The 5th Level of Obscurity
Left to right: Nine Days Wonder, Necronomicon, Dzyan
Part 1: Krautrock
by Gary Bearman
This is the first in a series of articles that will focus on lesser known albums from my favorite genres. You can read about the project in my blog at themindfestival.wordpress.com. Please sign up to follow my progress.
Since the focus of Perfect Sound Forever is music of more obscure artists that deserve greater recognition, it makes sense to focus these articles here on the more obscure, since my eventual top 1000 list will contain everything from The Beatles to albums so obscure they practically don't exist, and everything in between.
As it turns out, there are many levels within any given genre starting from the most popular down to the most obscure. Let's take '70's progressive rock as an example. Any very casual fan of the genre has heard of Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Rush, ELP & Jethro Tull. Hell, most casual fans of rock music in general have at least heard of these bands. The second level below that is for anyone who's dipped their toe into the genre a bit. This would be groups like Camel, Caravan, Gong, PFM, Roxy Music, Van Der Graff Generator, etc. Those who are true fans will reach the 3rd level of obscurity with groups like Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso, Magma, Ange, Le Orme, Harmonium, etc. – bands that still enjoyed a moderate level of success, but aren't necessarily known to the average rock fan. On the 4th level of obscurity you hit bands that are known only to those who are pretty obsessively into the genre. This could contain groups that only made one album, or had more local or limited success, or maybe enjoyed some success, but time has largely forgotten about them. That would be groups like Arzachel, National Health, Man, Egg, etc. On the 5th level of obscurity, you really start moving into groups and albums that only those who have really researched well into the genre know about like Atila, Collegium Musicum, Day of Phoenix, Haikara, Yezda Urfa, Algarnas Tradgard, etc. You can go even further into obscurity with groups like Blue Effect, Guruh Gipsy, Automatic Fine Tuning, Trio Dag, Zoldar and Clark, etc., but by then you're where only relatively few have ventured.
Now, some will disagree with me at what level some of those bands belong to, and my examples weren’t meant to be definitive, only to show that the more deeply you delve into a genre, the more there is to discover that you didn’t necessarily know was there.
This series of articles will feature bands and albums ideally from the 5th level of obscurity and below, that is to say, albums that almost all casual and even many semi-serious fans of the genre aren't likely to know about, but where the quality of the material is right up there with or damn close to the bands at the highest level of popularity.
Not all my krautrock choices will be quite down at that 5th level, as it's a more limited genre than some of the others I'll be covering in terms of how much material was made, but I've done my best to come up with a short list of lesser known titles that are still high quality albums.
'Krautrock' is a pretty broad term. It's been pointed out that it wasn't really a movement per se, that even the more popular acts of the genre didn't necessarily hang out together and weren't influenced by each other's music, that in fact many krautrock groups sound vastly different from each other. While much of that is true, there is a distinct “krautrock sound" that fans of the genre will pick up on immediately.
The genre is an interesting mix of late '60's psychedelia and '70's progressive rock, with a healthy dose of a certain enigmatic weirdness that was unique to Germany. The one defining characteristic in all of good krautrock, however, is experimentation.
What free jazz did for traditional jazz in the '60's, krautrock did for rock in the '70's. While psychedelic groups broke boundaries, krautrock groups annihilated them. Good krautrock at its best completely dismantles normal structure, or seriously warps structure, or at least piles so many sound effects upon normal structure as to make more traditional rock music somewhat unrecognizable. Also, the Germans were not only pioneers of electronic music, but the first to really effectively incorporate highly synthesized sounds into rock music.
The “krautrock sound" has a tremendous amount of diversity. There's the more simplistic, driving beats and electronics of Neu!, the more complex rhythms and experimentation of Can, the more grandiose and progressive sound of Amon Duul II, the guitar freak outs of Guru Guru and Ash Ra Tempel and the all-out wild experimentations of Faust. There's the more contemplative world music of Popol Vuh, the lower key electronics of Cluster, the more aggressive electronics of Kraftwerk, the space rock and synthesizer experimentations of Tangerine Dream & Klaus Schulze, the jazziness of Embryo, the warped folk of Holderlins and the Eastern-tinged complex rock of Agitation Free. All of this is krautrock.
Now, not all '70's German rock music falls into this category. There are plenty of groups such as Nektar, Novalis and Triumvirat, who made progressive rock that for all intents and purposes could have been British. There's also plenty of jazz, fusion and Deutschrock that was produced in the period as well that didn't have that particular krautrock sound or feel.
While krautrock is still a somewhat obscure genre of music, it also enjoys a lot of popularity amongst weird music lovers. Psychedelic rock fans love its overtly trippy and experimental nature, and the diversity of influences and styles. Progressive rock fans appreciate the complexity, with music that often branches out into unexpected, wild directions, as well as the experimentation.
Here are some of my favorite more obscure works from the genre:
Baba Yaga Collage (1974)
Collage is the second and final album by the obscure Baba Yaga. For my fix of mellow, experimental, Eastern-style meditative Krautrock, I'll take Baba Yaga's Collage over Yatha Sidhra's A Mediation Mass & Kalacakra's Crawling to Lhasa any day of the week. Baba Yaga was Ingo Werner (who played EMS-synthesizer, Davoli-synthesizer, solina-string-ensemble, clavinet, Fender piano and grand piano) and Nemat Darman (who played santur, sitar, tablas, congas, cymbales, gongs, kettledrum, vibraphone and drums). Just the instrumentation alone will tell you a bit of what you're in store for. This album consists of two 18-19 minute tracks; “Moksha" and “Wadia."
“Moksha" (which translates in Sanskrit to “emancipation, liberation or release") is an excellent track of somewhat Indian, but more Middle Eastern, instrumentation interspersed with deep drones, outer space synthesizers and other assorted random and wild electronics into a delicious, exotic soup. “Wadia" (Arabic for “valley") starts with some great Keith Tippett-like piano, becoming more experimental as it goes on. Eventually keyboards, gongs, chimes and other percussion takes over, starts to morph, and the song gets more intense as it goes on with frenetic drumming and keyboards, changing mood and speed often as great krautrock will often do.
As much as the tracks do continually shift, it's always effective and interesting for those who have a tolerance for long meandering tracks of assorted insanity. The album feels both composed and improvised at the same time, and is filled with enough weirdness and unpredictability to keep you on your toes. A highly enjoyable listen.
Peter Baumann Romance 76 (1976)
Romance 76 is the first and best solo album by Peter Baumann, a member of Tangerine Dream from 1972-1977, a very fertile and creative period for the band. The songs on side 1; “Bicentennial Presentation," “Romance" and “Phase By Phase" are infectious and just plain sound cool, with somewhat of a Tangerine Dream vibe, but a bit more low key and minimalistic. The rhythms are enough to add some groove and funk while still remaining stylish. There's enough drama to keep the music interesting without becoming overwhelming, and it never loses the difficult to capture slight inaccessibility of 70's German electronic music, while still somehow feeling warm and inviting. This material is guaranteed to appeal to fans of the Berlin sound - great electronic music before TD became too dependent on sequencers.
Side 2 is a very different affair, with the two part song “Meadow of Infinity" separated by “The Glass Bridge" in the middle, but it's essentially one 18-minute piece. Part one features stringed instruments, timpani and the chorus of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra to create more of a chamber music feel to go along with the electronics - it's a very intriguing mix of sounds that is far more removed from the Tangerine Dream sound than side 1. This ends up morphing entirely back to electronics for the last two parts of the epic, and it's even more mellow and removed, giving it a colder, darker, more mysterious feel than side 1. The album is definitely low key, and while it's not incredibly flashy, I've enjoyed it immensely for years for its aloof coolness.
Deuter D (1971)
Before becoming somewhat more well-known for decades of more mellow and sometimes more boring new age music, Deuter's 1971 debut D is somewhat of an unheralded experimental krautrock masterpiece. It opens with the 15 minute “Babylon," comprising several sections of menacing electronics, effected voices, backwards sounds, cold Eastern sounding minimalistic guitar and the sound of a baby crying that wafts in and out of the mix. At around the 10-minute mark, the music that had been building takes off into hyper drive with a twisted guitar/bass/keyboard groove (Deuter plays all the instruments himself), a ringing telephone, footsteps and other sound effects that in its entirety gives the impression of a big question being asked that never gets answered. Side 1 is finished out with the song “Der Turm/Fluchtpunkt" (The Tower/Vanishing Point), which again has the downer vibe of the long epic, this time with more up front fuzzy electric guitar and ethnic percussion. This is not music designed to cheer you up, but the creepiness is somehow very enticing.
Side 2 begins with one of the best named krautrock titles ever, "Krishna Eating Fish & Chips," which is an engaging, droning, deep and dark sitar work out. “Atlantis" is a 6 minute trippy percussion and electronic echo freakfest with a lot of liquid sounds. The track is very reminiscent of Popol Vuh's In Den Garten Pharaos that came out the same year, but a bit more frantic. The final track “Gammastrahlen-Lamm" (Gamma Ray Lamb) is kind of a summation and resolution of all we've heard before, where the implicit melancholia and questioning of the album is revealed to be a part of life not to be solved, but accepted.
Dzyan Electric Silence (1975)
This is one of the very best krautrock albums that isn't widely known. It incorporates all the best elements of krautrock; experimentation, randomness, a variety of styles and wacky sounds, all done in a very melodic and completely engaging manner. It draws you in and works really well as either foreground or background music. Rarely have I heard an album more aptly named since Popol Vuh's Spirit of Peace, as it is largely mellow in that it generally lacks a propulsive beat, but there's always a tremendous amount going on, as if they travelled through the silence of space and interpreted it musically using electric and electronic instruments. This completely instrumental album seems to be a precursor to the kind of music Bill Laswell was doing with various groups in the '90's.
The first track “Back to Where We Come From" has a free jazz feel to it with some great drumming, guitars and assorted electronics propelling the song along. “A Day In My Life" contains some awesome sitar and electronics that periodically threaten to spin out of control. “The Road Not Taken" is deep and dark with some great guitar noodling, chamber music violins and fantastic jazzy percussion, including a talking drum sound that really gets under your skin.
Side 2 opens with “Kahli," and this again contains sitar, this time with some great mellotron based chanting very reminiscent of some of the best moments of Amon Duul II or Popol Vuh. The lengthy 9 1/2 minute “For Earthly Thinking" opens with some mellow drumming mixed in with mellotron, and then again we have the return of the sitar and an electronic talking drum sound. This album seems to build as it goes on, introducing instruments that are then brought back and added on to subsequent tracks. The track is a wonder, even adding in some steel drums and great bass lines, funky guitar riffs, and the last 2-3 minutes have a lot of drum solo filled mayhem that eventually dissolves into more of an atmospheric finale. The final track, “Electric Silence," is the most structured track since the first track, and sounds like a great mellow free jazz drums/bass/guitar affair that brings the album full circle.
Eroc Eroc (1975)
Eroc (aka Joachim Ehrig) was the drummer for the German progressive rock group Grobschnitt. This is his first solo album, and what a beautiful, diverse album it is. The 12-minute opener, “Kleine Eva," (Little Eva) opens with a repetitive Moog wash with a couple of different keyboards on top of it; one rhythmic, one very melodic - the total result is a mesmerizing and beautiful electronic piece with even more diverse keyboard riffs and rhythms washing through as the song progresses. This really is one of the better electronic music tracks I've heard, right up there with some of the best from Tangerine Dream and Jean-Michel Jarre. The second track, “Des Zauberers Traum," (The Wizard's Dream) is again awash with Moogs and floating keyboards that puts us firmly in Tangerine Dream/Klaus Schulze territory. It's so good that you can't help but wonder what this guy was doing being a drummer. The final 48 seconds is a track made up of a very animated conversation in German (something krautrockers love to throw in) - it sounds like a very effusive and entertaining conversation.
Side 2 opens with a brief symphonic track “Die Musik vom "Ölberg"" (Music from the Mount of Olives). “Nordenland" (North Country) starts with wind, and then morphs into a somewhat traditional rock track that sounds like the soundtrack to an avant-garde '70's film. “Horrorgoll" is 6+ minutes of snatches of phrases in German spoken by several different people, as well as other sound effects all heavily echoed and reverbed, years before groups like :zoviet*france: did this regularly. “Stermchen" is 3 1/2 minutes, and sounds like the soundtrack to a different avant-garde '70's film before it ends with some wonderful electronics reminiscent of side 1. If you get the CD version of this album, there are some added tracks interspersed throughout that were meant to be on the original album that only add to its effectiveness. Subsequent Eroc albums weren't nearly as good as this one.
Jürgen Karg Elektronische Mythen (1977)
The enigmatic Jürgen Karg made one obscure electronic album in 1977, the masterful Elektronische Mythen (Electronic Myths), consisting solely of two musique concrete electronic tracks. The first track “Die Versunkene Stadt – Atlantis" (The Sunken City - Atlantis), definitely has a subterranean dark, droning, spooky quality to it. Think somewhere between Conrad Schnitzler, Sun Ra and a dark movie soundtrack. The vibe is pretty mellow and psychedelic, and while things get a bit more aggressive from time to time, Atlantis only threatens to rise, mostly content to lie there on the sea floor under an ocean of darkness.
Side two's track is “Vollmond-Selene" (Full Moon Selene). Selene is the Greek goddess of the moon. This is again a very dark outer space affair, and while it occasionally bubbles up with a bit of a Jerry Goldsmith electronic Logan's Run vibe, for the most part it's another drone-like track that Steve Roach, Stars of the Lid and countless others would try and duplicate decades later.
The album was released on Mood Records, and that's very apropos, as both tracks are very dark and moody. While it's light years from the most exciting krautrock out there and highly uncommercial, it's a very fascinating and entrancing album. Even though the electronics sound more like 1972 then 1977, it's still somehow remarkably ahead of its time.
Necronomicon Tips zum Selbstmord (1972)
Not for the faint of heart, Necronomicon's Tips zum Selbstmord (Tips for Suicide) is a ludicrously rare and expensive monster heavy psychedelic krautrock album of epic proportions that will scare most people. The opening track “Prolog" starts with a man talking, singing and laughing to himself, a foreshadowing of what's about to occur. Once the guitars come in, all hope of sanity is lost. The music is HEAVY, the guitars border on heavy metal, and the singing is often ridiculous, at times being outright operatic. These are not elements I necessarily usually enjoy in music, and yet somehow I'm drawn in by the intensity and power of the music. It's both sincere, and somehow doesn't take itself too seriously all at the same time. The guitars are joined by some nice organ at breakneck speed for an extended over the top jam that is completely outrageous, building to an operatic crescendo.
After that 7-minute mini-epic, the 11-minute “Requiem Der Natur" (Requiem Of Nature) follows, starting with some great guitar feedback sounds before a gentle guitar melody kicks in and the singing is pretty and mellow (and all in German) with nice organ backing – a welcome change of pace. After a couple of minutes, a nice guitar solo kicks in, at first muted, and then getting heavier. The vocals get dark and become chants with several voices, with some very deep and low, and some very high - it's a highly dramatic effect very reminiscent of some early Amon Duul II. The last few minutes of the song switches back and forth between killer guitar and bass solos, ending in more of the over the top dramatic chanting. This is some powerful shit.
The rest of the album follows in a similar vein with more killer guitar riffs, more operatic vocal insanity, along with some tasty acoustic guitar and organ flourishes. The last couple of tracks are all over the map musically and vocally, and I highly suspect that I'm glad I don't understand German, as God knows what they're going on about in such dramatic fashion, but it's really a highly enjoyable and unique album. These guys really meant business, whatever that might be here.
Nine Days Wonder Nine Days Wonder (1971)
Their first and best album, the self-titled Nine Days Wonder, sung completely in English, is a fun and wild affair. The opening 15-minute “Fermillion / Puppet Dance / Square / Hope? / Morning Spirit / Fermillion Himself" starts off like a long lost Amon Duul II track, complete with distorted vocals and extended guitar and violin jamming. A little after three minutes, the song changes speed and there's a saxophone solo with some great distorted guitar, then a drum solo. The song keeps changing pace every minute or so until the 8-minute mark where the singer comes back with some truly bizarre vocals. The song goes through several more changes including laughter and recited demented poetry that gets wackier as it goes on in a very Dada, Zappa-like style. Side 1 is finished out by the much shorter “Moss Had Come" that starts like a more serious rock song before changing midway to a serious folk song before moving back to rock.
Side 2 opens with the almost 7-minute “Apple Tree," and again we're firmly in Uncle Meat-era Zappa with some truly brilliant singing, great soloing and more assorted weirdness. The 13 minute “Drag Dilemma / Monotony 1 / Stomach's Choice / Monotony 2 / Interlude / Dilemma" starts with avant-garde jazz before branching off in a dozen different directions, with great flute soloing and some very dramatic and wacked out vocal recitations about what they want for dinner in the mix. The song has parts that are complete lunacy and parts that are very serious progressive rock, again very Zappa-like, and at times sounding very much like Supersister. Every time it threatens to really go over the edge, they reign themselves back in, creating a wonderful tension. The whole album is pretty wild, and it skirts the border between being immensely appealing and borderline inaccessible, all done with a lot of enthusiasm and humor.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius - Durch die Wüste (1978)
Best known for being a member of Cluster and Harmonia, and later on for a solo career that went ambient and then new age, Roedelius's first 1978 solo disc Durch die Wüste (Through the Desert) is one of the best albums of the krautrock era, and for my money more diverse and interesting than any Cluster or Harmonia album. The presence of electric guitar and drums help propel the opening track “Am Rockzipfel" (On the Coattails) in its more aggressive moments, though the song has many stops and starts alternating between really quiet more minimalistic sections and more rocking sections in a wonderfully schizophrenic manner. The 14-minute title track is one of the better long songs of the genre, starting with gentle waves crashing, hens clucking and a distant mellow piano interlude before all manner of electronic weirdness, echoes, strange mutterings and sundry sound effects start to warp reality. There are elements of Cluster and Harmonia in this track, but it's much more unhinged - an example of a solo artist getting to be indulgent that works in their favor. By around the 9 1/2 minute mark, it start to coalesce into a definable melody and gets more structured, even if the sound effects and what sounds like a really warped guitar continue to threaten to dissolve the song back into chaos.
The first song on side 2, “Johanneslust," is very peaceful and Cluster-like, “Glaubersalz" (Sodium Sulfate) is simple in its use of straight keyboards, and has a wonderfully demented quality to it. “Mr. Livingstone I Presume" uses some minimal percussion and keyboards, along with some vocalizations to give the song a tribal and somewhat Chinese feel to the song. It also sounds a bit like the more mellow short experimentations of Neu! where they mutter unintelligibly. The final track “Regenmacher" (Rainmaker) starts with some haphazard sounding tribal percussion that shortly coagulates into a nice rhythm, again with the seemingly ever present electronic sound effects bubbling in the background. The song slowly builds with new rhythmic and electronic patterns being added to the mix before ultimately dissolving into wind and rain, signaling the end of the journey through the desert. It really is a very satisfying, mellow electronic album full of nice sonic textures and sometimes organized, sometimes unorganized chaos.
Seesselberg Synthetik 1 (1973)
Synthetik 1 is the out there German electronic album you've been dreaming of. Think early Cluster, but more dramatic, organized and focused. It sounds like a couple of guys were in a room with some early oscillators, tone generators and other assorted early synthesizers and decided to record the coolest sounds they could come up with. Thankfully, they were also musicians who had natural ability and a sense of structure. The opening track (most of the tracks have very long German titles that I won't list here) creates dizzying digital fractal patterns in the air that will terrify your dog. The one-minute-long 2nd track sounds like Faust on steroids, the 90-second third track is reminiscent of sound effects from a late 70's arcade video game, the almost 4-minute fourth track sounds like music Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey would have composed. The 30-second fifth track is filled with an electronic sound pastiche that bounces back and forth from the left to the right channel at a terrific rate, and then we get to the heart of the album, two ten-plus minute tracks that end side 1 and begin side 2. Thankfully, track six starts slow, giving us a moment to catch our breath from all that has come before. Sometimes the track drones, sometimes it sparkles and attempts melody, other times it is Faust-like craziness, and still other times, it's the soundtrack to spaceships taking off and landing or to a really weird horror film.
The long opener on side 2 is the kind of thing Aphex Twin and other ambient/electronic & techno artists came up with in the 90's, but this was done in the early '70's. This is definitely the sound of your brain on drugs - very avant-garde, courageous and amazingly cool sounds that were insanely ahead of their time, and that you kind of have to hear to believe. The eighth track continues the madness with a propulsive drum machine sound before drum machines existed, with bizarre electronic whizbangs, knickknacks and doodads gurgling along in accompaniment. The album concludes with the almost 8-minute finale that starts slowly, giving you the necessary time to peel your melted brain off the floor. It doesn't last long, however, as the rest of the song sounds like a journey through your blood vessels, or your cerebral cortex, or like a possessed MRI machine. It ends with sirens, I'm assuming signaling the authorities to come and take you away. This album is one serious mindfuck.
Tomorrow's Gift Goodbye Future (1973)
This is far better than their self-titled debut album that suffered from unappealing vocals - making this album all instrumental was a wise choice and a vast improvement. This is a great krautrock album in an Annexus Quam or Xhol style, but better and more engaging. The first song “Jazzi Jazzi" is, as you might imagine, quite jazzy, but in a fun Canterbury prog kind of a way. The almost 9-minute “Der Geier Fliegt Vorbei" (The Vulture Flies By) is meatier, starting with some great bass and keyboards, then some flute, and a good rock track develops with some nice distorted guitars. Mid-song, the pace changes dramatically to a more mellow sci-fi keyboard and sound effect dominated sound, out of which grows a mellow stoner jam. “Allerheiligen" (All Saint's Day) starts off as an experimental organ-dominated track with some great jazz drumming and brilliant Fripp-like guitar leads. This is followed by very melodic and pretty keyboards that sound like acoustic guitar (or perhaps it actually is a heavily treated acoustic guitar) to finish out the track. The transitions within tracks are seamless, original and keeps things continually interesting.
Side 2 contains two brief tracks surrounding a monstrous 17-minute track. “Wienersatz" (Viennese Set) sounds very Faust-like with church organ and random sounding German conversations that evolves into them wordlessly singing in very demented fashion. The lengthy “Naturgemäß" (Naturally) is a meandering epic filled with random sounds drifting in and out of the mix with lots of echoes and clanging about in an early Can kind of a way. The song eventually finds a groove accompanied by some long sustained mellotron like tones before reverting back into formlessness. The final track is similar random krautrock lunacy reminiscent again of early Can or Faust where they deconstruct the fabric of reality, ending in de-tuned guitar string strumming and echoes.
Tyll Sexphonie (1975)
This is a plain-old fun and astoundingly diverse album with German lyrics. They didn't take themselves too seriously, but they also had some serious musical chops as well. It starts with the 5-minute “Tim" that opens with a very nice and pleasant Flamenco guitar and chimes intro before the real rock band jumps in. There are some interesting stops and starts and time signature changes that allow for some great guitar and electronic atmospherics and insane soloing along the way. It's a very auspicious instrumental, promising greatness ahead. The very brief title track introduces some very enthusiastic lyrics, with some background flourishes very reminiscent of great '60's psychedelia. “Asiatische Liebeserklärung" (Asian Declaration of Love) follows, a groovy Eastern-themed instrumental with a guitar played to sound like a sitar. “Paranoia Eines Verliebten" (A Paranoid Lover) is a male/female vocal folk track with lots of cowbell. “Nervenzusammenbruch einer Gitarre" (Nervous Breakdown of a Guitar) is another great adventurous 5-minute guitar-based track. Side 1 closes with “Siamesische Überraschung" (Siamese Surprise), which is pure sonic dementia.
Starting side 2, “Kristinas Traum" (Kristina's Dream) is full of mellow distorted guitar. At just over 7 minutes, “Delirium-Song/Grammophon" is the longest song on the album - it starts as a great San Francisco style rock song with very melodic male & female vocals. At some point, the song breaks down into applause and the sounds of people having a great time partying, and then we have the Flamenco guitar back and the male/female vocals, but now it sounds like a German folk song being sung enthusiastically at the local pub. “Rita" is a very nice pastoral ballad featuring both acoustic and electric guitar. “Suzie Steno" is another funky '60's style excursion complete with a melodic chorus, cowbell and other assorted percussion. This song, dare I say it, could almost have been a 60's hit single, if not for the song coming out on an obscure album in 1976. “Für Michael Pfadfinder" is a folky ballad with great female vocals. The short closer “Morgenlicht" (Morning Light) sounds like a moving medieval Christian-rock hymn. It's a very fitting and mysterious end to an amazingly diverse album. Sexphonie almost sounds like a compilation, or like it was recorded by several different groups, but it somehow all works together.
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