Monthly Archives: October 2013

Guardian Song of the Week: Sayuu, “Yellow Hate”

This week’s track for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a wonderfully eccentric nugget from Tokyo’s favourite new indie duo Sayuu.Sayuu: Yellow Hate

Confusing and delighting Tokyo indie audiences in pretty much equal measure this year, Sayuu are a decidedly offbeat duo with a distinctive line in deadpan postpunk eccentrica. With the stripped-down lineup necessitating a similarly minimalist approach to songwriting, the duo create spiky, catchy little songs that are both shamelessly childish and disarmingly intelligent, taunting you with the possibility that it might mean something, but never letting the mask slip enough to admit one way or the other.

Yellow Hate does pretty much what it says on the tin, working its way through a litany of hated yellow things, the grinding repetition punctuated by percussive stabs of guitar that break up the otherwise relentless, rhythmical loop that the song torments you with. Credit should also go to Sayuu here for reviving that most beloved of visual artforms, the music video that literally depicts what the song lyrics are describing.

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Interview: Yasutaka Nakata (Capsule)

I did another interview with Yasutaka Nakata recently and you can read the feature I wrote in The Japan Times. I was pleased with the way this one went, and it was made easier by just how musically rich and interesting Capsule’s new album, Caps Lock, is.

It’s the weirdest thing Capsule have done since before Flash Back and it’s also the most Shibuya-kei, largely because it captures the experimental, eclectic spirit of Shibuya-kei’s best stuff rather than just pastiching that sort of bland, loungey boutique-pop sound that I still hold mostly responsible for killing it as a living scene. The track Control seems to be intended as the lead track but Warner have only put up a shortened “crippleware” version of the video, so I’m not going to link to it on here (this sort of behaviour must not be encouraged). It’s an obvious choice for the “single” though, being (along with Shift) one of the closest things to a pop song on the album, and also being representative of the creative way Nakata messes with Toshiko’s vocals.

It’s interesting that just as he takes Capsule’s club influences and pushes them over into Perfume, he’s also mashing up Toshiko’s vocals to an unprecidented extent just as he’s letting Perfume sing in their natural voices. It always makes sense to look at any of Nakata’s projects in the context of what he’s doing in his other projects.

Personally, it’s the track 12345678 that I think is the creative core of the album, with its layers of samples and synth-loops casually shifting up and down in the mix. It pushes each just to the point of being irritating before showing you that no, actually this is very musical, see? If Perfume’s Level3 is Nakata showing us what we already know he can do very well, Caps Lock is him showing us how great he can be when he’s exploring new ground. If he can manage to find a way of integrating some of these ideas into Perfume without compromising their essential poppiness, it could be truly wonderful.

I have another, shorter, piece on Capsule appearing (already appeared?) in Time Out Tokyo, who are apparently putting out a paper edition for the first time. It’ll go over the same basic ground as the JT piece, but with more Time Out editorial pizzazz (something I’m thoroughly opposed to: I’m only happy when my work’s tediously dry and intellectual), but in the meantime, here’s an edited transcript of the interview I did. Special thanks as usual to Ryotaro Aoki, who took on the always difficult task of translating Nakata and myself:

CAR: So how did you go about making the new album?

NAKATA: The way I made the new album was very much how when I started making music.

CAR: What do you mean?

NAKATA: Recently with Capsule and my other work, I’ve been making music for soundtracks, commercials and all these things that are pre-arranged. With this new album, none of these songs are tied up with commercials or movies, so it’s making music for music’s sake, very much like when I started out.

With my more recent work over the last couple of albums, I was making the songs specifically for a DJ setting or a club setting, whereas with this album, I didn’t really think about the situation or how the songs would be played, so in that sense too, it’s similar to the way we started out.

CAR: You’ve moved to a new label and management, changed the design motif and changed the sound, so is there a sense in which this new album is a reboot of the band?

NAKATA: I’ve had some changes in my life and now seemed like a good time to change everything. I’d wanted to change the logo to all caps for a long time, and now was an opportunity to do that. I don’t feel like I’ve changed the fundamentals of what Capsule do. I wasn’t really thinking about anything. I just made music freely and this is what came out.

CAR: Your last few albums were very club-orientated but recently that club sound is more apparent in your work with Perfume and to a lesser extent Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Caps Lock feels a bit like a reaction to or a shadow of that shift in your other projects.

NAKATA: It seems that way when you think of the other projects as the centrepiece, but when you think of Capsule as the centrepiece, what I’m doing is just doing the things that I can only do with each project and taking them to their limit. With Capsule, we don’t have to play shows or anything, so I can decide what I want to do pretty much on my own.

CAR: You’ve pushed some things a lot further on this album, especially the degree to which you’ve processed and manipulated Toshiko’s vocals.

NAKATA: The processed vocals stems from the fact that we don’t have to play live. If we were performing on stage, I’d have to think about how we’d be able to do them live, but we don’t have that responsibility now. With Capsule, we don’t have any rules, so it frees me up to do what I want to do.

CAR: How does your working relationship with Toshiko compare to the other singers you work with?

NAKATA: It feels like we’re playing one instrument together in the studio. She’s not singing things that are pre-determined by me. It’s more like we’re playing an instrument that we wouldn’t be able to play unless I had her with me. With Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, it’s more like a collaboration where we talk about it and work together. With Capsule, one way of looking at it might be if Toshiko was a pen and I’m using her to draw something, but because it’s that pen, it influences what sort of thing I draw.

CAR: The way the album uses the motif of a computer keyboard gives it almost the feeling of a concept album. Where did that idea come from?

NAKATA: The keyboard motif came out of the change in the album title and I used the keys as symbols. I had the logo and the title first, and then after making the music I came up with the titles, but at the same time, I wanted there to be a kind of story to it, so the I chose the words from the titles so they’d read together as a sort of story.

CAR: You’ve also done a lot more with samples this time round.

NAKATA: A lot of music these days is being made on machines that are built to make music, which is very easy, so I thought it would be interesting to make music from sounds that weren’t designed to make music. I had a library of samples that I used, but some of the samples I could make myself in the studio I made myself.

CAR: Do you have any thoughts on new directions you’d like to go in the future?

NAKATA: I’d be interested in doing film scores for different kinds of films. I like science fiction, so it would be interesting to do soundtracks for films about unknown worlds. It wouldn’t have to be sci-fi, it could be fantasy or something like that.

CAR: How about internationally?

NAKATA: Like I said earlier, I’d be interested in doing more soundtrack work. Maybe someone reading this will think, “Oh right, let’s do something together!” I don’t really see myself as performing on stage and travelling the world, but movies transcend nationalities and countries, so that might be a good way to get my music out there on a global scale.

CAR: With Caps Lock it feels like the album is a bit more “composerly” as it were, with more emphasis on the layers of sound rather than the impact of the sound hitting you in the face.

NAKATA: This time with the album, when you listen to it all the way through, there are moments and sounds that appear that you can only experience if you sit down with the album, take your time and listen to the album as a whole in one sitting.

CAR: Are there any particular moments that you’re really pleased with how they came out?

NAKATA: It’s hard to pick out particular moments. I took time over each individual sound this time round. There isn’t a person there in the sense of someone on stage performing it, but it sounds like there’s a person there. It’s like arranging dominoes, and all you do is flick a switch to make the first one topple over, and then something cool happens. The music itself is automated, but there’s a person behind it fundamentally. A lot of people think of computer music as being automated, but you need a person there, hammering out the details. I wanted to show the gears in the music and how it works together.

CAR: It feels like very much the opposite of the trend in “EDM” which seems so popular in the USA now.

NAKATA: The recent trend in how people consume music is that they don’t really spend much time listening to a whole song, but because of that, I wanted to make an album that’s very layered, that you have to listen to carefully.

CAR: Like people with their iPods constantly set on shuffle?

NAKATA: Not just like shuffle, but on YouTube, you can just go to a particular moment that you think is cool in a song or an album, and they have these digest versions where you have three-to-five seconds of songs lined up together, and the trend these days is that you have to make something where you can get people’s attention within that three or five, or even one second. The album I wanted to make this time, I wanted to do something more layered, with more density in the sound, and you can only really experience that density if you listen to it in full, because there are moments before that where there’s no sound. You can only pick up those feelings and those details by listening start to finish.

CAR: So you’d like people to listen to Capsule’s new album in a different way?

NAKATA: Lately the feeling of plunging into the unknown, of not knowing what’s going to happen next in music has become weakened these last couple of years. Personally, I want to take the idea of listening to music slowly, all the way through, and I’d like more people to be able to listen like that. Take the example of SoundCloud, where you can see the waveform visually, so you can see when the song gets really loud or dynamic. When you hear that part, you already knew it was coming, and you can play only the most exciting parts.

CAR: Soundcloud actually parodied that form of listening with their April Fool’s gag, where they inserted these markers into the waveforms of songs saying “Here’s the drop!” It got everyone really angry until they realised the joke.

NAKATA: Ah, but of course I do that as well. With Perfume, it’s all about making songs when people hear for the first time, they know when it’s going to be the big chorus or the dynamic. It’ll be as if they already know the song. With Capsule’s new album, if you skip to a certain point in a song, you won’t know what’s going on, but with my other projects, you can skip anywhere and it’ll be a cool moment. I can do that with them, so with Capsule I wanted to do something different.

Even with Capsule, I’ve made music like that, but since I’m doing that with my other projects, it seems like a good time to do something new with Capsule. If Capsule was the only project I was doing, I probably wouldn’t have made an album like this.


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Perfume: Level3

This isn’t going to be a review in the traditional sense because with two long features on Capsule recently written and currently going through the proofing process at The Japan Times and Time Out Tokyo, I’m feeling quite Nakata’d out. Instead, I’d like to draw your attention to a couple of pieces other people have written about Perfume and hopefully add remarks of my own where relevant.

First up, there’s m’colleague Daniel Robson’s interview in this week’s Japan Times. The definition of the term “J-pop” is vague enough that he can get away with saying Level3 isn’t a J-pop album, although I think you have to take a pretty strict, 90s purist attitude to really hold that view. What Daniel means, I think, is that Level3 isn’t a normal J-pop album, which it isn’t. More so than any Perfume album before, it’s a dance record, bringing in lots of the ideas that Capsule took to self-parodic extremes on World of Fantasy and then started to refine into something more acceptably pop on Stereo Worxxx. With Capsule now pushing in a radically different tack (seriously, wait for their new album, it’s… well, it’s interesting), these electro-house elements seen quite at home with Perfume now.

The songwriting isn’t radically different from what we’re used to, but unlike 2011’s solid but still a little disappointing JPN, Level3 is full of little moments that jump out at you and make you go, “How the fuck did Nakata get away with that?” The dirty synths of opening track Enter the Sphere are just the first in a long line of these moments, and one of a number of places where the album reminds you of when you first heard Game. Daniel goes overboard a bit, I think, when he describes the new album mixes of Spring of Life and Magic of Love as “practically new songs altogether”, but the new mixes do work a lot better here than they did on JPN, with Spending All My Time perhaps a highlight, albeit hacked down extensively from the epic live version.Perfume: Spending All My Time (live mix)

Kashiyuka’s comment that she didn’t know about the new versions of the songs until she heard them says a lot about the girls’ role in relation to the production process, but then we already knew about that, right? Nakata pays attention to the people who will be performing the music he makes, but the end result is basically an interpretation by him of whatever the pre-stated requirements of the ad agencies and management companies are. All of which, of course, makes his achievement on Level3 that much more striking.

I’d also like to point you towards comrade Ryotaro Aoki’s detailed album review, which provides a more cool headed assessment of the album’s strengths and flaws, although basically I think he, Daniel and I are all more or less in agreement that it’s a fine record.Perfume: 1mm

Ryotaro singles out Mirai no Museum as a weak point, an unwelcome intrusion in a run of tracks that rips a chasm open between the rather fine single 1mm (which Ryotaro wrote about on this blog earlier in the week) and the delightfully over-the-top electro-house meltdown Party Maker. Like Ryotaro, I don’t have such a problem with Mirai no Museum, partly because everyone already hates it and I’m a contrary son of a bitch, but it’s a very so-what? sort of song, and there is absolutely nowhere on this album where it would fit in comfortably.

Personally, I think another weak moment is the horrendously misguided drum’n’bass track Point. I may have grown up in Bristol in the 90s, but I don’t think I’m a purist about that sort of thing (I was willing to allow My Bloody Valentine their weird, rockist take on the genre earlier this year), but Point just sounds wrong, wrong, wrong. Seriously, experiment, mix forms, genre is fluid, but some things are just in crappy taste. With the album reaching 65 minutes in length, these tracks would be ideal places to start trimming off the extra fat.

And it is too long. One of the commenters under Daniel’s Japan Times piece points out that it doesn’t feel like 65 minutes, and they’re right: it feels like 55 minutes, which is still about ten minutes too long. The forthcoming Capsule album, Caps Lock, is only 35 minutes and the pacing is perfectly pitched, but then Capsule operate under a very different set of restrictions (basically none on the new album) and Nakata was rather freer there to make an album to be listened to in just the way he wanted it to be and that was the exact length it needed to be.

So yes, Level3 is better than JPN, doing (with one or two rare exceptions) a much better job of integrating the singles into the overall context of the album. It also reaches closest to the shock and awe many of us felt upon first hearing Game, although in the end, I think it’s more or less on the same level as Triangle in the group’s canon. It’s still a J-pop album with all the commercial baggage that entails, but it’s also among the very best J-pop albums of the year.


Filed under Albums, Reviews

Strange Boutique (September 2013)

The September edition of my column was delayed by a week because of an avalanche of articles at the Japan Times eating up all the space that week, so it came out the first week of October instead.

Since the announcement that the 2020 Olympics would take place in Tokyo, there’s been lots of speculation among Japan culture-watchers about what the opening ceremony might be. Not because of any particular interest in Olympic opening ceremonies in and of themselves so much as what it will say about how Japan wants other countries to perceive it culturally.

I think it’s an interesting line they have to walk between being honest about what Japanese culture is and providing something that people overseas will be able to enjoy. Beijing was criticised for airbrushing out troublesome elements in favour of the precisely drilled mass celebration of China’s awesomeness and power, while London took flak from some for being too in-jokey and insular, although given the size of the audience they had to reach, it seems pretty clear that Zhang Yimou and Danny Boyle’s ceremonies were pretty well received in both concept and execution.

So those two extremes provide contrasting examples of approaches that Tokyo could take, but at the same time, it needs to be able to say that its ceremony was theirs alone as well. Part of the problem with pop music is that Japan just doesn’t really have any that means much outside its own shores, and the stuff that’s really popular at home right now is either going to come across as pretty pedestrian and imitative of Western “originals” (often mistakenly on the part of overseas listeners not trained to listen for the same things Japanese audiences hear) or make them look like a nation of paedophiles (seriously, idol stuff really ain’t going to look good).

Traditional music is safer, so festival and taiko music could do the job, but I do think Tokyo is going to want to emphasise its modernity. They might go the arty route and get someone like Cornelius, who I raved about in last month’s column, or Yasutaka Nakata to do the sound design — just imagine how good a composer an older, more mature Nakata could have become by the time he’s forty years old…Ryuichi Sakamoto: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

As I mentioned in the article, Ryuichi Sakamoto is a compromise that the establishment might be able to accept but who’s talented and familiar enough with technology that his work wouldn’t just be a museum piece. I wonder whether, given that possibly his two most famous works both as an actor and film composer were films that dealt with Japan’s let’s just say “controversial” wartime past (much as I love Wings of Honneamise, I fear it may be overlooked in his canon), there might be some wankers, either in Japan or in China or somewhere else, who try to turn his involvement into a lightning rod for political rage. Also, his position regarding the nuclear situation at Fukushima might have rendered him unacceptable to some of the fossils who run the government. He seems like a solid choice to me, but I’m never surprised by the lengths to which some people will go to get offended by something.

Personally, it’s the more fanciful suggestions that amuse me most, and you can be sure that there are people at places like Sony already working on developing some batshit insane new audiovisual technology for it.

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Interview: Melt-Banana

Last month I met up with Melt-Banana to talk with them about their new album Fetch, the challenges of reconfiguring themselves as a duo, and an assortment of pop culture curiosities. I was joined by my comrade and CAR contributor Ryotaro Aoki and you can read the Japan Times feature I wrote here, and a full transcript of the interview over on Ryotaro’s blog here.

On the album, it’s been getting a lot of good press, and deservedly so because it’s a terrific record. Short, fierce, playful, boatloads of fun, and packed with exciting, cool little moments. As you might be able to glean from the interview, it’s an album that hangs a little between the familiar, chirrup-and-skree Melt-Banana way of doing things and the possibilities opened up for them by being able to go anywhere they like with the beats.

There’s not much more I think I need to add here, so just have a listen to The Hive again and get your hands on one of the albums of the year right away.Melt-Banana: The Hive

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Guardian Song of the Week: Perfume, “1mm”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a song from a trio of women who have become household names in Japan.

Perfume: 1mm

One of the biggest acts in pop in Japan, this trio from Hiroshima – consisting of Ayano “Nocchi” Omoto, Yuka “Kashiyuka” Kashino, and Ayaka “A-Chan” Nishiwaki – have captured the hearts of idol fans, anime otaku, and hardcore music fans alike. They released their fourth album, Level 3, earlier this month, with the lead track, “1mm”.

Perfume’s appeal lies not only in the looks and moves of the women themselves (as proven at this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in France), but also the talents of their producer, Yasutaka Nakata. Responsible for other Japanese pop acts such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, and his own group, Capsule, Nakata is what makes Perfume special. The group is produced exclusively by Nakata, who is solely responsible for the writing, recording, mixing, and mastering of their records. “1mm” is a fine example of his sound; candy-pop melodies, distorted synths, and auto-tuned vocals, all of which have become ingrained into Perfume’s futuristic image.

“1mm” is one of the more chilled-out tracks on Level 3 – the album itself is an eclectic mix of sing-song-y pop songs with aggressive electro. It’s certainly not your typical J-pop album, with some sections leaving you wondering how Nakata manages to get away with such madness. It’s precisely this eagerness to push boundaries that makes Perfume one of the most compelling groups in modern J-pop.


Filed under Guardian new music blog, Reviews, Track

Guardian Song of the Week: Miu Mau, “Monochrome”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a local gem from the western-Japan musical hotspot of Fukuoka.Miu Mau: Monochrome

Partly due to the domination of the music press by (mostly Tokyo-based) record labels and partly due to the high costs and low returns of touring domestically, even in this supposed digital age, information about music from other cities in Japan can still be hard to come by for fans. As a result, regional scenes based around certain clubs and live venues still hold a strong influence over local indie culture, and there often remain noticeable cultural differences from place to place.

Traditionally Fukuoka has had a reputation as a town for fierce, energetic bands, from the “mentai-rock” generation of the 70s (a pretty close Japanese parallel to the contemporaneous pub rock movement in the UK) to the punk and alternative boom of the late 90s and early 2000s. While drummer Miwako Matsuda and guitarist Hiromi Kajiwara have impeccable punk/alternative credentials (as members of garage-punk duo Masadayomasa and postpunk noiseniks Hyacca respectively), Miu Mau fly in the face of their local musical heritage, group leader Masami Takashima taking a deliberately minimal, and melodic approach to songwriting, and employing a poised, carefully constructed art-pop aesthetic, which makes them a rare and special creature in their hometown.

Typically, Miu Mau songs are built around the tension between Takashima’s chunky synths and Kajiwara’s spindly, wandering, reverb-heavy guitar lines, something still present on “Monochrome” but with the tension dialled down a notch, the keyboard pushed into the background and taking on a more organic, 60s-influenced hue, while the guitar takes the lead. As with many bands in Japan, the lyrics slip back and forth between English and Japanese, spinning their desultory tale of urban ennui, while the melody is haunting, an atmosphere accentuated by the repetitive, looping guitar and synth lines. If you can get your hands on the forthcoming single, there’s an equally splendid double A-side called “Spring” that’s well worth seeking out.

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Scratching the surface of music in Japan’s neglected northeast

One of the quirks of the music scene in Japan is that it seems to lean dramatically westward. Not in any cultural sense, you understand — if anything, Japanese music has been becoming more and more insular and isolated from overseas trends over the last twenty years or so — but in a geographical one. From the economic and cultural capital in Tokyo, the music scene tends to drift westward, with Nagoya the next major stop, then Kansai area nexus of Kyoto Osaka-Kobe, and then on a literal and figurative island of its own there’s the Kyushu scene, centred around the regional capital of Fukuoka. Eastwards and northwards, information is scarce.

One reason for this is that for touring bands, there’s just more to explore to the west so it makes economic sense to tour in that direction. Kansai or Kyushu can make a decent long weekend tour in a few cities, while Nagoya is a big city (2.2 million) on its own and an easy enough drive from both Tokyo and Kansai. All this gives the western tail of Japan a sense of greater vibrancy with more word-of-mouth information flowing back and forth among the little networks of bands that zip along Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines.

Northeast of Tokyo, there are of course towns with their own music scenes, but they tend to be smaller and more spaced out. Sapporo is the largest, but positioned in the middle if the northern island of Hokkaido it is also the most isolated. Aomori on the northern tip of the main island of Honshu gave Japan the legendary shoegaze-cum-electronic quartet Supercar, one of the bands who helped define the sound of Japanese rock music in the new millennium, and is also home to the Aomori Rock Festival, one of the more eclectic and interesting entries in the Japanese festival circuit.Supercar: Storywriter

But it’s in the earthquake and tsunami-battered eastern Tohoku coast in Sendai and Fukushima where the lazy Tokyoite has easiest access to the sounds of the icy north. Tying the art of this area in with the earthquake and the ongoing nuclear crisis is obviously a cheap thing to do, but for better or worse, those events do seem to have drawn (possibly guilty) eyes from the capital in that direction just a little bit more. The avant-garde musician and composer Yoshihide Otomo spoke eloquently on the role of culture in reclaiming the identity of Fukushima from the associations with the disaster (and through his soundtrack work on the insanely popular morning TV drama Amachan he may have succeeded in part of his aim), and so those of us living far away from Tohoku are in the paradoxical situation of having what we might call a duty to look east because of the 2011 disaster but a parallel duty to put the disaster to the back of our minds (how far back is a question open to debate) when considering its music.

In any case, triple-disaster aside, there is interesting music going on and there are a couple of bands I want to introduce here, one from Fukushima and one from Sendai. They’re both on the alternative or underground end of the spectrum because those are the kinds of bands that interest me, and they’re both well worth listening to.

The wonderfully named Rebel One Excalibur are a ferocious math rocky trio from Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture whose self-titled debut mini album is due out soon. There doesn’t seem to be any audio from the record up yet, so this live clip will have to suffice to give you a taste of what they’re about Rebel One Excalibur: Zanpano

Rather than walking a line between discipline and chaos, Rebel One Excalibur seem to see no contradiction between the two concepts, revelling in both equally. They love dark, doomy chords and the vocals range from strangled to lung-shreddingly tortured, but there’s a playfulness to their arrangements that suggests controlled fury rather than mere angst.

Further up the coast in Sendai, we can find Umiuma. A similary technically-minded trio, Umiuma nonetheless take a poppier track, with some tracks recalling the jazzy pop excursions of 90s Shibuya-kei and melodies delivered via the candy-sweet tones of singer Masumi Horiya.

The most interesting moments are where the band subvert their pop sensibilities, setting them off against more discordant sounds, hyperactive rhythms and offbeat arrangements. They released a full-length album titled Kaiba earlier in the year that does a solid job of encapsulating most of the range of their sound (although sadly it doesn’t include any of the wonderfully odd cover versions they occasionally come up with live).

There is plenty plenty more music to be uncovered from the area, which I am only now starting to get to grips with. The intriguing Redd Temple come recommended highly by people in the know and regularly share stages with Rebel One Excalibur, and similarly, Umiuma are by no means a lone musical voice among Sendai’s one million residents. Really, all I am doing here is much belatedly scratching at the surface of a region of Japan that is too often neglected by the westward-gazing eyes of Tokyo, but which deserves much greater attention.


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