Guided By Voices, "Human Amusements at Hourly Rates"
For any true Guided By Voices fan, this collection is a bit pointless. This is the "best of" anthology that many have been urging Bob Pollard to compile for years. Not that they are finished releasing music, nor do they need another record to flood the bins that are already chock-full with their library; it's just that enough time has passed that perhaps a compilation like this can show the history of the band in a grander light. That is the one thing that this set does really well. Thirty-two tracks that are from a variety of their albums, singles, and EPs on Matador, Scat, TVT, and others, Human Amusements serves not only as a reminder that the band is near genius almost all the time, but that it takes a gathering of this kind to make a Guided By Voices album where no song is disposable. Every track is a revelation of the period in which it was recorded, but all together on one CD it's enough to do my head in. The only possible complaint though not mine as I actually admire the move is that there is no exclusive material to be found on the disc. This bucks the trend that has become all to commonplace in this decade, and it's refreshing even though it almost damns this release to casual or first-time listeners only. No matter: it's still the truest retrospective I've ever heard that I didn't make myself. There are rare tracks, like the original recordings of "Teenage FBI" and "Game of Pricks," solid performers like "I Am a Tree," "Bulldog Skin," "Chasing Heather Crazy," "Everywhere With Helicopter," and "Glad Girls" from the recent albums, and classics like "Tractor Rape Chain," "14 Cheerleader Coldfront," "To Remake the Young Flyer," and "The Official Ironmen Rally Song." This is a show of strength, a friendly glimpse at a much larger picture, maybe even a challenge to all of the mix tapes fans have made throughout the years; and it's a damned good one. As if their fans needed this villification. - Rob Devlin
USAISAMONSTER, "Tasheyana Compost"
Was it hard to guess which direction the Load roster was headed? After chasing metal through a gauntlet of spastic duos with cracked guitars and rack-less (gasp!) drums, the label sets its sights on the second scourge of white suburbia: progressive rock. East-coasters USAISAMONSTER are a guitar/drums duo with an affinity for the tight, noisy, and epic-length songs of labelmates like Lightning Bolt, but made over with an arty, even jazzist take on guitar skronk and an elaborate, narrative approach to songwriting. Tasheyana Compost, their third and most mature full length, is a concept album dealing with colonialism and the ravaged American landscape. One song's lyrics are taken from Chief Joseph's words; elsewhere declarations like "this progress looks like cancer cells to me" add a preachy element that is surprisingly welcome in the wake of so many noise rockers with nothing to say. The band compensates for any lyrical heavy-handedness with mock-poignant tales of highway adventure and humorous free association sections. Likewise, the music oscillates between full-on noise blitz and more tongue-in-cheek bits where cheap keyboard sounds and stylized crooning appear. Blowout metal riffs mix freely with choppy acoustic playing, and strained screaming bleeds into the elfin chanting of woeful vagabonds. The stripped-down nature of the music prevents its slipping into a mathy or studied sound, and the lyrical wit covering every track adds a proud, human quality. The whole is neatly nuanced, and while repetitious at times (especially the noisy parts), the album survives on sheer exuberance. There's nothing fashionable here; though some may fail to look beyond its raucous exterior, Tasheyana Compost is rich with blood of its own design, progressive rock stripped of all mysticism, carefully pessimistic, and damn fun. - Andrew Culler
One of my first encounters with techno came in the form of a full-length cassette released on Wax Trax! Records by an artist called F.U.S.E. From the first time I heard the classic "Train Tracs," I knew there was something about this music (and the producer, Richie Hawtin) that I needed to explore further. Though at the time I was heavy into industrial music, I viewed that cassette as a unique gem in my music collection, one I would refer back to regularly. Fast forward to the present: Hawtin is now one of the most in-demand DJs in the world and certainly one of my favorites. Finally, after several years of near silence as a musician, he has pulled together Closer, a new album of material under his most well known monikerPlastikman. Taking cues from his previous work as well as injecting elements of dark ambient and industrial music in the mix, the ten songs presented here are some of the bleakest and most atmospheric tracks Hawtin has ever produced. Building up the minimal aesthetic of his Consumed album to something far less bare, Hawtin fuses together razor sharp beats, snarling bass tones, microscopic melodies, unrecognizable 303 manipulations, and, at times, spoken word poetry. The crisp 4/4 rhythms of "Headcase," though never quite delivering the anticipated punch, erratically lose their way among the clutter of quirky bleeps. "Ping Pong" and "I Don't Know" (the latter treating us to some classic chillour acid around the 6:00 mark) follow a similar experimental route but has a heavier clubby feel ideal for open-minded dancefloors. "Lost" deviates from the formula a bit with a prominent string sequence gliding over the gutteral rumbles and de-tuned stabs that fill this beatless space. Of course, this serves as a proper introduction to the album's first single "Disconnect," a menacing yet groovy vocal track. Be forewarned: those of you who've endured countless goth bands in their lives will cringe at the dismally low quality of Hawtin's prose. Still, I urge you to look past this one indulgence as the solitary flaw on an otherwise perfect release. Headphone use is strongly encouraged. - Gary Suarez
I have been waiting for Markus Popp to make a record like this for so long! His appearance on Gastr Del Sol's Camofleur gave me taste of what Popp would do when faced with a singer-songwriter collaboration, but while that contribution was effective, it was purely supplemental. Popp's variety of remixes show the artist closer to his unique Oval-shaped niche, but often fail to evoke anything more than a picture of Popp's struggle to fit the original song to his own unsuited devices. So, Popp's collaboration with Japanese chanteuse Eri Toyoda, is a lot like the Oval remix canon in that every bit of sound bends, and eventually breaks, under the pressure of Popp's established style. The difference, however, is that Toyoda's songs lend themselves so gracefully to her bandmate's fractured aesthetic that the result is both different, and on par with anything Popp has produced so far. Toyoda's soothing guitar, vocals, and organ weave their autumnal motifs through familiar rolling static and panes of gleaming digital noise with the weightlessness and relaxed flow of improvisation; they help to soften the pointed bursts and taut clusters of recent Oval without losing Popp's unique tension and mystique. CD skips are nowhere to be found, replaced by a rich, organic palette and warm low-end. The listening experience's great pleasure comes in the impossibility of locating the origins of many of the sounds. Toyoda's vocals prove remarkably adaptable to the complexities of each track and are often difficult to locate among the layered warbling and whistling sounds that appear throughout. Though the subtle beauty and fresh melodic achievements of this record may not surprise fans of Microstoria and early Oval, it would be hard stay unimpressed by the level of integration achieved. So is the sound of truly singular artists engaged in a tender, meticulous, and fruitful dialogue with predictably gorgeous results.- Andrew Culler
Real sensuality and breathtaking eroticism do not spontaneously combust into existence: both are difficult and intricate structures that require careful study. Mandy Cousins and Michael Turner shape huge and sprawling spaces out of the most profane and sacred sounds; the result is a stream of voluptuous and melting music bordering on the heavenly. Listening to Titania for the first time reminded me of rolling hills and fine mists, decaying architecture and ivy. The combination of Cousins' fine voice with Turner's fluent orchestration creates an atmosphere that is nearly holy: distant bells ring in towers somewhere beyond the horizon, guitars echo through long and decorated hallways, and fires burn on lonely mountain tops covered with snow. The music is epic and blooming and I can literally feel it grow around and over me every time I listen to it. With time I've come to realize just how sensuous the music is and the means by which it attains that sensuality is absolutely cunning. There's a void that permeates the whole of the recording; it's somehow present even in when the keyboards are ringing as if I were in the midst of a grand cathedral. Slowly, over the course of the album, the music gets inside my blood and leaves me floating; it slowly peels off every common notion I have until I am stripped to nothingness. Songs like "Digitaria" and "Postscript" are like knives that cut deep and leave the strangest and most pleasurable numbness throughout my body. In short, there's a strange play between the sacred and the erotic flourishing throughout every note of every song. It's a tangible and all-consuming tension that manages to put butterflies in my stomach every time. The strange psychadelia of "Tinsel Starred" all the way to the ominous and hesitant "Blue Iris Eternal" keeps me suspended in a void, in a constant struggle between peace and relaxation and the anxiety of chance. - Lucas Schleicher
After hearing Titania, I was eager to know what Michael Turner could do by himself. Angelmark is his solo project that consists of various electronic flourishes, six and twelve-string guitars, both electric and acoustic, piano, and percussive elements. Angelmark is produced so that the aura of the album has the same infinite feeling as Titania, the instrumentation, movements, and attitude are unique. Many of the songs are pastoral sounding and recall the beauty of a sun-struck prairie while others emit a cool glow that paints a full moon above the cold air interrupted only be the tops of the tallest and most jagged trees. The most stunning moments on the album manage to mix somber and hopeful themes together without being overwhelming, but there are other moments when the music feels like a funeral procession. Some of the songs, such as "Wave Upon Wave" sound as if they are lacking something and the thought springs to mind that perhaps Mandy Cousins could've done something with these songs that Turner cannot do alone. Without her voice, some of these tracks sound a bit too synthetic and they lose some of their emotional appeal. On the other hand there are tracks like "Light-Splintered Eye" and "Like Places We've Been" that manage to walk that blurred line between a funeral shroud and the brilliance of the sun. The latter is a particularly haunting duel between acoustic guitar and a horn-like synthesizer part that seeps and crawls through the cracks in the walls as if it were after something very important and very hidden. The swirling of guitars and keyboards meshes in some places and at other times borders a bit on the predictable. Angelmark doesn't quite hit the same soft-spot that Turner's other project did, but there are some undeniably fine songs to be heard on this disc. - Lucas Schleicher
DECIBEL, "FIAT LUX: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS"
Another piece of the art-rock puzzle is uncovered with the release of this three-disc box set containing the entire recorded output of Mexican progressive band Decibel. Part of the Rock In Opposition (RIO) a South American political movement utilizing art and music as aesthetic protest Decibel never gained the recognition of their European art-rock contemporaries.
Considering the band's exclusively Mexican membership, Decibel's sound is surprisingly informed solely by their European counterparts, namely bands like Art Bears, Art Zoyd and Magma. It's a shame that the influences of indigenous Mexican culture and music haven't seeped into Decibel's intellectual Euro-prog in any recognizable form, as this would easily set them apart from their predecessors. But who am I to question their aesthetic choices? The first disc contains their first LP El Poeta del Ruido (The Poet of Noise), and it's quite an impressive debut. The first track lands right in the middle of some overly familiar jazz-rock territory: guitars, drums, keyboards and saxophone running aimlessly through high-velocity, complex chord changes, showing off their instrumental virtuosity. It's all technically impressive but not very emotionally resonant, the same criticism that could be easily leveled against a lot of late-70s art-prog. Quickly and quite unexpectedly, however, the band ushers us the two-track song suite "Orgon Patafisico," a tribute to the Orgone theories of Wilhelm Reich that begins with a demented music box melody and soon gives way to a dark, psychedelic soundscape populated by eerie synthesizer swoops and skeletal guitar deconstructions. It's a beautifully realized track, holding the same fascination as early Nurse With Wound material. In fact, if Steven Stapleton had heard this album back in 1979, I'm quite certain Decibel would have been on the infamous NWW influence list right between Decayes and Dedalus. The rest of the album is similarly unhinged, proficiently played jazz passages floating around in strange cosmic byways and dark catacombs. "Terapia de Fakirato" is a standout track, beginning with an achingly fragile piano refrain before the rest of the band join in, transforming the track into a hauntingly beautiful dirge. The rhythm section of Decibel deserves special credit, delivering the propulsive backbone upon which the players bounce and swerve. "Manati" is pure ensemble insanity, a dense jungle swamp populated by strange birds and pygmies tripping on yage. The rest of the first disc is taken up with live material from their early period, proving that Decibel knew how to recreate their studio magic in a concert setting. Lap dissolve to 12 years later, it's 1992 and Decibel have reformed and recorded a new LP Fortuna Virilis, which is worthy, but never really recaptures the enigmatic brilliance of their earlier material. Still, it's hard not to appreciate "Maldoror," Decibel's ode to Isidore Ducasse's surreal masterwork, a slowly simmering track decorated with the random squeals of an infant. Disc three consists of live material from a 2000 concert, which begins in grandiose Magma style before morphing into the future-primitive improvs of "Suite Safari." The rest of disc three contains demos from as early as 1977. These are poorly recorded but allow us to hear songs from the Poeta LP in their nascent form. It should also be noted that this box set is beautifully packaged, containing all of the Goya-esque corpse portraits that adorned Decibel's original sleeves, along with informative liner notes. Taken together, Fiat Lux: The Complete Recordings is an impressive listen, and the definitive career retrospective of this unjustly obscure band. - Jonathan Dean
COSTES, "HUNG BY THE DICK"
Listening to Hung By The Dick, it doesn't take very long to figure out that Costes is a bigoted, phallocentric, scatological Frenchman with a misanthropic hatred for every institution imaginable. The scrawl on the back cover says it all: "I hate my race, I hate myself, but I like my dick." And so Costes begins his confrontational diatribe with "Jacques Cousteau Tells the Truth to the Nation" a vituperative obloquy aimed at America. Narrating from a detached third person point of view, Costes informs us that foreigners predominate the arts in America, and that "in the music, those fucking niggers rule! Look at this Michael Jackson shit all the time on the TV!" Then he goes on to inform us that Costes dominates the music business in America, and that he must be stopped. His heavy French accent, painfully broken English, poor grammar and unhinged psychotic demeanor add up to one of the most amusingly offensive albums I've ever had the displeasure to hear. I cannot enjoy Hung By The Dick; enjoying these willfully bigoted soliloquies is beside the point. The value of Costes' work if indeed there is any lies entirely in the fascination of exploring the hefty collection of mental disorders which are vomited up like poisonous bile for the listener to dissect and analyze. He is very obviously preoccupied by sex, and in particular, the size of his genitals. On "A Dick in the Brain," he gives his audience a peek at his bizarre thought processes: "The dick moves in my brain...it fucks my brain. That's why I'm so weird," and later: "OK cunts, OK assholes, you've got my Costes Cock, big, heavy, full of sperm just for you. I'm going to fuck you until you die." His delivery is Antonin Artaud meets G.G. Allin meets Boyd Rice. Throughout the album, Costes behaves like an insane primate, jumping up and down, feverishly masturbating and throwing his feces at anyone within range. He grasps desperately at anything that he thinks might offend the listener. Racism, scatology, homophophia, homoeroticism, Nazi sentiments, misogyny and violent, megalomaniacal attitudes are all fair game for this particular round of aggression and insults: "Please let me kill this black guy...I know an evil black woman. She fucks me every night with her big black dick." The lyric sheet is scrawled with handwritten messages that display Costes' complex inner schizoid: "I'm sorry to sing bad things. I don't know why I do that." The liner notes are adorned with pornographic pictures of Costes himself, half-naked and masturbating, attempting to spew his semen into his own open mouth. Also adorning the sleeve artwork are childlike illustrations
showing men being strangled by their own penises. There is very little music accompanying his brutal multitracked screams mostly just strangled Casio keyboards, grating noise, or the sounds of a constipated Costes struggling to push out a bowel movement. When he finally pinches a loaf he screams: "MY GOD! I CAN'T BELIEVE IT! MY SHIT IS YELLOW! WHY IS IT YELLOW?" This is as pure a specimen of true insanity as one is likely to hear. It's very difficult for me to figure out how much of Hung By The Dick is a sick joke, and how much may actually be genuine. Looking at Costes' hilariously offensive website [http://costes.org] does not make matters any clearer. Either way, depending upon the listener's sensibilities, this album is either an abomination of Biblical proportions, or just a sometimes frightening, often wickedly funny and always provocative collection of aggravated vocal assaults. Jonathan Dean
ERIC ALDEA AND IVAN CHIOSSONE, "NARCOPHONY"
Eric Aldea and Ivan Chiossone originally intended Narcophony to be an adaptation of Nurse With Wound's classic 1986 work Spiral Insana for strings. As the project evolved beyond its original genesis, they decided instead to create a work that was inspired and suggested by the Steven Stapleton masterwork, rather than a true adaptation. What has resulted is an album of quiet intensity and true beauty. Spiral Insana stands as Nurse With Wound's most emotionally affecting work; the one instance where Stapleton abandoned the clinical distance with which he usually approaches his soundscapes. Narcophony is a similarly affecting work; a five-part chamber symphony that envelops the listener in a spectral wasteland of dread and beauty. Using an ensemble of three violins, a viola, a clarinet, a bass and a flute, and Aldea on acoustic guitar and "machines," these two artists have created a compelling orchestral work that is all the more amazing for its intense subtlety. The first track places the listener into the moody ambience of a dark forest at night, the distant echoing cries of a sad bird, the pregnant twilight pushing down on the soul of a lone wanderer. A chorus of ghostly creatures cry out, desperately attempting to push their way into cohesion. Their cries fade into the distance. Extinguished bonfires curl and billow fragrant smoke. The slick surface of wet branches appear shiny in the moonlight. The forest is a dead museum. I am reminded of the hauntingly spectral sound design and dark synthscapes that accompanied the night scenes in David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. By the time I reach the third track, I am absolutely transfixed by this quiet drama; the flutes and synthesizers are sculpting nonsensical heiroglyphs into my brain. The synthesizer arpeggiations and chirps take precedence on track four, before being jaggedly torn from the page and replaced by a series of bubbling electronic swells. After the five-part song suite of "Petit Buddha," there are two additional songs on the disc: "Leo," a lovely ethnic-inflected excursion by Ivan Chiossone and "Hasmig," another collaboration that highlights Aldea's guitar and swooping string arrangements. The fragile and sonorous music made by Aldea and Chiossone's chamber ensemble is remarkable for its incredible poise, deep passion and enigmatic resonance. Narcophony is the sound of mystery in motion. - Jonathan Dean
Of the releases this year that have drawn on primitive game music and sounds for their inspiration, Tarmvred's Viva6581 is heads above the rest in pairing the playful bleeps of the Commodore 64 style sound engine with more serious rhythms and structures. On paper, it sounds almost like a disaster of ironic nostalgia waiting to happen. Tarmvred known primarily as a force of nature that has helped to redefine "Industrial" for a whole new crop of rivetheads with his maniacal beats and ample use of shredding noise, plays with sid chip sounds and writes an EP that is a loose narrative story with a robot protagonist. Were this concept handled in any other way, it would likely be a campy regurgitation of industrial-strength electroclash, but Tarmvred is able to make the related but obviously incongruous elements work. The tracks simply titled "6," "5," "8," and "1" each bounce along with wonderful gamey melodies that could easily be the soundtracks to unrealized gameboy titles. In fact, that's really the best parallel for what Tarmvred accomplishes with this EP, namely new scores for imaginary games. This concept has nearly been beaten to death in the world of 'cinematic' music where artists get spacey and melodramatic and claim to be performing a score to a film that has not yet been created. Viva6581 however, breathes new life into that formula by putting the focus on to video games and as I listen to each track, I can vividly picture 8-bit heros jumping over pixelated rocks to fight giant blocky dragons or gun down abstract alien space bugs. That's the beautiful, fun part of this record, and the songs take creating the soundtrack for an imaginary digital journey seriously enough never that they never sound silly. The other side of Tarmvred's compositional equation lies in the use of harshly distorted drums and noise to give weight to the otherwise fun but somewhat airy melodies. Just when everything sounds like it might get a little too whimsical to be enjoyed on repeated listens, the noise and breakbeats amp up to balance out the game sounds and suddenly the compositions mirror the adventure of the imaginary games in two ways at once. There's a great risk that sounds of sid chips, Gameboy synths, and even modified Atari 2600 systems will become the next wave of easy nostalgic in-jokes for hip clubgoers, but Tarmvred isn't playing into that arena at all. The songs are too rough and hard-edged to be enjoyed as simple, giggly entertainment. On the other hand, they are more playful than a lot of the humorless power electronics and rhythmic noise material with which Tarmvred is more commonly associated, which leaves Viva6581 in a unique place. While I'm not sure I'd recommend game music or game-inspired music as a permanent musical career change, Tarmvred has certainly delivered a wonderfully fun and sufficiently heavy release for anyone who can still hum the theme song to Super Mario Bros.- Matthew Jeanes
Knife in the Water, "Cut the Cord"
Austin's own Knife in the Water craft an interesting mix of a variety of musical styles into haunting, purposeful dirges that can scourge the light into non-existence. One of the first signings to the new Aspyr label an off-shoot of the popular software company the band is re-releasing all their previous recordings along with this album of new material. This is not the same music that was voted into Spin's Top 20 of 2000, but it is the same band all grown up and grown into their relationship. Although some members have left and been replaced, it is the same core of Aaron Blount, Laura Krause and Bill McCullough that explores the deep, and they've come back with some very interesting mope rock. The country influence that is omnipresent is toned down here, and the more art rock dwindlings are turned up, forming a lush and heavy canvas. At first, Cut the Cord is the album of their lives, with gorgeous interplay between Krause and Blount highlighting and driving the songs at the same time. McCullough's guitar work is never lost in these songs, often soaring above it. It's the flourishes that get in the way, causing the occasional bewildered expression on my face. Why the strange keyboard sound was needed on the otherwise perfect "Massacre," and why the necessity to cause "Golden Calf Highway" to dissolve into confused noise, I'll never know. It's choices like these that make the band trip all over themselves in the middle of a very elegant and smooth dance. The addition of two new tracks for the US release are a welcome surprise as they are both fantastic, with "Threads of Carbon in Watercolor" showing how the flourishes can be used to great success. Overall, a welcome return from a fine band who has obviously learned a lot about themselves, but work best when they keep it simple. - Rob Devlin
Aleph Empire, "Playback Device Confusion Vol. 1"
I had to suppress my hatred of shape-CDs and my distaste for artists who name themselves mockingly after other artists in order to give this disc its proper due. I had expected another insubstantial post-Pluderphonics parody fest. Instead I got one very substantial noise piece that, at 20 minutes, never wears out its welcome and even bears repeating. Playback Device is turntable music recorded live at Mego hangout Bar Rhiz this February. The most prominent sounds in the piece are distorted or already painfully noisy records in the process of deceleration, spaced by heavily cut-up and layered human screams. To this intimidating background, Empire adds bits of laughing, children talking, punk-ish German singing, creaking door sounds, and humming motor noise. Submerged breakbeats, death metal guitar, and ten seconds of bouncy dub all enter the mix. Empire is on his toes for the duration, constantly throwing new records into the mix and bringing the mass to precarious stops. Though the piece never gets boring and is more likely to send the listener into his or her own screaming fit, it does have a few highpoints. The first is the rather enlightening moment when one voice (perhaps Empire's own) rises above the fray to yell "Fuck You" a dozen times, and the second is the track's closing section. At around 19 minutes the noise drops out, replaced by a twisted, naïvely-styled ditty with a vocalist intent on communicating how happy his life was until his mommy and daddy were murdered in Auschwitz. Playback Device ends with this singer, whose gruff voice sounds live from behind the decks, screaming "Nazis!" repeatedly. And I thought it was going to be funny! All things considered, this disc is still more pleasant than some Mego fair, and certainly less intellectual, a good thing (just this once). - Andrew Culler
Electric Six, "Dance Commander"
The Electric Six are most definitely a singles band. Admit it, as much as you pretend to hate their trashy, sleazy hard rock disco, "Danger! High Voltage" got your ears perking and ass moving. So the LP wasn't spectacular, but hey, you try keeping up the amphetamine laced worship of fire, dancing, and the night for over a half hour (Please do not respond with personal anecdotes of how you did this last solstice). If anything, the Dance Commander single will redeem the band to those who found themselves somewhat disappointed in Fire. Though "Dance Commander" is one of the better LP tracks, and an excellent choice to stand on it's own as a single, it is the other two tracks that truly make an impression. The first is "I Am Detroit," a geographical conversation between said city and other notable locales, inviting them to tango on the dance floor of America. Luckily, the Electric Six is just the band with enough misguided confidence and zeal to adopt the personification of an entire city and start making demands. It's a rhythm heavy rocker that will please both head boppers and hip shakers alike. The third track is a remix of "Dance Commander" by Soulchild that annihilates the original version. Gone are the overbearing hard rock guitars, replaced by a jangly, rhythmic staccato strum and layers of synthesizers. This is the type of music that makes the Electric Six interesting, relentlessly danceable, musically daring, and totally pulling off their attitude, that seems to amount to "we're so fucking serious about not being serious." With the new beat, the best aspects of "Dance Commander" become more apparent, and when singer Dick Valentine growls out "I went to the store / to get more / FIRE / to start the war!" it is utterly convincing, and phrased so excellently. The Electric Six know what they like, and they're very clear about it. "It would be awesome if we could dance" Who cares if it's not deep or profound. It would be awesome if we could dance, and this single goes a long way to fulfilling that desire. - Michael Patrick Brady
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