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Of all the fallen members from the short-lived “Stop At Nothing” line-up sometime Dying Fetus drummer, Midnight Video employee and former Wicked Woods Haunted Forest House operator Erik Sayenga has done the best for himself. Since his ousting from the Fetus in 2005 Sayenga has kept releasing music with Warthrone, his Virginia symfo death/black metal project that sees him handling rhythm guitars, drums, and vocals alongside his wife Kristel Dawn who provides keyboards and bass guitar. “Crown Of the Apocalypse” is only Warthrone’s second full length effort and the first to feature Sayenga in the position of frontman as Richard Johnson bade his farewell prior to the studio sessions. Compared vis-a-vis to “Venomassacre” from 2014 “Crown Of the Apocalypse” is superior on all fronts. Hell, even the artwork is decent this time around. This is the record that Dark Funeral’s “Where Shadows Forever Reign” should have been…

Which is more than you can say from the remainder of the “Stop At Nothing” line-up. Mike Kimball helped co-write “War Of Attrition” (the only real black page in the Fetus’ storied history) and the less said about Vince Matthews’ various projects the better. No, Sayenga has done good for himself all things considered. Kristel’s association comes from Virginia-based death/black metal combo Witch-Hunt (which Warthrone is a spiritual continuation of) that released their sole album “Soul Enshrouded Fire” in 2000. It came brandishing unintentionally hilarious gothic horror cover art that it makes you wonder why it was never distributed internationally by Napalm Records, who were infamous at the time for their so-called Breast Brigade artworks from designer Tor Søreide and photographer Petter Hegre. We were on the fence about Warthrone when we initially were introduced to them with “Venomassacre” and pretty much completely forgot about them until “Crown Of the Apocalypse” turned up in our social media feed. The few years between releases have worked wonders for Warthrone, it seems. They have heeded the critics and honed their assault accordingly.

Warthrone might not be the most novel thing around, but at least it knows what it wants to be and how to get there. Instead of the symfo black metal atmosphere they no doubt were aiming for “Crown Of the Apocalypse” exudes clinical modern death metal vibes, mostly of the Myrkskog kind. There’s just something about Warthrone that screams “Superior Massacre” or records of similar predilection. There’s a lot of things you can say about a band like Warthrone, but the long and short of it is that the whole black metal aspect is fairly negligible all things considered. Before anything else “Crown Of the Apocalypse” is death metal, plain and simple. And with Sayenga’s resumé, did anyone truly expect anything else? Erik and Kristel sound positively devastating on their sophomore. Kristel’s keyboards felt unnecessary to say the least and somewhat amateurishly pasted over the music on “Venomassacre”. Here they are integral to the compositions without ever becoming a dominant force or portentously overbearing.

Sayenga and his wife always had a penchant for Halloween and dressing up. In the promotional pictures accompanying the release Sayenga and his wife can be seen sporting post-apocalyptic/medieval garb that looks as if it came straight out of a budget-starved 1980s Filipino (Cirio H. Santiago would be proud) or Italian post-nuke movie. Not that you’d expect anything else from the former proprietor of Wicked Woods Haunted Forest House. Horror houses - especially in deep religiously diseased and red Southern states where they serve to keep the gullible, the uneducated, and the superstitious subservient and thus the larger Chrisian constituency in line – after all are big business in America. The epilepsy-inducing music video for ‘The Blood Of the Prophets’ is an atrocity of epic proportions and makes Immortal’s ‘Call Of the Wintermoon’, Hecate Enthroned’s ‘An Ode for a Haunted Wood’, and Unholy Ghost’s ‘Under Existence’ look as paragons of unbound professionalism and restraint in comparison. They’re clearly very devoted to their specific artistic vision. That has to count for something too.

The merits of a death metal record are judged by the quality of its production values and Warthrone has improved in leaps and bounds on that front since their first outing. “Venomassacre”, while a decent enough record, was marred by the typical defects of a home-recorded affair. “Crown Of the Apocalypse” is also home-recorded but sounds notably more professional in the way it was recorded and mixed. It would behoof any band, irrespective of the genre they play, to record in a professional studio environment but that increasingly appears to be a dying practice in underground metal. It makes you wonder what Warthrone could sound like if they ever decided to record at Nightsky Studios in Waldorf, Maryland instead of the comfort of their home. The artwork by Santiago Francisco Jaramillo for Triple Seis Design is something you’d expect from a Marcelo Vasco, Daniel Valeriani, or Gyula Havancsák. It looks like something you’d expect to see on a Horncrowned album, or bands of similar persuasion. Also partaking on the record are renowned British singer Sarah Jezebel Deva, Egyptian-American artist Nader Sadek, and Kim Dylla, of Kylla Custom Rock Wear, who for a short time performed as Vulvatron in GWAR.

Any way you slice it, “Crown Of the Apocalypse” is a vast improvement over their debut. We’re far more interested in high-quality playthrough videos or dedicated drum cam recordings from Erik’s home studio. There’s always additional streams of revenue to be mined if they know where to look. If Warthrone does insist on making more music videos it’s perhaps advisable for them to gather the necessary funds and hire somebody like David Brodsky, Kevin Custer, Rick Carmona, Darren Doane, or Chris João. Music videos, at least in terms of underground metal and niche music markets, are something of a dying breed ever since streaming services have made DVDs and televised music programs increasingly, if not entirely, redundant. No. “Crown Of the Apocalypse” shows that there’s tons of potential that is yet untapped. If Warthrone manage to cultivate that potential by the time the next album rolls around and accompany it with a professional music video or two they might just make a big enough splash and break themselves to a larger audience. It never hurts to have a goal…

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.