How flowing black metal took over the genre

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Some have wondered — including part of our older staff — as to why we don’t feature the newer-styled black metal acts like Drudkh, Blazebirth Hall, and the like here on DeathMetal.org. Our answer is simple: they’re part of the same distraction that killed black metal.

It is in fact an illusion to argue that black metal still exists. Rather, something exists that uses the name of black metal, but it’s not really related to it musically or artistically. In the underground, it’s mostly punk-based bands or the above type of flowing black metal. Above that, it’s DeafHeaven: shoegaze/emo/indie with pretenses of being socially unacceptable.

We all know how it got this way. In 1994, the momentum ran out. The original guys who made death metal and black metal had each had their say and were bogged down in band politics, label economics and personal life decisions (stay with band, or be able to afford food). It was clear there was not much money in underground metal as a career.

However the following years showed us a simple truth: people were afraid of underground metal. Thus an internship in underground metal before going on to a career in a different genre could be quite lucrative. It was “street cred” of a comparable level of being in a gangster hip-hop group. Thus the gates opened, and in flowed the herd, bringing with them their disease.

On the underground side of things an interesting transformation took place. The original black metal emphasized a kind of intensity that could not be replicated. So bands aimed for the next best things, which was to take that surface and put candy-metal underneath it. Specifically, stuff like the following:

In general, these bands have one salient attribute: they use longer melodies but these melodies tend to be recursive instead of developing, giving them a sense of internal dialogue like meandering thoughts on a balmy day with a cool breeze, watching over a town and thinking idle notions.

Where did this style come from? Let’s recover the generations of black metal. It’s nonsense to say black metal existed before the 1984-1987 generation of Bathory, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, Sodom and Sarcofago. Even then, those bands were not black metal per se so much as proto-underground metal sharing traits between death metal and black metal.

While others often mention Venom, Mercyful Fate and other early bands as being “black metal,” these were musically heavy metal acts not black metal at all. They may have been inspirations, but they shared no musical relation to what was to follow, and yet fit within the genre descriptions given to them if one ignores subject matter. Venom was NWOBHM right alongside Motorhead, and Mercyful Fate fit into the proto-speed metal generation that overlapped with NWOBHM and included Tank, Satan and Blitzkrieg.

After the proto-underground generation, most bands explored death metal because it had the most immediate possibilities. What defines death metal is that it turned riff salad into a narrative form and thus created a new type of progressive music that was progressive at the compositional level, but surely not at the mechanics! It was thus a perfect fusion of 1970s avant-prog (King Crimson) and the utter nihilism of punk (Discharge, Cro-Mags, Amebix). This fusion was apparent ever since Iggy and the Stooges and Black Sabbath kept one-upping each other with albums from the late 1960s through mid 1970s.

The first generation of black metal really came about in 1990 with Immortal. Bathory had developed fully with Blood, Fire, Death but had also regressed into the speed metal styles popular at the time. Immortal had a simple idea: take the approach of Blood, Fire, Death or Hammerheart and adapt the mechanics of 1985’s The Return to it. The result fused the extreme with the progressive-ish yet again, and from it was born Immortal’s first album. There was also a change in topic, spurred in part by the Odinic (Bathory) and occult (Slayer, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost) ideals of the past generation.

By 1991, it was clear that a new movement was afoot. Some of the best bands were hovering on the edges of this movement, making melodic death metal inspired by the previous generation of Swedes (At the Gates, Carnage), Norwegians (Cadaver, Molested) and Finns (Demigod, Amorphis, Demilich). In addition, there were “dark” bands like Merciless and Cemetary which essentially made older genres tinged with the mood and feeling of the new music. But during that fateful year, the early works of Burzum, Immortal, Darkthrone, and Mayhem were all tumbling onto the record racks, followed by Emperor, Gorgoroth and Enslaved.

The next generation defined itself as the space between the Emperor/Enslaved split, which really opened up black metal worldwide as people could easily understand this as an aesthetic, and Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss. The former more resembled the horror movie music and progressive heavy metal of the time, and the latter changed black metal from something that vaguely fit into rock song-format into something entirely unrecognizable, a hybrid with ambient music and progressive avantgarde. But right in the middle of this generation something interesting happened.

Inspired in part by Burzum’s use of melodic development to underscore longer pieces like “My Journey to the Stars” and Emperor’s vast “Inno a Satana” in addition to the more theatrical works of Gorgoroth like “Sorg,” these bands made longer songs. However, their melodies were not designed to be distinctive as much to preserve a feeling in mid-air for as long as possible, so they tended to use recursive patterns within the melody. This and the fixed tremolo strum and background rhythm gave them a flowing effect, which Graveland exploited over a waltz beat for maximum detachment from modern ‘reality.’

Eventually, this culminated in the Ancient guys coming up with something that sounded like it could have come off of a Camel, Yes or Genesis album, but only if those bands were committed to death of humanity and restoration of a medieval order:

It was from this template that the Blazebirth Hall and related Slavic and Colombian bands derived their sound. However, they’d done something none of the original bands did: they removed the ambiguity, struggle, reverence and steadfastness that were part of the original, which itself derived them from 500 years of European proto-Romanticist thought.

In other words, made candy-metal. It’s no surprise mainstream industry linked this up to its closest pop music relation, shoegaze and emo/punk/indie, and quickly made a cheesefest out of it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-HdZ06Zsqw

Hint: this is what other kids were listening to in 1990-1995, if they hadn’t already gone for the full mainstream-fest of Nirvana and Pantera. The record labels knew this formula worked, just needed a stylish new outfit to put it in… so they recruited black metal. Interesting how both the underground and aboveground sold out in parallel.

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Thou Shell of Death – Sepulchral Silence

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Underground metal musicians have always intensely observed ambient, no-classical, and avant-garde genres. Recognizing the same desire to merge the ideals of classical composition with modern technology and popular song structure, some merge these strands in their own metal-based music.

Debut album from Estonian band Thou Shell of Death, Sepulchral Silence drives itself with the keyboard through a duality of background arpeggios, alongside simple single-tone sequences which generate the main melody of each track. Tempi fit between the plodding pace offered by orchestral doom bands and more upbeat neo-medieval black metal, staying within the realm of death/doom metal that preserves the structure of that genre without incorporating melodic variation. Harmonically logical, the band is more learned in its composition than the typical death/doom band, though more in the sense of ambient or pop music than classical music; as guitar chords and vocals follow the same line as established by the keyboard, rendering them mostly as accompaniment devices.

This produces a result that is easy to comprehend and appreciate, but misses the full weight that a more varied and diverse album would have produced. Tracks are difficult to individually distinguish and due to its melodic uniformity, Sepulchral Silence is well suited for background music perhaps while writing a work of fiction, but for listening for its own sake it does not evoke any lasting sensation beyond a mild but indistinct appreciation.

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Interview with – – – 

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For those who caught our review of the – – – /Dawning split some months ago, the intentional mystery behind – – –  may have created some interest. Artists disguising themselves is nothing new; all of black metal disguised themselves under pseudonyms and paint like nocturnal vigilantes. Authors such as Thomas Pynchon are famous for their reclusive refusal to be photographed or interviewed. And in occult and ambient music, the situation gets even more obscure.

– – –  create music that sounds like a heavy metal hybrid with the vaguely occult black metal of the style that Deathspell Omega made famous, but with a mix of heavy metal in the balance such as one might find from Paradise Lost or Primordial. The result floats gently through the speakers and is both familiar and highly distant. We were fortunate to gain access to the concealed personality behind – – –  for a short interview on the nature of existence, music and possibly why black metal has lost its way.

When did – – –  originate, and what can you tell us about the lineup?

I wrote a lot of minimalistic music when I was about 15-16 years old. Back then I didn’t have a guitar, just an old keyboard. All the music I wrote, I wrote down with the help of some MIDI-software. I didn’t think I would do anything with the MIDI-files, I just wanted to write some music. Several years later I found all those MIDI-files (about 50-60 tracks) and thought it would be fun to add drums and some guitars. Thus was the music of – – –  born.

The lineup is just me. On some tracks a friend of mine sings.

The music you play has a lot in common with both avantgarde black metal and the type of instrumentally advanced heavy metal that Therion ventured into with its third album. What style do you identify as your own, and what are your biggest influences?

When people ask in general what music I play, I usually answer that I play heavy metal. There are so many genres in the metal corpus so just to begin answering what kind of metal one is playing is rather impossible. And if heavy metal doesn’t suffice I’d say I play dragon metal.

For the piano compositions I’ve had the great Flemish composer Wim Mertens as a big influence. Also Michael Nyman, Roberto Cacciapaglia and Ludovico Einaudi. The guitars are just buzzing tremolo melodies to accompany the piano tracks.

Much of your work seems to be based around the notion of secrets; if not outright secrets themselves, the revelation of hidden meaning. Do you think there are hidden meanings in life around us? Are these metaphysical or material?

To answer the first question: Yes, I do think there are meanings in life around us. If this meaning is hidden or not I can’t really tell. To acknowledge that there is meaning around us is in itself a great step toward a life that isn’t nihilistic and/or fatalistic. But then you’ll have to validate whether these meanings are good or bad. I’ve chosen to believe that the meanings I’ve found in life are good ones. I don’t know this by necessity and I can’t persuade anyone that this is the right path. I believe that there is a reality and that I, as a human being, am capable of knowing something about it.

Since I have to relate to a material world to even begin to grasp the metaphysics, I’d have to say “yes” on this question (I interpreted it as an inclusive disjunction). I don’t think any materialistic substance can hold a Principle (of something higher). We interact bodily with the materialistic world and with our mind (soul), through the study of metaphysics, the Principles (how to know the meanings epistemologically).

Why did you choose the name “- – – “?

I used to name my music project files that way. And then the name stuck.

As – – –  goes on, do you think you have “matured” or “improved”? Is there a difference?

Maybe lyrically, but not musically. I still use the old MIDI-files I wrote several years ago.

Where will you go next with – – – ? Will there be more recordings, a change in style or a different look at things?

I have no idea. I think I will try to write something new from scratch. It will probably not sound exactly the same.

What personally attracted you about underground metal, and keeps you bonded to it twenty years past its glory days?

Probably the creativity. There are a lot of interesting bands that have a genuine sound or have really talented musicians. There is always something new and fresh that you can find in the great sea of underground bands. You don’t see the same creativity around the big names in metal.

Are your songs based around symbolism from which riffs are created, or do you base them around riffs and layer symbolism on top of those?

If by symbolism you mean the lyrics then: yes. I usually have some tracks ready when I begin writing the lyrics. Then I puzzle them all together.

If by symbolism you mean that I have a clear idea about what the tracks is going to be about, then: no. The lyrics are written separately from the music.

If someone wanted to find out more — but not too much — about – – – , where should they look?

Look toward where the sunrise, and in to the names of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite’s divine. Otherwise you should try google: “- – – “.

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Sinister plans release of The Post-Apocalyptic Servant in May 2014

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Thunderous Dutch death metal assailants Sinister return with a new album entitled The Post-Apocalyptic Servant which is slated for release in May 2014. The album will be released on Massacre Records and includes covers of songs by Morbid Angel, Agent Steel and Paradise Lost.

Sinister have released a sample track, “The Burden of Mayhem” in advance of the album’s entry into the market. The band made its name in the early death metal years with Cross the Styx which combined the percussive and fast tremolo sounds with an underpinning of melody, creating a mood between the aggressive darkness of American death metal and the melancholic emptiness of its European cousins.

Although it was legendary for Cross the Styx, Sinister probably peaked with 1996’s Hate, which combined the best riffology of percussive death metal (Suffocation, Pyrexia) with the type of unsettling melodies previously only found in black metal. The Post-Apocalyptic Servant (which is hopefully about Satan as the cover hints) will contain the following tracks:

  1. The Science Of Prophecy
  2. The Macabre God
  3. The Sculpture Of Insanity
  4. The End Of All That Conquers
  5. The Masquerade Of An Angel
  6. The Dome Of Pleasure
  7. The Post-Apocalyptic Servant
  8. The Art Of Skin Decoration
  9. The Saviour
  10. The Burden Of Mayhem
  11. Fall From Grace (Morbid Angel)
  12. Deadly Inner Sense (Paradise Lost)
  13. Unstoppable Force (Agent Steel)
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The difference between metal and punk, rock: it’s not literal

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As author of The Heavy Metal FAQ, I have wrestled with the question of how to define metal over the years. Since it uses the same techniques as any other form of music, but used in different proportions and combinations, I have always focused on the idea that unites these uses which makes metal so obviously distinct from rock, punk and other forms of music.

To this I’d like to add another idea: metal is not literal. That is, metal tends to view the world through a symbolic or mythological lens. It does so to reflect our inward sensations about what is going on, plus a historical viewpoint which requires a more high-level view. The details don’t matter as much as the form, in metal, and we pay attention to the form and then put it in a folk-wisdom format.

Archetypal examples of this can be found in classic metal like “War Pigs” (Black Sabbath), “Hardening of the Arteries” (Slayer), “Painkiller” (Judas Priest) and “My Journey to the Stars” (Burzum). In these songs, mythological forces clash to reveal a truth of everyday life. They inform us about our time and put us into a symbolic and emotional framework with it in which we want to fight it out, fix it, struggle and win.

In contrast, most music is either sensuality-based or protest music. Sensuality-based music is exemplified by stuff like Shakira. Protest music really exploded in the 1960s, but reformed itself with punk, which took a more abstract and yet earthy view. Where the 60s bands sang about politics, punks sang about everyday life and the insanity of existence. This finally culminated in thrash, which used hints of metal’s mythology to make the personal into the universal, as in “Give My Taxes Back” (DRI), “M.A.D.” (Cryptic Slaughter), “Minds are Controlled” (COC) and “Man Unkind” (DRI).

Metal does go wrong sometimes and get literal. The worst of these are the ego-based songs, as in Pantera, or the songs about being metal and going to shows and the like, which are generally just dumb. It is not surprising that these are not favorites of the genre because they drop away from that 30,000-foot view and instead become more personal drama like the rest of our society, which explains why its institutions don’t function and its ideas are corrupt.

Interestingly, other genres are not literal either. Progressive rock was famous for songs about weird adventures in fantasy worlds that had striking parallels to our own (compare to JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis). Classical music tends toward fantastic descriptions from literature and history. These are genres of the weighty and impersonal, not the direct and immediate and personal. They have a different scope and internal language.

Jazz is the outlier. When sung, it tends toward protest and sensual lyrics. When instrumental, the sound of it suggests a combination of the two: a kind of secular (no meaning greater than the material and immediate) version of imagination, but applied to literal experience, such that it forms a kind of texture without a unifying core. It communicates the loneliness of modern isolation and a retreat into the personal complexity of the mind.

Where metal stands out among modern genres is that it still embraces this viewpoint, or at least did until the nu/mod-metal started appearing. Part of what makes such a viewpoint necessary is that metal, despite being about killer riffs, is not about the riff. It’s about many riffs stitched together to make an experience so that when the killer riff comes out, it has a meaning in context that makes it heavy. No song is heavy from just one riff. It’s heavy because when you get to that super-heavy riff, everything else has set it up to resonate.

This in part explains the audience of metal. Mythology, historical significance and topics of philosophy do not inspire the honor students, who are busy working on their careers (and the obedience-profitability nexus that these entail), or the average student, who is busy in a world of his/her own pleasures and delights. They do however appeal to the outliers, the dreamers and dissidents, who might find class boring because they find society boring and purposeless, and instead turn toward fantasy and a bigger, more abstract realism to express themselves.

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Dave Mustaine explores classical-metal hybrid

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Speed metal tyrant Dave Mustaine (Metallica, Megadeth) takes to the stage with the San Diego Symphony to play guitar solos in place of violin leads.

He will play along with “Summer” and “Winter” from Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air,” Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and Antonín Dvořák’s “New World Symphony.” Mustaine described these pieces as shredding, fast and melodic.

In addition, the guitarist revealed some surprising background to his own music:

Mustaine also talked about Megadeth’s classical influence since its formation.

“On the very first song on our very first record, I actually played piano … Funny thing was, it was a very, very, hacked up version of Beethoven’s Fugue in D Minor and going back and listening to the actual performance of Beethoven, it’s kind of like, ‘Nice try Dave’ because it was close to it, but I mean, I was a gutter kid that grew up on the street and was playing from memory. I was surprised I could even play the piano.”

For the full story, head on over to The Daily Aztec.

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Pilgrim – II: Void Worship

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After metal spent decades expanding its boundaries farther than may be wise, some individuals decided to adopt the inverse of this mentality. Instead of diluting the genre, go back to its roots – and construct songs within an existing framework, rather than trying to do both simultaneously. It is here that heavy-metal/doom “retrovival” band Pilgrim enters the spotlight.

Their latest release, II: Void Worship, features a version of heavy metal which retains the melodic qualities of that genre, along with the rawer rhythmic structures of proto-doom and doom metal. Likely deriving inspiration from bands such as Mercyful Fate, Pentagram, Candlemass, and Cathedral, songs consist of the prototypical verse-chorus structure characteristic of music partly derived from rock. The songs never reach the nihilistic emptiness of death-metal derived doom, but still are heavier than the standard retroactive 80s fare. Indeed, the band occasionally incorporates minor chord strumming which brings to the foreground the confluence of influences present upon more melodic black metal bands. It’s in moments such as these in which the return to the past falters a bit, and the reasoning for doing so isn’t made clear. With the vocals providing a prominent grounding for the melodies, when it is utilized songs drive forward with appropriate vigor.

Nothing on here is novel, or has yet been unheard, and one should expect this before diving inwards towards this release, or the modern branch of the movement it arises from. However, those who are in search of quality metal that upholds a sense of internal quality control will find some songs to appreciate on this release. As this band is still in its early stages, it will be worth waiting to see if they can preserve their link to their influences while making their individuality more distinct.

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Why metal will never be understood, and never wants to be

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We live in a land of confusion. Most people here have trouble differentiating between a conclusion and a method used to reach a conclusion.

Take for example the phrase, “That’s logical.” To most people, this conjures up a list of things that are accepted as having a basis in logic. When you ask them to parse something new, which involves applying a method to each sequential detail in order to find out how they fit together. That’s difficult; tracking conclusions and having a whitelist/blacklist of accepted ideas is easier.

If you want to know how metal calcifies itself, it is through these conclusions. Darkthrone ended up sounding the way they did as a result of their method, putting together all the pieces and coming up with a bigger direction. When bands imitate Darkthrone, none of this happens, and thus none of the music is nearly as good. They know how to imitate it from the surface inward, but they don’t know why it came about it and thus, how to charge it with the meaning the original had.

Especially threatening to popular music is the process of calcification by which the method of the past generation becomes the conclusions of the next. Darkthrone makes a great album; everyone imitates it; as a result, that sound becomes stale and disassociated from the meaning it once had.

It was once common for metalheads to complain about being misunderstood, and their music not being understood and accepted. Now it is accepted, and it has rendered it harmless. What did that rendering was all the metal bands ripping each other off, churning the original ideas into a mush of imitation. In fact, the problem is that metal when understood is in fact misunderstood, and keeping it not-understood is what is required for people to go back to method instead of just trusting its conclusions as gospel and repeating them in recombined form.

Metal is in fact like a snake consuming itself. As soon as orthodoxy is established, it is destroyed and its destroyer rises only to be in turn consumed itself. Parallels can be drawn to ocean waves cresting and then self-destructing, the need for forest fires, how predation ensures that prey animals get smarter, or other natural metaphors. What it fears is the calcification and a related process known as social acceptance. When a group of people encounters a new idea, it mocks it, then tries to destroy it, and finally accepts it. But once the idea is accepted, the process of calcification happens as society assimilates the idea as conclusion and throws out the methods, but even worse, the nature of having the idea accepted means a process of compromise which shaves off the parts of that idea that offend various segments of society (think of a PTA meeting: can’t move the parking spaces, or you upset either the church ladies, the teachers’ union, or the parking authority). Social acceptance destroys ideas through imitation and compromise.

This process goes back to metal’s birth. The members of Black Sabbath couldn’t get on board with the happy hippie world around them, so they made their own music which destroyed that illusion with powerful sound. They were reacting to the acceptance of conclusions from the past period, the 1950s, in which people were fed on Dale Carnegie style salesmanship as a means to success. As a result, society stopped being truth-oriented and started being feelings-oriented. Happy feelings meant a sale. Ten years later, happy feelings meant social success. Salespeople knew that acceptance and inclusiveness made sales, so they made their advertising as innocuous as possible. The hippie movement imitated this but used politics instead of profit (at first) as their guide.

The problem was that the hippie portion was just as fake as the 1950s salesmanship portion. Similarly, the current imitation of the 1990s black metal scene or worse, the 1980s emo and shoegaze scene, is completely fake. The fifteenth Blasphemy clone is as burnt out as the fifteenth Beatles clone or fifteenth Dale Carnegie graduate. All of it is emulation of the past through its surface, which fundamentally disturbs the metal outlook. For underground metal, all that is left is to seek total nihilism or negation of values, or to pick values that cannot be compromised and thus cannot be assimilated by society. If you want to know why metal has been drifting toward extremes lately, this might explain it.

All of this is a rather long path to saying what every teenage music fan does not want to face: it’s time to stop talking about how you are misunderstood. You don’t want to be understood. Even more, being understood would destroy your chance for growth and turn you into an identical suit-wearing conformist droid marching off to do the same stuff the last generation did, and we can see them drinking themselves to sleep every night. When people obviously don’t get what you’re about, thank them. They’re helping you grow, just like they’re helping metal grow every time they run into a WTF moment and toss it out in the dustbin.

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Metal Music Studies journal selling subscriptions directly

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The journal of the International Society of Metal Music Studies (ISMMS), Metal Music Studies, is now available via subscription through direct purchase from the publisher Intellect Books. Editors Karl Spracklen and Niall Scott have been at the forefront of integrating heavy metal and academia so that the latter may study the former.

Until 2016, when membership in the International Society of Metal Music Studies comes with a subscription to Metal Music Studies, interested parties — whether members of ISMMS or not — will need to purchase a subscription at the following location. Volume One of Metal Music Studies is available in three issues over 2014 and 2015.

Subscriptions will become available for sale in May. We’re hoping for heavy coverage (hehe) of early primitive death metal.

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Burzum announces release of The Ways of Yore on June 2, 2014

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Burzum, the sometimes black metal and sometimes ambient project of Norwegian-descended French national Varg Vikernes, announced the release of new album The Ways of Yore on Byelobog Productions/Plastic Head for June 2, 2014. No further information is given about whether the album will continue with the post-modern black metal style of Umskiptar or the folkish dark ambient style of Sôl austan, Mâni vestan, which was one of our “Best of 2013”.

Emerging from the same locus of intensity in Norway that produced Immortal, Mayhem, Emperor and Ildjarn, Burzum began in the early 1990s as a complex riff-narrative style of black metal with unnerving vocals that combines a feral animality with emotional sensitivity. Early works attempted to integrate elements of ambient music and create a sense of ritual designed to “stimulate the fantasy of mortals.” This era ended with Filosofem and composer Varg Vikernes being jailed for the murder of Euronymous of Mayhem.

During the incarceration years, Burzum shifted direction to full ambient with Dauði Baldrs and Hliðskjálf. These albums allowed Vikernes to escape the monolithic sound of guitar/bass/drums and work with multiple instruments, culminating in the lush creative density of Hliðskjálf (which was revisited somewhat in Sôl austan, Mâni vestan).

After prison, Burzum entered a period of post-modern black metal influenced by droning indie-pop variants of NSBM such as Drudkh and other Eastern European bands. This music reflected pop song structures, a shoegaze-style approach to melody but with the longer phrasing — albeit recursive — of black metal like early Ancient, and extensive use of North mythology. It is unclear whether this period continues now with folkish dark ambient album Sôl austan, Mâni vestan in 2013 being a temporary detour, or whether Vikernes will launch Burzum into a fourth period with the more complex instrumentation and hence compositional density of that album and Hliðskjálf.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwpQriG4MYQ

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