Posts Tagged ‘ Power Metal ’

Album of the Week 06-2019: Aria – Feniks


‘Feniks’ was a return to form for Russia’s Aria. Not entirely like the titular character, because bassist Vitaly Dubinin never really lost his special songwriting touch, but ‘Feniks’ is definitely the first Aria album since ‘Krov Za Krov’ two decades earlier that is pretty much excellent from start to finish. Maybe it was the addition of the fantastic new singer Mikhail Zhitnyakov, who debuts here, that gave the band some fresh impulses. But whatever the reason, everything that makes traditional heavy metal worthwhile is present in these songs, with just enough contemporary aggression to justify the band’s existence in this century.

Previous singer Artur Berkut often gets the blame for the somewhat less enthusiastic reception of the two albums before ‘Feniks’. However, he is a decent singer and really, the albums suffer from the same issue as the last three albums with Valery Kipelov: the highlights are nothing short of amazing, but all other songs are forgettable. Picking highlights is a lot more difficult on ‘Feniks’, because it is a consistently excellent set of songs and the same can be said about the performances and the production. None of the songs is worth skipping and the sound is clear and convinving.

Opening with ‘Chorny Kvadrat’ was a wise choice. The song combines the band’s strong Iron Maiden influence with a slightly more modern power metal approach, which truly allows newcomer Zhitnyakov to shine. His voice has all the passion of Kipelov’s, with a slightly larger range and an unprecedented degree of theatricality to boot. Comparable in approach is the powerful ‘Boi Bez Pravil’, which has a similarly subtle degree of melancholy in its triumphant traditional metal sound. Both of these tracks alone would already have been worth whatever you pay for the album, as they are among the best Aria songs to date.

Luckily, there is more. Aria always manages to pump out a couple of engaging epics and this time around, the splendidly constructed ‘Chornaya Legenda’ is the best one. The entire song has an atmosphere of imminent danger and the way the intro riff comes back in a different key after the acoustic middle section is pure brilliance. ‘Attila’ and ‘Istoria Odnogo Ubiyci’ are slightly less dense riffing-wise, instead opting to give the song some room to unfold. The calmly symphonic ‘Rekviyem’ is a pretty unique ballad in Aria’s discography and really shows off Zhitnyakov’s abilities. The title track shows the band at its most Maiden-esque, while ‘Dalniy Svet’ and ‘Ravnovesiye Sil’ are powerful midtempo hardrockers with really cool vocal harmonies in their choruses.

While it is tempting to blame Aria’s return to form on the arrival of Zhitnyakov, that would be too easy. For one, there are recordings of the band demoing ‘Boi Bez Pravil’ with Berkut floating around on YouTube and I cannot imagine that being the only one, since he left the group only months before te release of ‘Feniks’. Instead, something else must have sparked the inspiration of the band. We may never know to whom or what we should be thankful, but ‘Feniks’ rates among the best albums Aria has released to date. In fact, it is one of the greatest traditional heavy metal albums of the 21st century.

Recommeded tracks: ‘Chorny Kvadrat’, ‘Boi Bez Pravil’, ‘Chornaya Legenda’

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Album of the Week 02-2019: Gargoyle – Gaia


For some reason, ‘Gaia’ often gets ignored when people discuss the greatest works of Gargoyle. Up until last year’s unfortunate dissolution of the band, the songs on ‘Gaia’ did not even appear on their live sets all that much. Maybe that is a result of the material on the album making optimal use of the two guitar line-up, since Gargoyle would continue with just one guitarist after Yotaro left. It would really be a pity to let ‘Gaia’ go by unnoticed though, because there is simply too much good music on the album. It is in fact one of Gargoyle’s finest efforts.

‘Gaia’ is probably the second most experimental album Gargoyle released to date, surpassed only by its predecessor ‘Natural’. Unlike the latter, however, ‘Gaia’ feels pretty coherent stylistically and does not have as many sudden shifts, save for maybe the odd, but successful percussion and Spanish guitar exercise that is ‘Hako’ and the hyperactive funk rock of ‘Baby Cat’, one of Gargoyle’s better funky tracks. Everything else consists of variations on the trusted Gargoyle formula. Some songs have a cleaner guitar approach and more swing rhythmically (‘Unkown ~Annon~’) or a more exotic overall sound (‘Yagate Hikaru’), but but the thrash riffs and heavy metal melodies are everywhere.

Opening track ‘Wakakusa No Kimi’ does a pretty good job of preparing its listeners for the general sound of ‘Gaia’. The rhythm guitar work and Katsuji’s rolling double bass thunder still is as deeply rooted in thrash as the band always was, but the overall approach is a little more melodic. Frontman Kiba even shows a surprising amount of restraint in its uncharacteristically melodic vocal lines, but it all works remarkably well. ‘Sora Wa Ao’ is another track that manages to successfully blend a wild, propulsive bottom end with a melodic, almost rocky top layer.

That does not mean ‘Gaia’ cannot thrash your face off. The stomping ‘Meditation’ and the vaguely OverKill-ish ‘Who Are You?’ are both excellent energetic thrashers in the best Gargoyle tradition, while especially the speed monster ‘Kamikaze’ is absolutely annihilating. Truly one of the highlights of the band’s career. If ‘Gaia’ proves anything, however, it is that Gargoyle does not have to do that to sound amazing. ‘Sanbika’, for instance, is one of the most powerful tracks on here and it has an almost doom metal vibe, with Kentaro’s and Yotaro’s riffs not containing any more notes than they have to and Toshi laying down some of his best melodic bass lines. Definitely one of the best of their more atmospheric tracks.

My only complaints about ‘Gaia’ are aimed at its production. The guitar sound is not as powerful and pulsating as it should be and I have no idea why Kiba’s vocals on ‘Sayonara Jibun’, otherwise a very pleasant melodic thrasher, had to be so trebly, borderline unlistenably distorted. But apart from that, ‘Gaia’ is one of the best albums the Japanese experimental thrash machine has ever released. It may even have been the most consistent set of songs they have ever recorded, save for the near-perfection of ‘Tsuki No Toge’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sanbika’, ‘Kamikaze’, ‘Wakakusa No Kimi’, ‘Who Are You?’

Album of the Week 51-2018: Warlock – Hellbound


Sometimes it is remarkable how much better bands can get in surprisingly little time. There was only slightly over a year between the recordings of Warlock’s debut album ‘Burning The Witches’ and its follow-up ‘Hellbound’, but the German quintet made immense progress in that period. Where the former is an enjoyable heavy metal record with the occasional noteworthy song, ‘Hellbound’ is one of the greatest metal records of the mid-eighties. ‘Hellbound’ sees Warlock enhancing their NWOBHM leanings, which lends the album a classy edge without ending up sounding too polished. In fact, ‘Hellbound’ is highly energetic. At times even aggressive.

Back when ‘Burning The Witches’ was released, Warlock gained some attention for having a female singer. Quite understandably; female metal musicians were rare at the time and Doro Pesch’s voice was in deed what lifted the album above mediocrity. Her extremely passionate performance is still one of the highlights on ‘Hellbound’, but the album is full of fantastic guitar work by both Peter Szigeti and Rudy Graf. The band’s biggest improvement is certainly made in the guitar department; while the riffs and solos are not that much different in character than before, one can hear that more thought went into the arrangements.

Probably the best example of that growth is the incredibly elegant ‘Out Of Control’. In essence a beautiful melodic heavy metal track with likely Pesch’s best performance on the record, but its acoustic intro and some strategically placed bright overtones throughout the song give it even more sheen than it would have had without those subtle touches. Definitely one of the best European power metal songs of the eighties. ‘Wrathchild’ also is a hidden gem, with its melancholic dramaticism and climactic time feel changes truly enhancing the raw power of the simple, yet effective riff work.

It’s not all sophistication characterizing ‘Hellbound’ though. ‘Earthshaker Rock’ and the awesome title track are uncomplicated uptempo rockers that were obviously designed for the live situation. ‘Time To Die’ is as aggressive as pre-thrash NWOBHM gets, with Pesch’s sounding at her angriest at least until ‘A Touch Of Evil’ would be recorded. The title ‘Shout It Out’ suggests a simple sing-along anthem, but it is in fact relatively epic and a masterclass in building towards a climax; the whole song seems to imply some subdued anger or rebellion that culminates in a fantastic “prepare for battle” type feel in the final minute.

‘Hellbound’ was, in a way, the pinnacle of Warlock’s original line-up. Graf left the band not long after its release and by the time Pesch’s magnum opus ‘Triumph And Agony’ was released, Szigeti and bassist Frank Rittel had left as well. Many of these songs are still played at Doro live shows to this day and it is not hard to understand why. Even though ‘Hellbound’ is clearly a product of the mid-eighties, the songs themselves are timeless. That is why over half of these songs still give yours truly goosebumps after knowing them for so long. ‘Hellbound’ is simply a near-flawless slab of European heavy metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Out Of Control’, ‘Shout It Out’, ‘Wrathchild’

Album of the Week 50-2018: Control Denied – The Fragile Art Of Existence


Last week marked the seventeenth anniversary of Chuck Schuldiner’s passing. Metal fans everwhere celebrated his genius by playing old Death records, but personally, I think the sole Control Denied album may have been his crowning achievement. ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’ used to be my all time favorite album for a long time and to this day, I still am in awe by the melodic elegance and the complex, yet accessible nature of the record. Despite the shadow of the disease that would eventually kill Schuldiner inadvertently looming over the album, the album impresses with excellent songwriting and ditto performances.

The cast of musicians on ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’ looks like an all-star cast of Death musicians with a clean singer. Tim Aymar’s powerful, theatrical voice that is equal parts Ronnie James Dio and Rob Halford is what gives the album its own face, because the music isn’t that much different from the final Death album ‘The Sound Of Perseverance’. That should not be too surprising, given that some of the songs on that record evolved from Control Denied demos. As a whole, Control Denied comes across slightly more streamlined, though the songs still feature all the abrupt changes and glorious melodies that Schuldiner was known for.

It is hard to imagine most of these songs as Death songs though. The guitar riffs and arrangements in tracks like ‘What If…?’ and the incredible ‘Believe’ seem to be set up specifically with the idea of leaving as much room as possible for Aymar’s vocals, making their structure feel somewhat more open than Death’s dense compositions. Of course, those moments of density are still there, as not giving the virtuoso rhythm section of Richard Christy and bass wizard Steve DiGiorgio any room would feel like a waste of talent. What makes these guys good, however, is that they also know when to hold back.

My collection does not feature many other albums with such a consistently high level of songwriting and performance throughout. Only ‘Cut Down’ is merely good. ‘Breaking The Broken’ might be the best transitional track for Death fans, as it retains the aggression along with intelligent songwriting. ‘Consumed’ is a brave opening track, as it changes tempo and mood several times throughout its seven minutes and introduces Aymar remarkably effectively. ‘Believe’ is relatively simple, but brutally effective and the closing title track has to be heard to be believed. It manages to combine traditional heavy metal riffing with an almost ethereal middle section and ending that almost two decades later still gives me goosebumps.

Of course, with a line-up like Control Denied had on this album, it is nearly impossible to go wrong in terms of performances. Shannon Hamm is easily the most Schuldiner-like guitarist Chuck ever worked with and they’re both on fire here. The performances could have easily held the songs hostage though. It is a testament to the brilliance of Chuck Schuldiner that the music holds together so well. He was truly a unique talent and as good as every Death album from ‘Human’ onward is, ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’ may actually be the most unique album he created.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’, ‘Breaking The Broken’, ‘Believe’

Album of the Week 48-2018: Lovebites – Clockwork Immortality


Since Lovebites’ debut album ‘Awakening From Abyss’ was a serious contender for my album of the year last year – it was basically a coin toss between that one and Firewind’s ‘Immortals’ – and their EP ‘Battle Against Damnation’ also seriously impressed me earlier this year, ‘Clockwork Immortality’ was an album I anticipated eagerly. Fortunately, it is another quality record that finds the middle ground between traditional heavy metal and contemporary European power metal. Due to its slightly more streamlined production, the immediate impact is not as strong as with ‘Awakening From Abyss’, but the many excellent songs reveal themselves soon enough.

To get my criticism out of the way first: most of the songs on ‘Clockwork Immortality’ are paired stylistically and I’m not sure if that is beneficial to the flow of the album. It starts out with two strongly European-tinged power metal tracks, which are followed by two lighter, melodic tracks, the two most aggressive tracks on the album and two songs with distinct melodic hardrock elements. I think ‘Clockwork Immortality’ could have been more balanced if the songs were spread out more evenly over the album. It’s only a minor problem though, as the songwriting and performances are top-notch here.

As I said before, some of the songs need a little time. First video ‘Rising’ did not make the best first impression, but makes perfect sense within the context of the album. My initial thoughts about the following ‘Empty Daydream’ were that the track was only saved by its futuristic prog middle section, but though I still think it is somewhat overlong, the melodies and Asami’s vocal performance are excellent. However, the more metallic material, like the powerful uptempo guitar feast ‘Addicted’, the the vaguely Loudness-ish borderline thrash metal of ‘M.D.O.’ and the equally melodic as intense ‘Pledge Of The Savior’ definitely had more immediate appeal.

Quite surprisingly, my favorite track on ‘Clockwork Immortality’ is ‘The Final Collision’. That is surprising, because it was the power metal that drew me towards Lovebites in the first place and the song has more in common with minor key late eighties hardrock. Asami gets to show different sides of her incredible voice and the climactic chorus is the single finest moment on ‘Clockwork Immortality’. The guitar arrangements are impeccable as well, but the same can be said about the entire album. Midori and Miyako are all over the album, though they appear to be less focused on soloing and more on strong harmonies and layering contrasting parts this time around.

While ‘Clockwork Immortality’ is not quite as good as ‘Awakening From Abyss’ and ‘Battle Against Damnation’ were, it is about as close as it gets. Lovebites is experimenting on a few tracks and rather successfully on most of them. The entire band is on fire, with especially Asami and Haruna having massively improved their skills. Funnily enough, ‘Clockwork Immortality’ shows that Lovebites has the European power metal sound down better than a lot of actual European power metal bands. If that is your thing, ‘Clockwork Immortality’ is well worth your attention.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Final Collision’, ‘Addicted’, ‘M.D.O.’, ‘Pledge Of The Savior’

Album of the Week 46-2018: Aria – Proklyatiye Morey


Aria was Russia’s first big heavy metal band and still the country’s best. In fact, the band has been experiencing a second youth in recent years, despite a majority of its members being around sixty years old. Bassist Vitaly Dubinin and founding guitarist Vladimir Holstinin have never stopped writing excellent material and with the best Aria singer to date in the shape of Mikhail Zhitnyakov at their disposal, their exciting, often dramatic heavy metal songs are pushed as close to perfection as it gets. ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ is no different, though it does feature Aria treading surprisingly progressive waters at times.

First things first: ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’ is probably the best opening track on any 2018 heavy metal release. With eighties heavy metal oozing out of every pore of the song, from its gorgeous twin guitar intro riff to its uplifting chorus carried by Zhitnyakov’s powerful tenor, the song sends chills down my spine I have not felt since Accept’s ‘Hung, Drawn And Quartered’ six and a half years ago. Sure, Aria has a history of fantastic openers, but ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’ certainly compares favorably to earlier masterpieces like ‘Proshay, Norfolk!’ and ‘Cherny Kvadrat’. Simply the perfect way to open the album.

The rest of the album follows a pattern similar to Iron Maiden’s latter day works. There’s a few shorter, punchy songs alternated with some longer, more progressive tracks. Aria’s songwriting is more consistent, however, and ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ definitely has a better sense of dynamics. Despite lasting an hour and fifteen minutes, the record hardly ever feels that long, because the band never forgets to insert memorable hooks into even the longest songs. In addition, the more concise songs like ‘Era Lucifera’ and the excellent ‘Vsho Nachinaetsya Tam, Gde Konchaetsya Noch’ bristle with strong, catchy melodies and spirited performances.

Picking highlights is difficult, but the nine minute ‘Zhivoy’ is amazing. It starts out like an epic, somewhat hopeful ballad, but then moves through a darker tranquil passage before turning into a defiant heavy metal song. ‘Baryag’ also is epic heavy metal at its finest, bringing to mind the better moments of Maiden’s ‘Brave New World’. ‘Ubit Drakona’, on the other hand, has a more seventies hardrock feel, underlined by some subtle Hammond organ underneath the simple, but brutally effective riff work. ‘Ot Zakata Do Rassveta’ is another delightfully uncomplicated headbanger with a surprisingly aggressive vocal line by Zhinyakov in its chorus.

While it is tempting to call an album this long overlong, the songs speak for themselves. The semi-ballad ‘Dim Bez Ognya’ is slightly longer that it should be, but too good to be dismissed entirely. The title track is even the longest Aria song to date, but is a pretty convincing, doomy Maiden-esque track. What counts is that Aria continues its line of consistent heavy metal albums and plays with the energy of a band half their age. Heavy metal albums this good are pretty hard to come by this day and age and therefore, it is good that Aria is as reliable as ever. Even when they’re taking a few proggy detours that are as surprising as they are enjoyable.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’, ‘Ot Zakata Do Rassveta’, ‘Zhivoy’

Interview – Lovebites’ international metal ambitions


Within Japan, but certainly also outside of the country, Lovebites has been doing well recently. After a couple of one-offs at festivals in England and Germany, the all-female metal band is about to embark on their first European tour. Not long after that, on December 5th to be exact, their second album ‘Clockwork Immortality’ will be released. Plenty of reason to catch up with guitarist Midori.

Performing outside of Japan has always been an ambition for Lovebites. Part of the reason for that is the European-tinged sound of the band. “We would like to play at places our style of metal originates from and is beloved at“, Midori explains. “Besides, there are many places in the world where metal is much more accepted than in Japan. We want to play at those places. These days, metal is not as big in Japan as some people think it is. We hope that our shows abroad will contribute to other bands from the Japanese scene being introduced to a more international audience.

We hope that metal fans all over the world want to listen to our music, regardless of if they have some special interest in Japanese culture or not. That is usually the type of audience you have to limit yourself to when your lyrics are all in Japanese. That’s why we thought it would be a better idea to write our lyrics in English. All our English lyrics are checked and corrected by native speakers or people who lived in English-speaking countries for a long time. They do not just pay attention to our choice of words and our grammar, but also the way the words are supposed to be pronounced. We want to do anything to improve and enhance our lyrics.

Prejudice

When I had just started playing guitar, my influences were mainly Japanese non-metal bands. Later on, I went to a music school and got involved with bands that played covers of modern metal bands, such as Pantera and Avenged Sevenfold. That created the basis for my current guitar style.

That guitar style is notably different than that of her fellow guitarist Miyako, though Midori points out that they are a bit looser with that than they used to be: “Generally, I play flashy and aggressive solos, while Miyako plays slower, more melodic solos. That division is not that strict though. Sometimes we switch if it feels right. When we had just started, we thought it was very important that the two of us had a completely different style or technique, but these days, we don’t really care about that anymore.

Midori is not the only Lovebites member that once started out playing different music. While she has been playing fairly aggressive metal for a while now, singer Asami never sang metal at all before joining Lovebites. “The best thing about that is that she had zero prejudice about which vocal lines were metal or not“, says Midori. “Her vocal lines are very natural and rooted in her own background, which is R&B and gospel. Her delicate, but powerful singing style really enhances the music of Lovebites. Her vocals have provided us with extra opportunities.

Confidence

And yet, Lovebites’ music is deeply rooted in the European heavy and power metal tradition of the likes of Helloween and Iron Maiden. With all the high tempos and technical antics that come along with that. “Lovebites’ songs are fairly difficult to play“, Midori admits. “Most of them are pretty close to the edges of our capacities. If we practice one of the more difficult songs, we always start playing them at a slightly lower tempo. After that, we gradually raise the tempo bit by bit, so we can play them at the normal tempo confidently. That is something I do when I practice by myself, but also when we all play together.

My favorite artists have a lot of songs that I would love to play, but that are a little difficult for me. Those songs, I also practice by first playing them slowly and increasing the tempo as I go along. I am always looking for new songs that I would like to play. Sometimes, I keep the live situation in the back of my mind when I’m arranging guitar parts for Lovebites. But whenever it is necessary, I don’t have any problems with altering the phrasing of certain pieces a little.

As for myself, I am always working on new ideas for licks and phrases. When the production of our albums starts up, we always write the type of song we need at that particular moment. For instance, when we already have a bunch of fast songs, we could decide that it is time for a slower one. We work with several production teams and for the compositions, we frequently work together with Mao, Light Bringer’s keyboard player. All the guitar solos are written by Miyako and myself.

Female-friendly

Save for their debut ‘The Lovebites EP’ (2017), all artworks of Lovebites’ releases have something in common. ‘Awakening From Abyss’ (2017), ‘Battle Against Damnation’ (2018) and the upcoming release ‘Clockwork Immortality’ all prominently feature a wolf on their covers. “Since metal is not a mainstream genre, the wolf symbolizes us being a ‘lone wolf’ in the music scene“, Midori explains. “We are planning to use the wolf on all of our releases. This way, he can become a character that belongs to the band, like Eddie from Iron Maiden, Vic Rattlehead from Megadeth or Johnny from Riot. That is why we are considering giving him a name.

That is not the only visual aspect that makes Lovebites stand out. Not only is the quintet an all-female band in a scene where male musicians have long been the norm, they also dress in white. “Most metal bands dress in black“, Midori smiles. “That is why we thought it would be a good idea to dress in white to give the band something unique. Male musicians are still the majority in Japan, but a lot of great female musicians have come to prominence in recent years. We have the feeling that the current generation of metal fans really gives the music a chance rather than just watching how the band members look. I think the scene has become a lot more female-friendly.

It is a trend among Japanese all-female metal bands to gradually drop metal elements from their sound and aim for something more pop-oriented. Midori reassures that this is not something to worry about in this case: “Our fan base consists of metal fans. They have supported us from day one. We are not planning to get off-track and have faith in the fact that we will continue to be a metal band.

Variation

As said before, there is a new Lovebites album about to be released. What can we expect from ‘Clockwork Immortality’? “The album will largely feature the same sound that we had on ‘Awakening From Abyss’ and ‘Battle Against Damnation’“, Midori promises. “Our sound will still be rooted in power metal and feature notable influences from thrash metal and speed metal. However, we did experiment with the use of acoustic guitars. In addition, we tried to adopt a different approach than we usually do for some songs. This way, we still try to add a little variation to our sound.

Remarkably, an international release date is yet to be announced for ‘Clockwork Immortality’. “We hope to be able to give this album an international release as well“, Midori says carefully. “Of course we are aware of the fact that hardcore fans import our cd’s from Japan, but we would at least like to offer the opportunity to buy the cd for a normal price. Fortunately, we have already received some positive feedback from a couple of labels outside of Japan.

Differences between Japanese and European shows are largely practical, says the guitarist: “When we tour in Japan, we always have a big group of roadies with us. Because of that, all we have to do is play. Everything else is done for us. When we go to Europe, we have to do everything ourselves. In terms of the audience, there is not much of a difference. Both of the audiences are very warm and welcoming. One thing I do notice is that people in Europe sing along to our choruses louder. Sometimes the audience sings louder than the band. That never happens in Japan.

We use the exact same equipment in Japan as abroad. I’m using a Kemper digital amplifier, but when we play outside of Japan, I unmount it, so I can travel lighter, but still have the same sound. For this European tour, we will also leave our wireless systems at home. Furthermore, I have an endorsement with E-II Guitars, of which I will bring two. Both of them will have a Floyd Rose tremolo system, but I use them for different tunings. If there ever is a Kemper at the venue already, I will just have to bring a USB stick with the data. That would be even better.

Lovebites will tour Europe in mid-November:

13 November: Haarlem, Netherlands – Patronaat
14 November: Essen, Germany – Zeche Carl
16 November: Hamburg, Germany – Logo
19 November: Aschaffenburg, Germany – Colos-Saal
20 November: Paris, France – Nouveau Casino
21 November: London, UK – O2 Academy Islington


There are two people who deserve extensive gratitude for this interview. First of all, Arlequin Photography for helping me set up the interview with Joël Heijda from the Patronaat crew. Also, a major “domo arigato” to Fubito Endo for translating Midori’s answers for me. This article is largely an English translation of the article published on The Sushi Times, albeit enhanced with some of the technical information on the Gitarist website.

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