Thursday, June 12, 2008

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark - an introduction

A series of little songs, set bleakly, with adrift emotions. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark has an overall drollness and coolness that somewhat lessens the impact of the songs' melodies and some of the album’s electronic sounds. The drollness is most obviously conveyed through the vocals of Andy McCluskey, whose voice is less lyrical than gestural or even conversational, in that its tonalities seem more to be inflecting various conversational tones than melodic ones. The melodies too are often droll or made to appear droll, in the main seeming to lack the brightness and breadth of melodic range that one might expect in more conventional pop or rock music.

This is well established and demonstrated in the third song, “Mystereality”, where McCluskey’s voice seems to glide over the melodic variations in the song, rather, expressing them in a series of distinct conversational tones. Obviously McCluskey is singing the tune; but the way he wraps his voice around it seems to elide notes, or to mask the variations in the notes, so as to generalise the melody towards conversational tones. This is partly effected by his half-slurry, half rounded way of pronouncing the words, which in other circumstances manifests a histrionic quality (as in “Maid of Orleans” off OMD’s 1981 album, Architecture and Morality). The overall effect of the singing of the verses is that of McCluskey making a point, as if he is speaking his view to the listener: the melodic range of the song is subsumed to a movement from a midrange conversational tone to a higher one, where McCluskey’s “point” is made, down to a lower almost mumbled tone, as if, in conversation, he is adding a coda to his point. This in no way totally describes the melody of the song, as there is more variation to it than this would suggest. However, it is the way in which McCluskey controls the melody through his voice which tends to dampen the effect of the range of the song’s melody.

There is a contextual imperative for this. The effect of punk and the early new wave is to lessen a desire for the crafted or well-made, and to emphasise the ready-made and non-virtuoso. A song can’t appear to be worked-over. There is also an imperative to reduce the impact of the emotional or the highly-wrought, unless it be emotionally negative or angry.

Specific to this song, the effect of McCluskey’s vocalisation is to lessen the impact of the “point” that McCluskey is making, or the content of the lyrics. The lyrics become less a projected expression of some value beyond the ordinary or the negotiable, as might be expected in other more melodic songs, but appear to become more tied to the voice that is singing them. In effect, the lyrics become an expression of one viewpoint, one opinion, expressed by the disembodied voice. They become relative and negotiable, rather than insightful, absolute, didactic, or directive. In the end, there is no point to be made, just a view to be expressed.

Yet even this is further minimised. McCluskey’s vocals are at times not clear, so we often do not hear what he is singing. There is a nihilism in this lack of clarity, as if even the view which is being articulated in the end may have no value. This is what contributes to the songs’ bleakness and nullity. This is expressed in a number of ways. In “Mystereality”, for instance, the last two lines of the verse have an under-the-breath quality that suggests a defeatism of the voice, or a put-upon quality. Another example is “Bunker Soldiers”, where the spelt-out words of the chorus are hard to make out at first, partly because there are two things being spelt out simultaneously in the left and right speakers, with melodic lines intermittently sung behind this. On closer listening, it seems that the title is being spelt-out, as one expects with this type of device (compare, for instance, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”, Hall and Oates’ “Method of Modern Love”, and so on). However, careful listening reveals that two different things are being spelt-out: in the left speaker, indeed, the title is being spelt-out, but the letters are jumbled – “K-B-N-U-R-E-S-D-R-S-O-L-I-E”; while random letters and numbers are spelt-out in the right speaker. Both the “words” being spelt out, and the collision between them, is almost a reflection of the line “there’s no use talking, there’s no decisions”, because nothing can come of an attempt to make sense.

Yet the effect of this is not to be completely negative. OMD is not a band whose oeuvre fixates on nihilism (unlike other bands of the time, like Joy Division). “Electricity” (to which I will return) is an example of a song that advances a positive viewpoint. Nonetheless, the mitigation of this album’s negativity is not normally through such a positive moderation or modulation. Instead, there are various gestural manoeuvres (not confined to the vocalisations) which glint off the stone of the album’s bleakness, and twist it out of familiar emotional territory (as uncommon as that territory may have hitherto been in pop music generally). The effect is to leave a shimmer of abstraction around the bleakness of the album’s emotional drive, such that the bleakness tends not to take ground in personal experience or political intent. Through the album, and much of OMD’s work, there is a continual interplay between the particular and the mundane, the purposely abstract, and a dismissive disconnectedness that is in itself abstract, but also has a peripatetic, exploratory quality, without being programmatically so. It is as if OMD are letting themselves fall into a statelessness in their music, while nattering around with the bits and pieces of a post-industrial life with which little sense can be made.

In the first verse of “Mystereality”, much of which is not easily decipherable, there is a moment in the middle of the verse where McCluskey sings “tick tick tick tick tick tick” in a kind of hiccup which sticks out from the rest of the verse. In a way this compounds the sense of no-sense of the lyrics. However, it also has a quality of unwiring of the conversational logic of the song, a non-linguistic tic in the conversational flow. The repetition is in fact, it seems, linguistic, as by the tone and rhythm of the words it seems to resolve into a verbal expression that follows on from the foregoing lyrics; but I am still unable to make sense of what this repeated word is, and it remains a fleck that seems to make the song become more bleak (by being indecipherable and hence alienating) but also to make it skate over its bedrock of bleakness (again, by being indecipherable and hence more abstract, less tied to a distinct emotional expression).

This is taken further in “Julia’s Song”, where the lyrics become almost impenetrable due to McCluskey’s vocal gymnastics and “hysterical” tones. It is hard to find the exact word to describe the vocal mannerism which inflects much new wave singing of the time, and which McCluskey employs at intervals through this song, most notably in the first verse. More broadly in the new wave, it can stretch into a histrionic somewhat tearful or even hysterical tone (as when employed by Ian McCulloch for instance), but it is not decidedly tearful in this song. It is a way of unloosening the voice, from conventional forms of expression or singing styles, and disconnecting the vocals from what might otherwise be expected in a pop song. This disconnection is obviously taken to an extreme by McCluskey being barely understandable at times in the song, so that the vocals seem in a way to become a naked expression of emotion rather than of any ideational content.

However, emotional expression is not the ultimate effect of these vocalisations, because at times it is hard to know exactly what emotion McCluskey is expressing, especially as he begins to extemporise towards the end of the song. For instance, there is a kind of high-pitched wail at the end of the last verse of the song, but this is neither desperate or aggressive, and it is hard to align it with any particular emotion. But it also lacks a sense of “going off the rails” – it’s not as if this comes across as some sort of expression of increasing insanity. The lack of referentiality of the emotions starts to unhook the song, so that it seems to start losing any connection with the putative intent of the lyrics.

This works in a dynamic way across the song. It is not that the song’s vocals are entirely unhooked; nor that the lyrics are entirely indecipherable; nor that the song overall is some kind of rambling abstract piece. There is a sense that the song is in a state of perpetual unhooking, but of never quite being unhooked, because of the way the various manoeuvres in the song operate. There is the musical structure and material of the song itself, which is relatively obvious and simple: some simple electronic and percussive rhythms overlaid by a simple bass line and simple drum line, with some sustained electronic notes filling in the sonic space, and a glinting guitar-ish synth line moving through the song. The synths themselves are generally relatively sweet and pretty in the unadorned style of the time (compare, for instance, the contemporaneous “New Life” by Depeche Mode, or OMD’s own “Enola Gay”). In effect, musically the song is basically a simple piece of new wave pop, with few if any musical pretensions.

However, these elements seem to keep slipping or spinning out from the obvious: the rhythm of the opening synth has a slightly incongruous calypso feel, which is surprising both for the genre and for the mood of the piece. It is important to note here that the calypso feel is only slight however – it is an element that seems to skew the song slightly, but not into completely unfamiliar territory, nor into a new genre. This opening synth and percussion are also produced in a somewhat ethereal way, given a fair bit of spread and space – the synth is spread up and central, the percussion is also spread but back, behind the synth, giving a zoned out rearward size to the piece, as if it is receding from the listener. But these sounds, especially the percussion, are given a distinctness that does not diminish. There is, of course, a dub influence in these sounds and rhythms, but it is not strong enough to give the song dub’s familiar blissed out drug-state feel.

The bass, too, though simple, has a slight incongruity, due to its forward presence in the mix and its decidedly non-electronic presence in the midst of the electronics. Even the drums, for instance, have a spread and quality which makes them feel less acoustic than they otherwise may be (it is hard to tell whether they are acoustic drums treated in the mix, drums with electric pick-ups, or electronic drums). The bass comes across as a kind of awkward lock-step attempt at matching the rhythms of the synths and the percussion, which have a more fluid feel (though this is only relative to the bass, and is assisted by the spread with which they are endowed in production).

So musically, the song retains a basic solid structure that is continually loosened without ever being completely broken down. In fact, there is never a sense that the song will break down, rather, it is as if the song is spreading out from a solid core. This is realised structurally in the introduction of the somewhat gothic organ-sounding synth at 0:28, which both spreads the sound and adds an unsettling note to the song. Again, the song is never totally unsettled: it has an instrumental break, here fulfilled by the jews-harp sounding synth which is a hallmark of OMD (e.g. “Enola Gay”, “Talking Loud and Clear”), which is simple and pretty, and gives the song an element of a hook that it lacks in the vocal melodic line. This hook returns through the song under the return of the vocals, giving it a further element of solidity. But, as happens in other ways, the hook does not quite fully ground itself – its key changes down, and it remains as a bass element to the song, rather than a more melodic element, as if it is truly going to ground. This loosening-but-never-loosened sense is also conveyed in the introduction of the guitary synth (about 0:22, though it is never quite clear at exactly what point it enters the song) – not just because we are never quite sure whether this synth is in the song at any one point or not, but also because it is never quite clear whether this is in fact a synth or not – my label of “guitary” indicates that it may well be a treated guitar, but the synth never makes its presence felt strongly enough to determine this.

The vocals work in a similar way. The lyrics of the first verse can be deciphered to an extent, as a lament about alienation in the modern western world. However, to my ear, never having read a documented version of the lyrics, this verse remains somewhat obtuse, largely due to the way McCluskey enunciates and sings it. As noted above, the clarity of the vocals varies across the song, with the histrionic edge to McCluskey’s voice disappearing to a large extent in the second verse, but replaced by more vocal manipulation of the lyrics, so that when we might expect the lyrics to resolve in clarity they slip away from us again, to the extent that McCluskey’s voice settles onto some non-linguistic manipulations of the words. We kind of grasp the intent of the song, and kind of don’t; we kind of think it’s about something to do with alienation (after all, one of the clearest lines is “someone advised me to die”). Even structurally, and despite the foregoing comments, it is unclear what is a verse and what isn’t; the verses seem to slip, or to slip into each other; as indeed the lines seem to slip, as McCluskey elides words and melody into each other.

In this regard, structurally, “Mystereality” works in a similar way to “Julia’s Song”. The saxophone break in “Mystereality” seems to have the most vitality and expressiveness in the song, providing it with the closest thing to its “hook”. But the saxophone is also somewhat unexpected – saxophones are not normally associated with the new wave, though by this time they had some currency via ska, albeit played, as one might expect from the ska influence, in a non-virtuosic gestural way. Generally speaking, up till now, saxophones are associated with some level of virtuosity, or at least some sense of tradition via genres of jazz, soul and rhythm and blues. As this is primarily an electronic song, lying outside these traditions, the saxophone therefore has a slightly unhinging role. This is also compounded by the fact that, despite its status as hook, it is well-contained and, as stated before, non-virtuosic – this is not a free-form jazz-inspired solo. The melody that it plays is also reasonably droll, and the way in which it is played – the sound of the sax, as opposed to the virtuosity of its playing – is fat and somewhat laboured. The sax is therefore enacting a series of double movements: in melodically lifting the song to an extent (giving it its “hook”), it also uncouples the drollness of the song; but at the same time the sound of the sax, and the melody it plays, is nonetheless somewhat heavy, thereby dampening the effect of the hook itself. It is an odd manoeuvre, but one that is reasonably common in the new wave: the sax here enacts both an unfolding of the song, and also a folding over of the song into itself. It represents a frustration, and this, in a wider political sense, can be seen to be a frustration with established structures; but aesthetically it also ends up in enacting a kind of liberation, almost in spite of itself, because by both compounding and undercutting itself, it is not quite capable, ultimately, of settling on expressing any one defined thing.

Across the broad sweep of the album, this is also enacted by the two tracks “The Messerschmitt Twins” and “Dancing”. The former song, as end of side 1 on vinyl, is a closure of a sense, or a resolution of the foregoing tracks on this side. It begins as an ambient instrumental, kind of zoning out any earnestness of the foregoing tracks (and in particular, the earnestness of the immediately preceding track, “Electricity”). The sound of the electronics is trippy in that ambient way. However, more specifically, they sound as if they are run backwards, so they paradoxically lack a definition or end point. This might not seem to be how backwards sounds would operate – by running backwards, they would always be running to the point of initiation, rather than given the spread that is afforded by plosion. However, when the sounds are continually running to their initiation point, this gives a sense of multiple initiations, and consequently, by that very fact, a lack of a sense of initiation or resolution.

Even this, however, is only a perception, and is in fact inaccurate. Listening more attentively to these sounds, we hear that the sounds do play forwards, but the kind of echo given to them has a roundedness that suggests that they are playing backwards. These sounds therefore have a coiled shiftingness to them – moving forwards and backwards in the one movement. But this variation operates within a generally stable perceptual schema – we do not perceive that the notes are flying off uncontrolled or randomly, they play out in a fairly consistent rhythm.

Yet these notes are overtaken by a more conventional song, set to waltz time. There is no automatic connection between the two, though there is a kind of structural similarity, in that each apparently sustained note of the opening electronic sounds is actually split into two – a higher sustained note, and a lower modulated note that seems to “wobble”. (This in itself compounds the coiled variation in the sounds.) This repeated movement from higher to lower over and over is mirrored in the general move in the verse melody which moves from a lower melodic level in one line, followed by a higher melodic level in the succeeding line (though this is not sustained in the final line of each verse). So the verses both supersede the introduction, and also “kind of” develop it.

In a sense, the song has a continual wobble to it, that never seems to even out. This is manifested further in the addition of some synth sounds under the vocals – a high pitched synth playing a simple clear melody with a slightly off-kilter quality to it that appears at about 3:04 and becomes the instrumental break, and a wobbly Autobahnesque synth with a pastoral quality, also appearing in the instrumental break. These sounds serve to wash out the vague anthemic qualities of the song’s melody, giving it a dissipated feeling. There is also something in the quality of these sounds which is reminiscent of a longwave radio transmission, perhaps in their echoic quality and the electronic wobbliness of the sounds, and this quality seems to affect our hearing of the vocals, so that they take on a slightly disembodied quality, losing some of their portent. This is gently underscored by the fact that, in muted form, these sounds also close the song, even at the point where it seems that the song is closing on a fade-out of the vocals. Combined with the overall production of the song, particularly the washy reverb on the vocals, and the white noise that lies behind much of the song, the song seems to lose a sense of itself, seeming to drift off balance, and by being the song closing side 1, thereby setting the album off balance. The song therefore has a double movement in that it begins as an easing down of the earnestness of the previous tracks, as it draws side 1 to a close, but then it cuts into something of an anthem, which in a way could be a kind of closure to side 1. But the anthem itself is undercut or more correctly dissipated by the production and the electronic sounds interfused with it. In the end, it leaves side 1 somewhat cut adrift, with a somewhat unhinged quality – it is neither clearly an easing down, nor a closure. If anything, and as is typical of OMD, “The Messerschmitt Twins” has the effect of wondering: leaving the listener wondering, and expressing the feeling of wondering, so that rather than closure, the end of side 1 is an opening, but into what it is never entirely clear. The album structure might suggest that this ending is a prelude to side 2, but it doesn’t quite work this way: the first song on side 2 is “Messages”, whose tone does not clearly pick up on the wondering of “The Messerschmitt Twins”. The tone and structure of “Messages” suggests that we have already fallen into a mood or outlook, as a result of a trajectory that is separate from any that side 1 has led us to.

Though lacking the same structurally critical point in the album, “Dancing” takes up a similarly loosening role in the album. As with “The Messerschmitt Twins”, which follows the more definite and punchy “Electricity”, “Dancing” follows the fairly simple and clearcut “Red Frame/White Light”, which is more or less structured round the repeated title line. “Dancing”, like “The Messerschmitt Twins”, has a decided wobble, and this is not confined to the slightly boozy synth sounds that dominate the song. It seems to wobble into our hearing: it starts with the somewhat thin reproduction of a recording of some orchestral waltz, which then morphs, through the device of its apparent slowing down (as if played on a wind-up gramophone that is winding down) into a later era orchestral dance tune with some jazz influence. However, the morphing is not as seamless as this. At the point of winding down, there is an overlay of the jew’s harp synth, playing what seem to be random notes, so there is a slightly skewed quality to this change. As the jazz-influenced dance tune takes over, there is a synthetic rhythm sequence that runs through it; but again, this part of the song is not as simple as this seems, as the orchestral waltz seems to continue to push its way into the mix (though it is not entirely clear whether it is the waltz, or an element of the dance tune), and there are also a couple more random jew’s harp synth notes.

The song then seems to resolve into a somewhat conventional piece of electronic corn: the aforementioned boozy synth concocting a swaying kitschy fx-oriented dance. However, the kitsch is somewhat mediated by the return of the jew’s harp synth and some more radiophonic string-sounding synth, that sonically seems to warp the song into more of a headspace. The boozy synth returns, but then gets replaced by vocoded vocals and the radiophonic synth, and the boozy synth gets twisted up and away. Movements like this keep happening, while the electronic “brushed” drum rhythm is maintained. The overall effect is to “de-kitsch” the kitschness of the boozy synth, so that it starts feeling less corny and more electronic: less connected to a genre or a style, less connected even to a sense of musicality, and more connected both to a sense of its own technological-ness, and to a sense of displacement and warping of perception. As elsewhere, the movement is not complete: there is a sense that the boozy kitschness remains somewhere, somewhat uncomfortably; and there is a sense that the warping is a way of compensating for the reduction to a need for this kitschness. This tends to make the song feel that it is not quite successful in some ways: it has the quality of being the production of a more conventional artist “mucking around” with electronics, without necessarily treating them seriously (compare for instance Paul McCartney’s “Temporary Secretary” of the same year); but the feeling of lack of success also contributes to the effect of the song’s not-quite-thereness. Because the song is only not quite successful – it kind of is and kind of isn’t, and that seems to be inherent to the way in which the song’s sounds work as well.

This seems to be acknowledged in the succeeding (and closing) song, “Pretending To See The Future”, which continues a thread of wobbling radiophonic synth, though this drops to the background as the vocals appear. This song is more conventional structurally and sonically, with an anthemic quality reminiscent of “Julia’s Song”, and it is as if the halfwayness of “Dancing” cannot be sustained into “Pretending To See The Future”, as “Dancing” itself conveys. Nonetheless, “Pretending To See The Future” does not quite settle either. The vocals are deep and produced so that they are not entirely clear, set in a space which gives them both a ghostly and a receding quality, like a face dimly appearing from shadows. Moreover, as the song builds to a crescendo, where we would expect the themes of the song to be projected most strongly, McCluskey’s (and maybe Humphreys’?) voice becomes multitracked, with the various voices starting to compete in the mix – it is as if the various vocal tracks are fighting to be heard and fighting to make their individual points made.

“Electricity” works in a similar vein. Being OMD’s first single, and already established before this album, it has an iconic and solidifying presence in the album. It would appear to be the focus around which the album is likely to be organised, given that the single is designed to sell the album, and given that, being the single, it is likely to have the most punch of any song on the album. It is also clearly a message song, thereby accreting to itself some sort of authority. There is a joy to this song as well, most obviously in the pretty sound of the jew’s harp synth, in its spiky rhythm, in the simple earnestness of the singers, and in the simple catchiness of the melody. Though the song’s message is somewhat bathetic, this lends it a simple pleasure, especially as there is an underlying belief in the power of technology (the point of the song being that it is wasteful technology that is the problem, rather than technology itself). Naturally enough, this is echoed in the music itself – the pretty simple electronic melody is a statement of the joy of technology, and is also a statement of faith, for this electronic music (in the context of the day) is the music of the future.

However, to start with, “Electricity” seems to get lost on this album. It’s placed fourth, which is not the norm for a single. It’s made to follow its B-side (which seems to give it a subordinate position), which is more melancholic and slow-paced. And its production style is somewhat incongruous with the rest of the album (and even with that of its B-side, which appears to have been re-recorded for the album). It has a lightness and dreamy size compared to the dark closeness of a song like “Mystereality”, or the dark depth of a song like “Pretending To See The Future”.

In itself, “Electricity” also has a quality of desperation which contributes to the feeling of it being lost in this album. The opening rhythms seem to labour into the space: of course this has a purpose within the logic of the song, as it partially conveys the sense of an engine starting up (presumably electric-powered, though obviously the logic of this is not quite clear – it seems that OMD are using this engine rhythm as a marker for technology in general). The sense of labouring is also partially a function of the song’s message and point of view – pushing an argument for solar electricity as opposed to other forms. Yet it also makes the song feel as if it is pushing against something aesthetically, especially as once the song gets going, the melody line of the jew’s harp synth is somewhat buried in the overall rhythmic thrust of the song, and one of the rhythm tracks – the “brush” synth - thickens the space, and somewhat drags at the rest of the sounds. There is a sense that there is always something pulling at the song’s rhythm.

In addition, the song overall comes across as very small, as if it is somehow diminished in our hearing. This is largely a function of the jew’s harp synth that dominates it – a small, contained and “pretty”, rather than dominating, sound, playing a simple melody, and somewhat overshadowed by the rhythm sounds. In the wider context of the time, the diminishment is compounded by electronic music still having a tentative position in the popular music scene, treated with some distrust and even disdain, as not being “real” music. The vocals paradoxically add to this sense of diminishment, paradoxical because, though both singers are singing the lyrics, leading to an expectation that there would be more weight added to the vocals, there is less weight, both because the lyrics become distributed across two voices (rather than given the clear authority of a single voice), and because the voices seem a little bit weak, and are placed in a space away from the listener, almost as if they are in the back of the performance space. Moreover, the voices do not harmonise – singing the same notes, the melody loses size.

In a sense, the song falls in on itself constantly, because in its continual moves to make a statement, it is framed in a way that lessens the impact of the statement. By the time that the song gets to its point – “the alternative is all we want, the final source of energy – solar electricity” – it seems to have lost its point, compounded by the closing lines, which are not “solar electricity”, but just “electricity”. Even the point itself is somewhat wistful and bathetic, rather than didactic: it is an expression of desire, rather than of direction. This is realised vocally in the repetition of the first syllable of the title in the fade-out.

This falling in on itself is also symptomatic of a wider musical context, one promulgated by the new wave but taking a particular line in new wave electronic music. I have already glanced on how this works in this song, in terms of the “diminishment” of the song, and its sense of desperation. As a function of the song’s wider musical context, its joy in its own simple technological beauty folds in on itself. The electronic melody and playing is simple – an explicit contrast to the more extravagant sounds of synth masters preceding the new wave, such as Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson. This gives this type of music a kind of redundancy – for all the technical wizardry available, the most that is made of it is to produce pretty simple melodies and rhythms, almost as if there is no point to all this technology (a theme initially advanced by Kraftwerk, and taken up by many of the techno-pop bands of the time, including OMD). For “Electricity”, this adds to the sense of defeatism of the song, no less because the song itself is about the advantages of one form of technology over another. There is a sense that the redundancy and simplicity of the song’s technology represents an opportunity missed, or a future passed by (just as, in the lyrics, solar electricity is a kind of future passed by for more conventional and “heavyweight” electricity generation). It is as if the song is a manifestation of Laurie Anderson’s “walking and falling” – a movement forward is also a kind of degradation. This is subtly underscored by the soft edge to the production of the song and the recession of the vocals in the space, and the soft slightly fuzzy feel of the synths, which lend a quality of deterioration to the sound of the song.

In total, the album feels both small and somewhat heavy. The songs are small in scale, melody and sound. Yet they have a complicated internal aesthetic logic, comprised of a series of internally recursive movements folded in on each other, a logic which is also made to work itself out to some extent over the length of the album. The effect is to make the album feel like it is skating over itself: at a point where it might seem to solidify around a conventional point (such as with the single “Electricity”), that point by its nature seems to slightly shift within itself, and thereby cause the album to skip a beat. It creates a kind of questioning energy, where there is a seemingly endless possibility for things to change, even where that possibility is never fully realised.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark; Architecture and Morality available at
"Maid of Orleans", "Method of Modern Love", "Respect", "New Life", "Enola Gay", "Talking Loud and Clear", "Temporary Secretary", "Walking and Falling" available at iTunes store

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