas from (preferably) Martin Hanford or somebody similar as Jean-Pascal Fournier, Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell, or Nick Keller. We’d even settle for something from Ryan Barger, Dušan Marković, or Velio Josto. Týr, Leaves’ Eyes, Theocracy, and Symphony X all had far superior marine album artworks. Considering their legacy this is more than a little disappointing. Even Belgian Bal-Sagoth imitators Dagorlad had better artwork on their very few releases.

Things fare better on the production end. We’ll never be fans of the Maudling brothers’ Wayland’s Forge Studio and we sort of miss Bal-Sagoth (or in this case, Kull) being jointly or partially produced by Academy Studios and producer Mags. The production (somewhere between “The Power Cosmic” and “The Chthonic Chronicles”, in our estimation) and the mastering from Maor Appelbaum is good enough for the type record that this is. But “Exile” more than anything else misses that full-bodied, weighty, and bass-centric production work that made fairly recent records as, "Lynx", “Axis Mundi”, “The Passage Of Existence”, “Kingdoms Disdained”, "Apokalupsis" and “Sociopathic Constructs” so completely devastating and commanding in their concrete heaviness. “Exile”for the lack of a better term sounds overly digital and, well, a bit flat, to be honest. There are certain expectations that come with carrying on the Bal-Sagoth legacy (even if it is indirectly as is the case here) and Kull isn’t able to fully meet them, as of yet. Hopefully the Maudling brothers will have ironed out the production kinks by the next record.

It’s good having three-quarters of Bal-Sagoth back in the form of Kull. “Exile” is the Bal-Sagoth record that the world should have gotten after “The Chthonic Chronicles”. Mayhap the Maudling brothers will reunite with Byron Roberts one day and restore their most enduring constellation to its rightful former glory. For the time being that seems, sadly, not to be a situation that is likely to transpire. More unbelievable (or perhaps not) is that nor Nuclear Blast nor former label Cacophonous Records showed interest in “Exile”. From Nuclear Blast’s perspective it’s understandable in terms of simple economics: Bal-Sagoth was a niche band and never shifted a great deal of units. That the resurrected Cacophonous Records showed no interest in contracting one of their famous contractees from their previous incarnation is, frankly, a bit disconcerting. Whatever the case: it’s good having Bal-Sagoth back under the guise of Kull. Hopefully it won’t take another 13 years for them to produce a follow-up to “Exile”. The patience of Bal-Sagoth fans the world over has been stretched to the absolute limit over the last decade-plus. As devoted Bal-Sagoth acolytes used to say, Blodu ok Jarna!