Posts Tagged ‘ Visual Kei ’

Album of the Week 03-2019: Asagi – Madara


Asagi’s debut solo album is one of those instances where I doubted the necessity of a solo venture. After all, Asagi is by far the most prolific composer of his main band, the immensely popular visual kei band D, and his surprisingly unique voice is characteristic enough to add D’s character to everything he sings on. What makes ‘Madara’ a successful record, however, is its focus. Japanese folk influences have been quite prominent in some of D’s best songs, but on this album, Asagi goes full-on folk rock and folk metal. And it’s not just a gimmick: the songs are great.

Of course, Asagi has not lost his ability to write catchy, powerful rock songs. In fact, some of the songs are filled with his trademark stock visual kei melodies – opening track ‘Gekkai No Miko’ most notably – but the Japanese traditional instruments, such as the koto, the shamisen and the taiko drums, are an integral part of the songwriting rather than an extra touch. On a majority of the songs, it’s not the guitars, but these instruments that carry the melodies. While the guitars are there to give them extra punch, that does impact the character of the melodies significantly.

While the entirity of ‘Madara’ is highly entertaining, the best moments of the album are the hardest rocking ones. Songs like ‘Hakumenkonmo Kyubi No Kitsune Hidama’, ‘Kimera’ and ‘Komo Sakura’ just work wonders: the shamisen introduces the melody, the electric guitars join, either in unison or as bottom-heavy accompaniment, creating some fantastic oriental folk metal. I have always wondered why the number of bands attempting this style is not larger and Asagi makes a strong case for the combination of sounds. The more melodic rockers, such as ‘Hotarubi’, ‘Hana Kumo No Ran’ and ‘Ooyama Inudake ~Tsukuyo Ni Hoeyu~’ are sure to please D fans, but might also draw in people who usually find them too heavy.

Since this is an Asagi album, there is of course room for some ballads in which he can show off his vocal talents. There are quite a few of them here and those are probably the most folky sounding ones on the record. Ironically, it is not Asagi himself, but bassist (and prolific producer) Hajime Okano who stands out on the album’s best ballad ‘Kaishikoki Eru E Kaeryanse’ features some gorgeous melodic work on the fretless bass that really enhances the atmosphere of the song. Closing track ‘Asagimadara’ is another beautiful ballad, this time with absolutely stunning symphonic touches.

Beside the songwriting, it is also impressive how Asagi managed to make the album about the songs and not about the all-star cast that appears on the album, which features members of Luna Sea, Dir En Grey, Galneryus, D and loads of other high profile Japanese bands. It still sounds like a cohesive collection of songs and that, again, is probably the result of Asagi’s razor sharp focus. He wanted to make a powerful rock album that was heavy on the Japanese folk influences and that is exactly what ‘Madara’ has become. One of the Japanese highlights of 2018.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hakumenkonmo Kyubo No Kitsune Hidama’, ‘Komo Sakura’, ‘Ooyama Inudake ~Tsukoyo Ni Hoeyu’

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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 37-2018: Atsushi Sakurai – Ai No Wakusei


With his amazing voice being the defining factor that it is in Buck-Tick, it is quite surprising that no one in the Japanese record industry pushed Atsushi Sakurai to release more solo albums than just ‘Ai No Wakusei’. It sold reasonably well, but it would be logical to assume that Buck-Tick took up most of his time, given that their second career peak started shortly after its release. With several of the song titles containing references to his contributors, it is likely that Sakurai was inspired by the people he worked with. That also explains the wide range of styles here.

A different songwriter and different musicians on every track sounds like the album could turn out quite messy and to be honest, it kind of is. After Wayne Hussey’s sublime gothic rock of opening track ‘Sacrifice’ and Raymond Watts’ heavy industrial rock with Arabic string interlude in ‘Yellow Pig’, the album is all over the place for a while. There’s electronic tracks (‘X-Lover’), sparse funk highly reminiscent of Prince (the surprisingly cool ‘Smell’) and J.D. Thirlwell – perhaps better known as Foetus – contributed the hyperactive, chaotic jazz of ‘I Hate You All’. That could throw you off, but it’s worth hanging on.

The album settles for a certain groove during its latter half, that groove being low-key rock with a distinct dark vibe. It is public knowledge that Buck-Tick guitarist Hisashi Imai was inspired to write a more gothic-leaning album (the incredible ‘Jusankai wa Gekko’) after hearing Sakurai’s solo performances in support of ‘Ai No Wakusei’. And with songs like the menacing ‘Hallelujah!’, the incredibly dynamic ‘Shingetsu’ and the brooding majesty of ‘Yokan’, a reworking of his excellent collaboration with Dutch electro-goths Clan of Xymox, it is clear why Imai heard the impact Sakurai could have in dark, gothic surroundings. His deep, emotional baritone is tailor-made for it.

However, that does not mean that ‘Ai No Wakusei’ is all dark all the time. ‘Taiji’ has an optimistic chorus with subtle guitar work and a gently purring hammond organ in the background, while as a whole, the track is simply a powerful, well-constructed pop rocker with several surprising climaxes. ‘Fantasy’ is an upbeat electro-based track and the semi-title track ‘Wakusei’ has a bit of a positive ring to it, despite being built upon crunchy power chords and reverb-drenched lead guitar parts. ‘Neko’, which I assume is a tribute to Sakurai’s cat, even closes the album in a surprisingly soothing manner.

Somehow, ‘Ai No Wakusei’ is one of those albums where you don’t know what to expect even after you have heard it. But that is part of its charm as well. What the first half of the album lacks in terms of flow, the album as a whole more than makes up for in the individual quality of the songs. It is also not quite as vocal-centric as one might expect from a solo release by a singer as characteristic as Sakurai. A decade later, Sakurai would team up with several ‘Ai No Wakusei’ contributors to form The Mortal, but in name, this is truly the only album where he could do whatever the hell he wanted and one thing is for sure: he ran with it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sacrifice’, ‘Yokan’, ‘Smell’, ‘Taiji’, ‘Shingetsu’

Album of the Week 35-2018: Acid Black Cherry – Black List


Solo projects are an odd phenomenon. Technically, they could highlight a vision someone is not allowed to display in their main band, but they are often a disjointed mess. Acid Black Cherry’s debut album ‘Black List’ has all the symptoms of the latter – a rotating cast of musicians, a wide range of styles – but ends up being much closer to the former. The strict direction of main man and sole songwriter yasu keeps the whole thing from spiraling out of control. Realizing the importance of the first strike, ‘Black List’ is a minor J-rock classic and likely yasu’s best work yet.

In essence, the music on ‘Black List’ is not as far removed from yasu’s former band Janne Da Arc as one might expect. The differences are almost cosmetic rather than fundamental. On ‘Black List’, Acid Black Cherry is somewhat heavier and considerably more theatrical than Janne was, but the focus is still mainly on highly melodic rock songs with instantly hummable choruses, energetic but not too complicated riff work and a strategic use of light-and-shade workings. The approach is not too dissimilar to what Gackt has been doing for the last decade, but notably less predictable and therefore better.

While it would be easy to blame the immense artistic value of ‘Black List’ on the contributions of big names in J-rock – including Luna Sea’s Sugizo, La’cryma Christi’s Shuse and Siam Shade’s Daita and Jun-ji – the truth is that yasu’s songwriting and arrangements are simply really good. Arrangements are worth mentioning, because it’s exactly the fantastic use of keyboards and strings that adds some class to the surprisingly dark, menacing nature of the fanatastic opener ‘Sins’ and the bass and horn arrangements that lend an authentic jazzy edge to the manic ‘Black Cherry’, as wildly as it rocks most of the time.

On ‘Black List’, the genre-hopping is its forte rather than its flaw. The dark, dangerous vibe that made me love ‘Sins’ so much is revived on ‘Murder License’, while ‘Bit Stupid’ is an infectious, breezy and funky pop rocker. ‘Fuyu No Maboroshi’ is a particularly theatrical ballad, while ‘Shojo No Inori’ is a fun melodic hardrocker that would not have sounded out of place on one of Janne Da Arc’s later albums. Occasionally yasu’s particularly light and thin voice is a little grating, but overall, it’s remarkable how well it works on the harder rocking tracks on ‘Black List’.

Despite releasing more quality material throughout the years, Acid Black Cherry would never again release an album as good as ‘Black List’. Some serious overproduction drags most of their albums down, though none of the original albums is less than enjoyable. Though a lot of effort has gone into the production and arrangements of ‘Black List’, this album truly is enhanced by the effort. There is a bit of a risk that western rock fans might find yasu’s voice a little off-putting, but the fact remains that ‘Black List’ is a fantastic album. It even sounds like one rather than a loose collection of songs. That alone is already rather impressive within the J-rock realm.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sins’, ‘Shojo No Inori’, ‘Murder License’

Interview – Ryoji (Gyze): “The future of heavy metal is in Asia”


By competing in the Wacken Metal Battle, related to the famed Wacken Open Air, Gyze has been one of the few Japanese metal bands that has made something of a career for themselves in Europe. Not that that should be too surprising, as the folky melodic death metal of the trio has quite some common ground with the Finnish metal scene. And yet, through the use of Oriental folk elements, they have their own identity. Recently, their new single ‘The Rising Dragon’ was released internationally. Within this context, we talked with singer, guitarist and keyboard player Ryoji Shinomoto.

We believe that heavy metal has no borders“, Ryoji emphasizes. “We love playing in Japan as well as in Europe. But even within Japan, every city is different. The audience reaction varies from place to place.  I do love playing festivals. The energy at a festival is so different from solo shows. But we always play our best no matter where we are. The only funny difference is that announcements in English are easier to do for me than in Japanese. I always feel nervous speaking in front of an audience in Japanese, haha!
The announcements aren’t the only aspect in which the band has to switch between English and Japanese. Gyze also offers lyrics in both languages. “English is easier for me, because Japanese has a different rhyming technique“, the frontman admits. “Also, English sentences are sometimes much shorter. However, when we decide to use Japanese for the lyrics, I always choose to use difficult characters, archaic words and four character proverb.” Smiling, he adds: “So usually, even Japanese people can’t read our lyrics.
‘Day Of The Funeral’ from our first album, ‘Nanohana’ from our second album or our new single ‘Ryugin’ are like a story from a book, which is easy to write and read. ‘Brown Trout’, ‘Trash My Enemy’, ‘Frozen Dictator’ and ‘Horkew’ are more interesting and difficult lyrically. When people listen to ‘Horkew’, they might here English words there, but actually, the lyrics are totally in Japanese. It happens because I chose words that would sound similar to English to make it more interesting. For instance, “(mita)sarenai” sounds like “silent night”.
Also, we have some themes on our albums. The first album is filled with energy, with songs about revenge, regrets and anger. The second: regrets, sadness, love and war. The third album is about the Ainu people, the indigenous people of Hokkaido. Apart from that, there are human emotions, Japanese gods and, well… Fish! Our new single contains two new songs: ‘Japanese Elegy’ is about war and ‘Ryugin’ is a positive song about Gyze and the future.

Find an audience

Of course, the Ainu are not a random theme; Gyze is also from Hokkaido. Traditionally, this is a difficult area to conquer the music market from even within Japan. “Actually, I never thought about that“, Ryoji admits. “As far as I know, no band from Hokkaido has ever succeded at conquering the international metal market. Moreover, Gyze happened to be the first Japanese bands – not just from Hokkaido – to perform at many world famous festivals. But I love Hokkaido and I am proud that I am from there.
There are not many Japanese bands who dare to tour internationally. “The first reason is that Japanese people can’t or don’t want to use English“, says Ryoji. “Furthermore, Japan is an island country. There is a big cultural difference. But please, listen to as many Japanese bands as you can, then it might become easier for them to find an audience overseas. As long as you listen to Gyze first, of course, haha!
Offering Asian bands a platform has been important to Ryoji for quite some time now. In 2015, Gyze was involved with organizing Vanishing Heaven Fest, which besides Japanese bands also featured bands from Taiwan and South Korea. “Recently, my favorite metal bands are from Asia and Eastern Europe“, Ryoji explains. “The European metal scene consists of the classics. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but the line-ups of festivals and the bands featured in the media are getting a bit predictable. The Asian metal market, however, is just starting to grow. There are a lot of unique and varied bands here. That’s why I believe that the future of heavy metal is in Asia.

Ideal sound

Gyze only has three members. Bassist Aruta Watanabe and Ryoji’s younger brother Shuji complete the line-up. Still, the music has a lot of different elements. Besides the guitars, bass, drums and vocals, keyboards and several traditional instruments can be heard. “On stage, I only play lead guitar“, Ryoji explains. “But on the cd’s, I always want to create the ideal sound. If when composing I feel like using a certain instrument, I will. That’s why we have songs with shamisen, violin, keyboards, harmonic guitars and so on. That ideal sound is not just me of course, because Shuji and Aruta’s sounds are equally important.
I always use the piano for composing and I really care about notes and music theory. First, I check all the notes and tuning by piano. And if I find some odd sounds, I always fix them. Even for the bass. When I just started composing heavy metal, I just relied on my sense. If I felt like the sound was messy, I just deleted the part. Recently, we started checking the bass lines through midi. Aruta and I check the tuning, the scales and the notes of his parts. The same appeals to the drums with Shuji. All these checks and precautions help to avoid turning things into a mess. Especially if we start playing the songs at full speed.
Of course the parts are important, but to really make heavy sounds, speed and melodies sound as one, mixing and mastering is just as important. That is why we are considering remixing our second album to make it sound even better.
For te mix and even the album covers, Gyze has exclusively worked with European engineers and artists thus far. “The funny thing is that we have never worked with Japanese engineers and designers“, Ryoji smiles. “Our first engineer was Ettore Rigotti from Disharmonia Mundi. I was a big fan of his band. Then from the third album on, we started working with Ahti Kortelainen. I love his sound and of course, he has experience with a lot of great heavy metal bands like Sonata Arctica and Kalmah.
All our album covers thus far have been designed by Machine Room (Rhett Podersoo). We were introduced to him by Ettore and his style touched my heart. His works are elegant, gorgeous, unique, modern and powerful. We hope to be able to use his artworks until the end.

Essence

Traditionally, visual kei and the “regular” metal scene are two separate worlds in Japan. And though Gyze is closer to the latter, the band has a number of pronounced visual elements and Ryoji recently shared the stage with Jupiter. “Visual kei is not a music genre, just a style“, he emphasizes. “There is a heavy metal sound in visual kei, but there is a punk sound as well. Gyze doesn’t need to be categorized. If someone wants to label us as visual kei, that’s fine with us. When people listen to our music, everyone can understand within one second that it is heavy metal.
Ryoji’s initial influences were not Japanese bands: “When I was about seven or eight years old, I got a guitar from my father and played classical guitar until junior high school. The first rock band that inspired me was Kiss. I listened to a lot of hard rock and punk until I was about sixteen years old. Later, I started listening to heavy metal. I really enjoyed the essence of heavy metal: the fast tempos, the minor scales, the melodies and the epic feel of such bands as Iron Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth and later on various death metal bands. Around the same time, I also started listening to traditional Japanese pop, world folk and classical music.
Recently, I have mainly been inspired by classical composers like Beethoven, Vivaldi and Chopin. I have even made heavy metal covers of their compositions. I tried to read the original scores and analyze the compositions. I had a really good time working on that. Also, I have been listening to a lot of enka and Eastern European folk lately. Joe Hisashi, Studio Ghibli’s composer, and Ryuichi Sakamoto are very interesting as well, because their music delivers and eastern atmosphere with western musical instruments. I have not really been influenced by much metal lately, but I like a lot of Chinese metal!

A large portion of Gyze’s discography, including the new single ‘The Rising Dragon’, can be streamed through Spotify, iTunes, Deezer, Tidal and other popular streaming platforms.

Gyze is currently on tour through Europe:

August 11th: Leyendas del Rock, Villena, Spain
August 12th: Underworld, London, England
August 13th: Colosseum, Genk, Belgium
August 14th: Backstage, Munich, Germany
August 15th: Summer Breeze, Dinkelsbühl, Germany
August 17th: Turock, Essen, Germany

The original Dutch version of this article can be read at The Sushi Times. Thanks to Mona Miluski at All Noir for setting up the interview.

Album of the Week 28-2018: NoGoD – V


Within the visual kei realm, NoGoD is a bit of an anomaly. With a sound that is a lumpless blend of modern hard rock and heavy metal, they don’t really fit any of the trends that exist in their genre and because they are not a cast full of pretty boys – they are fronted by the clownesque Dancho – their fan base is largely male. With that different take on Japanese rock music, NoGoD is certainly a band to check out for those who are usually discouraged by the visual approach. And there hardly is any better place to start than ‘V’.

Though NoGoD is mainly known for energetic, riffy songs with rather upbeat choruses, ‘V’ is notably darker in tone than any of their other albums. It is also slightly more metallic than their other works, though the catchy bits are almost all arena-worthy in their sing-along glory. The first half of ‘IV – Tasha / Philosophia’, the fourth part of a suite that stretches out over four albums, has a stomping 5/4 beat that many of their peers would not dare to attempt and the awesome ‘Sabbath’ is probably the darkest NoGoD song yet. Coincidentally, it is also one of their very best.

In more familiar territory, ‘V’ also shines just a little bit brighter than the rest of NoGoD’s discography. While earlier albums had masterpieces like ‘Kamikaze’, ‘World Ender’ and ‘Kakusei’, ‘V’ just rolls on without ever losing steam. Sure, the more punky, upbeat songs ‘Kane wo Narase’ and ‘Pandora’ feel a little odd atmosphere-wise, but that is easy to accept on an album that also has fist pumpers like the anthemic ‘Stand Up!’ and ‘Zetsubo Bye Bye’. The album is even bookended by two tracks that are surprisingly riffy; the guitar work in opener ‘Utsushiyo Horror Show’ and closer ‘Tosohonno’ is almost speed metal in nature.

Dancho’s voice is the thing that seems to spark most debate amongst people who are not sure if they like NoGoD. While that is understandable – the fact that he is almost exclusively in full-on passionate mode does not account for a lot of dynamics – Dancho is probably the factor that makes NoGoD stand out in a scene full of Kamijo and Gackt soundalikes. I like him a lot. Dynamics and subtlety are built by the tastefully layered interaction between guitarists Kyrie and Shinno. Kyrie even has one of his many acoustic solo pieces here in the shame of ‘Yume No Awa’. A perfect little break between intense songs.

Although the criticism that the visual rock scene is full of bands that blindly copy each other in terms of musical style and appearance is justified, once in a while a band pops up that can truly deliver in terms of originality and playing. While NoGoD doesn’t really do anything new, the band doesn’t really sound like any other band inside of Japan and outisde. And they still don’t, despite the fact that their recent albums lean towards modern rock a little too much. If you like great riffs, passionate vocals and a tight rhythm section with a thick bottom end, NoGoD should be right up your alley.

Reccomended tracks: ‘Sabbath’, ‘IV – Tasha / Philosophy’, ‘Stand Up!’

Album of the Week 25-2018: Doom – Complicated Mind


One risk when you are listening to Doom is that you will only pay attention to the late Koh Morota’s crazy, but always serviceable work on the fretless bass. Especially when he is put front and center in the mix like he was on the ‘Killing Fields’ EP. However, Doom is a power trio in the truest sense of the word. The magic of this band happens within their intricate, but always spontaneous interaction, something highly uncommon amongst thrash metal bands, but also a defining factor of the middle section in just about every track on their masterpiece ‘Complicated Mind’.

Structurally, most of Doom’s songs follow a similar pattern. They are bookended by tightly composed thrash riffs, only to turn into a contrasting instrumental section in the middle. The riffing has a futuristic feel, but manages to steer clear of the clinical nature of Voivod’s riffs, a band Doom is often compared to outside of their native Japan. And those middle sections really turn Doom into something special, as they could be anything from bluesy hardrock (the title track) to an atmospheric break (‘Bright Light’) or what can almost be considered a loud and distorted take on freejazz (‘Fall, Rise And…’).

While all of this may sound abstract, it is actually surprising how listenable ‘Complicated Mind’ is. Morota, singer/guitarist Takashi Fujita and drummer Jyoichi Hirokawa are not trying to be clever, they just play what came to their minds and apparently, their minds are wired a little differently than those of most people. The strangest track here is probably ‘Can’t Break My… Without You’ – verses: start-stop riffing with a melodic bass line, middle section: clean guitar break – but Hirokawa’s steady, almost danceable rhythms keep the song grounded and easily digestible. Doom’s secret appears to be to feel the music rather than to overthink it.

As a result, ‘Complicated Mind’ does not feel like college material. Banging your head to the pounding rhythms and dissonant chords of the title track is easy, while ‘Painted Face’, ‘Bright Light’ and ‘Slave Of Heaven’ are simply excellent, inventive metal tracks. The way Fujita’s straightforward riff and Morota’s busy parts are woven into each other on the latter is nothing short of art, as is the open, almost alt-rocky solo section. ‘The Boys Dog’ features Fujita narrating a story about what appears to sincerely be his childhood dog over some great riffing, which works out much better than it may sound like it would.

Everyone who enjoyed Voivod and Coroner should definitely give Doom a spin, though the more adventurous fans of the likes of Rush may actually find something of their liking here as well. Sure, Fujita’s vocals are quite monotonous, but they are convincing and strategically placed within the songs. While Doom would become even more progressive or even avant-garde in later years, ‘Complicated Mind’ features the trio at their very best, combining the blunt force of their early work with the thinking man’s intricacy of some of the following albums. And while some moments may feel downright odd initially, those with a similarly complicated mind will get it soon enough.

Recommended tracks: ‘Complicated Mind’, ‘Slave Of Heaven’, ‘Fall, Rise And…’

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