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Slum of Legs: album review and interview

LP review and interview by Kris Smith.
Photo by David McNamee.

Slum of Legs have just released their debut eponymous album on the Spurge Recordings label. The Brighton sextet formed and issued their remarkable first EP in 2013, followed by the stunning ‘Begin to Dissolve/Razorblade the Tape’ and ‘Doll Like’/’Half Day Closing’ singles in 2014-15, playing select shows in the UK with the likes of Prolapse, Perfect Pussy and Julie Ruin before retreating into the studio to record this unassuming masterpiece of “queer feminist noise-pop”.

The first three tracks alone are unassailable: powerful, evocative, propulsive: the lyrics all steel, glass, pistons, valves and hissing trains. Slum of Legs are also autodidact edutainment incarnate: I knew ‘liminal’ but had to look up ‘lacuna’; I knew about Vladimir Tatlin but I learned about Eero Saarinen. The opening songs on the record seemingly offer an aesthetic collision of early-Slits/Poison Girls vibe, Futurist poetry, long-lost Play For Today-type TV and the kind of hauntology evoked by Scarfolk posters. There are ‘easter eggs’ for observant listeners, intimations of hidden and repressed histories; Tara O’Hara, Wych Elm Bella. They also, be assured, rock. They “calibrate the slum of legs” and Dream of Valves Exploding, while the music doesn’t let up, even during the more measured pace of the closing track. 

What strikes this listener most about Slum of Legs is the voice; not just Tamsin’s vocals tonally (although while I was first playing the album someone came in to ask if it was CRASS’ Eve Libertine singing) or Maria’s violin or Emily’s synths, but the sense of being spoken to, or rather with, with an engaged intelligence that much music simply lacks, either because of the people making it, or perhaps more generously because the musicians concerned have found no way to, or desire to, synthesise content and form in this way. Wisdom from experience; humour from pain.

Also, I like that one of their previous singles credited all the band members on “screaming”.

Everett True has written that Slum of Legs are “like Talulah Gosh if they were the Mekons;” Neil Kulkarni has likened them to The Raincoats. As you’ll read, I fail to avoid the temptation of likening their sound to other Bands With Violins but sensibly they’re not having it and neither were they drawn on musical influences. As an (amateur) interviewer you kind-of have to ask but as a fan I certainly don’t need everything explained. 

Benetint & malevolence

In Debenhams

And tenements

Nurofen and inconsequence

In Peterborough 

In present tense

‘Benetint and Malevolent’ – Slum of Legs

Congratulations on the album. How do you feel about it, did it turn out how you envisaged, and can you tell us something about the process of producing it? How did you hook up with Spurge?

Tamsin: We recorded it at Church Road Studio in Hove, with Julian Tardo. It was really good working with Julian as he’s great at encouraging a good performance without being a dick about it, and never patronised us. We also continued the tradition of communal noise-making for the album that we started with our mass scream-in seance when we recorded our single ‘Begin To Dissolve’. Except this time (for the track ‘White Leather’) we all gathered around in a circle and made sex noises.

It took a long time to get to the finished product but we’re very very happy with it.  Though I find it hard to know what it sounds like to other people.

Re: how we came to work with Spurge. Once the album was mixed we sent it out to various record labels to see if they wanted to release it. We had interest from a few but chose Spurge. Steve Underwood, who is running the label with Paul Horlick also runs Harbinger Sound who has previously put out Nachthexen who we really liked. With Spurge he wants to concentrate mainly on female/queer bands which is cool as there are plenty of other labels that don’t. We met him and liked him and also he has 2 cute dogs.

Emily: We recorded the whole thing a very long time ago, and there were several reasons for the delay in getting it out. For one thing, I had a complete mental breakdown that ultimately led to me having to move back to my hometown, which was fun. Then, I was actually supposed to mix the album myself, but I was learning on the job and after working on it for some time the files got corrupted. It was a massive blow, and for a relative novice to restart work it would have taken so long to get it back to any good state. As I had moved back to Nottingham by this point, it made sense to have the mighty Phil of JT Soar take over the controls, and he polished it up into something amazing that I could never have managed. He’s one of the nicest dudes in music, too, and I highly recommend working with him. On the sad side, though, you have all missed out on some wonderfully obnoxious noise mixes.

It’s been around five years since your last release. Is this album a full stop, a story-so-far, an end-of-Part 1?

Maria: This album is a ‘here we are, this is us’. There’s a partially recorded indie pop EP sitting in the vaults too so if this album does well maybe we’ll get around to finishing that one day.

The first three songs on the record are quite densely packed, reference wise.. [redacted ramble about constructivism, hauntology, psychogeography and other stuff I felt the lyrics evoked]… Is there an intention to challenge the listener with disparate elements, or is there a message in there too?

Tamsin: There are definitely messages in all the songs I write and I like to cram them with literary and cultural references (I love it when I’m reading a book and unexpectedly come across a line I recognise from song lyrics) however I also can rarely resist taking the piss. Empathy and cynicism are probably two of my most defining qualities and my brain is usually at war with itself (when it’s not thinking about food or cats). My lyrics are full of contradictions but contradiction is preferable to constipation.

Everybody loves ‘Benetint & Malevolence’ but in my head originally it was a melancholy synth-pop song and so the words were satirising po-faced pretentious 80s lyrics – in fact the line ‘macabre French sensation’ was the title of a spam email I got sent. But the ‘when you’re sad you’re invisible’ bit is deadly serious. But then I felt bad about it because for some people, like those who suffer hate crime, being invisible is a luxury so that’s why in Baader-Meinhof I sing ‘I know there’s far worse states than invisibility’.

Valves is an even more pointed piss-take of artists who appear enigmatic but once you dig, there’s not much meaning or interestingness underneath – and in fact it’s a criticism of the overuse of terms like hauntology and psychogeography [busted – Ed.] – the word “liminal” is in the song in quotation marks. It’s dedicated to people who use the word ‘long form’ when they only need to say ‘long’.

‘Slum of Legs’ is a manifesto song in the tradition of manifesto songs. The word ‘tuttifrutalist’ is a word I invented to mean brutalist architecture with curly bits. And Slum of Legs is the musical equivalent.

Emily: As an ex-wannabe academic who has written and presented papers on psychogeography, I feel personally attacked every time Tamsin sings these songs and that’s why I put horrible noises on them.

The next few songs (‘RUTHE14ME’, ‘In Yr Face’, ‘Love’s Not Enough’ and ‘Baader Meinhof Always look So Good In Photos’) address online life, dating, sexuality, identity, mental health; huge subjects. Your approach reminds me of ILL slightly in that you’re deadly serious but also clearly having a laugh: there are jokes and puns. RUTHE14ME in particular is very funny, while In Yr Face and Love’s Not Enough are furious. Are they rooted in personal experience that you’re ok to discuss?

Tamsin: Yes they are. ‘In Yr Face’ is a co-write/duet with Michelle and is about the futility of online arguments while ‘RUTHE14ME’ and ‘Baader Meinhof’ are both pretty personal and address problems that I have with self image and self esteem – there’s anger in them too though – like the line ‘do you only date them younger’ in RU and ‘I know I’m ugly cos you remind me daily’ in Baader Meinhof. But I feel shame that I’m the age I am and still feeling these things. It isn’t helpful for potential revolutionaries to feel sorry for themselves the whole time and revel in self pitying songs I’ve written about no one fancying me so I felt I needed to write a rallying anthem too. ‘Love’s Not Enough’ came about after the Pulse nightclub attack and the murder of Jo Cox. I broke down at a band practice cos I felt so distraught and scared. The song references the Queer Nation Manifesto of 1990 and the banal think piece responses that said ‘just love each other’. No, you have to punch Nazis. Obviously since I wrote it everything’s got a million times worse though.

Can you tell us about ‘Sasha Fierce’? At first glance it seems to be a kind of Rebel Girl for our times, but there are multiple subjects in the song.

Tamsin: It’s about taking on another or multiple personalities as a coping technique for trauma but also for confidence or to shield yourself – like the idea of the masquerade in feminist film theory. It’s not about Beyoncé, though Sasha Fierce is her alternative persona.

The multiple subjects thing does happen in some of my songs maybe because my starting point is nearly always a cut-up to spark ideas. So sometimes other things get incorporated.

Also these meanings I’ve talked about here are only my own meanings. People listening to the songs are welcome to interpret them however they want as long as they’re not Tories, terfs or dicks – in which case they can fuck off.

Can I ask about the album artwork – is that a doily on the front cover? Is there an intended juxtaposition between its Englishness and the surrounding, more European-influenced pattern?

Tamsin: All of our covers so far have included my photography of brutalist architecture and a collage element so we wanted to continue that with the album cover. However in the last year or so, brutalism has become a bit of a fashionable cliche and it’s become divorced from its original utopian, socialist context. So for the album I decided to combine some elements of architectural photos with a doily. Doilies are associated with fussy stereotypical femininity – the opposite of the macho clichéd idea of brutalism. But they also symbolise women’s crafts, domesticity, working class industries (like Nottingham lace making) – plus they look a little like snowflakes – so you’ve got another couple of meanings there. After I came up with the basic idea, Emily then manipulated it into a kaleidoscope type design – to bring even more meanings & distortions. It’s once again, Tuttifrutalism.

Emily: Yeah, the collage and kaleidoscoping go with our general sense of fragmentation and fracturing, I think. There were a lot of elements that we wanted to convey, directly or surreptitiously, in the artwork. For me, the doily represented not just work and decor that is coded in our society as feminine, but also a reference to the old-style spiritualism that we also refer to in Begin to Dissolve, middle-aged women in parlours acting as mediums a la Seance on a Wet Afternoon. The banal supernatural resonates strongly with my view of brutalism: a combination of the mundane and the monolithic.

I want to ask about musical influences, while being super-wary of doing so, including about the ‘L’ word, especially as you’re a Brighton band; Maria’s violin is such a prominent, striking element of your sound and does remind me at times of some of the better tracks on the first Levellers album (who I maintain were a good band then – an unpopular opinion – in the Waterboys/Men They Couldn’t Hang tradition) You’ve been likened to the The Ex, Stereolab and the krautrock groups too. Does any of that resonate, does it matter, or is it just an inevitable side-effect of using certain instruments? Was there a particular sound you had in mind when you formed or did it evolve organically from playing together?

Tamsin: All six of us have different things that we’re into and so elements of all of it have probably leaked into our sound. We never had a prior idea of how we wanted to sound we just got together and this is how it turned out.

Maria: I agree with T, our sound is v much just a product of us all playing together and making up parts that fit with the songs. I didn’t consciously bring any particular influences or idea of a sound to my violin playing with Slum of Legs, just made up what felt right for the songs. I remember early on Tamsin asked if I could make some weird noises, so I would try and play weird noises! I’d been playing with a improvised noise-psych outfit for a while before I joined Slum of Legs and using pedals etc. in that and making a lot of weird noises. Also I did a degree in Contemporary Arts an there was a lot of extended technique playing and weird noise making in that too ha ha!

As a teenager in the 90s I danced around a lot to The Levellers and New Model Army etc. It’s funny looking back though, those violin-led songs that I loved most (15 Years, Vagabonds) and were definitely a soundtrack to me growing up didn’t inspire me to play violin in that style and or want to play violin in a band at all, I never made the connection of ‘oh, maybe I could do that too’. At the time I was playing in an orchestra and doing my grades and also learning to play folk tunes, and felt more connected to those expressions in their traditional forms I guess. I loved folk music, but lots of the folk/rock/punk crossovers that sprung up in the wake of the Levellers ubiquity totally turned me off. I’d had a bad experience with a local violinist who played in one of these bands too which didn’t help – a shame because in different circumstances I think it could have been really inspiring for me to watch her play, even if I wasn’t particularly into her band’s music. For a long time it felt like ‘folky violinist’ was the only way to play violin with a band and I really rejected that! Still to this day, when I say I play violin in a band people reply ‘oh, folky stuff then?’, like there’s no other options for a violin! I blame the Levellers for that 😀

To be honest, Warren Ellis has probably been the biggest influence on my playing. I bought a Dirty Three album on a whim after hearing it in a record shop – I liked it well enough and then went to see them live…holy wow! Watching Warren Ellis wring the neck of his violin, making it howl and scream and soar and sing…I came out of that gig thinking, for the first time ever, ‘I want to play violin like that’.

Emily: When I was growing up the Levellers were definitely considered a terrible punchline of a band. Haven’t attempted to listen to them in decades but I can’t imagine I would enjoy it much. People just hear a violin and grab onto whatever a violin connotes for them [busted again – Ed.], whether it’s trad folk or the Levellers or the Velvets or whatever. To me it’s just the sound of Maria being her brilliant self. It doesn’t happen so much with synthesizers, very few people go “oh, a synth, this sounds like Kraftwerk” (I would love it if they did, even though it would be a lie).

Do the labels riot grrrl and queercore mean anything to the band? As traditions, scenes, or influences? Are they important to you; are they useful now?

Tamsin: They do and they are although it can be a bit tiresome being constantly labelled as riot grrrl and only compared to other female bands. Those bands continue to be inspirations for women to make music and to express themselves artistically and without a doubt they’ve helped us too but I do also feel it can typecast and diminish female musicians if anger always equals riot grrrl.

Are there any other contemporary bands/artists you feel a kinship with? Who else should we be listening to?

Emily: I’m listening to a lot of Black Dresses and related projects. I call it ‘tumblr industrial’ but the name somehow hasn’t caught on. A large part of what I listen to is electronic or experimental music but I feel more at home in DIY spaces. Shout outs to Daphnellc, Witching Waves, Marlo Eggplant, Days Fade Nights Grow, Sniffany & the Nits, Rattle, Yumah and Shopping (in fact all Rachel Aggs bands, really, she’s amazing).

Michelle: I love ILL. Always thought that our bands would be a good line up.

Maria: Dorcha, I was on the same bill as them a while back and they blew my socks off. Kinship-wise I’m really happy to be label mates with GG Allen Partridge, Slagheap and Massicot and I hope we all get to play together at some point. I played violin on Porridge Radio‘s recent album and love them a lot, it’s a thrill to see them doing so well. The last Slum of Legs gig we played together was with them too.

Tatlin’s tower was conceived as a synthesis of the creative and the utilitarian: does the same apply to the band?

Tamsin:Tatlin’s Tower was a utopian, impossible structure and that also applies to Slum of Legs.

What’s your considered opinion on Baader Meinhof? There’s this contradiction – which applies to the Black Panthers too – between activism for liberation on the one hand, while in effect promoting totalitarianism (the RAF-Stasi and BPP-China connections). 

Tamsin: To some extent those groups are now part of the heritage industry and are fetishised in the same way as Che Guevara on a t-shirt. You can’t really look at them in a modern context only in the context of their times. A lot of the problem with revolutionary groups though is that they forget to think about all the detail, which is why intersectionality is so useful. In a revolution, typically fighters are celebrated over administrators but speaking as an ex-administrator who will always feel like an administrator, the biggest dicks at work are the bosses who say ‘I’m not a detail person’ and then forget about actual human beings. Bad planning. The detail is important and humans are important.

We’re now living through a health crisis to add to Brexit, the environmental crisis and obviously Austerity, which for a lot of people never goes away. Is the role of artists one of escapism, or survival, or bearing witness? Slum of Legs has a clear oppositional stance. Are there other things we can and should do to resist?

Tamsin: All of those responses are valid. You can only do what you can do. We’re not going to dictate to anybody what they should be doing however I hope that we can be a help to people. That’s the highest accolade I can think of for our music.

Emily: I’m loathe to suggest all artists should be politically engaged because so many have shit politics and/or shit modes of engagement. On the other hand, we’re all trapped in these systems so we can’t really avoid engaging. Avoidance may be a privilege but everyone needs respite, so I don’t feel like escapism is inherently counter to resistance. To speak up and speak out is in itself a strong form of resistance, but you also have to learn when to quiet yourself and amplify other people’s voices instead.

What’s next for Slum of Legs?

Emily: We’ll definitely be touring this album when the pandemic is over, hopefully in November. But as we’re spread out so much, it might not be possible to be together as a band much more than that, which is honestly pretty devastating, as I never feel more whole than when we’re playing together, really together.

Most of us have other projects on the go, though, with Michelle and Tamsin in Lucky Corpse, and me and Maria both have experimental solo acts, her as YOU&TH and me as The Mysterious Monopole.

Maria: I’m going to read the tarot for this. I asked the question and pulled out The Fool: “Let go of preconceived ideas and remain open to change. The Fool advises that you lighten up. Let yourself be spontaneous enough to stretch beyond the realm of logic. There is no advantage to be gained by thinking you possess the knowledge, power, or control to direct reality. Open and receive without question, instead of trying to manage what’s happening right now. The Fool has no ambition to manipulate a specific outcome. Just be happy to be part of the whole.”

‘Slum of Legs’ is out now on bandcamp.

Find them on facebook and twitter

Naz and Ella: Freedom – premiere

We are delighted to bring you today the exclusive premiere of Naz and Ella‘s new single, ‘Freedom’, a day ahead of its release.

The song is inspired by the experience of Rahaf Mohammed, a young Saudi Arabian woman who fled an abusive family and oppressive regime with the aim of making it to Australia. After being stopped in Thailand en route and almost deported back to Saudi, where she likely faced being incarcerated or even murdered, she was eventually granted asylum in Canada following a wealth of support on social media.

Inspired by Rahaf’s bravery, Naz & Ella wanted to capture the feelings of desperation and hope. The song is based around a dark fingerstyle riff combined with emotive vocals and lush harmonies.

Inspired by traditional folk, the duo love to tell stories in their music and capture the feelings and emotions of the protagonist, whether fictional or real. They often tackle difficult subjects neglected in music, such as Brexit, gun control in the US, homelessness and the freedom to love. 

This year Naz & Ella are focusing on writing songs for their second EP and booking gigs for the summer. Previous places they’ve performed at include the Southbank Centre, Amersham Arms and at L Fest.

Find Naz & Ella at bandcamp distrokid

Hannah Ashcroft: Under the Static – track of the day

Our track of the day today is Hannah Ashcroft’s ‘Under the Static’ – out today, featuring members of BC Camplight and The Travelling band. A heady, hip-swaying departure from Hannah’s usual indie-folk acoustic sounds, this session was recorded with electric guitars, synths and a vintage rotary telephone, which the studio had rigged up as a microphone (see pic below!)

Find Hannah Ashcroft at hannahashcroft.co.uk soundcloud spotify twitter facebook instagram

LOUD WOMEN ONLINE!

Missing live music? Timeline full of dudes playing RHCP covers in their mum’s kitchen? We got ya back.

LOUD WOMEN online gigs start tonight, 9.30pm, with Helen McCookerybook, and continue tomorrow with MIRI, as part of the Balcony Festival, in aid of Musicians Against Homelessness.

Helen McCookerybook is hugely inspiring singer-songwriter – formerly of English psychedelia-punk band The Chefs, these days playing regularly across the land as a solo artist. 

Catch Helen on the LOUD WOMEN Facebook page (NB, the page, not one of the groups … yeah yeah, it confuses all of us, you’re right!) This link here, anyway:

HELEN MCCOOKERYBOOK LIVE AT 9:30 pm GMT

Then Saturday afternoon, LOUD WOMEN is honoured to be hosting a virtual stage on the awesome Balcony Festival – MIRI will be performing at the festival, which will be raising money for Musicians Against Homelessness, teaming up with our bloggy friends at Joyzine, Louderthanwar, God is in the TV, Cro Cro Land, TheZineUK and more.

BALCONY FESTIVAL ON LOUDWOMEN.ORG from 1pm SATURDAY

Run Into the Night: Blow a kiss / Catch a knife – video PREMIERE!

LOUD WOMEN is stonked to bring you the exclusive premiere today of a new video from Glasgow’s Run Into the Night – ‘Blow a Kiss / Catch a Knife’ – lo-fi disco-rock on the timeless theme of creepy exes slithering back into your life. Hiss, boo to them. Hurray for Run Into the Night.

The music video was filmed in one take, with some “ex ghoul friends” and a hand held camera, giving us a tantalising taste of their fun live set.

Songs of sickness and health: Rachael Sage, and the album she wrote during her cancer treatment

Rachael Sage’s new album Character was written in the wake of a life-changing cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery period. Songs of bravery, gratitude, compassion, authenticity and optimism – we caught up with Rachael to find out more.

Could you tell us a bit about how the album came about?

I wrote and recorded “Character” as I was recovering from treatment for endometrial cancer. After I was diagnosed in 2018, I essentially spent the whole of the next year receiving chemo and radiation therapy and recovering from surgery. I had very little energy and wasn’t able to do much creatively, but I devoted all my focus and strength to being the very best patient I possibly could. It was a humbling and overwhelming experience, but as you can imagine, by the time I was almost better every fibre of my being was eager and hungry to get back to doing what I love most – making music!

Once I was well enough, I started to slowly get back into it, playing keyboard, guitar and doing a little vocalizing. Soon that led to me writing a new batch of songs (during winter 2018 and into the new year). By early 2019 I was grateful to be back in the studio with my favorite people – who just happen to be my engineers and bandmates – relishing every moment of answering what has become my most pressing question in the wake of my own cancer experience: “what defines character?”

What are your reasons for wanting to share this very personal experience with us, through music?

I never really think of my writing process as exclusively “personal” to be honest. I mean, we are all inextricably connected, and especially having been raised in the Jewish religion that has been pressed upon me from my first day of Hebrew school! “Every person is a universe…” And here we all are, sharing this collective journey. The personal is also inevitably political, because the freedom we have in our individual lives – as women, as medical patients, as citizens – is tied so inextricably to our larger society and the challenges we face, together.

So my reasons for sharing my thoughts, feelings and questions on this album were not entirely different from on any other, really; my first presumption making art of any kind is that if I am, try to be my own muse and authentic in my expressiveness. It will necessarily resonate and hopefully, help others via some kind of catharsis or uplift –  the way any art is meant to do. That is my job, however personal, and I probably take it way too seriously but this time it really did feel like the most important thing I could possibly do, to turn a difficult time into a meditation on gratitude, hope and simply being human.

What are you hoping your audience will take from it?

I am hoping listeners will hear this album and that in my own chronicle of finding my way through a dark time toward an even brighter light, so to speak, they will find hope, as well as the ability to embrace forgiveness. When one receives a cancer diagnosis it is a natural thing to experience regret: regret that you didn’t exercise more, that you ate poorly, that you didn’t sleep enough, that you were not mindful of others or simply that you didn’t take better care of yourself mentally. Inevitably I experienced those sorts of negative, self-judgmental thoughts, but what my cancer journey taught me was that everything truly begins with your outlook, and with your ability to choose how you interact with the world and the people around you; we all have an enormous amount of power and can inspire others, even at our weakest, physically.

Every day I saw examples of doctors, nurses, administrators, friends, family ‘stepping up’ for myself and many others, being kind and helpful well above/beyond what was required. I also saw patients enduring pain with grace, and others struggling to do so and all of it held a mirror up to my life and begged many questions that hopefully, this album answers compassionately, through the creative process.

It has been humbling to have many people approach me at live shows along my tour dates thus far, and tell me my song ‘Bravery’s On Fire’ in particular has granted them a kind of permission to be honest and vulnerable – whether with themselves or others. So much of our days are spent putting on a brave face, pretending we are ‘okay’, and generally feeling we may be the only one experiencing whatever challenge we may be facing. Likewise, my song ‘Blue Sky Days’  – which is essentially about being present, mindful and grateful for beauty, even amidst chaos – seems to be striking a deep chord with my listeners.

I’m glad that in some way, the experiences I’ve had before making this music, along with the boundaries I’ve found it helpful to create in order to stay healthy and a ‘cancer thriver’, have helped me write material that can be a positive source of uplift, to others!

Right now is a very challenging time for everyone and there is a sense that no one really knows the truth or understands the nuance of so much of what we are seeing in the media. I know that for me, being creative and making music quite literally saved my life and helped me recover from a very dark period, both mentally and physically. In much the same way, my connections with close friends when I was struggling – even if through a computer or social media – were a huge source of comfort.

With much of the world being told to “stay home” and to literally not touch one another, there is going to be a lot of anxiety and stress as well as literal and emotional isolation. I think we are being forced as a collective world community to take the hardest look we’ve ever had to take, at how we’ve been treating one another as well as our planet. It is of course, very painful but it can also be something that helps us make wiser, more positive choices moving forward, in so many realms. I guess what I’m saying is that even in the context of suffering, we have opportunities to find renewed purpose and distill who we truly want to be. My prayer right now happens to be embedded in this music, and it is a message of hope derived from the fact that every single one of us has the ability to be a ‘light’, and to make choices that improve the state of our own well being, our family, our friends, and therefore the wider world.

Character by Rachael Sage is out Friday 24th July 2020 via her own label, MPress Records.

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