Introduction to Power Metal, Part III: 1980s US Power Metal

A salute goes out to Misters Imladris and Kaelrok for sharing recommendations and insights related to the subject at hand.

After having recounted and commented on the birth and evolution of the first wave of European power metal in part II, the time has come for this author to travel across the Atlantic and take a closer look at the contemporaneous development of power metal in North America, commonly referred to as United States Power Metal (USPM).
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Thoughts on Composition

Metal music inherited the album concept from pop music. Originally, records could only hold about 3-5 minutes of sound on each side. In the 1940s new techniques allowed each side of a record to hold around 20 minutes of music on each side. Because of these limitations, the ‘single’ became the standard composition in popular music. As LPs became more prominent, the single, played over the radio, was used as the marketing device to sell albums: a couple of catchy singles swimming in a thin grey soup of filler material. Because it is only marginally more difficult and expensive to record and produce a whole album, there are much higher profit margins on LPs than on singles. That a pop album was not a consciously constructed artistic whole is borne by the fact that pop ‘greatest hits’ albums are easy to listen to, straightforward affairs. Consider a greatest hits album from a metal artist… at best it is off-putting and at worst it is a flaccid, confusing affair because all the songs have been removed from their appropriate context.

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SUFFOCATION’S BASTARD CHILDREN

Some bands perfectly encapsulate a sound and an era through the appropriation and development of an existing idea. Van Halen fascinated the mainstream with his take on tapping and his twist on virtuosity which had existed for centuries on various string instruments. Iron maiden took the harmonies from Thin Lizzy and adapted them for their long narrative epics. Suffocation took the slow thrash metal staccato riff and completely changed its use by using them as breakdowns. While those three bands are heavily associated with their respective techniques that have been used by all sorts of bands, Suffocation has spawned multiple subgenres that are all terrible and are completely eluded by the original intention.

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Heavy Metal In Academia

The last two decades has witnessed an exponential growth of studies devoted to popular music, coupled with a re-evaluation of past theories and models for interpretation and analysis. This paradigm shift has sparked interest in music “at the fringes” which in turn has led to the unlikely emergence of “metal studies”: a multi-disciplinary field of research centered around all things related to metal music.

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An Involution of Easter

Bill and Ted found themselves wandering through the middle east, somewhere. The time machine had finally shorted out when Ted connected it to his iPad, causing a brief detour through 1968 Christopher Street in New York and a Royal Navy frigate in 1780 at rum ration time before crashing somewhere into this Semitic wonderland.

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N.W.O.B.H.M. Survivors

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was the simultaneous, sudden emergence of hundreds of heavy metal bands in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s and early eighties. The NWOBHM was prompted by the collapse en masse of earlier hard rock bands and heavy metal originators. Led Zeppelin and other blues-based riff rock bands had collapsed into meandering stadium rock with only a couple listenable songs per record at best (“Achilles Last Stand” on Presence). Black Sabbath fell flat on their faces after Sabotage, making the meandering duo of Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die. Punk declined from almost-progressive works as the The Stooges’ Fun House to boy bands such as the Sex Pistols playing radio pop. Deep Purple regressed to playing what their former guitarist Ritchie Blackmore termed “Shoeshine music.”

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Why Heavy Metal Lost The Culture War

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There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.1

Many metal-heads think that metal died out as a genre because it went corporate and lost its edge. Undoubtedly more commercialized metal appeared, as it always does whenever a genre becomes popular and therefore, profitable. There is more to it than that, however, as larger cultural forces and schemes were at play.

The question of commercialism arose because there was a bridge between power metal/jock metal (e.g. Korn) and more old school thrash metal (Metallica/Slayer) which was never gapped. This paralleled the gap of a decade earlier, when the gap between metal bands like Motorhead and hard rock bands like Van Halen divided the fanbase between album listeners and radio listeners. This gave rise to entire subgenres like black metal, death metal and grindcore which were deliberately designed to avoid having large-scale commercial success. That in turn triggered the rise of the 1990s version of glam, grunge, which was basically slowed-down indie-rock influenced hard rock.

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Stratovarius – Eternal (2015)

Stratovarius - Eternal (2015)

Have you ever listened to a metal recording and realized it was trying to be all things to all people? Eternal is like that. One of the most recent additions to the ‘European’ school of power metal, I impulsively jumped into this album before realizing, with a start, that my understanding of this subgenre basically ends at 1992, before the genre became the hyperactive, instrumentally maximalist Goliath it is today. Whoops.

If this album is any indication of the band’s overall approach, then Stratovarius is ultimately descended from the Van Halen school of music. Few moments will pass on this album without some sort of rapid-fire instrumental flourish or (more importantly) a Big Dumb Chorus™. The Big Dumb Chorus™ is one of the stylistic limitations this sort of music labors under – surely, the audience will remember and better identify with the songs if, on their first try, they can sing along with the refrain? It’s slightly more difficult than your standard pop choruses, since to meet their own power metal ambitions Stratovarius has to make everything as epic and melodramatic as possible. Stratovarius isn’t even the worst offender in this regard, since this doesn’t prevent them from showing off their instrumental skills, but since songs are still structured around these moments, they don’t have much else to do.

Because Eternal relies so heavily on conventional pop songwriting, it has to differentiate itself from its companions solely on sound and production. Stratovarius relies very heavily on their keyboard lines to do this, and they do a suitable job of pushing out semi-orchestral flourishes throughout the album. Some of the samples (like the brass at the beginning of “My Eternal Dream”) sound a bit cheap and artificial for 2015, and the keyboardist probably resents you, the reader, personally for not buying enough of their merchandise in recent years. There’s also the occasional vaguely contemporary electronic passage that doesn’t really fit the mood. I suspect such things were carelessly tossed in with the intent to create more “variety”, but they’re ultimately inconsequential and could generally be removed without any significant impact on their tracks. At best, these passages are going to pull in a few EDM drones whose friends are insisting they give metal a chance.

Ultimately, Eternal is literally candy. It’s fine and non-toxic in small amounts, but ingesting too much of it will make you jittery and irritable, as well as spoiling your appetite for dinner. Besides, you don’t expect your chocolate bars and peanut butter cups to challenge your conceptions about the nature of food and its relation to reality, right?

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Can we admit that metalcore is the glam metal of our time?

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In the early 1990s, a new music burst forth. The dark sounds of Black Sabbath and the guitar-oriented heavy rock of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin merged and, through the wizardry of Hollywood-style image, became a new genre that hyper-extended the characteristics of the most rebellious music in the previous generation of rock. This was called glam metal, and you may recognize it by names like Motley Crue, Poison, Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot, Cinderella, Van Halen, Ratt and Winger.

Glam metal stood out from other rock at the time. It was more technical, featuring early shred guitar wizardry, and more visual, incorporating gender-bending into its image as well as tattoos, long hair and leather. For the radio music of the era, it was one of the more advanced and outside the mainstream sounds one could purchase at the local record shack. Kids liked it because it drove parents mad; politicians responded by trying to criminalize it with Tipper Gore and the PMRC targeting glam metal bands for their overly-sexual lyrics about outré topics such as drugs, suicide and promiscuity.

What makes glam metal stand out is to look at the backdrop of music at the time. Most bands were taking advantage of newly-available electronic instruments and more options in the studio, and were focused more toward being synthpop or album-oriented rock. The nascent indie rock movement, to explode with bands like REM and U2, dwelt still in the basements. Punk had died and punk hardcore was unlistenable by most, as were bands like Motorhead and the NWOBHM who were still just a bit too loud, and too controversial. Glam allowed people to be rebels without really rebelling against anything, because glam rock was just what David Bowie and Sid Vicious were doing with the actual danger removed and all the imagery turned up to eleven.

Compare this to the present time. Radio is much louder, and rap-based music has replaced synthpop. Indie rock became huge and expanded into emo and post-Joy Division quasi guitar ambient bands. The old dad rock like Springsteen and Mellencamp faded like an autumn sunset, and while millions of niches exist, most people hit up the big favorites. Metal is the radio now, too, and thanks to nu-metal — the second generation of rap/rock — people are accustomed to heavy distortion, detuned guitars and raucous drums. People wearing bizarre costumes and masks while acting out self-destructive tropes are common. What remains to shock the parents of today?

Much like glam metal, metalcore attempts to pick everything that stood out in the past generation and amplify it. The introspective despair of indie rock joins the progressive stylings of 90s bands and the whine of alternative rock; the proto-djent of Pantera and Helmet shows up as well, alongside the deliberately random songwriting of emo and post-hardcore bands. Add them all together and you have a template for making infinite music: an aesthetic of randomness, with high technicality, and metal power but not its threatening antisociality, melded together into a product that is more like a jam session than a planned event. This resembles what happened after progressive rock fiddled the first time, and jam bands showed up that merged jazz, progressive and rock into expanded-format songs that wandered. Metalcore can take any form, whether melodic death metal or math-influenced grindcore, because it is at heart a philosophy much like glam was. It takes what shocked the last generation, adds it all together, and ramps up the imagery to deliver a “new” (old) product.

If we are honest, we will admit that metalcore is the glam metal of today. Designed to shock, it pretends at being “underground” only to keep its indie cred, and relies on the disturbing self-absorption of indie and emo to make parents quake. Formed of too many elements to support together in one coherent genre, it focuses on incoherence, and ties it together with imagery. It emphasizes technicality, which thanks to endless instructional videos and better access to guitar equipment (thanks Guitar Center!) has cranked up a notch, but uses it as a means to the end of its appearance. While band members no longer dress up in clothing of the opposite gender and tease their hair, they perform the equivalent through their embrace of passivity, feminism and self-pity as fundamental values. This shocks parents as much as glam metal did, and has correspondingly bad effects on metal as a whole.

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Interview with metal academic Ross Hagen

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As part of our exploration of academia in metal, we meet all sorts of interesting academics with different relationships to metal. Some are more on the academic side, some on the musical, and some in-between. Ross Hagen straddles both extremes by being both a musician and an academic with a focus on teaching metal. As a result, he brings both personal experience and delight in the genre to the otherwise more abstract academic view. We were lucky to get in a few questions with this interesting person and teacher.


You’ve got two degrees in music and one in musicology. What launched you along this direction? Did you intend to become an academic, or did the music lead you there?

I think this career path resulted from my love of music coupled with the fact that I didn’t really have the discipline for seriously practicing a musical instrument so I could play professionally. I’d much rather spend six hours a day in the library. Graduate school was also a nice way to extend my adolescence and avoid adult responsibilities for a few years after college. But when I think about it, I suppose that academia was always an intention of mine, whether I thought about it consciously or not. Both of my parents were educators, so I guess I’m something of a poster child for following the path laid out by my upbringing.


What got you involved with heavy metal? Were you a fan before you studied it? What appeals about it to you, both as a research subject and as a personal listening experience?

I was definitely a fan before I began pursuing it as a topic of study. My father was a college professor and his students would occasionally loan him tapes and CDs so I was listening to a lot of college rock and industrial music (well, NIN anyway) in my early teens. At one point he had a student who loaned him some of the early albums by Amorphis, Samael, Tiamat, and My Dying Bride and I dug them a lot. It wasn’t until college that I found other people who liked that kind of stuff and expanded my listening though. I feel like I’m still playing catch-up on a lot of older material from the 70s and 80s especially. I also got into musicology as an undergraduate and began including metal in my studies there.

…blast beats and tremolo picking seem to suspend rhythmic momentum and time in black metal when coupled with more slowly changing harmonies and hazy-sounding production. I also related the use of full chord voicings and the use of parallel minor 3rds and 6ths (in Emperor’s music especially) to an interest in chaotic sorts of sounds…

From a personal standpoint, I suppose I find it empowering in some respects, but I also like that black metal especially is a style where it’s easy to just get lost in the sound. As a bassist and composer I like that metal is challenging to perform and that it’s a style that is quite malleable in some respects even as its fundamental ingredients remain relatively stable. I think that’s part of what I like about it as a researcher as well; the tension between the metal’s core attributes and its desire to evolve and change.


You’ve contributed a piece, “Musical Style, Ideology, and Mythology in Norwegian Black Metal,” in the compilation Metal Rules the Globe. Can you tell us about this writing, and what your thesis generally was?

This was a version of my 2005 Master’s degree thesis where I wrote about some of the key elements of the “second wave” black metal musical style and related them to the genre’s interest in the supernatural and mythical. In particular I looked into the way that blast beats and tremolo picking seem to suspend rhythmic momentum and time in black metal when coupled with more slowly changing harmonies and hazy-sounding production.

I also related the use of full chord voicings and the use of parallel minor 3rds and 6ths (in Emperor’s music especially) to an interest in chaotic sorts of sounds since those types of chords are much less focused and resonant than the typical metal power chord when played with lots of distortion. I considered these musical conventions as evocations of trance experiences because they create a sense of stasis and timelessness (in a literal sense) by obscuring rhythmic propulsion and harmonic clarity.

I was at the time interested in connecting these musical devices to the sort of Norse revivalist rhetoric that was regularly coming from people like Varg Vikernes and that also underpins Michael Moynihan’s Lords of Chaos, especially mythical figures like the berserker…that black metal seems to reward an ideal of virtuosity based on physical endurance rather than dexterity and nimbleness, things like that. I do think that there was a certain aesthetic affinity with these mythical ideals for some black metallers, that they envisioned themselves as warriors or as part of a charivari tradition trying to bring back a romanticized ideal of pre-modern Europe. However, I think that the chapter’s main contribution is the articulation of the musical style…or at least when I go back and read it those are the parts that I think hold up the best.


You teach courses on popular music, music appreciation, and music history at Utah Valley University. Does this include metal? How do students respond to it? Does their response change depending on whether they are metalheads or not?

Most of them seem to respond fairly positively to it when I do teach it, which usually only happens in the course specifically centered around popular music. I do include bits of Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen in my schtick on musical virtuosity in the music appreciation classes, but more as a side comparison. Students in the popular music courses seem to respond well to it even if they aren’t fans, since by the time we get into it most of the students understand that “liking” a genre of music is not a prerequisite for investigating its musical style and influence. Metalheads or former metalheads (I actually hear that a lot here…metal is something they used to like as teenagers) tend get a little more into it, but I’m often pleasantly surprised as well when students who have no personal affinity with the style offer thoughtful considerations of it.


I find it interesting that you’ve composed music for the production of two ancient Greek plays at UVU. Are these going to be released? Is there any overlap between ancient Greco-Roman music and heavy metal?

Actually only one of them (Antigone) was an ancient Greek play. The other one, Eurydice, was a modern play by Sarah Ruhl that is built around the myth but definitely takes its own path (and was directed by my very talented and lovely wife Lisa). Oddly enough, my music cues for Eurydice actually did include a bit of Rammstein-ish heavy metal…the script called for it when the Lord of the Underworld enters dressed like a child and riding a tricycle.

I’m not planning to release recordings of Eurydice‘s music cues themselves since they wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense on their own (15 seconds of heavy metal, 45 seconds of lounge music, etc.) but I did put together a suite of sorts called gravity is very compelling out of the soundscapes from Eurydice. The Antigone score is likewise kind of boring out of context, but I’ve repurposed parts of it in other works here and there.

Regarding ancient Greek and Roman music, I can say with some certainty (even though ancient music isn’t a specialty of mine) that there’s not any overlap with heavy metal in terms of musical content. A lot of the theoretical ideas and writings helped lay the foundations for the European art music tradition in the medieval period, though. Plato’s famous concerns about the dangerous moral and social effects of “disordered” music also echo through the centuries to inform the various moral panics around heavy metal and other musical styles.


According to your biography, you’ve participated in more than a dozen album releases on various American and European labels, and perform in the ambient bands encomiast and Schrei aus Stein as well as two local metal bands. Can you tell us a bit about your musical history?

I started making ambient music with encomiast in the late 1990s, when I had access to a proper electronic music studio at college. That sort of whetted my appetite for it and I’ve continued recording stuff like it ever since, often drawing my friends into the mix as well. Most of the catalog from that project is available at encomiast.bandcamp.com, although I think my favorite is the 139 Nevada 2xCD that grew out of an attempt to record ghostly voices at a haunted theater. I started Schrei aus Stein when I wanted to do something that mixed drones and noise with more of a black metal aesthetic. Beyond those projects, in the last decade I’ve played in the absurdist metal duo Spawn of the Matriarch, the stoner metal band Governors, a krautrock/free jazz trio, a one-off Mortician-worship solo project named Immensite, and a couple of cover bands.

Currently I play bass in Burn Your World, a band that mixes extreme metal styles with some hardcore punk influence. We also have a side project called Curseworship in which I play bass and compose a lot of harsh noise and analog synth freakouts. Both of those bands have recordings coming out soonish.


What do you think is the role of music? Is it to communicate ideas, express emotions, or make an aesthetic object for others to appreciate? Or none of the above?

I’d probably say it’s more like all of the above in my view, depending on the context and the person who is experiencing it. Your last role (aesthetic object) is probably closest to the way I think about the music I create — I tend to think structurally rather than in emotional or rhetorical terms.


Do you think metal is a subject that should be taught in schools? There’s two viewpoints to this: from academia’s point of view, and from metal’s point of view.

I think that from an academic point of view it’s as valid a subject as any, and to my mind it provides a rich musical and cultural well for all sorts of areas of study. I’d also be lying if I denied that it gives me a lot of pleasure to teach and write about music I love, so there’s a selfish end too I guess! I certainly also understand why some metalheads might not appreciate it because sometimes it does seem like once something has the stamp of approval from the ivory tower it loses a lot of its countercultural credentials.

Some might see it (possibly correctly!) as a misguided attempt to validate metal as an art form…or perhaps to validate academia by borrowing some of metal’s coolness. I personally try to avoid giving that impression in my classes, but my position as an academic may make it impossible for me dodge those bullets entirely. So I suppose my ultimate answer is “yes,” but with acknowledgement of some pitfalls.


You taught a couple of metal-centric classes at CU-Boulder while you were finishing your degree. What were these like? How did you “teach metal”?

One of them was a single Saturday course done through Continuing Education that was sort of a quick trip through some various issues (musical style, censorship, etc.). The longer course was a version of a course on Rock Music that I team-taught with Joel Burcham. In that one my idea was to use metal as a way to explore various aspects of popular music, including recording, performance, fandom, authenticity, etc. My goal was less to teach metal and more to allow metal to teach us, if that makes sense.


You’re an ethnomusicologist; those seem like a cross between music historian and music analyst. How does understanding metal at a musical level help you understand it at a culture level? Are there correlations between the two dimensions of metal?

I sometimes feel like the primary thing my musical training provides me with is a vocabulary with which to work. I do find it helpful in terms of articulating aspects of metal music and production that encourage particular responses and experiences among listeners. As I mentioned in my summary of the “Metal Rules the Globe” article, I do think that some musical ideas can evoke particular experiences and reflect certain values. I would stop short of saying that they necessarily correspond to the values of the performer and the audience though. Sometimes that might certainly be the case, but I’ve come to be skeptical of sweeping correlations, mostly because I want to avoid misrepresenting the culture of metal as a monolithic entity. The more time I spend with metal and with other metalheads, the more I appreciate the diversity of experience within it.


One of your research interests is ritualism. Are there ritual aspects to heavy metal, especially the black metal variety?

I tend to think that almost every musical activity has some sort of a ritual component to it, using the term broadly. With black metal, though, I’m particularly interested in the deployment of Ritual “with a capital R” as a conscious effort to connect the music and performance with some archaic imagined past. In some respects, I think the past black metal invokes is the past of black metal itself, a retro recycling and recreation that is common to all music in some degree, but which has perhaps increased lately (Simon Reynold’s recent book deals with this better than I).

Rather than celebrating the protean side of 21st century identity, metal seems to demand a higher level of “identity essentialism” in that respect. It promises some measure of stability.

Invoking ritual also feels like an appeal to an authoritative kind of authenticity, an assertion that black metal is not entertainment or theater, but instead that it is a stable and “timeless” tradition and (importantly) not beholden to the vagaries of taste or fashion. The use of a fairly standard and narrow set of musical gestures and sounds, deindividualizing costumes and pseudonyms, and staged evocations of sacrificial death all work to this end. Of course, the “appeal to ritual” is also in some ways merely a marketing term and a performance conceit. It might go hand-in-hand with the increased visibility of black metal over the past decade or so.

I’m currently working with these ideas as part of a research project on musical ritualism as an authenticating tactic in popular music…possibly with a parallel trajectory in musical representations of monstrosity and supernatural forces. I’m still gathering my dogs together to see if they hunt though.


How important do you think heavy metal is as a cultural indicator? What does it tell us about our society?

I think it certainly has a role there, although I think that what it says varies a lot depending on who is involved in it. Actually, I think that if we look at metal around the globe, I might consider a lack of metal in a society to be more significant. It seems to be an almost ubiquitous presence, even under circumstances of war and deprivation.

I do think that the value so much metal discourse seems to place on trueness and authenticity is perhaps symptomatic of a larger sense of uprootedness in (American?) society. Rather than celebrating the protean side of 21st century identity, metal seems to demand a higher level of “identity essentialism” in that respect. It promises some measure of stability.


In your view, why is metal such a distinctive genre, with such strong rules and boundaries (trueness, cultness)?

It seems that being embattled or marginalized is an integral part of the way metal views itself, even if in some cases we might consider that metalheads doth protest too much. This sense of being outside the mainstream probably creates this sense of cohesion and belonging, as well as a bit of suspicion and distrust of outsiders and “un-metal” musical influences.

I think that the boundaries have actually gotten more stringent over the past decade or so in underground metal, although it’s probably more likely that I’ve just become more aware of them. I might suggest that as the artifacts and symbols of insider-ness in metal have become more readily available, the concern with maintaining boundaries has risen accordingly. As it becomes easier and easier to amass knowledge about the most obscure bands, along with their recordings, that obscurity loses its power.

Patch jackets don’t seem to carry the same weight if you can purchase a whole collection of rare kvlt “merit badges” in 20 minutes on eBay. This situation makes metal’s system of cultural signifiers less trustworthy in terms of judging someone’s commitment to the genre, so it seems like the boundaries need more strict enforcement. It’s only exacerbated in cyberspace. But of course the best way to be kvlt is to deny that it matters if you’re kvlt or not…it’s square to be hip, right?


You’re on the editorial board of the journal Metal Music Studies. How has metal in academia expanded during the time you’ve been observing, and where do you see it going in the future?

To be totally accurate, I’m actually just on the editorial advisory board, which just means I’ll be on-call as a peer reviewer once we’re totally underway. I hope to continue my involvement in the future, however.

When I first began writing about heavy metal as a graduate student in the early/mid 2000s, it seemed that there was precious little academic writing about metal beyond Walser, Weinstein, and sociological studies beating the dead horse connecting metal and crime/delinquency. Over the following decade it’s just blossomed as a field of study, and I think it’s impressively diverse. I mean, we’ve got people from sociology, ethnomusicology, historical musicology, fan studies, philosophy, and interested practitioners all in the mix. I’ve been trying (and failing) to keep up with all the publications. It’s an exciting and inspiring field.

I think that we’re going to see more studies that question the conceptions of locality and place in metal, since the increasing digital networks around the world are making physical geography less relevant in some respects. I know some scholars are working on the exoticism in metal, which seems especially interesting because it binds together questions of intent (patriotism? parody?) with issues of reception. It also seems that Metal Studies has focused a lot on the more extreme and underground subgenres, so I hope we might see more people begin to explore the intersections between metal and mainstream pop culture, both currently and in the past.

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