Posts Tagged ‘ Progressive Rock ’

Album of the Week 24-2019: Fates Warning – Inside Out


‘Inside Out’ always gets lost in the shuffle between the hyper-accessible ‘Parallels’ and the ultra-proggy monolith that is ‘A Pleasant Shade Of Gray’. Personally, I consider it superior to either of those. Sure, the flat production and the dull cover art really don’t do the songs any justice, but the classy melodicism that always characterized guitarist Jim Matheos’ songwriting is taken to its logical extreme here. I understand why many consider the album lacking in terms of heaviness and intricacy, but Fates Warning always was more about the songs than displays of virtuosity and ‘Inside Out’ fits that paradigm perfectly.

Stylistically, ‘Inside Out’ is pretty much a continuation of the sound heard on ‘Parallels’ three years prior, albeit with an even bigger emphasis on melancholic melodies. The arrangements are less dense, though the occasional rhythmic complexity is still there – this has Mark Zonder on drums, after all. In terms of songwriting, the material on ‘Inside Out’ is notably more tailored to Ray Alder’s vocal range, who simply delivers the performance of a lifetime here. Adapting the music to his voice rather than the other way around is a large part of why the album sounds the way it does.

‘Monument’ is the only song that has been a consistent live staple since the release of the album and it is not hard to understand why. With an incredible bass riff in 7/4 driving the song and some unexpected elements popping up, such asMatheos’ classical guitar solo, it could be characterized as the most progressive moment on the record. Alder’s impassioned performance is somewhat reminiscent of ‘Parallels’ highlight ‘Point Of View’ and the dynamics strongly enhance the atmosphere of the track. Along with the cool start-stop riffing of opening track ‘Outside Looking In’, it best represents the classic Alder-era Fates Warning sound.

As good as those songs are, however, the overall sound of the album is best portrayed by its more concise moments. ‘Pale Fire’ successfully marries Fates Warning’s accessible side with their progressive roots, while having a chorus that is so powerful that I can even forgive Matheos for rhyming “fire” with “desire”. ‘Face The Fear’ combines Zonder’s busy drum work with Matheos and Frank Aresti weaving a fantastic tapestry of riffs and bright, clean guitar strums and ‘The Strand’ probably would not have worked on any other Fates Warning album, but does here. Its atmosphere brings to mind mid-nineties alternative rock, just with significantly more inventive writing and playing.

Of course, ‘Inside Out’ is not perfect. ‘Down To The Wire’ is a blatant ‘We Only Say Goodbye’ rewrite, ‘Shelter Me’ is a tad too melodramatic and the inoffensive ballad ‘Island In The Stream’ really starts to drag halfway through. But everything else on here is much better than it tends to get credit for. It may not be the most challenging album from a playing viewpoint and the production really could have used some extra punch, but to dismiss Matheos’ songwriting here for not being prog enough would both be unfair and untrue.

Recommended tracks: ‘Monument’, ‘The Strand’, ‘Pale Fire’, ‘Face The Fear’

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Album of the Week 21-2019: Arch/Matheos – Winter Ethereal


With Arch/Matheos being active, there are essentially two Fates Warnings, the one actually called Fates Warning being fronted by Ray Alder. Neither are very prolific; they have a combined grand total of four albums this decade. However, all four are excellent, so that should not be a reason to complain. Jim Matheos found a niche for himself that works, but at the same time provides him with enough opportunities to experiment without straying too far from his core sound. ‘Winter Ethereal’ fits that niche. It’s slightly more streamlined than ‘Sympathetic Resonance’, but similar enough to appeal to the same audience.

Not unlike on their debut album, or even the two-track ‘Twist Of Fate’ EP released under John Arch’s name, ‘Winter Ethereal’ sounds like twenty-first century Fates Warning tailored to Arch’s vocals. For those of you who have never heard them, imagine an esotheric Bruce Dickinson and you’d be close. Unlike their debut, however, Arch and Matheos rotate the cast of backing musicians on the record with several Fates Warning alumni (Frank Aresti, Mark Zonder, Bobby Jarzombek, Joey Vera, Joe DiBiase) and a couple of respected names in the field of progressive rock and metal (Sean Malone, Steve DiGiorgio, Thomas Lang, Matt Lynch).

Maybe it is the close connection that all these musicians have to the history of Arch and Matheos, but ‘Winter Ethereal’ eludes the musical posturing and lack of cohesion that most of these super line-ups have. The men whose names are on the cover are in control here, that much is never in doubt. And despite a couple of fantastic guitar solos on ‘Vermillion Moons’ and ‘Solitary Man’, Matheos is more concerned with getting the riffs and the atmosphere right. He certainly does here. Despite the heaviness and complexity, ‘Winter Ethereal’ always remains a pleasant listen, which has been Matheos’ trademark for all of his recent material.

Easily the most metallic track on here is ‘Wrath Of The Universe’. It’s wild and Matheos enhances the rhythmic violence of Jarzombek and DiGiorgio by often layering two contrasting guitar parts; one aggressive, one creating breathing room. Clever writing. The brilliantly atmospheric ‘Pitch Black Process’ is a more contemporary progressive rock track, though with distinct heavy riffing, somewehere along the lines of a more metallic Porcupine Tree. Closer ‘Kindred Spirits’ is the only 10+ minute song this time around and it is a strong, dynamic track that highlights all that Arch/Matheos has to offer in a surprisingly fluent fashion. The other large epic is the powerful opening track ‘Vermillion Moons’, which “only” clocks nine minutes.

Though ‘Winter Ethereal’ is not perfect – ‘Never In Your Hands’ is a little plain and the ballad ‘Tethered’ is good, but drags a little at several points in the song – it is simply a no-brainer for anyone who loved the debut and even the last two Fates Warning albums. The album is dynamic, powerful and intricate, but never too complex. Such listenable progressive metal is hard enough to come by these days, but Arch and Matheos certainly give a few young bands – as well as a few burnt-out old ones – a lesson or two in prog songwriting here. Highly recommended.

Recommended tracks: ‘Wrath Of The Universe’, ‘Pitch Black Process’, ‘Kindred Spirits’, ‘Vermillion Moons’

Album of the Week 20-2019: Amorphis – Elegy


Perfection is hard to come by in music. More often than not, I refer to a certain aspect of an album being as close to perfection as it gets. In case of Amorphis’ third album ‘Elegy’, its atmosphere is just about as perfect as it gets. ‘Elegy’ was the second album on which Amorphis showed a massive stylistic change and it would not be the last, but it does say something that the signature sound they currently have is not too far removed from what can be heard on ‘Elegy’. It is simply an excellent work of melancholic Finnish metal.

In a way, it is odd that ‘Elegy’ is my favorite Amorphis album, as the band would become much better later on. Current singer Tomi Joutsen is vastly superior to both the throaty grunts of rhythm guitarist Tomi Koivusaari and the Hetfield-esque cleans of Pasi Koskinen, Santeri Kallio has a significantly more melodic style than ‘Elegy’ keyboard player Kim Rantala… Basically the only band member who is already close to the massive heights he would soon reach is lead guitarist Esa Holopainen, one of the most tasteful guitarists in rock and metal. And yet, everything on ‘Elegy’ is as it should be.

First off, the lack of vocal prowess does not hurt the music at all. Koskinen is the right fit for the melancholy expressed in the lyrics – all English translations of the poems in the ‘Kanteletar’, a collection of traditional Finnish songs and poems – and Koivusaari is buried in the mix. Besides, if I had to estimate, less than 25 percent of the album actually has vocals. ‘Elegy’ is the record that most clearly displays the influence that their fellow countrymen Kingston Wall had on Amorphis: it’s extremely jam-heavy, giving Holopainen plenty of room to excel, and the band opts to let the ideas unfold slowly rather than cramming their songs full of them.

Additionally, the eastern mysticism in Kingston Wall’s music is prominent on some of the Holopainen-penned songs, the incredible opener ‘Better Unborn’ in particular. That song deserves an award anyway. It’s easy to come up with something self-pitying for that set of lyrics, but Amorphis made something extremely powerful out of it, kind of like a Scandinavian metal interpretation of Led Zeppelin’s later works. ‘Song Of The Troubled One’ has a similar vibe, though notably more northern European. The twin guitar harmony laden ‘Against Widows’ is more propulsive, as is ‘On Rich And Poor’, which contains some incredible rhythm guitar work. The surprisingly good instrumental ‘Relief’ brings all the elements together.

Even when the band adopts a more laid-back approach, it sounds amazing. The climactic title track and the unbelievably gorgeous album highlight ‘My Kantele’ have some prominent Pink Floyd-isms, albeit with much more powerful rhythm guitar work. But really, only those who prefer Amorphis as a full-on death metal band might not find anything to like on ‘Elegy’, but I sincerely doubt if they ever were. The consistently melancholic tone is what largely makes ‘Elegy’ so amazing, but the unusually large amount of jamming helps too, plus the fact that Holopainen and Koivusaari hardly ever play in unison. A fairly unique album, even within Amorphis’ discography, that still sounds as fresh today as when I first heard it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Better Unborn’, ‘My Kantele’, ‘On Rich And Poor’, ‘Relief’

Album of the Week 11-2019: Kinniku Shojo Tai – Shinjin


Making a worthy comeback is one thing. Releasing a comeback album that is as good as your classic material is rare though. And yet, that is exactly what Kinniku Shojo Tai does on ‘Shinjin’. The band had broken up somewhat unceremoniously in the late nineties after a string of enjoyable, but highly inconsistent albums. A reunion was announced in late 2006 – without drummer Akira Ota but with original keyboard player Satoshi Mishiba helping out significantly as a session musician – and less than a year later, ‘Shinjin’ was released. Easily their best set of songs since their early nineties heyday, this is how comebacks should be.

With Kinniku Shojo Tai’s trademark bizarre mix of punk, metal, funk rock, prog and Queen-like theatricality being firmly in place, it would be tempting to say that nothing has changed since the split. There is a small, but notable change of direction to be found, however, as post-reunion Kinniku Shojo Tai has a notably stronger orientation towards melodic hard rock and power metal than before. And while some may argue that wild genre-hopping was an important part of the band’s sound, it does cause the overall sound of ‘Shinjin’ to be a little more consistent than before.

Of course, the band has not suddenly ditched all of its weirdness. There is some rather unique piano work underneath even the thickest guitar riffs and only very few western hard rock bands would dare to attempt a nervous, jangly sixties rocker like ‘Nukenin’. The fact that the first vocals on the album are some of the most aggressive “la-la-la” chants in music history (‘Nakanaori No Theme’) is quite telling as well. The campfire atmosphere of closer ‘Shinjin Band No Theme’ is one of the many moments evidencing the band’s sense of humor, but it’s surprisingly listenable as well.

Still, if you primarily want to hear Kinniku Shojo Tai rock out, ‘Shinjin’ is one of the best places to start. The blunt force of the band’s punk roots shines through on ‘Mishiyo Hikikaiken’, but there’s a surprising amount of class in their hardrockers too. Fumihiko Kitsutaka’s compositions, such as ‘Torifido No Hi Ga Kitemo Futaridake Ha Iki Nuku’ and the particularly neoclassical ‘Headbang Hatsudensho’, are renowned for that, but the powerful ‘Ai Wo Uchikorose!’ appears to be from the same mold, despite being written by his fellow guitarist Toshiaki Honjo. Also, letting a singer as shouty and unsubtle as Kenji Otsuki sing no less than three ballads seems like a bad idea, but they are fortunately quite good, the remarkably dynamic ‘Koshonin To Rosalia’ in particular.

Eclectic bands like Kinniku Shojo Tai usually have a couple of flaws on their albums, but they are quite limited in number on ‘Shinjin’. The sequencing could have been a little more effective and I am unsure about the necessity of the re-recordings of ‘Moretsu Ataro’ and the speed metal monster ‘Iwan No Baka’. Especially the latter does sound significantly better than the original version though. Having them on there does contribute to the album’s introductory value to the weird world of Kinniku Shojo Tai. ‘Shinjin’ is an album that plays to the band’s strengths, after all, and therefore worth a shot if you like any of the genres mentioned in this review.

Recommended tracks: ‘Headbang Hatsudensho’, ‘Ai Wo Uchikorose!’, ‘Iwan No Baka ’07’

Interview: The Asian taste of Sigh


Eccentric is probably the best word to describe Sigh. Their sound is anchored in extreme metal – black metal particularly – but is rife with influences from other genres. Progressive and psychedelic rock, classical music, jazz, electronic music… All of these are elements that have been appearing in their experimental music since the mid-nineties. “Black metal encompasses almost every musical genre“, says singer, multi-instrumentalist and band leader Mirai Kawashima. “All kinds of bands from Blasphemy to Alcest and Deafheaven are often categorized as black metal. Black metal is so non-limiting that it does not describe any musical style at all. Also, obviously, what we play is not thrash or death metal, so we stick to the black metal tag.

November 16th sees the release of Sigh’s twelfth album ‘Heir To Despair’. On it, the extreme metal has almost been put on the background in favor of distinct influences from progressive rock and East-Asian folk. “The seventies prog vibe has always been there, say since ‘Gastly Funeral Theater’ (1997)”, says Kawashima. “I love crazy prog stuff from the seventies and I am a vintage keyboard collector. Also this time, I tried some flute, which must give a more prog feel to the album. Actually, ‘Graveward’ (2015) was supposed to be a very prog album, but during the recording, I got into more orchestral stuff and the direction of the album drastically changed.

As for the Asian feel, I’ve been experimenting a lot with the traditional Japanese way of singing and wanted to incorporate that into Sigh’s music. And this time, most of the lyrics are in Japanese. I can sing much better in Japanese, as I do not have to care about the accurate pronunciation, unlike when I have to sing in English. Also, I thought the Japanese lyrics could give a different atmosphere to the songs. And to be honest, not much is left for me to say in English after ten albums…

Expectation

When Kawashima announced the release of ‘Heir To Despair’ on social media, he said that everyone would hate the album. Allegedly, no one who heard it liked it. Have the reactions been a little better in the meantime? “So far only ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ has been published“, Kawashima explains. “And actually, it’s got a lot of positive reactions. However, the song does not represent the album in any way. The feature of ‘Heir To Despair’ is an Asian taste and the use of flute. ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ does not sound Asian and does not feature the flute. People liking ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ means there’s a bigger possibility that they are going to hate the album.

Not that Kawashima cares: “Especially right after the album release, the audience reaction is rather misleading. When ‘Imaginary Sonicscape’ (2001) came out, more than half of the reviews were more than bad. People were thinking that we were a black metal band and the album did not sound black at all, so they were confused. But seventeen years have passed since then and ‘Imaginare Sonicscape’ must be one of the most popular Sigh albums. When people listen to an album for the first time, they just listen to the gap between their expectation and the actual music.

Objective

‘Heir To Despair’ has a remarkably clean, almost polished sound. The contrast with the raw production of ‘Graveward’ could hardly be greater. This is not the first time that there is such a sizeable difference between the sonic approach of two consecutive Sigh albums. “I believe it pretty much depends on the direction or the theme of the album“, Kawashima explains. “The theme of ‘Scenes From Hell’ is hell, so we wanted a hellish production. The production of ‘Heir To Despair’ was kind of an experiment. ‘Graveward’ was engineered by our own guitarist, which I must say was a big failure. I’m not saying he was a bad engineer or anything, but he was too biased. Obviously he wanted his guitar to be heard more than anything and he knew too much about the songs, which excluded objectivity.

In order to maintain that objectivity, I left it up to our Canadian engineer Phil Anderson this time. Of course I wanted some of my playing or vocals to be more audible, but I didn’t say anything about it, as it was an experiment of objectivity. I guess it worked very well.

Insanity

A thematic approach is Kawashima’s modus operandi anyway: “The concept of this album is about insanity. I’ve been wondering what insanity is these days. Of course, there are some real mad people of whom everyone can tell that they’re mad, but insanity is not always that distinctive. It’s just a matter of where to draw the line between sanity and insanity and it is one hundred percent arbitrary. When you are insane, you cannot tell that you are. I don’t think I am insane. I think that what I am saying in this interview makes perfect sense, but there is no way to assure that. Completely insane people probably think they’re talking completely logical.

The artwork by Eliran Kantor perfectly describes what I wanted to express with the music. The woman looks happy, but everything else on the artwork is wrong. The plant is dead and the room is a mess. As I said, insanity is not always very distinctive. Some people look very normal while having a deep darkness inside their mind. And that is the real horror.

Spontaneous

Since Sigh commenced activity in the late eighties, the band has been centered around Kawahima. More often than not, these kinds of line-ups tend to be highly unstable, but Sigh always maintained a relatively constant line-up. Save for the arrival of guitarist You Oshima in 2014, the band has not had any line-up changes for over a decade. “I’m sure there should be better players“, says Kawashima. “But what makes them peculiar is that they are all crazy in some way, which works good for Sigh maybe. They are all really hard people to work or communicate with. It’s truly frustrating that I have to deal with them, but maybe that is proof that they are artistically unique. At least I hope so.

Yet, it is Kawashima who is pulling the strings. “I write most of the songs and all the lyrics“, he explains. “As for ‘Heir To Despair’, half of ‘In Memories Delusional’ was written by our guitarist You Oshima and I left all the guitar solos up to him, but I can say that’s the only compositional input from the other band members.

My method of composing varies. Sometimes I compose playing piano. Sometimes I just come up with the ideas walking down the street. I usually keep collecting those bits and pieces and assemble them into a song on MIDI. Then I keep listening to the demoes and change or rearrange them until I am a hundred percent satisfied with it. Then I pass it on to the other members. The songs on ‘Heir To Despair’ were composed very spontaneously compared to the past ones. I usually use a lot of musical theories to arrange the songs, but this time I did not think about theories that much. I just kept writing without thinking that much.

Success

Compared to many other Japanese bands, Sigh has a reasonable degree of succes worldwide. “It’s just a matter of how you define success“, Kawashima nuances. “I personally do not think Sigh succeeded at anything. Anyway, I just thank Euronymous (guitarist of the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, who was murdered in 1993). When we were hunting for a label around 1992, he was the only one who showed interest in us. I am not even exaggerating anything. I sent the demo to every label in the world and nobody but Euronymous wanted to sign us. So without him, Sigh probably would have ended up a demo band. He liked us, then the black metal boom happened. Nobody or nothing else got us that.

Since being signed to Euronymous’ Deathlike Silence Productions, Sigh has been performing all over the world, albeit not that frequently. Not even in Japan. Yet, Kawashima notices a difference in preferences: “Here in Japan, our most popular album is obviously ‘Hangman’s Hymn’ (2007), so when we play here, we play more songs off this album. In Europe and the US, I believe they want to hear earlier, more black metal stuff, so when we play abroad, we play a lot from ‘Scorn Defeat’ (1993). In the coming weeks, we will play some shows with Dimmu Borgir, Gorgoroth, Samael and Sinsaenum and we will play only songs from after 2007 and almost all the songs are fast. That’s what the Japanese audience wants.

Album of the Week 45-2018: Sigh – Heir To Despair


While Sigh started out as one of Japan’s first extreme metal bands, they have become one of the country’s most unpredictable bands. Though black metal is never completely gone, their highly experimental albums can contain anything from jazzy breaks to film noir soundtrack interludes and electronic beats. In a way, ‘Heir To Despair’ is one of the more accessible albums the band has released so far, but they once again follow a completely different direction than ever before. As long as you don’t expect a symphonic black metal record, the oriental melodies and traditional heavy metal riffs may enchant you.

A brief genre description for the music on ‘Heir To Despair’ is as difficult as ever, but progressive East-Asian folk metal covers most of the bases. The inclusion of main man Mirai Kawashima’s flute gives certain sections a distinct seventies prog feel, while the shamisen of guest musician Kevin Kmetz – along with the general atmosphere of the melodies – gives the album what is arguably the most oriental vibe ever to be heard on a Sigh record. And yet, the eighties metal feel of the guitar riffs is also there. It is a mix of influences that is as unlikely as it is successful.

Some people may be surprised by the relatively large amount of clean singing on the record. In addition to employing several traditional Asian vocal techniques such as throat singing, Kawashima has put down a handful of excellent, haunting vocal harmonies. The brilliant midtempo opener ‘Aletheia’ is full of them, for instance. A daring opener, as it does not ease the listener into the album’s sound, but drops the new sound on them immediately. ‘In Memories Delusional’ balances more traditional heavy metal sounds with more folky touches and strong hamonies and may be an excellent starter if you have not heard the excellent thrashy metal of ‘Homo Hominis Lupus’ yet.

Elsewhere, the album can get a little weird. The electronic rhythms of the ‘Heresy’-trilogy can have a dubby feel due to the use of reverb, while most of the band’s influences are crammed into the three tracks. That is just a short detour though, since as a whole, ‘Heir To Despair’ is one of the most consistent Sigh albums both stylistically and in terms of quality. The album ends with two exceptional extreme progressive metal tracks that are filled with excellent ideas and sudden shifts in atmosphere. A very climactic ending to an album that isn’t exactly short on interesting musical ideas anyway.

The most remarkable thing about this, however, is how Sigh managed to streamline all of those ideas. Sure, the trilogy is an obvious departure in terms of overall sound, but ‘Heir To Despair’ has a very pleasant flow for an album with such a wide range of influences. Sure, the pristine production helps, but in the end, it is a triumph for Kawashima in terms of songwriting and arrangements. This is a must for fans of adventurous metal, but even progressive rock fans who don’t mind a bit of extra grit could find something of their liking here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Aletheia’, ‘Hands Of The String Puller’, ‘In Memories Delusional’

Album of the Week 44-2018: Kinniku Shojo Tai – Za Shisa


Despite being somewhat unpredictable stylistically, Kinniku Shojo Tai has been experiencing a very solid run recently. More so than during the latter years of their original run, in fact. Some of their recent albums are slightly better than others, ‘Omake No Ichinichi (Tatakai No Hibi)’ in particular, but none of them is less than enjoyable. ‘Za Shisa’ is another convincing entry into their discography, which currently counts over twenty studio albums. The general vibe is slightly more relaxed and less crazy than on their previous records, but anyone who liked their melting pot of influences before will certainly enjoy ‘Za Shisa’.

Kinniku Shojo Tai’s unpredictability is a result of every band member bringing something different to the table. ‘Za Shisa’ features a relatively large amount of the playful funk rock riffs that guitarist Toshiaki Honjo specializes in. Everything muscular, classy and melodic is the work of Fumihiko Kitsutaka, who in my opinion is one of the world’s greatest guitarists and arrangers. Founding bassist Yuichiro Uchida usually is responsible for the weird progressive and psychedelic stuff, while his co-founder Kenji Otsuki yells, speaks and sings everything together. That sounds like it may not work, but ‘Za Shisa’ proves it does.

The first peak of ‘Za Shisa’ arrives quite early. The elegant melodic hardrock of ‘Shogeki No Outsider Art’ is Kitsutaka in its purest form with a gorgeous chorus, after which the darker, vaguely Middle Eastern tones of the climactic ‘Occult’ account for one of the album’s most atmospheric moments. What follows is the most metallic track of the album; the aggressive speed metal of ‘Zombie River ~ Row Your Boat’ would not have sounded out of place on one of the band’s earliest releases. And like on those albums, the creative use of piano and dynamics lends gravitas to the energetic aggression.

After that, the album takes a slight dip. Not that ‘Naze Hito Wo Koroshi Cha Ike Nai No Daro Ka?’ and ‘Uchu No Hosoku’ are bad songs, it’s just too much consecutive tranquillity. The pace is picked back up quite quickly though, with the subdued seventies rock feel with spoken verses of the awesome ‘Marilyn Monroe Returns’ bringing Thin Lizzy’s ‘Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed’ to mind. Uchida’s songs ‘Kenji No Zundoku Fushi’ and ‘Parallax No Shisa’ have the dynamic, haunting quality he excels at. The former has a pleasant stomp, while the way the guitar line and piano melody teasingly dance in unison on the latter is only the beginning of its ominous atmosphere. ‘Next Generation’ and ‘I, Toya’ are pleasant upbeat rockers.

Though ‘Za Shisa’ feels somewhat more laid-back, Kinniku Shojo Tai is still as weird and reluctant to stick to one genre as ever. As always, it may require some time to sink in, but it is a rewarding album for repeated spins. If you have not heard of the band before and need a western reference: imagine if Queen had embraced punk and further developed the metallic leanings of their first few albums. Now add a dash of Japanese weirdness to the mix. Sounds impossible? Tell that to them. They have been doing it for over thirty years.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shogeki No Outsider Art’, ‘Zombie River ~ Row Your Boat’, ‘Occult’

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