Posts Tagged ‘ Hardrock ’

Album of the Week 34-2018: Eisbrecher – Shock


Often labelled a Rammstein clone – which is not entirely unjustified – Eisbrecher has been moving away from sounding like outright clones and more into “inspired by” territory in recent years. Sure, there are German lyrics sung with a reasonably deep voice over semi-electronic rhythms and simple, but brutally heavy guitar riffs, but the music Eisbrecher put out on ‘Die Hölle Muss Warten’ and ‘Schock’ technically has the potential to appeal to a wider audience than Rammstein, had they not come first. Eisbrecher’s songs are more melodic, the choruses are highly catchy without exception and ‘Shock’ especially has an extremely pleasant flow.

In a way, Rammstein and Oomph! marked the boundaries of what the Neue Deutsche Härte genre should be so clearly that it can be seen as quite a limiting genre. That alone is reason enough to praise Eisbrecher, as their relatively poppy, yet still heavy and driven take on the genre is a clear attempt to craft their own sound within the niche. With the lyrics being either rebellious or romantic, Eisbrecher’s sympathetic frontman Alex Wesselsky seems to aim for the heart, which is perfectly accompanied by the strong melodic writings of guitarist and keyboard player Noel Pix and a small army of outside writers.

Taking the old adage that the first strike is deadly, Eisbrecher kicks off ‘Shock’ with what is probably the greatest song they have ever written. ‘Volle Kraft Voraus’ (“full steam ahead”) is a perfect title for an album opener, but what really makes the song a winner is the way it manages to perfectly marry a yearning feeling and the anthemic pride of its brilliant chorus. It is followed by ‘1000 Narben’, another one of the band’s stronger tracks, which has everything in it to please even the most pop-oriented listeners of alternative rock radio stations.

While the level of the first two tracks is never reached again, it is remarkable how consistent ‘Shock’ is. Even the ballads, generally not the forte of NDH bands, are quite good. The deeply sentimental ‘Noch Zu Retten’ and the gorgeously arranged ‘Schlachtbank’, which is somewhat reminiscent of their early masterpiece ‘Leider’, are highlights, as is the more gothic-tinged ‘Rot Wie Die Liebe’. Those who like their German rock heavy will certainly like ‘So Oder So’, ‘Unschuldsengel’, ‘Fehler Machen Leute’ and the particularly Rammstein-esque ‘Himmel, Arsch Und Zwirn’, while ‘Dreizehn’ and the dancey ‘Nachtfieber’ make perfect use of the dynamics between guitars and electronics. The duet ‘Zwischen Uns’ with Swiss singer Mia Aegerter is irresistably catchy.

Although originality is next to impossible for an NDH band, I applaud Eisbrecher for how fresh and recognizable they sound on ‘Shock’. Once you let go of the genre tag, chances are that you will appreciate ‘Shock’ for what it really is: a collection of extremely well-written, impeccably produced rock songs that will refuse to leave your head even if you try. Fans of complexity should look elsewhere, but ‘Shock’ is full of heavy, uncomplicated fun that may end up being surprisingly melodic for those who only know the genre casually.

Recommended tracks: ‘Volle Kraft Voraus’, ‘1000 Narben’, ‘Himmel, Arsch Und Zwirn’

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Interview: Loudness and the Japanese hardrock scene


Loudness was one of the first Japanese bands that also had some success in Europe and North America. Partially due to the MTV success of ‘Crazy Night’ and Akira Takasaki’s status as a guitar hero, but according to singer Minoru Niihara, Loudness also was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. We spoke with Niihara prior to the concert in Alkmaar, at which Loudness promoted its 27th studio album ‘Rise To Glory’.

After the previous album ‘The Sun Will Rise Again’, we had to wait over three and a half years for ‘Rise To Glory’. And that is quite surprising, as the band has been releasing new albums just about every year since the original lineup of Niihara, Takasaki, bassist Masayoshi Yamashita and drummer Munetaka Higuchi reunited around the turn of the century. Even after Higuchi passed away in 2008, there were hardly any delays in their release schedule. “We needed the extra time“, Niihara confesses. “In addition, we needed to look for a new record label, because our previous contract expired. In the meantime, Akira kept on writing new songs. Because of that, we could select the best material.

For his lyrics, Niihara employs a rather unconventional approach: “I think of a theme and write down my thoughts about that, just some ideas and lines in Japanese. After that, three friends of mine help me turn it into a complete set of lyrics. They have been raised bilingual in California and live in Japan these days. They speak perfect Japanese and because of that, they know the weaknesses of Japanese people speaking English. You could say they fix it. Many Japanese people need someone to tell them what is wrong with their English. There hardly is any need to speak or write English when you live in Japan. Even at the universities, classes are in Japanese.

Timing

When Loudness was founded in 1981, there were no heavy metal bands in Japan. “Before us, you only had Bow Wow from Tokyo and Murasaki from Okinawa“, Niihara confirms. “And those bands weren’t really heavy metal, because we didn’t know that back then. They were hardrock bands. I’m from Osaka, where a lot of young British hardrock bands performed. I was in a school band with which we played covers of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. But professional hardrock bands? We didn’t have those in the seventies. There were lots of people who listened to western hardrock, but no one played the music themselves. I don’t actually know why either.

We were lucky. Around the time we released our debut album (‘The Birthday Eve’, 1981), the new wave of British heavy metal became really popular in Japan. Bands like Iron Maiden and Saxon were very popular. That made people curious about our music, because we were a Japanese band that also made this type of music. Our timing turned out to be perfect. Young rockers loved us and Akira became a guitar hero. He actually already was when he played with Lazy. That was a pop group, but his playing was amazing. When he was seventeen, he was already known as a great guitar player.

Sold out

Before I joined Loudness, I have talked to some people who worked for record labels. When they heard I wanted to play hardrock, all of them said: that’s old, no one will buy that. After we received a gold record for the first Loudness album, the same people suddenly told us that they knew our music would become big. Bullshit! Some of these guys even literally said we would never go anywhere.

Things went differently. Loudness became a big success in Japan. “Every place we played was sold out“, says Niihara. “And then we’re talking about two to three thousand capacity venues. While we only had one album out. After that, more and more bands that kind of sounded like Loudness popped up. Every record company tried to sign its own Loudness. The positive thing about that is that many Japanese hardrock bands got the chance to release an album. Two or three years after our debut album, Japanese metal was very popular.

San Francisco

After a while, the scene slowed down a little. Our sound engineer and friend Daniel McClendon, who is from San Francisco, asked us why we wouldn’t just go to the States for a couple of shows someday. In Japan, we had achieved just about everything we could achieve. In 1983 we went to California for a couple of concerts, just to see what the possibilities were for us. We did four shows in San Francisco and two in Los Angeles.

The audience in San Francisco was insane. There was a very active, hardcore underground heavy metal scene there. We met bands like Metallica and Slayer there when they weren’t much more than local bands. That kind of surprised me, because the image I had of music from San Francisco couldn’t be more different. I thought of relaxed rock music like The Doobie Brothers and the Eagles. Our shows were attended by young guys who were looking for new heavy metal, however. We didn’t even know how all these people knew about us, because we hadn’t released a single album in the States yet.

Later on, we found out that they traded tapes with each other. Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich was one of those fanatic tape traders. He also already knew Bow Wow, for instance. There was even a record store in San Francisco that imported our lp’s. Their owner really helped us simply by playing our music to people who might be interested in us. That way, Loudness could already build an audience before we ever played in the States.”

Identity crisis

Thanks to the presence of an A&R manager of the big Atlantic Records label, Loudness became the first Japanese metal band that signed with a major label in America. Initially, that was fruitful: ‘Crazy Nights’ and the accompanying album ‘Thunder In The East’ (1985) became a big success. When it turned out difficult to retain that success, friction developed within the band, which eventually lead to Niihara’s departure. A couple of years later, Yamashita left as well.

In the nineties, Loudness underwent a sizeable identity crisis. With the American singer Mike Vescera, the band recorded two albums that were obviously aimed toward the Californian glam metal scene, only to follow that up with the incredibly heavy ‘Loudness’ (1992) with singer Masaki Yamada (ex-EZO) and Taiji Sawada, who had just left X Japan at the time. After that, Loudness appeared to follow the alternative metal trend, though without Sawada. In the meantime, Niihara was occupied with bands like Ded Chaplin, Sly and X.Y.Z.→A.

Mature

The turning point arrived around the turn of the century, when Loudness’ classic line-up reunited, allegedly on the recommendation of Masaki Yamada. “Akira says that’s what happened“, Niihara says. “I think Akira had the idea to bring the original guys back together again himself as well. Around that time, Masaki told him the time was right for a reunion. Maybe it just had to happen. Our twentieth anniversary was upcoming and Akira wanted to do something special for that occasion.

It was supposed to be a reunion for maybe one or two years, but after our new album (‘Spiritual Canoe’, 2001) and the tour, the fans begged us to continue with the same line-up. We got together to talk about it and nobody actually wanted to quit. Everyone was curious to see where else we could go. And we wanted to play in Europe again, so we just tried it. And we’re still here! We’ve been around longer now than we were together in the eighties.

Niihara does have an explanation for that. “We are older and wiser“, he laughs. “We sometimes think back to those days and realize we were a bunch of idiots. We drank too much and we were acting really stupid sometimes. These days, we have families and children. We have become a lot more mature.

The singer did not listen to the albums he did not sing on until after the reunion. “In the nineties, I was too busy with my own music“, he explains. “And besides, I was trying to leave Loudness behind me. They kicked me out, after all. After the reunion, we had to play some songs from the albums recorded with Mike and Masaki. It wasn’t until then that I started listening to the material from those days. And I was really impressed! Mike Vescera sings great on those two records!

Recovery

During this tour, the drum stool is occupied by Ryuichi ‘Ryu’ Nishida, who worked as a session drummer with the likes of Gackt and Marty Friedman and is a part of the instrumental rock band Ra:IN with X Japan guitarist Pata. Earlier this year, Masayuki ‘Ampan’ Suzuki, who replaced Higuchi after his death, was hit by a stroke. “He is working hard on his recovery“, Niihara reassures. “There are some problems with the right side of his body. He has trouble talking and holding his drum sticks.

We are just happy that he’s still there. There are so many people who die from the same conditions. We hope he can play a couple of songs with us by the end of the year. More than a couple of songs is really too much for him at this point. We told him: please take your time, don’t rush. When he’s ready, we will go for it again. We are fortunate enough to have a fantastic drummer like Nishida helping us out.

A Dutch version of this interview can be read at The Sushi Times.

Album of the Week 32-2018: The Magpie Salute – High Water I


Volatile fraternal relationships are nothing new in music. What is quite unusual, however, is that one brother goes on to do something which is at least on par with what made them famous in the first place. The Magpie Salute may just turn out to be one of those instances. After a legal dispute between Chris and Rich Robinson lead to the unfortunate dissolution of The Black Crowes, the latter sounds more focused and inspired than he has in a long time on the first studio album of The Magpie Salute, which also features ex-Crowes Marc Ford and Sven Pipien.

Without Chris Robinson’s hippie mysticism influencing the overall sound, Rich Robinson’s compositions really get the chance to shine. What helps is that singer John Hogg is a revelation. He has a powerful, versatile voice that sounds quite unique during the introspective parts and somewhat reminiscent of Kelly Keeling in his more powerful moments. The music itself is quite reminiscent of The Black Crowes – how could it not? – but more concise and powerful. As a whole, ‘High Water I’ does feel like it rocks a little harder than most of the Crowes’ recent work, but it is every bit as versatile.

Guitar-wise, there is a great deal of respect between Ford and Robinson on ‘High Water I’. They never get in each other’s way and really give each other the chance to excel in their respective specialties. For slide master Ford, the rootsy rocker ‘Take It All’, the acoustic americana of ‘Hand In Hand’ and various moments of pedal steel-like beauty are the obvious moments to shine, while Robinson is more of a master of strong melodic content. The latter was never a showy player in the first place; it is quite obvious that he just wants what is best for the songs.

‘High Water I’ has a remarkably pleasant flow. While each song is different from the others, the sequencing is sublime. That does not mean there aren’t any highlights, of course. ‘High Water’ sounds like it could have been inserted into ‘Led Zeppelin III’ without anyone noticing, as it is acoustic, yet extremely powerful. Closing track ‘Open Up’ works its way from a brooding acoustic riff to a gorgeous climactic harmony in the chorus, while ‘For The Wind’ is a powerful, dynamic epic, ‘Send Me Omen’ is a strong rocker and ‘Sister Moon’ is a gorgeous minor key pop song.

It is too early to tell whether The Magpie Salute will be as good as The Black Crowes, but ‘High Water I’ can certainly be compared favorably to ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ and ‘The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion’. It is basically the album I have been wanting the Crowes to make for at least twenty years with a much better singer to boot. The more concise songwriting certainly contributes to my joy listening to this album, but the greater degree of focus certainly works miracles as well. Sure, it kind of sounds like the Crowes, but definitely on one of their best days.

Recommended tracks: ‘High Water I’, ‘Open Up’, ‘For The Wind’

Album of the Week 29-2018: Concerto Moon – Savior Never Cry


In the light of Atsushi Kuze joining Jupiter, his works with Concerto Moon have been receiving more than a few spins in my household. I have been fairly critical of Kuze’s competent, but somewhat Dokken-ish voice in the past, but there is one Concerto Moon album on which he is really pushed to his best performance thus far and that is ‘Savior Never Cry’. Of course, the fact that the band sounds at their heaviest and most aggressive here works miracles as well. The fact that their classy, hardrock-inspired melodicism is not sacrificed is an impressive achievement in its own right.

Somehow, I think I prefer Concerto Moon without a keyboard player. The keys are indispensable for their early progressive hardrock meets neoclassical power metal approach, but on ‘Savior Never Cry’, band leader Norifumi Shima’s riffing takes center stage. His sound appears to be just a tad heavier too, to the point where it’s hard to believe that he’s actually playing a guitar with single coils. This powerful, bottom-heavy sound really pushes Kuze to a performance that foregoes his usual gentle rasp in favor of a throaty, full-force approach that is not too dissimilar to what Yukio Morikawa does with Anthem.

Concerto Moon certainly proves that the first strike is deadly. The opening title track of the album’s predecessor ‘Angel Of Chaos’ was already impressive, but ‘Savior Never Cry’ really has the band firing on all cylinders. Shima’s riffs are thick and tasteful, Masayuki Osada’s drumming is pulsating and punishing and Kuze is inspired to do some of his most intense screaming yet. The rumbling double kick work and heavy riffing is continued on the following ‘Straight From The Heart’, which I consider one of Concerto Moon’s most underrated tracks to date. Its eighties Dio-esque vibe is simply irresistible.

From then on, the album does not get quite as heavy anymore, though the speedy closer ‘Slash The Lies’ – which inexplicably only is a bonus track – comes pretty close. The heaviness is hardly missed though. The fact that Shima (mostly) has to fill his end of the sonic spectrum by himself results in very powerful hardrock and heavy metal tracks like ‘Lay Down Your Life (To Be Free)’, ‘Over The Fear’ and the midtempo ‘In My Dream’. Even the ballad ‘Lovers Again’, often a weak point for Japanese bands, is surprisingly good. Only ‘The Shining Light Of The Moon’ is a little too watered down for my taste.

Norifumi Shima and Concerto Moon were obviously on a roll around the turn of the decade. ‘Angel Of Chaos’ is one of the band’s best albums, but ‘Savior Never Cry’ ups the ante in terms of heaviness, compositional quality and vocal performance. After the release of ‘Savior Never Cry’, Concerto Moon would continue in a somewhat more hardrock-oriented direction. Quite accomplished hardrock too, but after being infatuated with the almost ‘Painkiller’-like intensity of this album’s title track, it’s difficult to settle for something else. ‘Savior Never Cry’ is highly recommended to anyone who longs for the time when hardrock and heavy metal weren’t two separate things yet.

Recommended tracks: ‘Savior Never Cry’, ‘Straight From The Heart’, ‘Slash The Lies’

Album of the Week 18-2018: Fumihiko Kitsutaka’s Euphoria – Euphoria


When neoclassically inspired guitarists start a solo project, the records are often filled with flagrant displays of virtuosity. Fumihiko Kitsutaka however, presumably through his career as the guitarist for eighties hardrockers Arouge and crazy eclectics Kinniku Shojo Tai, learned a lesson or two about songwriting. Sure, his impressive dexterity is fairly prominent on his solo debut, but the real stars on ‘Euphoria’ are the compositions and the arrangements. Clearly, Kitsutaka wanted his songs to enchant the listener rather than his technical profiency and because of that, ‘Euphoria’ is one of the better neoclassical hardrock and power metal albums out there.

In the booklet, Kitsutaka is credited as “master of guitar orchestrations” and that may actually be the biggest asset of ‘Euphoria’. Not only are there plenty of Queen-inspired guitar harmonies, the use of acoustic guitars is incredible. Sometimes it is just a ringing chord adding some brightness to the top layer, other times nylon stringed classical guitars provide the perfect accompaniment for Tetsuya Saito’s vocal delivery. The use of only one singer also contributes to the album’s consistency, while the changing rhythm section – two drummers and three bassists share duties – is likely chosen to add different flavors to the rhythms.

For all intents and purposes, ‘Euphoria’ is a rather unusual solo album for a lead guitarist. Sure, there are songs like the powerful neoclassical hardrocker ‘The Room (Named Desperation)’ and the virtuosic instrumental ‘Justice Of Black’, but they don’t dominate the album. Even when songs like the stomping headbanger ‘Deep In Love’ and the energetic power metal track ‘Sacred Garden’ seem to invite Kitsutaka to cram the solo section full of sweeps and classical scales, his lead guitar work is always melodic and tasteful, while the memorability of a chorus seems of equal or greater importance to the guitarist.

There are a few real surprises on ‘Euphoria’. First of all, the relaxed romanticism of ‘Nursery Rhyme’ features Kitsutaka almost exclusively on the classical guitar, save for a powerful electric solo. ‘Dance Desire’ is a strong hardrocker that combines a relatively heavy bottom end with a rather atypical swing in the rhythm department, while ‘Losing You’ combines distinct melodic touches with some aggressive start-stop riffing and a busy chorus with some of Saito’s most passionate vocals. Saito really ties this album together with Kitsutaka anyway, as his lower take on visual kei-inspired vocals gives the album part of its unique atmosphere.

Sonically, ‘Euphoria’ also forsakes the spotlessly clinical sound usually associated with these types of releases and opts for a highly dynamic, organic sound that really feels like a band playing together. All of this contributes to an album that, despite being of a style that has been attempted before, has a very fresh feel. There is no pretension or showing off on ‘Euphoria’, just a group of musicians wanting to make the best album that could possibly be made at the time with the means at their disposal. More bands should attempt that approach. If anything, ‘Euphoria’ proves that it works.

Recommended tracks: ‘Losing You’, ‘Dance Desire’, ‘Sacred Garden’, ‘Nursery Rhyme’

Album of the Week 16-2018: Stryper – God Damn Evil


With an album title like ‘God Damn Evil’, it is obvious that all semblance of subtlety has gone out the window. Then again, Stryper never was about subtle intricacies. You just know you’re going to get simple, effective hardrock songs with huge choruses, strong melodies and a fairly obvious christian message. In recent years, Stryper has dialed up the metal factor in their music considerably, resulting in some of their most consistent albums thus far. ‘God Damn Evil’ is no different. It is once again better than its predecessor, continuing the upward trajectory that started with ‘Murder By Pride’ in 2009.

First things first: Michael Sweet once again sounds incredible. His vocal approach is occasionally a bit rawer than usual, but his soaring, spotlessly clean melodies are all over ‘God Damn Evil’. His songwriting has never been better either. Some of the previous albums had a tendency to drag because of all the midtempo tunes and while most of the material here still isn’t in turbo mode, the album easily has the most pleasant flow of any Stryper album since ‘Soldiers Under Command’. His brother Robert also gives his best drum performance yet, though his snare is still a tad too loud.

Before the album was released, four songs surfaced that already made me quite hopeful about the album. Especially ‘Lost’, a melancholic melodic hardrocker reminiscent of the incomparable class of Stryper’s best song ‘Sympathy’. The crushing midtempo metal of ‘The Valley’ was another pleasant surprise. ‘Take It To The Cross’ raised some eyebrows, because of its brutal chorus with Sweet channeling his inner Halford, but despite the borderline self-plagiarism – the main riff is very similar to the one in ‘Yahweh’, which in turn was borrowed from Black Sabbath’s ‘Children Of the Grave’ – it is a very blunt, effective opening track.

‘Can’t Live Without Your Love’ is a surprisingly decent ballad. Sure, it has a strong AOR-vibe, but it’s not as slickly saccharine as the likes of ‘Honestly’. The heavier side of label mates Journey seems to have influenced the gorgeous midtempo hardrocker ‘Beautiful’. The title track and the slightly more metallic ‘Sea Of Thieves’ highlight the band’s eighties Sunset Strip sleaze rock roots, while the midtempo stom of ‘You Don’t Even Know Me’ features one of Sweet’s most ominous vocal melodies to date. ‘Own Up’ finds a perfect middle ground between grinding latter day Stryper riffs and a beefy eighties hardrock chorus.

Sure, the lack of subtlety may be an issue for some. The chorus of ‘The Devil Doesn’t Live Here’ is borderline for me, but it is too enjoyable a speed metal track to let it get in the way. And that is exactly why despite my atheism, I have always enjoyed Stryper. There are too many good riffs, awesome melodies and blazing leads by both Michael Sweet and Oz Fox on the album to let them escape my attention. New bassist Perry Richardson occasionally lets it rip too. Hardly anyone can craft simple rock songs with such impact as Sweet. ‘God Damn Evil’ is the strongest evidence of that so far.

Recommended tracks: ‘Lost’, ‘The Valley’, ‘Beautiful’, ‘Own Up’

Album of the Week 06-2018: Onmyo-za – Chimimoryo


Out of all Onmyo-za albums, ‘Chimimoryo’ is proabably the one with the broadest appeal. That does not mean it isn’t metal. Quite the contrary. The riff work on the album is still as rooted in traditional heavy metal as it always has been, but the polish of the production and the melodic sensibilities really opens the door for J-rock fans, while the dynamic and subtly adventurous nature of the record invites progressive rockers to have a listen. No matter what side of Onmyo-za you like best, it is represented on ‘Chimimoryo’, which – as a result – is one of the band’s best.

What really makes ‘Chimimoryo’ as near perfect as it gets is the fact that it has a very pleasant flow. It would not surprise me if multiple track orders were tested before release in order to find the one that is just right. This is not the type of album where you’d get tired of too many songs of the same tempo or style after each other, neither does it boggle your mind with illogical genre-hopping. The powerful voice of bassist and band leader Matatabi and the expressive (mezzo-)soprano of Kuroneko are very much in balance here as well.

As great as ‘Chimimoryo’ is all the way through, the more epic tracks really raise the album’s status. And that already starts when you put on the album, as ‘Shutendoji’ is a monumental midtempo hardrock track of late Zeppelin proportions, only with some brilliant guitar harmonies and a metallic rhythm section more reminiscent of Iron Maiden. Later on, ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’ takes you through multiple climaxes during its eleven and a half minutes. Huge, doomy riffs, balladesque sections and one of the more awesome speed metal riffs in the band’s discography, it’s all there and each section is even better than the last.

These songs alone don’t make a good album though. The hypermelodic single ‘Kureha’ is reminiscent of ‘Yoka Ninpocho’ in how the clean and distorted guitars interact, the strong melodic metal stomper ‘Araragi’ feels like a sequel to ‘Shutendoji’ with its powerful lead guitar themes and broad chords and if it’s fast riffs you want, ‘Hiderigami’ and ‘Oni Hitokuchi’ will serve you all the energetic speed metal you need. Kuroneko’s composition ‘Tamashizume no Uta’ is the lone ballad on the album, but her amazing voice and the rather atypical marching rhythms and percussion really turn it into something unique.

Unless you are a wool-dyed old-schooler, ‘Chimimoryo’ would be the perfect album to get acquainted with Onmyo-za’s unique sound. Matatabi’s compositions evidence that the guitars of Maneki and Karukan do not have to play power chords the whole time in order to sound metallic and the vocals prove that there are more options than the overused beauty and the beast tactic for male-female vocal duos. Onmyo-za would later top ‘Chimimoryo’ with ‘Kishibojin’, but only barely. This is one of the very few albums that is of consistently high quality from start to finish and deserves to be heard because of that.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shutendoji’, ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’, ‘Araragi’, ‘Oni Hitokuchi’

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