Some Brief Thoughts On Arctic Monkeys @ Manchester Arena

It’s occurred to me that with the exception of writing small novels about music festivals (as evidenced here and here), I don’t really do all that much live reviewing any more – in stark contrast to the halcyon days of Myspace blogging, in which I felt compelled to write a review of pretty much every gig I went to at one point (I think that may have actually lasted for at least a year, if not longer). Sadly the new Myspace design appears to have eaten everyone’s blogs, so I can’t revisit those relatively youthful days – thanks for nothing, Justin Timberlake.

Anyway, now that my writing demands (outside of this blog) are a little more structured and I have a job to contend with, I don’t really feel as inclined to write stuff about random gigs I attend, beyond throwing out the odd thought or summary on Facebook or Twitter. After all, it’s nice to approach a show without an overly critical head on and just enjoy it every once in a while.

Tonight’s Arctic Monkeys gig inadvertently proved to be an exception that rule, and I’ve kinda ended up with more thoughts than can be conveniently shoved into a Facebook status – and this not-really-a-review is the result.

– My position in the venue was kinda weird. Having missed or passed up the opportunity to buy tickets when they were previously on sale, I bought what was literally the last ticket available on the arena’s website after stumbling across it by chance – because it was looking sad and lonely and I really wanted to see the band before the end of the year. Rather than attempt to describe my position, here’s a shoddy picture I took on my phone during the show.

Arctic Monkeys at Manchester Arena

Arctic Monkeys at Manchester Arena

Surprisingly, this off-to the side view was actually ok for the most part – the band certainly aren’t any further away than you’d expect them to be when sat on the second tier of a big arena, it’s just a bit odd that they spend the entire show facing in a completely different direction. Sound was actually ok up there too, at least to my non-audiophile, non-technical ears. It’s still weird for me to think that I once saw Arctic Monkeys in tiny, 200-300 cap venues 8 years ago, but it’s gratifying to see that they’ve very much grown into their role as a stadium band.

– It would be unprofessional to gripe about the setlist in a review, but this is neither professional nor a review, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do. The focus on material from AM was not unexpected, but to play three quarters of the record and not include ‘Knee Socks’ seems pretty criminal. However, its omission did mean that we got ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ instead (at least, if you compare the Manchester setlist to the one from Newcastle the night before), so I’m ok with that – espeically as I was thinking how I wanted to hear that song just before they played it. We also got ‘Fireside’ as a bonus, presumably thanks to the fact that Bill Ryder-Jones was around to play his guitar part, and also guest on three or four other songs while he was at it.

The one trade I’m definitely not ok with is that Newcastle got ‘Do Me A Favour’ (quite possibly my single favourite Arctic Monkeys song) and we got… ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’. Now, I don’t mind ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’ on record, but its nonchalant pace doesn’t really make it a particularly great live track – it’s no ‘Do Me A Favour’ in that regard, that’s for sure. Then there’s also the issue that long-standing set-closer ‘505’ appears to have been retired entirely in favour of playing ‘R U Mine?’ as the last song of the encore. I guess I know how fans of ‘A Certain Romance’ feel now…

To be fair, Arctic Monkeys are now at that point where they have enough material to draw from that they’ll never be able to please everyone – I suppose my desire to hear tracks from the second album rather than the first just makes me a cooler-than-thou version of the bawdy guys who were singing ‘When The Sun Goes Down’ while waiting for the encore.

– Speaking of older songs, I don’t know if it’s just me but it felt like a few songs had been slowed down a touch, like a record played at slightly the wrong speed. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it (it could just be a measure to avoid fatigue), but maybe the band are starting to tire of playing certain tracks, but are near-obliged to do so anyway? ‘I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and ‘Dancing Shoes’ were the most obvious culprits to my ears, but I swear even ‘Brianstorm’ received a little tweak in the tempo department. Then there’s ‘Mardy Bum’, which has pretty much been offered up to the crowd as a semi-acoustic singalong.

There was one newer song that had a fairly significant change though – ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’, which was dropped into a minor key and took on a slightly menacing air in the process. It works reasonably well though, so it’s not so much a complaint as an observation.

– Despite these niggles and gripes, it was still a very accomplished set – you only have to look at the setlist to see that the band are basically at the point where they’re just playing hit after hit after hit. Sure, some of the new songs fit into that mould better than others  – aside from the singles, ‘One For The Road’ and ‘Arabella’ in particular feel like they could be future staples – but there were only two or three songs you could consider duds in an otherwise consistently crowd-pleasing set. Even seemingly unlikely songs like ‘Reckless Serenade’ got a huge reaction from the crowd, as well as unexpectedly giving me a ‘lump-in-my-throat’ moment – affirmation, perhaps, that even after eight years and five albums, I care about Arctic Monkeys as much as I ever did.

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Let’s Get Cynical About: The Mercury Prize (2013 Edition)

It’s once again that time of year, where the Mercury Prize shortlist appears and we all bitch and moan about its strengths and weaknesses and argue about who should and shouldn’t have been included. For my money, These New Puritans have been robbed again, and I was expecting Daughter to be a shoo-in. One of the odder suggestions I saw a few people make was that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds should have been nominated – while Push The Sky Away would have absolutely been deserving of a nod, its inclusion would have required some very lax interpretation of the nomination criteria. There’s also a prevailing train of thought that the Mercury panel has once again played it pretty safe – the list contains five number one albums, seven artists who have previously been nominated (if we include Jon Hopkins’ collaboration with King Creosote, Diamond Mine, which was nominated in 2011), and only one record that had sold less than 20,000 copies worldwide before the nominations were announced (thanks to Clash’s Mike Diver for that factoid – read his excellent article on the Mercury Prize here). It’s certainly not as bland or mediocre a list as last year’s, but it’s difficult to argue that it’s much more challenging. All that aside, however, the list has been chosen – so all that remains is to offer you my opinion on this year’s twelve shortlisted albums.

12. Laura Mvula – Sing To The Moon

Laura Mvula - Sing To The Moon

Laura Mvula – Sing To The Moon

Laura Mvula is in possession of a perfectly fine voice, but there’s really not a lot to be said about Sing To The Moon apart from that it’s terminally boring. Aside from the jazzy ‘Green Garden’ and the twinkly ‘She’, nothing really held my interest – I can only listen to so many ballads before I wish I was listening to something else. Definitely a slot that could have been taken by a far more exciting album – the idea that this got nominated ahead of the Daughter record just seems absolutely ridiculous to me.

11. Rudimental – Home

Rudimental - Home

Rudimental – Home

The fact that Rudimental are nominated for this year’s prize seems weird somehow. Let’s be clear, Home isn’t total dross or anything – it’s a mostly solid and surprisingly varied dance record that does a decent job of blending together different electronic genres –  but it doesn’t feel like it’s pushing any boundaries. Besides, the album already went to number one, and you’ve almost certainly heard its two best songs (‘Feel The Love’ and ‘Waiting All Night’) if you have found yourself located in ‘tha club’ at any point in the last year – add all of that up and you end up with an album that struggles to really justify its inclusion on the shortlist.

10. Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg - Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg

I’ll openly admit that Jake Bugg is the kind of artist who’s hyped to the point that I actually just want to find an excuse to dislike him – but his self-titled debut album isn’t it*. He does a pretty good line in skiffly, observational snapshots (‘Taste It, ‘Lightning Bolt’), but his attempts at balladry are a little bit more mixed, which is a shame, as the album seems to include more of the latter, with nary an upbeat song to be found after ‘Trouble Town’. The slightly psychedelic-sounding ‘Ballad Of Mr Jones’ suits Bugg’s voice fairly well, but ‘Broken’s overblown, maudlin backdrop seems to overstate his ability to tug at the heartstrings. While Bugg’s words generally seem authentic, it’s fair to say that the way they’re presented isn’t exactly original – all told, you’ll think Jake Bugg is amazing if you like Dylan-esque singer-songwriters and happen to think that Arctic Monkeys began and ended with Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (protip: they didn’t, but we’ll get to that later). Which is all well and good – but it’s not Mercury-winning material.

*The shoddy Arctic Monkeys rip-off he released as his latest single, on the other hand…

9. Disclosure – Settle

Disclosure - Settle

Disclosure – Settle

Much like Rudimental, my appreciation of Disclosure is mostly limited to their singles. They’ve got some undeniably good tunes, though ‘Latch’ and ‘White Noise’ probably remain the best, with an honourable mention going to the London Grammar-featuring ‘Help Me Lose My Mind’. But as it stands, I’m just not that interested in listening to a whole album of deep house, no matter how accomplished it may be. Sorry chaps.

8. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle

Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

It seems that Laura Marling has surpassed herself with Once I Was An Eagle – it’s both her longest and her most critically acclaimed album yet. But while the critical acclaim is pretty much spot on, the running time proves to be an issue – it honestly feels a bit drawn out, and you could absolutely split the record down the middle into two separate albums. However, if you can’t get enough of Marling’s timeless, world-weary songwriting then this record will prove to be a bountiful pleasure, as apart from the pointless ‘Interlude’ that’s pretty much what you get from start to finish. Myself? I can hardly fault the record, objectively speaking, but do I feel particularly compelled to come back to it? Not really.

7. Villagers – {Awayland}

Villagers - {Awayland}

Villagers – {Awayland}

I’m probably going to look a bit silly putting this above Laura Marling’s album, but for whatever reason I find Villagers to be the more engaging storytellers. I think it’s because, with Conor O’Brien involving his bandmates in the writing process more than last time round, the end result is a more expansive and varied sound. Highlights for me were ‘The Waves’, ‘Nothing Arrived’ and ‘The Bell’, but it’s a pretty solid listen throughout. If you like well-crafted, interesting folk-rock, then {Awayland} will definitely work for you.

6. David Bowie – The Next Day

David Bowie - The Next Day

David Bowie – The Next Day

While many of the other ‘token’ awards seem to have been done away with this year (there’s not a jazz act in sight, and both Laura Marling and Villagers can hardly be considered tokenistic, having both being nominated before), the ‘token veteran’ award is still alive and well. It’s fair enough in this case though, as 2013 has given us a doozy in the surprise return of David Bowie. Really, Bowie could have released an album of avant-garde spoken word or impenetrable noise and people would probably have still lapped it up, but we’re fortunate enough that The Next Day is actually pretty good – particularly in its more reflective moments (‘Where Are We Now’, ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’, ‘Heat’).

5. James Blake – Overgrown

James Blake - Overgrown

James Blake – Overgrown

If I had one major problem with the self-titled debut from James Blake, it was that it was a bit inconsistent. Fortunately, Overgrown addresses that problem fairly well. That’s not to say that there aren’t any definite standouts – step forward, ‘Retrograde’, ‘Overgrown’ and ‘Life Round Here’ – but there’s less of the weird quasi-experimental stuff and more actual tunes in general. ‘Retrograde’ in particular shows that Blake has a head for a hook, both instrumentally and vocally – and while there are times in the latter half of the record where you might wish him to demonstrate that more readily, it’s still a definite improvement over his debut.

4. Foals – Holy Fire

Foals - Holy Fire

Foals – Holy Fire

The more I think about it, the more I realise that the career trajectory of Foals is very similar to that of The Horrors – except without the critical derision of their first record. But if Total Life Forever was their Primary Colours, Holy Fire is very much their Skying – a confident, accomplished refinement of the expansive sound that they’d already demonstrated so well on the previous album. In Foals’ case, not only did their album hit number 2 in the UK, it also spawned a top 40 single (the infectious ‘My Number’) and acted as a prelude to their first major festival main-stage headline slot at Latitude. Not exactly what you might have predicted for a math-rock band from Oxford, but deserved success nevertheless.

3. Arctic Monkeys – AM

Arctic Monkeys - AM

Arctic Monkeys – AM

Let’s stop and be honest with ourselves here – Arctic Monkeys don’t need this nomination, particularly for an album that was released a mere two days before the shortlist was announced and was a pretty much guaranteed number one record. We’re not quite at Adele levels of monumental pointlessness, but we’re close. However, unlike 21, AM is actually a good album – it’s not an NME 10/10-they’re-basically-the-next-Beatles (though perhaps that review may yet prove prescient), but it’s definitely worth more than the 5/10 that Drowned In Sound’s Jazz Monroe gave it. In my eyes, it’s a solid 8 or maybe even a 9 – the only problem for me is one of pacing, in that the mid-section consists of the album’s only iffy track (‘I Want It All’), and two slow tracks back-to-back, which does both of the latter songs a disservice in my eyes. Still, it wears its hip-hop influences on its sleeve whilst still sounding very much like Arctic Monkeys, which is only a good thing in my eyes. It’s possible that AM might top both Silence Yourself and Immunity in my end-of-year list, but in terms of being nominated for the Mercury prize, it only seems right to put it below those two records.

2. Savages – Silence Yourself

Savages - Silence Yourself

Savages – Silence Yourself

At this point you probably fall firmly on one of two sides when it comes to Savages – the “they’re derivative and they suck!” side or the “they’re amazing!” side. If you’ve read anything I’ve written about them previously then you probably won’t be surprised to hear I fall into the latter camp. Either way, Silence Yourself is not about to change anyone’s opinion regarding the band. To these (naive?) ears, it sounds more urgent and vital as any post-punk record I’ve heard in quite some time, never mind the fact that they’re an all-female band (which ought not to be a big deal but is nevertheless all too noticeable in our present time). You can argue that it’s cynical and calculated all you want, but the end result is undeniably powerful.

1. Jon Hopkins – Immunity

Jon Hopkins - Immunity

Jon Hopkins – Immunity

I know I’ve been giving previous nominees a hard time this year (regardless of how good their album is), so logically speaking I should do the same to Jon Hopkins. However, there are two things that separate him from the other six artists with previous nominations – 1) he’s only been nominated for a collaborative work, not his solo material, and 2) remember that I mentioned how only one of these records had sold less than 20,000 copies before its nomination? That’s Immunity. Which is a crying shame because it’s a fantastic record – I’m by no means the biggest electronic music fan in the world, but something about this album really struck a chord with me. I think it’s the way that Hopkins somehow manages to imbue his music with a sense of emotion – no better emphasised than on ‘Collider’, which is possibly the most sexual song I’ve heard all year. And I don’t mean ‘sexual’ as an arbitrary positive adjective, I mean that it has all the intensity that you ought to associate with actually having sex. It also contains the most brilliantly-placed track on a record, with the sparse, reflective ‘Abandon Window’ providing the perfect comedown after the previous four tracks of pulsating, forward-thinking electronica. But not only would Immunity be a worthy winner in its own right, it also feels like the most deserving winner in terms of nudging the ‘general public’ towards music they may not have heard before – and I think, with a shortlist of increasingly obvious choices, Jon Hopkins might just be the winner the Mercury needs.

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Press Release: Soundsphere Magazine Release Digital Interactive Version Of Latest Issue

Soundsphere magazine is a York-based online and print publication that focuses on local, national and international music, arts and culture, and they’ve just released a digital interactive version of their latest issue.

The Soundsphere mag brand has gone from strength to strength over the past few years gaining more notoriety through its diverse coverage, which has in turn, created the opportunity to unleash a new digital interactive version of Soundsphere magazine’s third issue featuring renowned artists including Asking Alexandria, The Gaslight Anthem, Reverend And The Makers and more.

Soundspheremag3 teaser image

This version of the magazine is available to purchase from the Apple App Store for £2.99 once downloaded (search for the term Soundsphere Mag) and it functions with iPhone and iPad (following this link to access). An Android version is also available following the download of the Readr app (following this link)

The digital and interactive publication will give fans of the magazine a chance to access the best in arts, culture and music news from Yorkshire and beyond. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” comments Soundsphere magazine editor, Dom Smith. “I feel like this will open us up to loads more people, and there are some really exciting possibilities for us to explore as we look at more interactive ways to engage with our dedicated readership.”

Jack Casling (Creative Director at Choir Of Vision) helped make the magazine ready for digital consumption (following awesome page composition work by Soundsphere’s in-house designer, Jamie Mahon). Jack comments: “Working on the digital version of Soundsphere magazine has been a blast. Dom and his team are people who I have been hugely excited to collaborate with and being responsible for kicking off the magazine’s IOS presence is an honour. Long may it continue!”

Starting out as a DIY online publication working with local bands around key areas like York, Hull and Sheffield, the magazine has developed a fantastic following and on the back of print releases and a successful website (www.soundspheremag.com), is now able to travel the world and cover festivals as diverse as Sziget (Hungary), Exit (Serbia) and SXSW (USA).

For more information click the links above or e-mail Vicky Hedley: vicky@soundspheremag.com.

Note: I don’t normally just copy-past press releases on here, but given that I’ve been stupidly busy over the past week or so and this is about a magazine I’ve contributed to, I figured it wouldn’t harm. Hopefully this week will see some original content too, if you’re lucky.

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International Artist Of The Whenever #2: Retro Stefson (IS)

I did warn you that there would be a distinct fixation on Icelandic bands in the early stages of this feature – but you might not immediately guess that Retro Stefson came from those chilly climes upon listening to their music.

Retro Stefson

Retro Stefson

An eight-piece group led by a pair of brothers (Logi Pedro Stefánsson and Unnsteinn Manuel Stefánsson), Retro Stefson throw elements of music from across the globe into one big Icelandic melting pot to create instantly catchy, danceable tunes – check out the effortlessly cool (and award winning) video for ‘Glow’:

Though debut record Kimbabwe definitely has its moments of brilliance (the anarchic afro-pop of ‘Kimba’ is particularly excellent), it’s on their most recent, self-titled effort that the band have truly begun to shine. From the blissed-out groove of opener ‘Solaris’ to the way ‘She Said’ just oozes confidence, Retro Stefson is a hit-packed record – the strutting electro-pop of ‘Qween’ and the impossibly infectious chorus of ‘Miss Nobody’ are just some of the other highlights.

In terms of UK goings-on, Radio 1’s Huw Stephens is clearly a fan of the band, having booked them in for a session at Madia Vale studios over the summer, as well as giving them a slot on his hand-picked lineup for the Lake Stage at Latitude Festival. While the band don’t have any UK shows lined up at this exact moment in time, hopefully the exposure they gained over the summer will see them hit our shores again sooner rather than later. Maybe in a joint tour with FM Belfast? Now that’d be a party and a half.

Retro Stefson is out now on Les Frères Stefson / Republic Of Music records. For more information about the band, check out their official website.

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Local Artist Of The Whenever #20: Freaks + Geeks

At their debut performance at Fibbers playing main support at The Rodeo Falls’ headline show, Freaks + Geeks quickly established themselves as one of our city’s most exciting new bands, and have only gone on to live up to that reputation at numerous gigs since then.

Freaks + Geeks

Freaks + Geeks

Though the band itself is relatively new, its individual members may be familiar to you. Stu Allan (guitar/vocals) is the long-time frontman of The Blueprints, Sophie McDonnell (baritone guitar/vocals) now plays keyboard in that very same band, as well as being known as a solo performer and frontwoman of Hot Fudge, and you may well have seen Loz Goodacre (drums) playing the skins for Gaz Rowntree And The Silent Sea. Clearly they’re not ones to mess around, as they’ve already recorded a three-track demo EP at York’s Melrose Yard Studios – you can hear the fruits of their labour below.

The band’s songs combine the intensity of garage-rock with some White Stripes-esque flourishes and the indie-pop nous of Sky Larkin to create an instantly pleasing result. The EP flows from the breakneck pace of ‘Pulp’ to the anthemic ‘A Little Longer’ via the soaring vocals of ‘Patchwork’, demonstrating that they’ve clearly more multi-faceted than your average indie-rock band.

You can catch the band live in action in both York and Leeds this week – the Leeds show is at Milo’s on the Thursday 19th September (that’s tonight, if you’re reading this the day it goes up) and the York show is at The Woolpack on Friday 20th September. Both of these shows are freebies, which is always a bonus. Understandably, that may be a little short notice for you, but you can also catch them at Holy Trinity Church in Leeds on Saturday 5th October, and at The Fulford Arms in York on both Saturday 12th October and Wednesday 13th November. I’d recommend that you get down to any of these gigs if you can – Freaks + Geeks are already packing punchy songs and big ambitions, and they could well be going places sooner rather than later.

Check out Freaks + Geeks on Facebook here.

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International Artist Of The Whenever #1: Samaris (IS)

Anyone who was lucky enough to be at last year’s Iceland Airwaves festival will surely have heard the buzz around Samaris – a unique trio making the kind of glacial electronica that could only have come from Iceland.

Samaris

Samaris

Comprised of vocalist Jófríður Ákadóttir (who is also one half of Pascal Pinon), clarinetist Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir, and electronic musican Þórður Kári Steinþórsson, Samaris make music that sounds a little like a meeting of minds between Björk and Fever Ray. Watch the video for the mesmerising ‘Góða Tungl’ below.

The band have recently begun to attract attention outside Iceland, with The 405 and The Line Of Best Fit among others picking up on their self-titled debut UK release on One Little Indian. Samaris is a compilation of two EPs that were previously only released in Iceland – Hljóma Þú and Stofnar Falla – and sets the words of 19th-century Icelandic poets against a backdrop of trip-hop/dub influenced electronica and haunting clarinet motifs, with Jófríður’s enchanting vocals completing the band’s otherworldly sound.

The band played their first UK show back in June in London, and after making festival appearances at Sonar, Electric Picnic and Berlin Music Week, they return for two dates in the UK next week. First up is a gig at Gorilla in Manchester on Tuesday 24th September, supporting the wonderful Jon Hopkins and Lone. Then on Thursday 26th September they play The Lexington in London along with Eye Emma Jedi from Norway and Satellite Stories from Finland.

A new album from Samaris is scheduled for release before the end of the year, but for now I would implore you to listen to their debut release – it really is an unconventional and incredible record that marks an extremely promising beginning for this young trio.

Samaris is out now on One Little Indian records. For more information about the band, check out their official website.

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Site Update: New Regular Feature + Some Semblance Of A Schedule + External Writings

Evening all. Just a quick one to update you on a few things I have planned for this blog over the coming months. It’s fair to say it’s been a little neglected, as I’ve been busy with other things (and, let’s be honest, I’ve probably been a bit lazy too). So, I’m going to do a couple of things to try and motivate myself to get a regular stream of content going again.

Firstly, I’m going to revive my Local Artist Of The Whenever feature on a more regular basis – recently there have been many new bands cropping up in York who are more than worthy of discussion, so it’s not as if I’m short of material for it. Secondly, I’m going to start a second feature along the same lines, but for international bands who don’t yet have a great deal of recognition in the UK. Fittingly (or lazily) it’s going to be called International Artist Of The Whenever. I’ll warn you now that a lot of the early articles in this feature will probably be about Icelandic bands (largely due to the fact that I’m going to Iceland Airwaves at the end of October) – but that’s no bad thing, as you’ll soon discover if you keep an eye out in the coming weeks.

These two features will be part of some vague attempt to keep some sort of regular schedule – namely, I plan to do at least one article for either of those two features every week. Ideally, you’ll get both most weeks, but I’m pretty bad at updating this blog as it is, so baby steps first.

Finally, you may or may not know that I’ve been doing some festival coverage and other bits and bobs for Soundsphere Magazine over the summer, as well as recently starting to write for Drowned In Sound. For your convenience, I’ll link to all that stuff below:

Review: Sziget Festival 2013 (Soundsphere Magazine)
Review: Beacons Festival 2013 (Soundsphere Magazine)
Review: These New Puritans – Field Of Reeds (Soundsphere Magazine)
Preview: Iceland Airwaves 2013 (Soundsphere Magazine)

Review: Pinkunoizu – The Drop (Drowned In Sound)
Review: TRAAMS – Grin (Drowned In Sound)

That’s all for now folks – stay tuned, hopefully the aforementioned regularly scheduled content will start rolling out this week.

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