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Old 12-14-2012, 05:14 AM   #1641 (permalink)
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Christmas --- Chris Isaak --- 2004 (Reprise)


Name one Chris Isaak record OTHER THAN "Wicked game". Go on, bet you can't. Well, maybe you can if you know his music better than I, but like a lot of people that one single is how I know the guy, and only that. His rise to fame seems to have been a happy (for him) accident really, when a local radio DJ pushed his vocal version of the theme from one of David Lynch's movies, and from there his career took off, with his own radio show and acting parts as well as ten albums (not including this), the latest of which broke the US top ten but didn't do so well over here.

So of course, he was going to release a Christmas album, wasn't he? I mean, really: who buys these things? Who would even think of purchasing one as a present? I got you the new Chris Isaak Christmas album. Chris Rea? Er, no. Chris de Burgh? Errgh! NO! Well it's hardly going to be greeted with open arms, is it? Anyway, our Chris decides he's not just going to play and sing his own favourite songs from the festive period, oh no! No Lionel Ritchie, he! Not for him the safe path to commercial success at Xmas. He decides to write his own songs and mix them in with some Christmas standards. So alongside "Blue Christmas", "White Christmas", "Have youself a merry little Christmas" and "Let it snow", we get five original Chris Isaak Chrismas songs (Chris-mas Isaaks? Sorry...), including the frankly terrible "Gotta be good" (a song that does not take its own advice) and the not much better "Hey Santa!"

He also covers The Beach Boys's "Mekki" ... "Mellik ..." "Makki..." --- Oh, you know the one! I'm not spelling THAT one out again! --- and Willie Nelson's "Pretty paper", as well as throwing in "Auld lang syne" at the end. The album cover shows him in a car with a Christmas tree on the roof, but does not slow the rest of the picture, where he's hauling a trailer full of cash for having recorded this affront to the holiday season.

TRACKLISTING

1. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
2. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
3. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
4. Washington Square
5. Blue Christmas
6. The Christmas Song
7. Hey Santa!
8. Let It Snow
9. Christmas on TV
10. Pretty Paper
11. White Christmas
12. Mele Kalikimaka
13. Brightest Star
14. Last Month of the Year
15. Gotta Be Good
16.Auld Lang Syne
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Old 12-14-2012, 11:58 AM   #1642 (permalink)
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Gazpacho prove that sometimes a whisper is more effective than a shout...
March of ghosts --- Gazpacho --- 2012 (Kscope)


Only the second album released by Gazpacho on a major label --- the five previous put out independently by the band --- "March of ghosts", their seventh album overall, is, like the previous "Missa Atropos", a concept, but whereas the latter was one long story concerning one main character, "March of ghosts" is a collection of tales, essentially the stories told by a succession of ghosts who troop by the main character. The whole album, it would appear, was essentially written in just one day two years ago, but you'd never know it to listen to it. Gazpacho have been making themselves something of a name as crafters of some of the finest, best-honed and polished progressive rock around today, and this album continues that high standard.

Luckily, I've been able to unearth a video in which the band talk about the concept behind the tracks, so rather than attempt my usual ham-fisted explanation of what the story running through this album is, I'll leave it to the experts, those who wrote them, to tell you, and I'll just concentrate on the music and what it says to me. The video is below, about thirteen minuts long, but definitely worth your time if you're a fan, a prospective fan of the band, or if you just want a clearer idea of what "March of ghosts" is all about.


Opening with Thomas Andersen's soft, evocative synth lines joined by sweet violin from Mikael Kromer as the drums roll gently in the background, waiting to come in, "Monument" gets us started with with a two-minute instrumental introduction before "Hell freezes over I", part of a quartet of songs under the same name takes us in on more solid but not hard percussion, the melody from the intro flowing seamlessly into the second track --- as indeed do most of the tracks here --- as the distinctive voice of Jan-Henrik Ohme, who sounds so much like Steve Hogarth of Marillion, washes over us accompanied by Andersen's soft keyboards and some harder lines from Jon Arne Vibo on the guitar, a thick bassline from Kristian Torp (who likes to be known as "Fido") and some more beautiful violin from Kromer giving the whole thing something of a semi-celtic feel. It's a slowburner, really laidback and easing us gently into its brother, "Hell freezes over II", which comes in on soft Marillion-style acoustic guitar.

The tempo increases slightly but not that much, though Vibo's guitar comes through more strongly on this track, particularly near the end, with something that sounds like whistle or flute in the mix, but may very well be made on Andersen's keys. "Black lily" has a more moody, tense atmosphere about it, some nice interplay between guitar and drums, and Ohme proving he never really has to strain his voice to be heard: he's from the school of singers who believe in the gentler approach, the less-is-more philosophy, and it works really well. Some sublime layers of keyboard melodies laid on top of the guitar soften the somewhat harder style of this song, but it's still nothing you would honestly call rocking out. Gazpacho don't seem to do that very much, but it doesn't in any way detract from their music, in fact it vindicates it. This is a band you have to listen to, and their albums often take more than one listen before you truly get to the soul of the music. Not for just listening to as you workout or sweep the floor; this is music you have to take in, let it wash over you, absorb it and by a sort of osmosis you begin to realise how good it is, how many layers there are in it and how deep and insightful it is. Probably better listened to with headphones, but that option is not often open to me.

The celtic influence is back for "Gold star", with a thumping drumbeat and a skirling guitar and violin, Ohme's vocal a little more powerful and forward, and Vibo's guitar getting a lot rockier too, though the general tone and tempo of the songs have not really changed that much since the opening of the album. There's something that sounds like a bassoon or sousaphone near the end, with tinkling little piano notes that remind me of a musical box, then it fades slowly out and runs directly into "Hell freezes over III", with some lovely crying violin from Mikael Kromer making a return to the fore, deep bass and swirling keys adding to the atmosphere of the song, with sounds sampled in the keyboard which at times sound like voices (and could be), giving the clear and almost unsettling feel of ghosts floating in the air. It's a short song, and leads into one of the longer ones, as "Mary Celeste" comes in on acoustic piano followed by chiming soft guitar and thumping, solid drumwork.

Obviously at least partially about the mysterious ship that was found abandoned in the nineteenth century, and whose crew was never found nor the reason for their departure ever established, it's got a real sense of mystery and paranoia about it as the ghosts from that ship relate their tale to our hero, and Thomas Andersen's piano playing here is a standout, rating at times with the best Mark Kelly has produced. Kromer's violin work cannot be overlooked either, and sets up a real note of despair and frustration. A little sailor's hornpipe/reel near the end is a nice touch, again recalling the celtic themes on some previous tracks on this album. The pipes, flutes, keys, whatever, are joined by Lars Erik Asp on the drums, bringing the song to a fun and satisfying close. Into "What did I do" we go, as everything slips back into slow, relaxed mode for this standout, with some lovely expressive backing vocals against which Kromer's violin sighs and moans.

That violin follows us into "Golem", as the atmosphere builds and smoulders, pulsating bass punching through and bright piano adding its touch as the tempo rises very slightly, soft, almost miltaristic style drumming following the melody, quite low in the mix, not quite in the background until Vibo cuts loose on the guitar and the percussion ramps up to meet him, he and Asp taking the song up several notches. Some Jean-Michel Jarre-like effects on Andersen's keyboards fill in before Vibo takes off on a solo, then the organ carries the melody for a few moments, as Ohme's powerful but understated vocal runs under and above everything, the quiet but definite centre of attention. "The dumb" starts off as a gentle, balladic song with Ohme's vocal centre stage, accompanied only by Vibo's laidback guitar lines, until about halfway in, when Asp's drums crash in like breakers on the coastline, and Ohme's voice rises to meet them, some oriental-style keyboard work from Andersen helping paint the soundscape as we head into the final track.

Bringing everything full cricle and completing the quadrology, "Hell freezes over IV" opens on a big heavy drum solo, quickly joined by Vibo's frenzied guitar with Ohme delivering his strongest vocal on the album, and a great spooky little instrumental in the middle which wouldn't really be out of place on Jeff Wayne's "War of the worlds". More heavy guitar and percussion as the song reaches its midpoint, and Ohme's vocal dropping back in intensity, almost as if he has been worn out by listening to all these disembodied spirits telling him their stories. As if in response to that, Vibo takes over with a fine solo, joined by Andersen with some bubbly, atmospheric synth as the song heads towards its final minute, and the album comes to a close. Deep, heavy organ punctuates the ending, like some sort of celestial choir, and fades away as the march of ghosts ends.

TRACKLISTING

1. Monument
2. Hell freezes over I
3. Hell freezes over II
4. Black lily
5. Gold star
6. Hell freezes over III
7 Mary Celeste
8. What did I do
9. Golem
10. The dumb
11. Hell freezes over IV

If you know Gazpacho, then you know what I'm going to say here. This is not an album that rocks. Well, it does, but in subtler ways. There are many progressive rock acts out there who can write fine, uptempo songs you can rock along to, many of them. Gazpacho don't do that, not very often anyway. "Missa Atropos" was another slowburning, laidback, thoughtful album that you really couldn't just pick a track from and get the full experience of this band. Their albums are really more like novels, and to properly appreciate them you can't just read a chapter here or there. They don't do playlists very well. A Gazpacho album is an event, an experience, a happening, and to really "get" it, you have to open your mind, and your ears, and yes, your heart and soul, and let them sink in. Once they do, once you allow these six guys form Finland to enter your heart and pump their music through your bloodstream, you may find it quite hard to live without it.
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Old 12-15-2012, 09:39 AM   #1643 (permalink)
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Merry Christmas with love --- Clay Aiken --- 2004 (RCA)


God, they just keep coming, don't they? Perennial runner-up to American Idol Clay Aiken had to have his stab at the Christmas market too, and this only his second album! Of course, the American public (and, I'm sure, many millions of his fans outside the States) ate it up, as you would expect, but really, it's just taking the michael, I feel. Oh well.

Apart from the usual fodder, it's at least interesting in that it features two cover versions of songs by Christian contemporary artists, both of which were written approximately twenty years prior to this album, with Mark Lowry's "Mary, did you know" while Sandy Patti's contribution forms the title track of the album. There's a medley of "Hark! The Herald Angels sing" and "Come all ye faithful", and one of my other Christmas favourites, Spector's "Sleigh ride", but then Celine Dion's "Don't save it all for Christmas Day" brings things back to earth with a bump, while the intensely annoying and smug "What are you doing New Year's Eve" closes proceedings.

I suppose you'd have to say that it was maybe a bold move, making only your second album a Christmas one. Certainly paid off for Aiken, who I have developed a little more respect for after seeing him as a finalist on Donald Trumps's "Apprentice" show. But the problem here is that the high album sales --- two million copies sold worldwide as of 2010 --- must surely have been down in very large part to American Idol fans, and really, those are the sort of people who would buy a turd if it had Clay Aiken's name and face on it.

Although maybe that's not being fair. To turds.

TRACKLISTING

1. O Holy Night
2. Winter Wonderland
3. Silent Night
4. Medley: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing/O Come All Ye Faithful
5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
6. Mary, Did You Know?
7. Joy to the World
8. The Christmas Song
9. Don't Save It All for Christmas Day
10. Merry Christmas with Love
11. Sleigh Ride
12. What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?
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Old 12-16-2012, 11:49 AM   #1644 (permalink)
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The saddest Kamelot album I have ever heard --- cheer up guys!
Silverthorn --- Kamelot --- 2012 (SPV/Steamhammer)

I've said this before about Kamelot; they seem to have a bad reputation among metallers and prog metallers as something of a generic, boring, formulaic and very commercial band. I've never quite been able to see that myself. Kamelot have remained one of my favourite prog metal bands, and even with their recent slide into more gothic areas in the last few years, I still prize every album they release. This, their tenth. sees them for the first time without their longstanding vocalist and frontman Roy Khan, who quit the band in 2010 for personal reasons, his last contribution being to that year's "Poetry for the poisoned". So what is life like after Khan for Kamelot? Have they still got that spark, or are they exposed as being a one-man band, as it were? Although I didn't like their first two albums, it was mostly the histrionics of vocalist Mark Vanderbilt that I failed to warm to, and truth to be told, though "Eternity" and "Dominion" are not a patch on later albums, they do have some good tracks. But it was only with the arrival of Khan that the band really took off. So how do they now fare without him?

Well, the creative and driving force behind Kamelot has always been guitarist Thomas Youngblood, and while Khan may have been for twelve years the voice and face of the band, Youngblood has always been its beating heart and its inspirational brain, and thus it proves here, with the compositions mostly written by him and keyboard player Oliver Palotai. Although everyone in the band is given writing credits, the whole concept behind the album, the story that runs through it, is a joint effort between these two. And it is a concept, Kamelot's third album to be based on an overarching storyline. The plot itself is I think intentionally vague --- Youngblood refuses to go into too much detail about it even on their own website --- allowing the listener to make up their own mind as to what it's about, which is all fine and good, except when it's so ambiguous that you really have no hope of working out what's going on. The basic premise seems to concern a wealthy family who have a dark secret, which results in the death of their daughter, quite possibly at the hands of her two brothers. There may very well be some incest involved, something unsavoury certainly, and it takes place in the nineteenth century: that much the writer has confirmed.

But when it gets right down to it, the story is not as important as the music. Sure, it's great to know what the lyrics are about and how they tie the songs together, but if the music is not that good then that becomes very much a secondary concern. Now, I've read several reviews of this album and almost all have raved about it, some even describing it as Kamelot's best album, but I have to say I don't see it. I'm not saying the album is bad, because it's not: in fact, it's very, very good. But I fail to be moved in the same way as others have been about how different, ground-breaking or intense it is. I'm still waiting for them to equal "The black halo", and for me, this doesn't really come close.

But enough about comparisons, come with me and let's explore the music, which is, after all, the most important part of any album.

It opens (and closes) on an instrumental, with lovely harpsichordal piano from Oliver Palotai, then heavy strings and choral vocals as it builds dramatically, and you can see right from "Manus dei" Kamelot continuing on the path towards more operatic, gothic and cinematic metal that they began to show on albums like "Ghost opera". The first contribution from new vocalist Tommy Karevik is a low, muttered prayer of sorts, then we pile into "Sacrimony (Angel of afterlife)" and it's quite amazing to hear how similar to the man he replaced Karevik is. In some ways --- many ways --- you might think it was still Roy Khan singing, as indeed I did when I first heard the album. It's a fast rocker with some great guitar from Thomas Youngblood and a choir which goes under the name of Silverthorn Choir, featuring among others Amanda Somerville from Epica and Elize Ryd from Amaranthe. It continues the practice established by Kamelot since 2003's "Epica" of featuring female vocals, mostly guest artistes, these supplied by the aformentioned Ryd here; Kamelot also use another female vocal, with "death vocals" as her speciality (here credited as "unclean female vocals") in the shape of Alissa White-Gluz. The rocking tempo continues into "Ashes to ashes", but despite the pace you can already see this is going to be a very bleak and desolate album, lyrically speaking.

The great Kamelot sound is there as ever, with powerful guitar runs from Youngblood, great keyboard passages from Palotai and thunderous drumming from Casey Grillo, while Karevik gives it all he's got, his voice here perhaps not as strong or commanding as Khan's usually was but still very satisfactory. Very prog-rock keyboard solo from Palotai, and there are "unclean vocals" again, male this time, from Sascha Paeth, who also adds extra guitars to some of the tracks. Very dramatic and powerful is the following track, "Torn", on which Karevik gets to shine properly, but as I say the story is somewhat lost in the lyrics, and I've read them all but still can't get the idea behind the concept, other than something very basic. The recurring theme seems to be one of despair, guilt and a wish for forgiveness from, I think, the ghost of the murdered girl, who is called Jolee, as we find from the next track, the first ballad, "Song for Jolee". This is a beautiful song, with sublime piano, beautiful strings and laidback guitar, Tommy Karevik's voice almost bleeding with passion and regret as he sings. The lyric is a little silly, as one of the brothers talks about writing to the angels to keep his sister safe. Er, yeah. Great combined guitar and keyboard solo with strings backing near the end, and it fades out on soft piano.

Lovely strings intro to "Veritas", and you think it's going to be another ballad till Youngblood's hard guitar cuts in and it takes off as a metal cruncher, Karevik unleashing the full power of his vocal again, backed by Elize Ryd and the Silverthorn Choir in a real chant that evokes the best of Within Temptation and Nightwish. There's a lot of latin in the lyric here, and showing how thorough they are and how authentic they want to be, Kamelot have hired in Luca Turilli from Rhapsody to make sure they get it right --- guess he knows a lot of latin. Lovely accordion passage from Istvan Tamas closes the song, and it's a powerful, punchy track with a great sense of drama, but the darkness runs through it like black thread or smoke. Kicking up the tempo somewhat is "My confession", with perhaps one of the most commercial hooks in the chorus and some great keyboard work from Oliver Palotai. Sean Tibbets' bass is the pulsating heartbeat of the opening to the title track, joined by sweet strings before Youngblood racks up his guitar and the track takes off with a powerful vocal from Karevik and some almost manic piano. This is very evocative of previous Kamelot material, rather a lot I think like "March of Mephisto" from "The black halo", a real rocker that thunders along with great purpose and drama.

Kamelot even enlist the help of children to add that lost innocence touch to the album, with a choir featuring, among others, Annelise Youngblood, whom I have to assume is the daughter of the Kamelot guitarist, and they add quite a spooky feel to this track. Youngblood's guitar features heavily right from the start in the Sabbath-like "Falling like the fahrenheit" (stupid, nonsensical name for a track), that stomps and grinds along in a murky, moody fugue that at times feels almost claustrophobic but has a great hook, one thing Kamelot know how to do so very well, and possibly one of the reasons so many people accuse them of being commercial and generic, and yet they've never had so much as one hit single. You only have to glance through the tracklisting to see this is not a happy album --- "My confession", "Prodigal son", "Torn", "Ashes to ashes" --- they all speak of dark thoughts and feelings, despair and woe, sorrow and pain. No love songs really, and nothing uplifting. And yet the music doesn't come across as doomy or dark, quite uptempo and not cheerful but not despair-laden either.

I do have an issue with their titling a second track "Solitaire" though: they already have a song of this name on the "Ghost opera" album, so why call this track the same? Surely they could have come up with a better more individual name? It's a good song though, recalling the best from "Epica" such as "Centre of the universe" and "Descent of the archangel", and powering along on Grillo's incessant, vibrant drumbeat and driven as always by Youngblood's incisive guitar work. The standout comes however in the form of the usual Kamelot epic, and it's very good indeed. "Prodigal son" is broken into three parts, the first, "Funerale", an emotional hymn which starts off with soft church ogan and pealing bells, almost Mozart's "Requiem" in tone, with a pure, beautiful yearning vocal from Karevik backed by only Palotai's sad organ but then joined by the Silverthorn Choir in an impressive and moving performance, just like a mass, which I suppose is the idea it's meant to convey. Two minutes in Youngblood adds acoustic guitar and Karevik sings solo before Grillo hits in the percussion, after which Thomas breaks out the electric and fires off an emotional and searing solo, taking us into Part II, "Burden of shame (The branding)" as Karevik's vocal gets stronger and more determined, while Youngblood's guitar rages behind him. Another beautiful solo in the fifth minute and then he lets the guitar loose properly as Casey Grillo fires up the drumkit and thunders along, the song picking up tempo heading into the final part.

Part III, "The journey", ends on a dramatic, fast, powerful instrumental and the album closes on "Continuum", which although it's not really a true instrumental is close enough to rate it as one. Bookending the album very well it takes us out of the story --- which I doubt anyone properly understands --- and is a nice way to close the album, a sort of reverse overture, a coda to a very fine album which has had Kamelot reaching for the stars, even if they have fallen more than a little short of that goal. You can't fault their ambition.

TRACKLISTING
1. Manus dei
2. Sacrimony (Angel of afterlife)
3. Ashes to ashes
4. Torn
5. Song for Jolee
6. Veritas
7. My confession
8. Silverthorn
9. Falling like the Fahrenheit
10. Solitaire
11. Prodigal son
(i) Funerale
(ii) Burden of shame (The Branding)
(iii) The Journey
12. Continuum

(Note: This will probably be one of the longest, if not the longest afterwords I've written in an album review, but I have a lot to say about this album, and Kamelot in general)

So is this the album Kamelot were always supposed to make? Is it "the best Kamelot album ever", as many have postulated, and is all the hype justified? Well I've listened to the album about ten or more times now and I can't truthfully put my hand on my heart and say yes it is. It's a great album, of that there's no doubt --- Kamelot don't do bad albums, at least not since their third --- but is it one of my favourites of 2012? No it definitely isn't. I was a little underwhelmed with it when I heard it the first time, though as it progressed I felt it got much better, especially towards the closing section, but on repeated listens, while I haven't revised my overall opinion of "Silverthorn", it remains a good, possibly great album, but not the greatest they've produced. For me, they attained that peak with "The black halo", and have yet to surpass or even equal that. I did like "Ghost opera", but it wasn't close to their best.

Due credit must of course be given to new vocalist Tommy Karevik, who handles all the songs with great skill and heart, and manages to sound so close to departed Roy Khan that longtime fans of the band won't be shaken or put off by the change; in fact, some may not even realise he's a different singer. Yet for all that he retains enough of his own individual style to be able to stamp his identity and personality on the album, not an easy thing to do with such massive shoes to fill! I do miss Khan, but I think he probably articulated his decision best in "Anthem" from "Ghost opera", when he obviously realised he must prioritise his new family over his career, over his music, and who would blame him? Perhaps we'll see him popping up again, perhaps not, but either way he's been a worthy and faithful servant to Kamelot, and his input with and influence on them is and always will be appreciated.

This is, though, by far the most depressing, bleak, sad and bitter album Kamelot have ever put out. Even "The black halo", with its themes of revenge, betrayal and death, had its "up" moments --- lots of them, in fact. This has few if any. Oh, the music is mostly uptempo, but listen to the lyric and you'll glimpse the true heart of this album. If you're easily depressed, I'd avoid unless you want to be brought down. If you're not already depressed before listening to it, it will suck you down into a deep, dark, bitter pit of despair, and though the music is excellent and it's very well put together, it's more like what I think that DBSM would sound like. Music to slit your wrists to? Not quite, but it certainly won't cheer you up or make you feel any better about the world. Someone in another review noted that the album was so dark and sad it was like the band's collective hearts were breaking. I can't deny that, and would wonder if there is any parallel to a similar incident that happened to any of them? Hopefully not, because it sounds really horrible and upsetting. The circumstances, I mean, not the music.

I never really linked Kamelot with depressing music before, bitter themes or bleak soundscapes, but this just sounds, on one level, like the hurt of all the world given voice. Much of that, it has to be said, is down to Karevik's pained and torn vocal, like a damned soul crying in the void, and also to the amazing choir Kamelot employ. Definitely leaning heavily towards the side of gothic metal now, I wonder if this is the direction the band are now headed in, and if so, will they ever sound happy again?
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Old 12-16-2012, 11:53 AM   #1645 (permalink)
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Christmas with you --- Clint Black --- 2004 (Equity)


I guess in many ways you could say Country music is almost uniquely suited to the Christmas market. I don't claim to be any sort of an expert, but it seems to me that Country relies a lot on sentimentality, memories, traditions and has a real connection with religion, all relevant and important factors when constructing a Christmas album. Of course, there are so many Country artists out there, and whose record do you find the most repugnant, from a Christmas point of view?

Well, Clint Black (NO! CLINT! C-L-I-N-T! Don't be dirty!) comes close. Now I don't know the guy, have no experience of his music, but the sheer oversentimentality and cheesiness that drips from every groove on this record (ask yer parents, I'm sick explaining! Well, ask yer grandparents, then!) definitely puts him in my crosshairs. Add to that the fact that this album is a reissue of his original Christmas outing, back in 1996, and you really have to ask yourself why he's bothering unleashing it on us again? I know that's probably the label's call, but still, you'd imagine he would have some input.

Every song here is an original. That could be good, or it could be bad. It's bad. There are, admittedly, no angels having been heard singing on high or nights without any sound, and not a snowman to be seen, but these songs are so bad I almost wish there were. From the dreary and sickening opener "The finest gift", where Clint talks about his woman's love as being, you guessed it, to the terrible "Santa's holiday song", which mercifully closes the album, this is mawkish schmaltz from the word go to the word please stop. Yeah, I know that's two words!

In fairness, there are a few decent tracks. "The kid" is an interesting idea, where the singer remembers being a child and all excited about Christmas, then is grown up as a parent and watching his kid do the same thing, and "Looking for Christmas" is a nice look at the arrival in Bethlehem two thousand and some years ago. Trouble is, it's the title of the original '96 album, which kind of reminds you you're paying for recycled product. But the bad definitely outweighs the good, which tracks like "Milk and cookies (Til Santa's gone)" and "Under the mistletoe" particularly puke-inducing, though "The coolest pair" is a bit of fun. That fun does not however last very long.

TRACKLISTING

1. The Finest Gift
2. Under the Mistletoe
3. The Kid
4. The Coolest Pair
5. Looking for Christmas
6. Christmas for Every Boy and Girl
7. 'Til Santa's Gone (Milk and Cookies)
8. Slow as Christmas
9. The Birth of the King
10. Looking for Christmas (Reprise)
11. Christmas with You
12. Santa's Holiday Song
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Old 12-17-2012, 12:00 PM   #1646 (permalink)
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The worst is almost over, people: we're into the final week before Christmas and this will all be drawing to a conclusion tomorrow week. Before that, though, we have to stomach the likes of this. Sorry...
Christmas: Women of Faith --- Women of Faith --- 2000 (Integrity)


I would never slag anyone's religion or beliefs off, but it must be a scary sight, thousands and thousands of women all coming together in the name of Jesus. That's what Women of Faith is: an organisation that holds these sort of concerts, festivals, gatherings where they all get together and sing about how much they love the Saviour. Kind of like Donington, but without the leather, loud music, booze, drugs, scantily-clad girls, motorbikes, references to the Devil ... yeah, nothing like Donington really. Probably more like a very long mass with music. Urgh! Anyway, they also produce these albums, and I suppose if they're going to do so, Christmas would seem the perfect time.

The trouble is, as with most overtly-religious groups, or anyone trying to push a view, they come across as over-enthusiastic to the point of almost hostility to anyone who doesn't hold their views. The album of course is heavily slanted towards songs of a religious nature, so you have "Joy to the world", "Silent night", "Away in a manger", "O holy night", as well as various medleys, but nothing about the most important person, the one Christmas is all about, he who was born on this day to take away our sins. Yeah, nothing about Santa Claus at all!

Seriously, you wouldn't give this as a present to anyone, unless they're a dyed-in-the-wool Christian who thinks going to mass seven days a week is not enough. The music's pleasant enough, and sung well, but as always with Christian artistes I find an underlying current of veiled menace in the way these songs are put across: it's like they're saying "This is our special time, now hear us roar!" Uh, yeah.

TRACKLISTING

1. Medley: You Are Emmanuel/Emmanuel
2. Angels We Have Hear On High
3. Joy To The World
4. O Holy Night
5. Medley: Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne/Worthy, You Are Worthy
6. Silent Night
7. Medley: The Birthday Of A King/O Come All Ye Faithful
8. Holy Lamb Of God
9. Away In A Manger
10. Medley: One Small Child/More Precious Than Silver
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Old 12-17-2012, 12:33 PM   #1647 (permalink)
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Okay, so already there are people saying “This isn't metal opera!” Well, no, it isn't, but it is most certainly rock opera, in fact I'd go so far as to say it's the original rock opera, and the best. After all, if you're going to tell what is generally accepted as The Greatest Story Ever Told, you really need to write The Greatest Rock Opera Ever, don't you? And in my opinion this is exactly what Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice did here, treating the subject of Christ's last days both with respect and a healthy dose of irony. This is an album (and indeed, film and stage show) you can enjoy even if you're not a believer (which I'm not), because it's just such a damn good story, and the music is of the very highest quality. This is also of course the perfect time to feature such an album, with Christmas only a week away.
Jesus Christ Superstar --- Original Motion Picture Soundtrack --- 1973 (MCA)


Among other things, this rock opera broke new ground (and in the process of course angered the religious right) by looking at the story of Jesus through the eyes of a man who had, up until then, been one of the most universally-hated and reviled figures in history, along with Hitler and Jack the Ripper, perhaps even Satan himself.

(Disclaimer: I freely accept that many devout Christians are happy to believe the line the Bible tells, painting Judas in the darkest light possible, and making of him a scapegoat for the betrayal and ultimate death of Jesus, and I would never seek or attempt to denigrate them for that. I just think it's possible, even probable, that a more logical approach could be used, and indeed Lloyd-Webber and Rice thought so too (although whether or not they were invested in this religiously is in some doubt: they were and are just artistes practicing their craft), so the below is merely one take on the Judas story, not the definitive one. But then, I believe that also to be the case with the account given in the Bible. It's a free world, and you're entitled to make your own decision about it, if indeed you want to. The below is not meant to challenge anyone's firmly-held beliefs or ridicule anyone's religion. In this context, it's just a story set to music.)

The very idea that Judas Iscariot might be seen as a sympathetic figure, that we might try to understand his motivation in betraying the Saviour, was such anathema to the Church that they took umbrage to it. Far easier to paint Judas as a one-dimensional figure, an evil man who joined the Apostles merely to get close to Jesus, earn his trust and then betray him for thirty pieces of silver. Now really, does that sound likely? And then when he's done the deed, he hangs himself? Please. The Church of course is all about not questioning, or daring to question its teachings, but this particular story has never resonated with me. Why would someone do this?

It makes much more sense though if you see the view through Judas's eyes, and this is what you see in this production. I'm going with the TV film of 1973, because although there have been many adaptations, mostly onstage, of this story, one of which starred metal icon Ian Gillan as Christ (he must have loved that!) this is the one I like best and which I return to time and again. The basic music is the same, with a few little changes for later versions, but this is my favourite.

Anyone doubting that this is a rock opera has only to hear the mad guitar solo in the “Overture” which, not surprisingly, opens the album after some choral vocals and a nice little riff which is quickly joined by orchestral brass and heavy, dramatic percussion, with some frenetic piano as the tune besically runs through an amalgam of tunes and themes we will hear later in the opera. It quickly settles down then, to fade off in heavenly choral vocals as one of the (many) standouts opens the story proper, Judas watching Christ preaching and voicing his concern as “Heaven on their minds”, a truly brilliant piece of guitar melody, takes us into the world of Jesus as he goes among the people. Judas, watching from the top of a hill in the film, worries that his master and friend is attracting too much attention from the Romans and that it will be their, and his, undoing: ”You've started to believe/ The things they say of you/ You really do believe/ This talk of God is true/ And all the things you've done/ Will soon get swept away/ You've begun to matter more/ Than the things you say!”

From this opening soliloquy we see a totally different Judas, a man who is dedicated to Christ but who is increasingly frustrated by his message of peace. Judas, like others, believed Jesus would be the man to lead the Jews into freedom, and lift the yoke of tyranny from around the necks of his people. But Christ is showing no signs of pursuing such a course. It's also quite clear that he does not believe the hype which says Jesus is the Messiah, the one who has come to lead them all to the Kingdom of Heaven. Judas believes in what he can see, touch, feel, not religious dogma. He declares this most powerfully when he says "They think they've found the new Messiah/ And they'll hurt you when they find they're wrong".

Judas worries now that the Romans will pick up on what Jesus is saying, and arrest him, and their only chance for salvation will be gone. More, though, he considers Jesus a friend, and is concerned on his behalf for the man's safety. He recalls ” I remember when this whole thing began/ No talk of God then/ We called you a man/ And believe me, my admiration for you hasn't died” The song is carried on a big guitar intro but then mostly on funky piano, but it's the vocal of Carl Anderson as Judas that really makes it. You can definitely feel his frustration changing to anger as he snaps ”Your followers are blind!/ Too much Heaven on their minds/ It was beautiful but now it's sour.”

As an opener (discounting the overture), “Heaven on their minds” gives us a much more rounded, clearer picture of the man painted for two thousand years as the Betrayer. We see a man, a good man, dedicated to his cause and trying to reconcile it with Jesus's defiance not to engage in violence and only follow the path of peace, and his refusal to give in to Judas's entreaties that he take up the sword. Judas does not hate Jesus; far from it. He loves him, but as a friend he realises it may be time to do something to force his hand. This understanding, this sympathising with Judas's position put the writers on a direct collision course with the Church, who have always refused to see any sort of mitigation in --- or indeed, offered any credible explanation for --- Judas's selling out of Christ, other than that he was “evil”. Well, they'd know all about that, wouldn't they?

There's a sixties hippy vibe to “What's the buzz”, with bouncy organ and funky bass, with a vocal mostly taken as an ensemble as the Apostles press a tired Jesus for news of what they are to do next. As they demand ”When do we ride to Jerusalem?” he snaps back ”Why should you want to know? / Why are you obsessed with fighting?” as the first vocal part for Ted Neeley in the title role comes in; his voice is quite falsetto but clear and strong. The song also introduces Mary Magdalene, played by Yvonne Elliman, who offers to cool the pressurised Jesus down. This of course angers Judas, who sees as it were a rival for Jesus's affections in the woman, and so the track runs into its second section, called “Strange thing mystifying”, as he queries Mary's right to be in Jesus's presence. He's also worried that this behaviour will attract unwelcome attention from the authorities. The perceived scandal attached to such a high-profile figure consorting with a woman of ill-repute can, he feels sure, do nothing but harm to their enterprise, and give the Romans the excuse they need to arrest them all.

Jesus however stands up for her, and gets angrier, declaring that the Apostles don't really care about him, eliciting a chorus of denials. The scene now shifts to the temple, where the high priest of the Jews discusses with his second, Annas, the impact of the teachings of Jesus on their people. Opening on a scratching, squealing guitar chord, “Then we are decided” settles into a boogie piano run as Caiaphas, the High Priest, declares that Jesus is a danger to them all. Annas shrugs "He's just another scripture-thumping hack/ From Galilee!” which Caiphas counters with ”The difference is they call him king!/ The difference frightens me!”

Back with Jesus and the Apostles, Mary Magdalene tries to soothe Jesus and convince him to sleep, and the first ballad on the album is a rippling piano melody for “Everything's alright”, but it's interrupted by Judas who berates her for spending money on her ointments and oils, saying they could have helped the poor instead. Ignoring him, Mary turns back to Jesus, who sneers at Judas that the poor will always be a constant in the world, but soon he must leave them and they will be sorry when he has departed. It's a warning of things to come, sooner than Judas or any of them expect it, but it goes unmarked. Strings and woodwind join the piano and bass as the song fades out, and we're back with the priests, as Caiaphas and Annas try to convince the other priests of the danger of allowing Jesus to live.

On an ominous cello intro, the song begins with the High Priest's advising his fellows they have a problem, and Annas mocking the crowd as we hear the first strains of what will later become the song “Hosanna”, the tempo getting more sprightly then dropping back to the ominous chords as the priest sing in unison ”He is dangerous!” while in counterpoint, the “Superstar theme” runs in choral vocals. This song is unintentionally funny too, where Caiaphas, making his case, ends on a deep, rich baritone to be instantly taken up by Annas's high falsetto, the one the opposite of the other. I always find it amusing, even if it's not meant to be. The tempo again picks up on piano and organ as Caiaphas lays out for his brothers the consequences of leaving Jesus to his own devices, and finally convinces them, leading to the title of the song, “This Jesus must die”.

Big dramatic intro then into “Hosanna” as Jesus enters the city to orchestral accompaniment and chorus, with Caiaphas advising Jesus to tell his followers to disperse before there's a riot. One thing that becomes a recurring theme throughout this album is the reuse of melodies. Sometimes it may seem like just laziness on the part of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, but if you look closely the reused themes usually reflect back to the song they were originally used for. An example of this is “Hosanna” itself, where later, the theme resurfaces --- indeed, with similar lyrics --- as Jesus is taken to trial, but instead of singing ”Hey JC, JC/ You're alright by me!” the much more sombre tone is ”Hey JC, JC/ Please explain to me/ You had everything/ Where is it now?” There are other instances of this, but I'll point them out as we go along.

As it is, this song again features the vocals of Neeley as he, in the role of Christ, tells the high priest that even the rocks and trees would sing out his name were every person silent. His vocal delivery is framed against a much slower, lusher strings section, which then goes back into the main theme, with him this time joining the chorus. The possibility of his message of peace and love getting misinterpreted, or taken advantage of, comes about in “Simon Zealotes”, where a Jewish Zealot tries to convince him to ally his message to the overthrow of the Romans. A real disco-type piece, it runs on happy piano and joyful brass, but ends on a sour note, as it falls into “Poor Jerusalem”, Christ bemoaning the fate that is to befall him, adding the bleak message ”To conquer death you only have to die.”

In total contrast to this dance piece, and continuing its main melody, a simple acoustic guitar frames “Pilate's dream”, as the governor of Judea reflects on a strange dream he had about ” A Galillean/ A most amazing man” and wonders what it can mean. According to dogma, even Jesus lost it from time to time, and “Temple” highlights one of the most famous times, when he goes to the temple and finds moneychangers and traders there, throwing them all out. On a bouncy guitar line the tradespeople tout for business until Jesus screams ”My temple should be/ A house of prayer/ But you have made it/ A den of thieves!” and overturns the tables, the music turning suitably dramatic and dissonant as he does so, harking back to elements from the overture.

As he walks off, he is pursued by people who have seen the miracles he has worked and want to be cured. With the opening notes from the Overture hanging in the air, the music slows down on soft strings without percussion and Jesus suffers a moment of doubt that he can fulfill his mission, saying ”My time is almost through/ Little left to do/ After all, I've tried for three years/ Seems like thirty.” On a trumpet note and a guitar chord the prayers for cure begin to assail him, piano joining in and the guitar getting harder and more insistent in concert with the petitioners, till Jesus, overwhelmed by the demands of his public, has to run away and leave them all behind.

The next ballad comes in the shape of “I don't know how to love him”, as Mary Magdalene considers, against a soft guitar melody, her feelings for Jesus, and what she should do about them. It's a great solo piece for Yvonne Elliman, who has a very strong and distinct voice. Gentle, upbeat flute backs the melody and it's deceptively uptempo for the subject matter. The bridge is taken by a lovely keyboard and strings instrumental section, and again this admission of the possibility that Jesus may have had feelings for Mary, and vice versa, is again completley against the teachings of the Church, and another reason for them to denounce this opera. Another standout is next, as Judas tries to make up his mind what is best for the cause, and decides to see if Caiaphas would listen to Jesus, if they could meet. Perhaps the high priest would understand? A heavy, rocky piano line runs “Damned for all time/ Blood money” as Judas tries to explain that he has no choice and Annas sneers ”Cut the protesting/ Forget the excuses/ We want information/ Get up off the floor!” making it obvious that they're not interested in talking to Jesus, they just want to arrest him and get him off the streets. Judas chooses to ignore this, and goes ahead with the sellout. The first part ends with presumably angels singing “Well done Judas”, so that he seems to have made the correct choice.
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Old 12-17-2012, 12:43 PM   #1648 (permalink)
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Another great track opens the second act, with a 70s prog keyboard and organ backing up the ensemble vocal on “The Last Supper”, but Jesus, in sudden anger, accuses the Apostles of not caring about him, saying ”For all you care/ This bread could be my body” against a single piano line until abruptly he launches into a tirade, declaring that they'll all forget him once he's gone: ”Look at your blank faces!/ My name will mean nothing/ Ten minutes after I'm dead!” Here again, Lloyd-Webber reuses a melody that we first heard in “Everything's alright”, but kicking up the intensity and drama as the mood at the table sours and gets more angry. Then an argument breaks out between Jesus and Judas, as they discuss his betrayal, and Judas accuses Jesus of using him to get what he wants. With some truly excellent vocal interplay between Neeley and Anderson, the latter runs off and the “Last Supper” theme returns as Judas despairs that Jesus's behaviour has brought them to this pass.

As Jesus goes after him and their argument reaches fever pitch, a heavy guitar chord melody brings in a lyric which will later surface in the triumphant “Superstar”, near the end, and “The Last Supper” ends on a slow acapella vocal harmony. This then leads into the total, complete and undeniable standout of the entire album, the amazing “Gethsemane (I only want to say)”, retracing portions of the melody from both “Pilate's dream” and “Poor Jerusalem” and featuring a stellar solo performance from Neeley against acoustic guitar backing as he faces his darkest hour, waiting in the garden for the betrayal he knows is to come, and asking his Heavenly Father to relieve him of this burden, knowing it can never be.

A great orchestral section also creates the atmosphere for this centrepiece, and masterpiece, of the opera, Neeley's voice becoming angrier as he asks ”Why should I die?”, brass and cellos powering up behind him as he faces the long night of the soul. As the music reaches a frenzied crescendo, he realises he has no choice and must accept his Father's will, and as the fight goes out of him with this realisation, he reflects on his life against a slower, more sedate guitar and piano melody: ”Then, I was inspired/ Now, I'm sad and tired/ After all, I've tried for three years/ Seems like ninety/ Why then am I scared to finish/ What I started?” the percussion kicking in as he accepts his lot, and the orchestra rising like a living thing as the piece reaches its conclusion with the final notes of the “Overture”.

“Arrest” sees a return to the melody and indeed lyric for “What's the buzz”, virtually a continuation of that song, as the Apostles leap to Christ's defence. He however tells them to put down their swords and as he's marched away the song takes on a press-conference tone as people ask him ”Tell me Christ/ How you feel tonight/ Do you plan to put up a fight?” Taken to Caiaphas, he is accused and the high priest reveals his plans to send the Saviour to Pilate for trial. Another reuse of melody comes in “Peter's denial”, with the exact same melody of “Strange thing mystifying”, ending with a short solo piano piece as Mary remarks in horror that Peter has denied Christ, even as was foretold at the Last Supper.

Brought before Pilate, Christ is unknown to the governor, who asks in a disdainful tone against heavy brass, percussion and strings ”Who is this broken man/ Cluttering up my hallway?” Utilising the basic melody sung by Caiaphas earlier, when Jesus is entering the city in “Hosanna”, Pilate questions the Saviour, but on Jesus's refusal to confirm or deny that he is king of the Jews, he angrily sends him on to King Herod, under whose jurisdiction Jesus, as a Galilean, falls, and the “Hosanna” theme recurs again, this time using that lyric I mentioned at the beginning. The court of Herod is brought to life brilliantly by Josh Mostel, who pulls off a star turn as the loopy king, with a twenties-style piano song as he tries to force Jesus to perform a miracle for him. Unmoved, Jesus is returned to Pilate.

As Jesus makes the trip back, Mary Magdalene and Peter duet on “Could we start again please”, the final ballad as they wonder how things have come to this pass, and if it's possible just to turn back the clock? It's a lovely little piece, with a nice piano melody with strings backing, the vocal taken alternately by Elliman and Philip Toubus as Peter, then by both in unison and finally by the whole chorus as all the Apostles join in. A reprise of “Damned for all time/ Blood money” and indeed “I don't know how to love him” as Judas realises what he's done, but the priests of the temple are unsympathetic, pointing out that he was paid for his service in getting a dangerous rebel off the streets. Thrown out of the temple with contempt, Judas sings to the melody of “I don't know how to love him”, before a high organ introduces the return of the guitars from “Heaven on their minds”, which in a perfect job of bringing things full circle, ring out and get more frenzied as the penny drops and he realises theat Jesus has used him to achieve his ends. Prior to hanging himself he yells to Jesus “You have murdered me! Murdered me! Murdered me!” and the angel chorus returns as the guitars fade. Wow.

“Trial before Pilate” retraces the melody from “Then we are decided” as the governor looks at the man who has been sent back to him. Elements from “Hosanna” also find their way here, the hard guitar chords punctuating Pilate's impassioned plea to Jesus to justify himself, and the “Overture” comes back in until Pilate has no choice but to sentence him to be flogged. This then brings in the “Thirty-nine lashes”, which is a bit off-putting, featuring another return for the guitar riff plus trumpets from “Heaven on their minds”, against the sound of whips. At the end of the thirty-nine lashes (it was said to have been meant to be forty but that Pilate could not make himself suffer through seeing it to the end, or so the Bible would have us believe. Seems unlikely, but there you go.)

But this is, as we know, not enough for the crowd, and they demand crucifixion, reminding Pilate that his boss, the Emperor may not look favourably on his attempts to spare this messiah. Giving in, Pilate orders the crucifixion against a heavy guitar melody. Rather oddly, “Superstar”, the triumphant resurrection piece, comes before the crucifixion, perhaps meant to be played out in Jesus's mind, as if it never happened? I don't know, but anyway “Superstar” is a soul/disco/funk piece that bops along at a good pace and has a lot of, not surprisingly, gospel flavour about it, and is voiced by Carl Anderson as the returned Judas, coming down out of Heaven. Take that, Catholic Church! Great brass section in this too, and it would have been a great closer, but then we're into “Crucifixion”, which is generally an ambient texture piece, containing the sound of hammering, creaking, laughing, agonised screams, and perhaps the most important words uttered by Jesus, certainly said to be his last on the Earth, commending his soul into the hands of his father.

The coda to it all is a beautiful little two-minute instrumental retracing of the slower section from “Gethsemane”, which has been titled “John 19:41”, referencing the line in John's Gospel which reads ”Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. “ This piece still gets me, and even as I type I'm wiping away tears.

As usual, the Catholic Church got it wrong. Far from pushing people away from Christianity, or making a mockery of it, or not treating it with the proper respect, I believe “Jesus Christ Superstar”, in all its forms, opened up the story of Jesus to a new audience, possibly in much the same way as Mel Gibson's movie “The passion of the Christ” did, though much less violently. Surely, you would have to think, anything that told the story of Christ's mission on Earth and gave people understanding of his love for all men would be a good thing? As I said, I'm no believer but I thoroughly enjoy this album, and this film, every time I decide to see or listen to it, and it's forever up there with my all-time favourite movie soundtracks, films and rock operas.

TRACKLISTING

1. Overture
2. Heaven on their minds
3. What's the buzz/Strange thing mystifying
4. Then we are decided
5. Everything's alright
6. This Jesus must die
7. Hosanna
8. Simon Zealotes
9. Poor Jerusalem
10. Pilate's dream
11. Temple
12. Everything's alright (reprise)/ I don't know how to love him
13. Damned for all time/ Blood money
14. The Last Supper
15. Gethsemane (I only want to say)
16. Arrest
17. Peter's denial
18. Christ and Pilate/ Hosanna (reprise)
19. King Herod's song
20. Could we start again please?
21. Judas's death
22. Trial before Pilate (including the 39 lashes)
23. Superstar
24. The Crucifixion
25. John 19:41
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Old 12-17-2012, 01:20 PM   #1649 (permalink)
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Just a quick note of thanks to whoever just approved my posts (Jansz, is that you?) --- the album review was very large and in two parts, and I appreciate it being put up so quickly after I submitted it. Just think credit where credit's due: I'm sure most people don't even bother thanking you for such speedy service.

Happy Christmas!
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Old 12-17-2012, 01:48 PM   #1650 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Trollheart View Post
Just a quick note of thanks to whoever just approved my posts (Jansz, is that you?) --- the album review was very large and in two parts, and I appreciate it being put up so quickly after I submitted it. Just think credit where credit's due: I'm sure most people don't even bother thanking you for such speedy service.

Happy Christmas!
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