Daniel’s Top 25 Albums of 2016


danielHonourable Mentions

Before I get to the list proper, I’d like to just give a brief mention to some records (and an EP) that while not necessarily the next in line to be in the list, were ones that really made me think this year. These are the albums that weren’t quite great but were certainly interesting.

Cairiss – Fall (EP)

a0734182989_10Blackgaze, Post-Rock, Symphonic Metal | Self-Released

Okay, actually, this one would have made the list, if it was a full album. Usually, there are five or six EPs that I rank up with my top 25 albums, but this year oddly only this one has stuck out. In its own way Fall is a bit of a disappointment – it comes two years after its centrepiece “Disgraced” was released as a demo and subsequently finished in my top five songs of 2014, but even if you hold the fact that it took way too long and the fact that it’s only 30 odd minutes against it, Fall is an astounding release of emotional, melodic post-black metal, perfectly melding Alcest’s compositional quality with orchestral arrangements and female vocals in a way that manages to avoid the cheese so often associated with symphonic metal. Best track: “Disgraced”

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David Bowie – Blackstar

blackstarArt Rock, Experimental Rock, Electronic, Jazz-Rock | ISO/Columbia

It’s a bit hard to have a list discussing 2016 without a mention of Bowie’s name, but try as I might I couldn’t get behind about half of Blackstar. The title track and “Lazarus” are amongst my favourite songs of the year, intricate and emotional and impossibly powerful in context, but his eclecticism went beyond my taste several times throughout the record, at times sacrificing songwriting for it. Best track: “Blackstar”

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Kayo Dot – Plastic House on Base of Sky

a1997364340_10Avant-Prog, Gothic Rock, Ambient, Art Rock, Progressive Electronic, Synthwave, ????? | The Flenser

Anything Kayo Dot does is bound to spark hours and hours of discussion and arguments, even their weaker albums. Plastic House is the second album of Kayo Dot’s newly formed 80’s synth revival era, and follows a lot of what the preceding Coffins on Io did well in terms of atmosphere and mood, but veers off on its own manic tangent in some of the compositions, often too much for even me to fully appreciate just yet. Its atmosphere is unparalleled, as is its uniqueness, but I find myself often in a bit too deep when the band drive down some of the meandering passages that this album holds. Best track: “Rings of Earth”

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Kel Valhaal – New Introductory Lectures on the System of Transcendental Qabala

a0901541014_10Progressive Electronic, Experimental Hip Hop, Trap, MIDI, IDM, Glitch, Noise, Chiptune, ????????????????????????? | Self-Released

A lot of people are going to think I’m joking with this. An electronic album from the mastermind behind Liturgy, in very similar ways to Kayo Dot before, New Introductory Lectures is about as ambitious as music comes. Too much, in fact, as I struggle to make it through some of this album’s lengthy and overblown eclecticism which frequently features billions of pitch-shifted and mangled electronic bleeps and bloops arranged seemingly randomly. But no one can deny that this is some of the most forward-thinking music there is, both in terms of the merger of styles and in the album’s inherent complexity of arrangements. An 11-minute progressive trap song? Call it pretentious all you like, I have no doubts that this will be seen as a landmark album in future generations. Best track: “Tense Stage”

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Slice the Cake – Odyssey to the West

a3011357034_10Progressive Metal, Deathcore, Technical Death Metal, Dark Ambient | Self-Released

An opera for the modern metal era. Truthfully not a band I ever expected to like, but the sheer ambition on show here is admirable in every regard. From the ultra-pretentious concept to the hilariously dramatic dark ambient introductory EP to the incessant Shakespeare fetishism that covers the overblown vocal delivery of nearly every track, Odyssey to the West contains all the melodrama that we love in prog concepts but delivered with such sincerity and prose that you often dismiss how cheesy it is. It truthfully only misses my top albums because of my inability to truly grasp some of the negative metalcore and deathcore musical tropes that it clings to, but in terms of developing those historically poor genres to more artistically respectable art forms, this may just be the defining album. Best track: “The Razor’s Edge”

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Top 25 Albums

And now to the official countdown. Not as meticulously ranked as previous years, but still in a reasonably complete order.

25. Oranssi Pazuzu – Värähtelijä

a1529351788_101Psychedelic Rock, Atmospheric Black Metal, Space Rock, Dark Ambient | Svart

Told from the pitch-black depths of space in multiple forms, Värähtelijä is a pure combination of 70’s psychedelic space rock guitars and drums with the vocals and atmosphere of a 2000’s space black metal record. Equal parts venomous hiss and blistering groove, it’s a surreal but no doubt effective merger of two vastly disparate forms of music, both linked by their obsession with the blackness of outer space. Best track: “Vasemman Käden Hierarkia”

Full Review from February

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24. Trauma Field – Changing Tides

a4224846005_10Progressive Rock, Doom Metal, Progressive Metal | Self-Released

One of the most underrated bands in the world right now, in my opinion, Changing Tides sees Trauma Field condense their doom-prog hybrid from the excellent Harvest into some more accessible and bombastic shorter pieces. Occasionally straying into some fairly cheesy territory, this album has no shortage of brilliantly passionate refrains and a distinct emotional core. I can see some people turning their noses up at the heart-on-sleeve emotions on show here, but I believe their mixture of melancholy and melody is absolutely exceptional. Best track: “Black Haze”

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23. Julianna Barwick – Will

a0513035967_10Ambient, New Age, Dream Pop, Ambient Pop, Progressive Electronic, Ethereal Wave | Dead Oceans

I had the pleasure of seeing Julianna live earlier this year, performing Will in its entirety. While I admit that I wished halfway through that there were seats up the front because man I was tired, there’s no doubt that it will remain one of the most entrancing live performances I have experienced. Will continues her ethereal combination of very light vocal-oriented dream pop with pure ambient music and acts as a single, free-flowing piece of ambience. Rather than so many artists making pop records with ambient sections, this is an ambient record with occasional glimpses of structure. Truly immersing and a cathartic experience in the right conditions. Best track: “Same”

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22. The Foreshadowing – Seven Heads, Ten Horns

a3203369728_10Doom Metal, Gothic Metal | Cyclone Empire

The Foreshadowing have never really been a band I expected to like, but they continue to surprise me, even years after I have “grown out” of this sort of goth-doom metal. They contain the same gloomy melodramatic melancholy that so many of their peers flaunt, but beneath that they have quality songwriting, led by powerful and memorable riffs and melodies and tied together with a subtle but not unnoticeable progressive influence. That Seven Heads is probably the weakest I’ve heard from them and still a very solid doom album speaks volumes about their consistency and quality. Best track: “Nimrod”

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21. Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts

6045638Alternative Rock, Alternative Metal, Atmospheric Rock, Progressive Metal | Peaceville

Honestly, I didn’t expect this. I’ve always sort of liked Katatonia, but I think they are fundamentally very overrated and in my honest opinion have never really done anything remarkable or legendary in their long history. The Fall of Hearts is still neither of those things, but it is the first Katatonia record that I’ve actually been thoroughly impressed by compositionally, with the band dipping their toes properly into prog territory for the first time. The Watershed-era Opeth stylings here are admirable and add beautifully to their pre-established doom rock sound, with some of the longer pieces being a much-needed breath of fresh air in their increasingly stale 5-minute song formula of late. Best track: “Serac”

Full Review from May

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20. The Pineapple Thief – Your Wilderness

802644835426Alternative Rock, Art Rock, Progressive Rock | Kscope

Something must have clicked when Bruce Soord went off to make Wisdom of Crowds with Jonas Renkse, because after years of thinking The Pineapple Thief was nothing short of mediocre and dry, he’s gradually grown into quite a respectable songwriter, and an eerily similar thing has happened with Renkse’s Katatonia as well. After 2014’s oddly impressive 90’s Radiohead tribute album Magnolia, Soord has condensed his newfound Thom Yorke-isms into a far more unique and distinctly Pineapple Thief form with the best record of his career. Equal parts alternative accessibility and progressive style, this feels like everything he was trying to do in the band’s first decade, except backed now with quality songwriting. Best Track: “In Exile”

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19. Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas – Mariner

a0524435364_10Post-Rock, Post-Metal | Indie Recordings

A slow-burning beast of an album, this has done nothing but grow on me all year. I’ve never really been sold on Cult of Luna before, but the inclusion of Julie Christmas’ disparate and desolate croons and screams has turned them into something a lot more digestible on this record. A perfect balance of metal ferocity and melodic passion, it manages to be catchy and emotional in the same breath, whilst never relenting on power. Best track: “A Greater Call”

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18. The Jezabels – Synthia

157521Art Pop, Indie Pop, Synthpop, Post-Punk Revival, Post-Rock | Self-Released

My relationship with The Jezabels since their last full-length in 2014 has honestly bordered on obsessive at times, but even I predicted that they were on a decline. Synthia is a nice stall in what I hope will be a steady decline and not a sudden one, an album that definitely feels transitional in nature, but not without merit. Their same brilliant melodic pop sensibility is still here, this time dripping in synthesisers, a healthy dose of crescendocore post-rock, less gloom and longer songs. Best track: “Come Alive”

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17. Airbag – Disconnected

a0022766317_10Art Rock, Atmospheric Rock, Progressive Rock | Karisma

An album that I genuinely didn’t realise how much I liked until I was several listens in, Disconnected is the peak of Airbag’s career so far. It never truly does anything that the band haven’t done on their preceding albums, containing the same moody, lethargic and emotive Floydian vibes, but it does every single one of those things better. The melodies are clearer, the songs more unique and the atmosphere and vibe that they repeatedly go for is made so much more potent because of it. Best track: “Disconnected”

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16. Alcest – Kodama

a3915232228_10Blackgaze, Dream Pop, Post-Rock, Shoegaze | Prophecy Productions

Truthfully, this is Alcest’s most forgettable record, but that is a testament to Neige’s genius just how good even his weaker moments can be. On returning to the harsh vocals and black metal they abandoned in 2012, they have really only come up with a record that is on par with 2014’s divisive Shelter, but I feel like comparing it to the two masterpieces from before that is only doing it a disservice. The dynamics between clean and harsh are definitely a welcome return, and there are plenty of glorious reverb-soaked guitars to wallow in. Best track: “Oiseaux de Proie”

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15. Headspace – All That You Fear is Gone

press_cover_01Progressive Metal, Progressive Rock | InsideOut Records

A comfortably excellent follow-up to an album I didn’t really expect one to have. Headspace continue the same strain of fairly familiar progressive metal, but through Damian Wilson’s impeccable voice and some subtle rearrangements in their approach they have remained clearly relevant with All That You Fear is Gone. Tasteful inclusions of acoustics and clearer tones, tasteful exclusions of the long-winded instrumental passages that threatened to ruin their debut, this is quietly a much better record. Best track: “All That You Fear is Gone”

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14. Swans – The Glowing Man

a0861320350_10Experimental Rock, Post-Rock, Drone, Neofolk, Noise, Ambient, Post-Punk | Young God Records

Yeah alright alright, I’ll admit it. I absolutely love this band. Years of contrarianism is now behind me, I get it, okay. I get it. I’ve stopped hating them. This is Swans’ most formulaic record post-reunion, with Gira breaking out the same old smashems, the same old post-punk basslines and the same old 30-minute songs banging on for two whole discs. But you know what? I don’t care. This is emotional catharsis. Sure, smashing the same note on fifteen instruments all at once isn’t exactly the height of compositional ambition, especially considering they did the exact same thing on the last two records, but who really cares when it sounds so good? Beauty in simplicity and noise and chaos. Best track: “Frankie M”

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13. Circus Maximus – Havoc

cover_havocProgressive Metal, Progressive Rock, Alternative Metal | Frontiers Records

I feel like I went into this wanting to dislike it, and maybe that contributed a lot to the awe I felt when I fell in love with it. Sure, it’s a slightly diluted version of what the band did on Nine, with a poor track thrown in there. But Nine was near-flawless, and Havoc perfectly continues its bombastic and uplifting variant of hyper-melodic progressive metal, particularly in the second half, which contains one of the best runs of original, melodic and emotional progressive metal of the year. Best track: “Chivalry”

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12. 40 Watt Sun – Wider Than the Sky

a2085543563_10Slowcore, Indie Rock, Art Rock | Svart

A lot of Wider Than the Sky could be described as ‘simple’, but in a way that’s missing the point. The songs here plod on for ridiculous lengths on the same melodies and chords, but are sung and played with such fervour and grace that it’s honestly disappointing when a coupld of these marathons finally end because their repetition becomes so pleasant. 40 Watt Sun played doom metal, but no one really liked them because they were doom metal. I find it fascinating that a former doom metal band has released what is essentially a gloomy indie rock record, and no one seems to have cared. Because honestly, this is the band they always were. Depression is something that thousands of people have tried to put to music over thousands of years, and truthfully I think Wider Than the Sky is one of the finest portraits I have heard in my times. Bleak and beautiful at the same time, simple – yet every melody seems so perfectly constructed. Best track: “Stages”

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11. Oceans of Slumber – Winter

oceans-of-slumber-winterProgressive Metal, Melodic Death Metal, Melodic Black Metal | Century Media

A left-field progressive album with a ton of soul. It’s honestly so refreshing to hear a band of Oceans of Slumber’s style go for a voice so diverse and distinct as Cammie Gilbert’s, but it breathes so much life into this record. Where so many progressive metal band have gone towards fragile and emotionless delivery in recent years, Gilbert breaks down the barn door with some truly outstanding melodies. The music benefits from it too, Winter is very distinctly a progressive metal record whilst simultaneously keeping an excellent balance of palate. Best track: “Winter”

Full Review from February

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10. Quiet Child – Listen, Love the Thunder Calls

a1288790939_10Alternative Rock, Art Rock, Electronic, Indie Folk | Self-Released

I will say this now, and I’ll probably say it again when he releases another five albums in the next two years – Peter Spiker is the most underrated songwriter on the planet. Perhaps it’s the budget production or the lack of promotion or something else that is stopping Quiet Child from having thousands of fans because it definitely isn’t the music. This is a beautifully personal record, splitting between acoustic folk songwriting and some Radiohead-influenced electronics, but never once dropping the ball on beautiful melodies or inspiring chord progressions. Some of the songs here are so brilliant in their simplicity, it’s actually incredibly inspiring, and Spiker’s vocals are as haunting and emotive as ever. Honestly, he does better without the metal sounds. Best track: “Morning Fog”

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9. Schammasch – Triangle

a0568689905_10Atmospheric Black Metal, Post-Metal, Doom Metal, Dark Ambient, Tribal Ambient, Progressive Metal, Death Metal, Drone | Prosthetic

I thought long and hard about splitting this beast up into its three sub-albums for ranking because let’s be honest, these are three very, very different records, both in style and in quality. Triple albums have been a semi-regular occurrence in recent times for whatever reason, but this is the first one I’ve seen that uses the form to its advantage, not disadvantage. I’m a big advocate of less-is-more, and in a strange way, Schammasch have created 100 minutes of less-is-more material, by creating three very brief, very distinct records. Opening disc The Process of Dying is a solid, albeit a touch generic black metal record. Metaflesh spins that solid base into something exceptional, a towering and gargantuan conglomeration of black, sludge and prog angles. But the closing opus, The Supernal Clear Light of the Void, to put it simply, is possibly the most astounding piece of dark ambient music you will hear this year, complete with didgeridoo and some brilliant microtonal choirs. As a whole, Triangle is an incredible achievement. Best track: “The Empyrean”

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8. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

985e010aArt Pop, Folktronica, Glitch Pop, Ambient Pop | Jagjaguwar

Like a couple of the albums I noted in the Honourable Mentions at the start, this feels like an album at the forefront of music. Its style is wholly unique and so impressive in its execution that it will no doubt set off legions of imitators. The difference is that 22, A Million packs substance along with all the style. Ever since I heard him smothered in vocoders and autotune amongst all of my favourite moments of Kanye West’s bipolar Yeezus, I wanted an electronic album out of Justin Vernon. And honestly, this delivers on so much of what I wanted. Vernon’s arrangements of pitch-distorted voices, instruments and off-kilter percussions are as detailed as any IDM record but beneath it all, he sings true, beautiful songs. It’s a perfect demonstration of quality songwriting at core but impossibly detailed layers on top. Best track “29 #Strafford APTS”

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7. O’Brother – Endless Light

a3091603244_10Alternative Rock, Post-Prog, Post-Metal, Post-Hardcore | Triple Crown

A band that have truly become one of my favourites this year, and an album that is so impressive in its simplicity. O’Brother quite simply just write banging rock songs. Influence from progressive and post-rock is abundant, but at its core, the reason Endless Light works so effectively is because of the concise, distinct and memorable hooks and riffs. Every song has a fantastic melody, and every one is played with the same dramatic conviction that made alt-rock great in the first place. Special kudos also goes to the drummer, it takes something special to make drum parts memorable, and there are a ton on this record. Best track: “I Am (Become Death)”

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6. Yndi Halda – Under Summer

a2596714118_10Post-Rock, Indie Rock | Big Scary Monsters

A throwback of sorts, not just because the band haven’t made an album in a decade, but because this is a welcome return of the old school way of making post-rock, and feels so fresh in the sea of crescendocore that makes up the genre nowadays. Under Summer, with its solemn vocal segments, mournful guitar, meandering but purposeful song structures and serene atmosphere channels Talk Talk and Slint more than any modern band, but at the same time still feels like a modern record. Some of the year’s most powerful melodies and emotional passages are found here, but the band manage to do it without ever needing to smash out tons of cymbals and tremolo guitars. Best track: “Golden Threads From the Sun”

Full Review from April

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5. Oathbreaker – Rheia

a3153393733_10Blackgaze, Post-Metal, Post-Rock, Progressive Metal | Deathwish

Honestly, I feel like if I ever had an extreme metal band of any sort, I’d want it to sound exactly like Rheia. This isn’t just a black metal album. There are shrieks and screams and misanthropic chord progressions, for sure, but there’s also buckets of prog, violent punk, post-rock and female vocals. It’s quite literally the hipster black metal fan’s wet dream, and every hipster I know has been lapping it up for the last few months. Equal parts melody and ferocity, structure and chaos, but never straying from the album’s overarching mood. Best track: “Where I Leave”

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4. Haken – Affinity

hakenaffinityProgressive Metal, Progressive Rock | InsideOut

After The Mountain saw a distinct downturn in quality from Visions and Restoration was a boring mess, I was almost willing to write off Haken as on the inevitable decline, but Affinity truly came along and knocked me right out earlier in the year. It’s such a breath of fresh air not just in Haken’s chronology, but in Dream Theater-style ‘traditional’ progressive metal as a whole. Taking some important cues from the emotional resonance of Leprous, as well as some less important ones from video game soundtracks and the rampant 80’s fetishism that has been dominating art for a couple of years, Affinity beautifully combines technicality, melody, cheese (but not too much) and emotion in a delicate but impressively constructed medley. Best track: “Earthrise”

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3. Astronoid – Air

a3675257090_10Dream Pop, Post-Rock, Blackgaze, Thrash Metal | Blood Music

I’ve been one of this band’s biggest cheerleaders ever since Stargazer knocked my socks off in 2013 and won my Best Non-Album Release prize hands-down, so naturally, it gives me much pleasure to see the chaos that has ensued from the divisive but honestly brilliant Air. It’s honestly difficult to call this metal at all – compositionally many of these songs could be broken down as standard dream pop songs, not too far off from a group like Mew. But Astronoid then pack them with absolutely ferocious drumming and manic thrash-black riffing, whilst doing nothing to modify the pop vocals, leaving an absolutely surreal end product. This could very easily have been a perfect recipe for a gimmick record, but Astronoid have put a lot of effort into those dream pop songs at the core – these songs are fantastic without the gimmick of the metal riffs. Those just add to the extremity. Best track: “Trail of Sulfur”

Full Review from June

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2. Mice on Stilts – Hope for a Mourning

a0802813157_10Art Rock, Post-Rock, Dream Pop, Chamber Folk, Ambient | Aeroplane Music

Am I biased? Probably. Benjamin Morley is one of my closest friends and truly one of the greatest people I have ever known. Over the last two years I have watched Hope for a Mourning develop and unfold in countless live performances and discussions with Ben, so I no doubt have a very personal connection to this album that I have with very few others. But beyond that, Hope for a Mourning is an astonishing achievement. Mice on Stilts are unrivalled in modern music in terms of combining ambitious arrangement and genre diversity with brilliant accessibility. I am truthfully yet to meet someone who does not like their music, such is the quality of their blend. Throughout the record they channel Arcade Fire and Swans, Bon Iver and Kayo Dot, Coldplay and Cult of Luna, Beethoven and Coltrane, often within the same song. But beneath all the complexity, all the saxophone and viola, all the choir and time signature shifts and long-form structures, these are just simply beautiful songs, with stunning, memorable melodies, sung by a man with the biggest heart in Aotearoa. As he himself so stubbornly told me “there’s nothing complex about our music, we’re just pop. We play pop songs.” If only all progressive artists could have that attitude. Best track: very tough to pick but I’ll go with “YHWH”. “Funeral” is the best live but I feel the studio cut lacks the phenomenal punch of the live show.

Full Review from March

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1. Radiohead  – A Moon Shaped Pool

xlda790-radioheadArt Rock, Chamber Pop, Art Pop, Experimental Rock, Electronic | XL

Honestly, I’m a little self-conscious putting this first, though I’m aware how dumb that sounds. I guess after many years of having relatively obscure picks as my #1, I came to the opinion that the “general consensus” album of the year pick was never really going to be my absolute favourite. This is different. This is a perfect combination of accessible and artistic, a combination of meticulously pinpointed instrumentation with soulful melodies that absolutely anyone can resonate with. It’s like all those years of not really understanding Radiohead have come and punched me in the face, all at once. This record was like a revelation to me, it is truly astounding that a band can be this aware of everything they are doing so far into their careers. Delicate and intricate in its arrangements, subtle yet powerful in its emotions and precise and tasteful in its performances, A Moon Shaped Pool is genuinely the first time I’ve understood why people call these guys geniuses. Best track: “Burn the Witch”, which is also track of the year, hands down.

Full Review from July

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