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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.

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.