Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Big Wreck - Ghosts Full Review - Track By Track

Big Wreck - Ghosts

In a world where digital fashion and throw away musical commodities rule the day, a sliver of rock music lives on in the distant echo from days gone by. The heart and soul of old classic rock has a timelessness that transcends the age…. but sadly those that know how to do it, old schoolers, are passing on. However, never has that perennial spirit bubbled up from the depths, filtered through the timeless, emotional, strata of classic rock more powerfully than Big Wreck's Ghosts. If Albatross was your foot in the door to enjoying Big Wreck, Ghosts will kick the door down with a vengeance.

All at once it's, Zep-powerful, Floyd-ethereal, Petty-catchy, Sting-classy, Genesis-full, Beach Boys-pretty, Boss-driven, Costello-clever, Beatles-warm yet fully in the moment Big Wreck. The types and styles of these tracks are rendered with a maturity of composition and playing that rivals the BEST of all these staples of the rock pantheon while sounding new and fresh. Like all BW records it's a densely layered cake. You can listen for months and all of a sudden hear a new wrinkle, catch a new counter melody and derive new joy. Absorbing the lyrical depth alone takes many listens…. cleverly turned lines reveal a picture that becomes more profound as it grows on you. Relationships with spouse, friends, business, the creative process, mythical ghosts or inner demons are on the table and each song is multi-faceted so that they can become interchangeable upon repeated listens.

Ian Thornley, the maestro in this mix, pulls it all together with a wonderfully experienced craft and elicits timeless performance out of the band, Brian Doherty, David McMillan, Paulo Neta and Chuck Keeping. Live, many of these tracks will evolve to even greater strength, but on record the complexity weaves a visceral, emotional journey with a depth not heard in much modern rock. For Big Wreck fans, this is confirmation of what we all have been hearing underneath our Big Wreck tracks for years. This is potential realized. Most classic artists/bands, from Zep to the Beatles, that have transcended their timeline, have a golden period of 4-5 albums and nothing before and nothing after reaches the heights. Big Wreck just keeps getting better. 

You will be thrilled and amazed at this magnificent collection of music! (P.T Barnum is back!)

Here's a track by track…..

A Place to Call Home

Undoubtedly, any Big Wreck fan will have heard the single Ghosts, preview snippets, and or digital download previews of the entire album. The listening experience today is a stream of aural consciousness governed by an algorithm. Convenience rules, and has it's benefits. The juxtaposition of varied artists and multi-genre creates some nice symmetry and contrast. However, sometimes to experience an artist fully, a guided tour through his creative minds ears is required.

Do yourself a favor. Listen to this album from start to finish. It's a trip!

Home slices into your mind with a samurai sword unsheathing preparing for battle. It's just a tiny detail that you'll end up rewinding to hear, cause the volume wasn't adjusted, or your headphones weren't on yet… that pavlovian bell which sets you drooling. Or is it the steel on steel of locomotive wheel on the square wave AIC train. At high volume you can feel this in your chest; especially when the guitars sweep low. It builds in three phases. The first, just raw distorted guitar riff not unlike Caught My Eye, but this is all about down tuned menace vs CMY sexy strut. It's tight, compressed and up front; in the middle of you head, with good headphones. Then upsweep some warmer, lower guitar tones to lay the bed for the melody droning Big Wreck monks. From massive down tuned edgeless riff to ascending angelic three note wave the track gets it's full buzz on. Then from left to right, back to front, soft to loud the cymbal and drums walk front and center and the track, already thick as a mountain, opens wide and blossoms into the gorgeous Big Wreck chorus that'll punctuate this album throughout!

It's warm and enveloping even though the underlying riff is rather menacing. The melody and lyrics are sung with a multi-voiced longing. 

So how do you beg for what's your own
Pick the pieces, lick the wounds
Stoke the fire, fan the flame
Squeeze the clouds, until it rains
Would you champion the cause
'Til you find out what you've lost
Who do you dare to call your own
And where's the place that you call home?

Then a variation of a riff that longtime BW fans have known as the "unknown riff" makes an appearance. It's down tuned, slower and with the grinding vibration it takes on a whole new feel.
This very modern but has it's roots in 90's grunge. There are all kinds of little sonic lifts, pinging about in the background.

Another sweeping muscular guitar riff joins in on the second chorus and hip checks you through the thick chorus….

The second set of verses are bedded by that nasty riff and an accompanying monster riff that reverbs/wahwahs/down tunes and peals off as an accent. The vocals then step center, naked of the buzzsaw/gearshift riff and the peal off accent sets the groove.

Of course it's all accent and texture and grind. Very meaty sweaty stuff. That glorious chorus swells back up and pulls us out of the morass. It's very catchy, very hummable…. 

Ian doesn't let us out on a light note…. it stays all AIC heavy. Classic grunge feel, modern textures with a Thornley chorus. Just MASSIVE and magnificent!

I Digress

It's not often you hear the phrase "I digress" in rock music. But that's why we dig Ian's writing so much. As he has many times before, maybe this time better than ever, he takes that Zep shadow and light approach to high conclusion. The song kicks off with a modern rock riff pinched like "Rest of the World" only tighter. Dueling with the crunch is a stabby pattern that made me think of Nuno Bettencourt from Extreme. Everything is like chiseled points of sound calling and responding as Ian sings of an internal battle that has been raging for a long time. We've got dueling guitars doing call and response with the bass while the drumming rolls over the top repeatedly.

Is it imagination or jealousy?
My intuition failing me?
I'm gonna throw up from so much pride!

As he elongates his "priiiide" he lays those long deep bent sweeping Pagian notes… lots of tension is building… As if all this thinking is driving him mad!

Now the song transitions into "classic" rock mode for a bar with some Who-ish chords and a standard 4-4 beat (is that cowbell?) but just for a taste to set up the bouncy Brit-Pop chorus..

He's never gonna know what we've been through
He'll never open you
As I digress, I need tenderness
As I digress

And I MEAN bounce! Davey's bass playing propels this section as Ian's Beach Boy best croons over the top! It sooo catchy and warm you just want it to stay… it feels like LOVE!

But don't get comfortable… you're about to DIGRESS! 

Don't let 'em iiinnnnn!

Now we've got the mania firing in all directions… this episode more frantic than the last…. 
Another walk through that dumb classic rock riffage as Ian lays it out…

Another idiot smiles and comments on your eyes
Whoever he is, he don't know yoouuuuu

And we're in love again… all chiming guitars and "oooohh-ooooo"s. It's such a schizophrenic song.

Back into the mayhem which has been turned up to a blistering pace. Davey is VERY Entwistle here Chuck Keeping doing fierce crescendos while POUNDING the beat! Out of this whirlwind stomps that Who inspired power chord that reminds me of  Ram Jam's "Old Black Betty". This section thumps up to the cliff and launches into this beautiful blue ocean sized vocal "YOUUUU!"

In midair it's caught by the pop section and lands softly in love… but wait… does mania win? In Big Wreck's world evidently it does. Love is the digression. 

As the hard beat lays the foundation, the cry of "DON"T LET EM IN!" wails out! Then they start the slow burn. Deliberate riffing plays under a long tortured solo that slithers up out of the mix. It undulates around and in between the riffing. Other guitars come up to support while still more make counterpoint. The layers build as the solo become more furious. The whole thing builds like a speed metal sprint while Ian plays triplets higher and higher, adding voice after voice. It seems like there must be 10 guitars cascading! Definitely born out of the extended Come Again road version with guitars locking in! THIS is a guitar wanking at it's BEST! 


Over a stripped down structure, killer baseline, a throwback disco beat, Floyd's picking pattern insert a big Thornley/Sumner chorus and you've got Ghosts. It's nearest rhythmic relative is Floyd's "Young Lust". Most of The Wall was in reaction/answer to the Disco revolution that was happening at the time; the driving beat that gripped pop music in the late 70's. It was completely anathema to rockers, but Floyd made it not only palatable, but kind of stamped the rock over the top of the whole scene. It is with this "ghost" that Big Wreck choses to dance. Ian's, respect for, and recognition of, Sting and the Police's echo of the same Floydian "ghosts", permeates the melody. 

The subtlety throughout the track, from the delicate picking pattern that swells behind the verses, to the
tight funk slide that kicks it off, shows a willingness to explore other flavors. Live, a little Floyd was sprinkled into the intro to Big Wreck's Ladylike over the years and now it's fair game for it's own tune. 

Ian sings of longing for home, being bound by ghosts. As a musician carves out his own ground, among the influences that shape him, what does he call his own? Especially when they're drawn from ones that still reverberate today. It is a familiar Big Wreck theme, like Defined, from TPAG. It's a musical journey, but a personal one too. How do we escape the Ghosts of our DNA, or familial patterns we've inherited? Dust and light. Flesh and Spirit. Always a depth in the lyric that we expect from Ian.

As I said before, this is some different territory for Big Wreck. Not different process-wise, because it mines 70's prog for inspiration, like many BW classics have, but different because Big Wreck has never so boldly taken on disco/funk. Even if it comes though a Pink Floyd filter. And WOW what results! The spare sections of Beat and Bass set up Ian's sexy Roy Buchanan toned solos. The authenticity with which Chuck Keeping and Dave McMillan groove through this track belie their rock roots. You'd think they was funked out forever! 

The huge chorus is forever burned in my mind, like it will be in yours. Melody rules on this album! The lines change in the last chorus as Ian is wont to do. And if my scars were tattoos, I could hide them in plain view… well he's doing it. The ride out is pure funk jam. Clean tone, sinewy lines, loose jam like Control and You Caught My Eye from Albatross with some tasty interplay.

Scars or influence; they're in plain view, and I for one, hope his Ghosts never let him go.

My Life

A defiant stance or honest appraisal? ML dives into the pop world hook first! With a stark, resonant piano as lead in, it takes even more pop ground than Ian's solo work ever did. Upon first listen, Cee Lo Green came to mind. No REALLY, it could be. It's such a mature track; deliberate and measured. The pacing allows the groove to bore into your brain, as the lyric addresses past missteps and the war within.

The track builds layer upon catchy layer; double-time piano, snappy drum and bass, chimey guitars, a slightly insinuating sparkly electric guitar line, all tiptoeing up to that catchy chorus… It's mine, this is my life, still trying' to get mine right.

There are many layers that reveal themselves within the rather simple structure. The reverbed guitar, that echos to the steady beat, bounces around giving the track that jello jiggle. The doubled sweet vocal lines step up on the "Mine, this is my Life…." showcasing Ian's pop chops!

Then we come to the solo… Jimmy Page at his Outrider best! A tight B-Bender flourish that stamps an eastern flavored classic rock signature into this pop gem. It is GORGEOUS, fluid and tight! 

Different, the farthest foray into trad-pop territory yet, but it still has the muscle, introspective honesty and class that we associate with Big Wreck. I LOVE where the Big Wreck wormhole takes me.

Hey Mama

I used to love this track called Hangman's Jury by Aerosmith. It starts out on a backwoods porch just harmonica and an old slide acoustic and progresses through a modern treatment, building instruments, vocals and power as it grows; acknowledging it's Rn'R roots while infusing it with raw power. Well, Hey Mama started out as a straight up Zep tribute back when it was a solo demo by Ian, leaked in '02. While the original demo had tons of heart (a fan favorite) it only hinted at what would become of this track.

THIS is the game changer IMHO. Many times a demo is infused with an immediacy that gives it life and then it gets mushed in rendering it to final. Full production robs it of it's original vibrancy and power. Well not so with this Mama! The rootsy guitar pattern, the droning background chords, the tasty mandolin echo the same Appalachian mountain music that inspired Zep originally. Ian rasps "Hey Mama, hear me holler! Hey Mama, watch me pray! I buried you out in the backyard, I hung you high in a tree, yeah that was ME". This is some creepy backwoods drama about to throw down. Shadowing the vocal lines the guit/mando/drone heaps layer upon layer until a MASSIVE stuttering drum beat kicks it to life. 

So full, so powerful…. background vocals or effects laden guitar patterns fill in behind the lines "An empty house on a hillside, An empty boat on the sea" and it's bouncy, familiar and otherworldly all at once. Like when Jimmy Page played that boogie pattern in the beginning of Celebration Day on Zep III. It was just sooo from-another-planet yet firmly based in the delta blues. Mama continues this Celebration tradition in the BEST possible way. You can't help but dance along while the song goes on about betrayal and loss. Chuck's furious drumming and absolutely bouncy baseline (Dave McMillan channeling JPJ) gives this track a life not heard from Big Wreck since The Oaf. As a matter of fact, I think it out does The Oaf in it's pure Zep spirit! 

As it hits it's stride "She forgot about forever, and I'm stuck in yesterday" what's that?… Beatle-esque Octopuss's Garden "la, la, las" or guitar lines? Whatever it is, it adds soo much body and mood! You cannot help but get up and just ROCK!

As Ian screams "HEAR ME HOLLAR!" the band does one of those Pagian throwaway breakdowns just to loosen your spine. At full bore now this track hums along until a clipped "I'm STUCK in YESTERDAY!" spews and the first hair-stand-on-end moment comes.

Big Wreck have uncovered the most amazing lost Zep riff of all time. It's a down turning, elevating BEAST of a riff! You will head-bang and rock to this reflexively. And it's delivered with all the majesty, mystery and MASS that it deserves. All you want to do is hear it MORE… LOUDER…. and then…. tease…. the band drops into this sweet little slide eddie… just because they can…. light and dark… tight but loose…. nice warm summer vocals and mandolins…. the baseline to walk us out…. but, what happened to that riff? Where's that confounded riff?… Ian's was "stuck with yesterday" but now he launches into a mega "I'M STUCK WITH TODAY!" over the top of… THAT MASSIVE RIFF! 

This riff is such a behemoth. It's the culmination of years of distilling Zep's essence, of playing the Immigrant Song in shows, of exorcizing that Pagian possession that Ian sang of in Overemphasizing and Defined by what We Steal. It has the majestic power of Kashmir, but DRIVES like the Immigrant Song. 

The power thrown by the whole band into this ending is indeed worthy. The riff stomps, grinds, moans and groans over furious badass bass and Bonham-righteous drum flourishes while Plant-like guitar wails on the high end. The final chord rings on in afterglow with feedback and vocal like the last heaves of Godzilla. THIS is what Big Wreck is all about. THIS is what every Zep tribute from Heart's Barracuda to Rival Sons Pressure and Time ascribes to be. THIS is the 2 million hit youtube song. THIS is what my best bud (1st generation Zep-fan) said "If they had survived, THIS is what Zeppelin would be playin'!" You can't ask for a better endorsement. 'Nuff Said.


Swelling up with a measured Page-Midnight Moonlight-like strum introducing the haunting melody line, Diamonds is all about mood and emotion. Haunting turns upbeat as the bright counter melody takes hold. A real classic English countryside vibe. As the track builds toward the chorus with all the nice chiming guitars, then various percussion, tabla, sticks and a sinewy eastern sounding slide guitar all coalesce to set up the change. 

Huge drums, almost military cadence and the plaintive slide line, now massive like only Ian can do, dominates!  The chorus is MEGA! The melody is reminiscent of Ian Anderson from Thick as Brick's Skate Away. It undulates while climbing triumphantly yet pulls up just short to tease the next verse. 

The lyrics speak of longing for a deeper relationship, or lost connection. An admission of weakness, a plea for understanding and a wonder at love's loyalty. All expressed with a loving, longing, yearning which is made manifest in the thick slide line.

The beat skips along and tumbles down as the chorus become immense. Like a diamond, whose quality only reveals itself as a refraction of pure light, the protagonist, in recent darkness acknowledges his separation from the source and longs for understanding. The melody beautifully embodies the sentiment. You WILL find yourself singing along.

The solo is pure Ian Thornley at his most magical slide best! If you liked the slide work in Albatross or Under the Lighthouse, this showcases it to a whole new level. Somehow the sound combines the Hibernian and Middle Eastern styles at once. Bagpipes and violins; BOY would I love to hear an orchestral arrangement of this!

A rousing, triumphant chorus concludes and then the coda walks us off in percussion and guitar chords droning on into the distance, setting up a reprise of the slide's haunting moan. Like a bestial bellow over a far away hillside the melody reverberates. It touches the heart like nothing Ian has done to date. This track is a classic beauty.


Like I said in the intro, as if sifting through the bones of the era of the dinosaurs of classic rock, which had it's roots in folk and the blues but was shot through with electric power, Friends gives us a perfect example of Ghosts' essence. THIS is the archetype that suggests the pool of inspiration that Ian Thornley so adroitly pulls from.

It begins quietly. We strain to hear this folk/blues/middle eastern tinged acoustic pattern as if played though and old radio tuning the dial. Astride this pattern, steps the MASSIVE riffs of Big Wreck. Confidently picking up the rhythm of the riff and augmenting it, Thornley throws a sexy Pagian swagger into it and OWNS the Zep imprimatur. With all the slippery shimmy of Dancing days and the bash-crash of the Kinks/Page You Really Got Me the band hammers out an age old tale of friendship, dissolution and reflection.

To re-enforce the middle eastern roots, the cadence and melody is that of "the snake charmer song". You can read about it here: http://www.shira.net/streets-of-cairo.htm Incorporating simple snippets and aurally collaging the influences, Ian gives us crumbs to follow, passionately explaining, what I think, is the journey from original Big Wreck to it's modern counterpart. The use of the "snake charmer" song might just have more meaning than just whimsy in regards to the music biz. All the whimsical underpinnings are delivered with anvil strikes and spewed realization. Hard, thick, bottom heavy riffs chug along accented by slices of lap steel ringing though the mix… when the song abruptly drops off the cliff into a pool of refreshing reflection.

As one more day just fades away
With words too proud to say
And my head's still overflowing

It drops us into a dreamy, chiming, power ballad expressing the regret of inaction to rekindle an old friendship. Swooping slide guitars swell under the melody as the drum cadence shuffles and the bass bubbles… for a spell.

The funky slide kicks it back in to gear and there's more expository lyric. The guitar parts get more meaty and staccato…. lyrics delivered more fiercely. Another dive back into the pool where the baseline takes a lingering walk through.

As if crafting a steel weapon, the song pounds us into shape and then dips us into the tempering bath repeating the process to prepare us for the battle at the end.

Breakdowns a'comin'! Dissonant overlapping long guitar notes and a one two snare set up the Pagian "For Your Life"-like stuttering riffs to follow… two, three, hey! And out of the darkness into the present.

And now we're stuck up in a pregnant pause
But we're not barefoot at all

I include these lines in the review to point out the clever use of familiar phrases. Being "barefoot and pregnant" means to be burdened with child and ignorant of outside options. The record biz keeps their thumb on a band like a bad man exercises control over his woman by keeping her burdened with child and captive. The artist, "pregnant" with new music is ready to deliver, but now Big Wreck are seasoned professionals with the wherewithal to explore new options; no longer "kept". There's always a clever twist of a phrase to be found in Big Wrecks' music. In fact the lyrics change in the last verses, as piano chimes in to sweeten, revealing even more about the root cause of friendships lost and old patterns that "keep a good man down". 

After a herculean shout the stop/start stutteringly intricate riff plays in and out with the drums and bass and the tune tumbles along with a virtuoso power display born in the dueling guitar portion of All Is Fair on tour in 2012-13. VERY thrilling! 

Still Here

A distant drone… a one-two picking pattern, tension escalates and an ominous guitar treads forward as it swells louder it turns around and blossoms into a very vibey cascading echofest. The cool drums lay down a slick groove. If Control was all cool desert night drive, this is a cool tropical jungle, thick with reverb flittering about like so many insects. The aural foliage is dense and colorful.

Ian lays out a tale of betrayal and dashed expectations. Sounds like the age old tale of the hopeful artist in the cynical record biz. Promises, promises. However, this is not the angry, reactionary, rage-junkie stuff though. It's more waking dream than nightmare. 

So while they satisfy their want to ink a deal
A world of status finds a home, oh no
With all the stories, new and old
We're thinkin' this is all a dream

The mood and delivery is very restrained even in the soaring vocal lines. No bombastic drums, just cool Fleetwood Mac groove. This keeps growing on me. It will sneak up on you…. and once it does, you'll find yourself just aping the groove, for months to come.

Ian sings even more languidly than on Control. Little echos of the Police swirl about. Intimate voicing on the verses draw you in. Parts remind me of Porcupine Tree's Arriving Somewhere But Not Here.

The vocals are treated differently on this verse…. 

So while they satisfy their want
You're signing on the dotted line
Word to the wise
You'll never see what you're trying' to find

A word from some wise counsel? Ian's inner voice? Careful what you wish for. Regardless, they're nowhere to be found and he's still here! Still here pursuing music for the love of it…. not chasing a market. Compose it and they will come. Great song…. but wait, it's not over….. 

During the outro it gets REALLY interesting… there's this nice dissolution of the riffs into long reverbed peal offs. It gets heavy and you just expect the fade, but from out of the dense chaos walks this sexy samba. A latin walk to the end with bongos, timbali, guiro (look it up), acoustic guitar… so cool… so sexy. You'll want hit repeat immediately.

Off And Running

This track, out of all the others, touches on an area of music that Ian dabbled in when he collaborated with Casey Marshal on a project called Fairfield. It had a classic Eagles/California pop sound done with incredible chops and taste. THAT is a project that I hope one day Ian and Casey will re-visit. 

The individual instruments, loosely coalesce, each joining in until the drums kick and they take residence under the loping slide riff. It feels like Zep doing Tom Petty doing Ten Years gone….  all the accents are country licks. The drums are flat and in the back and the Davey's baseline lopes like SpaceHog's "In the Meantime". There's even a B3 in the background!!! On a luscious album this song sits in the "lushest" of pockets!

All those wires that froze a man
They can't keep up with me
If you hide in broken-promise-land
You can't get too close, ya see

Ian sings with his best laid back TP inspired attitude… VERY cool. Big lush chorus. Tasty background vocals by, guess who???? Casey Marshall!

Off and running through the backdoor
Off and running through the fields
As long as I can find the way home
Too often I run for what's real

The guitar work on this track won't attract attention like, Million Days, but to me it is even MORE exquisite! The accents, the fills, the beds are like candy. The bass notes are given lots of room to define themselves. The separation on the guitars really allows this track to breathe. You can't help but to get swept away.

And of course it turns and the HAMMER drops. Just like in Ten Years Gone when Jimmy launches the B-17 bombers at the 3:20 mark, Big Wreck runs for what's REEEEALL! ZEP, ZEP, ZEP…. that's what's real! Chuck lays down pure Bonzo and the riffage wraps thick! Ian admonishes as the guitar accents like banshee thrusts!

How would your life be
Right without me
I know where my peace of mind will come from

Blown wide open
Out in the open
How much further 'til I never come back

Then that velvet riff comes back…. that overwhelming chorus… Eagles-ish background vocals… run, run, run…. soooo much to listen to…. and we're out… except not.

The B3 rides out like Church…. the full last minute is solely the melody lovingly teased out of the organ…. the feel is incredible… it's almost Holy! The hair WILL stand!

Come What May

Come What May, slashes where the Canadian single Ghosts, glides. Like bookends on the album's stylistic forays, they frame the range of approaches on this magnificent effort.

The opening sounds like a tighter, less bombastic Foo Fighters riff. Then it takes on a bit of the Police. Ian dabbled with a Police-ish feel on Tiny Pictures' Man Overboard, but it felt caught between Big Wreck's heavy pacing and that punk Police clip. CWM has finally figured out that formula. The chord progression is VERY Andy Summers. Even the that baseline has that Synchronicity feel. Big Wreck are again mining the very BEST of the 80's in this track. It is also one of those tracks that displays the lineage between the roots rock of Springsteen, the poly rhythms of the Police and the frenetic drive of the Foos.

When I first heard this I played it like 10 times in a row. It's so bouncy and energetic! Certainly the fastest Big Wreck track to date. It has an almost punk pace.

As spare and tight as the guitars are, the bass is full and meaty and drives the track. Chuck is channeling pure Stuart Copeland in both style and swing. It swells full in the chorus and an audience of Ian's joins in to "Throw myself in the river!" It gets sooo full that I can almost hear Sprinsteen's Roy Bittan piano chops banging out in the background!

That back and forth between tight and explosive only lays more distance between in the second section. The guitars go totally tight slash as Ian sings 

I'm fed up with the pace of saving face
I'm squeezing what I can't replace

Squeezing what he considers the precious parts of life… until they are missing pieces… again. Squeeze tight until it releases… and oh it does. The chorus is amazingly cathartic! The bass and drums pound it out and Ian throws in one of his great tumble down bumble bee accent runs that we all love. As we all long for deliverance and Ian pleads to be baptismally cleaned in the river… we are pleading for a signature solo to carry us off…. but not this time…. it's a sweet cup of Ian a cappella that would make the Beach Boys proud!  What a way to end a track!

Surprise! An 8 count and the chorus slams back in! So DAMNED EXHILARATING!

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