Ad Maiora – Repetita Iuvant (2016)

AdMaiora_RepetitaIuvant4 out of 5 Stars!

From Italy, Ad Maiora appeared on the scene back in 2014 with the release of a fairly impressive self-titled album. So in 2016, when the band released its sophomore effort, Repetita Iuvant, I looked forward to hearing what the musicians had created the second time around.

Like the debut, Repetita Iuvant features a collection of tracks mostly in the Symphonic Progressive Rock genre, with even a few Jazz-Rock and Avant-Prog touches added for auditory tinsel. And once again, the level of musicianship shown during the typically intricate song arrangements rates high in my book, with guitarist Flavio Carovali delivering tasty riffs and occasionally rampaging solos, bassist Moreno Piva performing ultra-melodic runs and rhythmic counterpunches, and drummer Ezio Giardina adding splendid fills amidst his rock-solid tempos and smooth time-shift transitions. Moreover, I especially savor the wide variety of keyboards and synth tones Sergio Caleca employed throughout the album, including Clavinet and the generous use of the mighty Mellotron…the latter being always a welcome addition for Prog-Rock fans like myself to appreciate.

Although several compositions (“Torba,” “Repetita Iuvant,” and “Never Mind”) are dynamic instrumentals with varied styles, when lead vocalist Paolo Callioni makes his appearance on songs such as “Life,” “Invisible,” “Molokheya,” and “Etereo”—some of which he croons in his native language—his tone and style occasionally remind me of Saga’s Michael Sadler, only with a wider range and a slight accent (when he sings in English, of course)

Also of special note for Procol Harum fans, one of the album’s highlights (for me, at least) is the “bonus” track “Whaling Stories,” which Ad Maiora originally recorded for a Procol Harum tribute album—Shine on Magic Hotel—issued by Mellow Records in 2014. Thankfully, the musicians elected to include their rendition of the tune here also, since it’s simply terrific!

Anyway, to me, Ad Maiora is one of the more promising Italian Prog-Rock groups to have emerged in the recent past. Now I’m hoping the band sticks around for a good long while to concoct even more appetizing material for lovers of the genre like me who can never get enough.

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Syzygy – Realms of Eternity (2009)

Syzygy_RealmsEternity4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Like the heavily Gentle Giant-influenced album The Allegory of Light, Syzygy’s impressive debut from 2003, Realms of Eternity, the Ohio band’s sophomore release—or its third, depending if one counts a single platter the group issued under the name Witsend back in the ’90s—still has those same influences sprinkled throughout when it comes to several tracks, but here the musicians have also considerably expanded their style into numerous other realms. And for this outing, the band also brought in accomplished vocal powerhouse Mark Boals, who surprisingly doesn’t sound like the “normal” Mark Boals I’d come to admire from ultra-slamming albums he did with Ring Of Fire, Royal Hunt, Yngwie Malmsteen, etc., but instead has trimmed away much of the former gruffness from his vocal cords, and his smoother tone and occasionally dramatic delivery seem absolutely perfect for this intriguing material.

On both shorter and lengthier tracks such as “Dreams,” “The Sea,” “Darkfield,” “Variations, Parts 1 & 2,” “Vanitas,” and the mammoth and glorious “Dialectic,” the band delves deeper into Yes and Genesis territory, featuring countless passages, shifting moods, and elaborate scoring, while also giving generous nods toward outfits such as Spock’s Beard, Moon Safari, The Flower Kings, Jethro Tull, Transatlantic, etc., all of which makes for another grand affair of classic Symphonic Prog-Rock with a touch of Avant-Prog.

Although the vocal segments are generally melodious, with a few songs openly flirting with Pomp Rock and AOR-styled choruses, the band simultaneously injects layered and labyrinthine harmony arrangements that once again bring the Gentle Giant influences to the fore. Meanwhile, the band delivers the vigorous and astounding material with top-quality musicianship. Indeed, the nimble fingers of guitarist Carl Baldassarre and keyboardist Sam Guinta continually impress, while bassist Al Rolik and drummer Paul Mihacevich consistently direct the band through twists and turns galore, showcasing everyone’s sheer diversity and talent.

As a quick aside, I must declare that it’s a crying shame the grayscale cover art is so damned bland and sedate, since the music on offer is the complete opposite—colorful, exciting, and vibrant—and the artwork doesn’t even come close in reflecting what’s in store for the listener.

Anyway, since this terrific release, the group put out a live “digipak” album in 2012, then Cosmos and Chaos in 2014, a “20th Anniversary Compendium” of the album previously issued under the Witsend name from 1993, but no other fresh material. I’m just hoping the band is still active and in the process of creating additional Prog-Rock magic for a future release.

Now, can someone please tell me once and for all how to actually pronounce the name of this exceptional band? 🙂

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Dave Kerzner – Static (2017)

DaveKerzner_Static4.5 out of 5 Stars!

The name of Florida-based keyboardist and vocalist Dave Kerzner first came to my attention back in 2015 when investigating a band called Sound of Contact, a Prog-Rock act that also included drummer Simon Collins (son of Phil Collins, of Genesis fame). The group’s sole album in 2013, Dimensionaut, proved fairly impressive, especially when it came to Kerzner’s grand and symphonic keyboard arrangements. So in 2016, when I saw Kerzner’s name in association with yet another new band, this one called Mantra Vega (also including vocalist Heather Findlay from Mostly Autumn), I snatched it up without question. And once again, the keyboard-rich material on that debut, The Illusion’s Reckoning, made a terrific first impression. So Kerzner was “two for two” in my book, and I started delving into the man’s background, seeing what else I might have missed.

Well, one of the tidbits I unearthed was that the keyboardist had also delivered a solo album in 2014, New World, which became another “no-brainer” for me when it came to the decision of purchasing it. And, no great shock, the album ended up being another first-class winner. This time, however, Kerzner provided the lead vocals (along with keyboards, some guitars, bass, and drums, and the proverbial kitchen sink, I’m sure) as well as composed and produced lush and breathtaking soundscapes, his performances enhanced with the aid of various Prog-Rock cohorts, such as drummers Nick D’Virgilio and Simon Phillips, guitarists Steve Hackett and Francis Dunnery, and even the magnificent Keith Emerson himself (RIP), to name but a few. Okay, I decided, so the guy not only knows some top-notch people in “the biz,” but has talent—considerable and enviable talent at that!

So, with his name indelibly emblazoned in my mind, I certainly did not miss the announcement of Kerzner’s latest album, Static, which he dropped on the Prog-Rock community in late 2017. And guess what? Yes, it’s another gem, this time with Kerzner repeating his songwriting, performing, and production duties as skillfully, enjoyably, and as powerfully as he did on his first solo effort. And like before, a wealth of “guests” (most notably Hackett and D’Virgilio again) pop up on several tracks, but despite the presence of these musicians injecting their own talents on various tunes, it also becomes crystal clear that, like the previous album, Static is easily Kerzner’s beautifully and lovingly nurtured baby. Indeed, with both New World and Static in his arsenal, creating a one-two punch of musical muscle, Kerzer can now claim his own distinctive sound/style, much in the same way as other solo musicians (Neil Morse instantly springs to mind) has his own identifiable brand stamped on each new collection of tracks he releases under his own moniker.

Sure, amidst the varied tunes, both brief and lengthy compositions, I can sometimes hear, as examples, a bit of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Spock’s Beard, and Transatlantic influences, but Kerzner never attempts to clone any other artist. He doesn’t need to, actually, since his creativity seems to know no bounds.

Aside from the brief “Prelude,” the album opens with a mighty and sardonic bang in the form of the upbeat, glorious, and occasionally eclectic “Hypocrites,” a track that includes everything from numerous and diverse passages, tempo shifts, ballsy guitar rhythms and leads, keyboards galore (including Mellotron and synth solos), and creepy digital ambience tossed in for good measure. The vocals, done in luscious multi-part harmony for the most part, do seem to have a “David Gilmour/Pink Floyd” flavor when it comes to Kerzner’s range, timbre, and execution, but heck, the man can’t help it if his voice possesses a few homogeneous traits of another singer, right? He does, however, do much to avoid direct comparisons, delivering the lyrics with layered harmonies and electronic enhancements. And in the end, this track is a real corker, and one of my favorites—”we’re all hypocrites”—indeed!

The title track, on the other hand, is—music-wise—pretty much in direct opposition to the previous tune, with a dreamy, keyboard-grounded background over a lazy rhythm, luxuriant in its spacier atmosphere and laid-back vocal delivery. In other words, more along the lines of groups such as Pink Floyd or Airbag. Whereas on the quirkier and bopping “Reckless,” the poppish vocal melody, varied and highly creative instrumentation, and overall eccentric character of the song arrangement suddenly brings to mind the wonderfully produced material released by the late Kevin Gilbert on his The Shaming of the True release. And no shock that Kerzner might have adopted some of the same “sound/style” qualities as Gilbert, considering the two had worked together in and around the group Giraffe and the latter’s solo material.

From this point forward, the album moves at a brisk clip, with several shorter, more direct tunes such as “Chain Reaction” and “Millennium Man” (which remind me of the catchier, straightforward side of artists such as World Trade or Trevor Rabin, only with multifarious studio enhancements and Prog-Rock embellishments), “Trust,” “State of Innocence,” and “Right Back to the Start” (delightfully mellow ballads that I can easily envision Art Rock artists such as Roxy Music or 10cc would have killed to release decades ago if given the studio capabilities of the modern age), and “Quiet Storm” and “Statistic” (electronically enriched tracks that add avant-garde strangeness to the overall collection).

And then, the album closes with “The Carnival of Modern Life,” the nearly seventeen-minute magnum-opus, which deserves (no, it demands) its own paragraph. Talk about varied and strange, this wickedly creative track has it all when it comes to Prog-Rock magic…heck, just look at the eerie cover art (thanks to equally brilliant artist Ed Unitsky) and that should give you an idea as to the song’s off-the-wall qualities when it comes to numerous melodies, rhythms, and sound effects. Yet, the organs and synths, the guitar and bass runs, and the vocals performed in the same multi-layered resplendence as the aforementioned “Hypocrites” all work to perfection. In fact, the track’s mischievously assorted instrumentation and sundry mood shifts reflect the often-insane reality of modern society’s ever-alternating viewpoints and occasional mass-hysteria moments. How long it took Kerzner to piece together and mix this mammoth masterpiece is beyond me, but my guess would be months, since the level of detail with the shifting song arrangements, the various sound effects and voice-overs that add atmospheric tinsel, would seem a mighty daunting task. But damn it, the whole track works, therefore, bravo to the mastermind behind this daring and audacious composition.

So in total, Kerzner has once again delivered an album of exceptional quality, and now, after reveling in his work for several years, I can clearly and undoubtedly declare that the man has a laser-focused brain and boundless imagination for creating engaging music in the Prog-Rock variety. And I’m so damned covetous!

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Alaska – Alaska (1998)

Alaska_13 out of 5 Stars!

Not to be confused with the numerous other groups bearing the same name, this particular band (actually, a duo from Pennsylvania comprised of vocalist/guitarist/drummer Al Lewis and keyboardist John O’Hara) released a single album in the late-’90s. To me, Alaska’s music seemed a lighter, keyboard-dominated version of Yes or Cairo, mainly due to the highly symphonic arrangements and, especially, vocalist Al Lewis (also appearing on Starcastle’s final album from 2007), who has a range and delivery style similar to Jon Anderson (Yes) and Terry Luttrell (Starcastle’s original singer).

On this eleven-track collection, most of the compositions, including “WellsBridge,” “Forests of Heaven,” “Anyman’s Tomorrow,” “IceSpirits,” and “Tiananmen Square,” have an array of dreamy melodies and wonderfully rich and layered keyboards and vocal harmonies. And, truth be told, although I find nothing overly exciting in the way of varied orchestrations or rhythms, no tense dramatics or chord pattern surprises, the overall nature of the album makes for a decent, non-intrusive experience nonetheless.

Therefore, this one and only Alaska album contains nearly seventy minutes of gentle, melodious material, which is great for when I’m in a mellower mood, and for when I’m craving a massive amount of synth-driven Progressive Rock to fill the silence.

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Saga – Silent Knight (1980)

Saga_SilentKnight4.5 out of 5 Stars!

When it comes to Saga’s third album, the first album I purchased by this Canadian band back in 1980—on a whim, actually, due to the eye-catching cover art—the instant I heard the synth intro to the opening track “Don’t Be Late,” I fell in love. Indeed, I clearly recall listening to the album several times in a row, then dashing to the record store the very next day to purchase the band’s prior two albums to discover all that I had missed thus far.

Including the dramatic opening tune, the superbly produced Silent Knight is brimming with synth magic, thanks to dual keyboardists Jim Gilmour and Michael Sadler, with the music expertly accented by an unsung guitar hero in the form of Ian Crichton, whose distinctive sound and dexterous style proved the icing on the proverbial cake. Add to that the ever-melodic bass riffs of Jim Crichton and the solid tempos of drummer Steve Negus, then toss in Sadler’s instantly identifiable vocals, and what you get is a collection of lush and glossy Prog-Rock with generous AOR overtones.

Along with “Don’t Be Late,” many of the additional songs included in this collection, such as “Too Much to Lose,” “What’s It Gonna Be,” “Help Me Out,” “Compromise,” and the stunning closer “Careful Where You Step,” display the band firing on full Prog-Rock cylinders. The labyrinthine song arrangements and creative instrumentation proved to be quite brilliant in their subtlety and polished execution, while Sadler’s vocal melodies etched their way into the listener’s skull, forging a permanent home in the memory banks like any of the best AOR songs of the period. Although Silent Knight wouldn’t become the band’s breakthrough album—that would come the following year with Worlds Apart, when Saga suddenly became MTV’s video darlings thanks to the single “On the Loose”—this third album cemented a solid foundation for the band’s deserved success.

Unbelievably, despite several lineup changes and a temporary break-up or two, Saga pretty much stayed around in some form or another for four full decades (officially calling it quits in 2017, its fortieth year) and I’ve stuck with the group for the entire ride (more than twenty studio albums), regardless of several “iffy” releases along the way where the group experimented with less-Progressive styles and sounds. Thankfully, however, those missteps proved few and far between. Nevertheless, Silent Knight will forever remain my favorite Saga album, since not only was it my introduction to the group, but the opening synth-riff to “Don’t Be Late” still has the power to put a smile on my face, even after all these many years.

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Traumhaus – Traumhaus (2001)

Traumhaus_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

Traumhaus is one of my favorite new “recently discovered” outfits. In my estimation, the band comes across almost as a German-language version of Symphonic Prog/Neo-Prog groups such as IQ, Galahad, Magellan, Pendragon, Also Eden, Leap Day, and Transatlantic, with (sadly) only three releases to its credit.

The band’s self-titled debut album, like its subsequent two collections, features terrific keyboard-rich material with a few heavier elements tossed in, thanks mostly to forceful guitar sprinkled throughout and the occasionally powerful rhythms amidst the pompish synths. Additionally, although most tracks on this debut fall between the five and nine minute mark, relatively short by Prog-Rock standards, another composition, “Ausgeliefert,” is a nearly eighteen-minute grand and glorious epic, acting as the album’s unrivaled centerpiece. But regardless of the various song lengths, many of the tunes, including “Zu Spat,” “Wandler,” “Am Abgrund,” plus the two instrumentals “Peter und Der Wolf” and “Navanita,” contain complex orchestration, sweeping keyboard backgrounds and nimble synth solos, tempo variations, numerous moods, and melodies galore.

One note of warning: the vocals, sung in the band’s native language as mentioned above, do sound a tad harsh, almost intrusive at times, and may not appeal to some listeners. Thankfully, on many tracks, the vocals are not the main focus, taking a backseat to the often-stunning instrumentation.

Nevertheless, Traumhaus is one band I’m praying will release another album in the near future since the most recent one (Das Geheimnis) came out back in 2013 (and included a twenty-seven minute epic, certainly the band’s most audacious accomplishment). Perhaps the delay between each album’s release is due to the band’s various lineup changes through the years, aside from keyboardist/vocalist Alexander Weyland, who I assume is the founding member/leader. But whatever the reason for the lengthy gaps in the band’s output, a new album is warranted, especially since the music is so entertaining, creative, and often spectacular, which means that for all fans of the Prog-Rock genre, Traumhaus is worthy of discovery.

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Little Atlas – Wanderlust (2005)

LittleAtlas_Wanderlust4 out of 5 Stars!

Little Atlas, a quartet formed near the sunny beaches of Miami, Florida, delivered five above-average albums from 1998 through 2013 before seemingly disappearing.

Wanderlust, the band’s third release, is perhaps my favorite of the five. On tunes such as “Higher,” “Mirror of Life,” “The Prisoner,” and “The Ballad of Eddie Wanderlust,” the band delivers Progressive Rock in a similar vein to groups such as Yes, Spock’s Beard, Echolyn, Pallas, Salem Hill, The Flower Kings, etc., but never directly copying any of the aforementioned groups. Instead, the band creates its own unique twist on the Prog-Rock genre, while each of the seven tracks, all falling somewhere between the five and ten minute mark, are loaded with memorable melodies, often-complex instrumentation, and a variety of moods.

Moreover, I especially appreciated the nod to Gentle Giant on the track “Weariness Rider” when it came to the counterpoint a capella vocal passage, which further displayed the band’s overall creativity.

Regardless, it’s a crying shame Little Atlas didn’t receive wider recognition throughout the years, since the group showed great promise and I would have easily welcomed additional material.

Thankfully, in 2014, the group Strattman (named after Little Atlas’s guitarist Roy Strattman) emerged on the scene with a terrific album, and also includes Steve Katsikas (vocals/keyboards) and Rik Bigai (bass), both from Little Atlas as well. Therefore, the band basically lives on in spirit, only under a fresh moniker and with several different members, which is certainly good news for the Prog-Rock community and fans of the original group.

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Thieves’ Kitchen – Argot (2001)

ThievesKitchen_Argot4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Fans of Prog-Rock may be familiar with Thieves’ Kitchen from its more recent releases with the talented Amy Darby as its lead vocalist. But prior to her arrival in 2002, the U.K. band released two enjoyable albums with a male lead vocalist, which is when I originally discovered the group.

What instantly drew me to the band on its 2000 debut album, Head, was the strong Gentle Giant influences I immediately detected in not only the instrumentation and labyrinthine musical arrangements, but also since the male singer (Simon Boys) sounded eerily similar to Gentle Giant’s Derek Shulman. This further enhanced the illusion that I was listening to a modern version of Gentle Giant itself, albeit a tad heavier in places and with extra Neo-Prog influences tossed in.

For me, Argot, the band’s sophomore release, is equally as impressive as the debut album and often similar in style and scope. This time, the band elected to compose four ambitious and elaborate tracks—the twenty-minute “John Doe Number One,” the seventeen-minute “Call to Whoever,” and the “shorter pieces” (by Prog-Rock standards, at least) “Escape” and “Proximity,” both clocking in around the thirteen-minute mark.

On each of the tracks, the Gentle Giant influences are once again displayed in abundance, especially when it comes to the various eclectic tempos and rhythmic idiosyncrasies, the intricate and quirky vocal melody lines, as well as many of tones used for the guitars and the standard Prog-Rock keyboard arsenal—organ, piano, synths, and the mighty Mellotron. But also like the band’s debut, the music is in no way a perfect copy of Gentle Giant’s style. The talented musicians merely use that style as a starting template on which to construct its own brand of Prog-Rock magic—trimming out much of Gentle Giant’s abundant avant-garde ingredients and medieval inspirations, employing (albeit with the exception of an oboe) only traditional Prog-Rock instruments (ie. no saxes, no violins, no recorders, etc.), and incorporating more Symphonic and Jazz elements into its sound than Gentle Giant ever included on its own albums.

Nevertheless, the band’s influences during this early period in its history are crystal clear, so for any fans of Gentle Giant or groups with comparable styles—Advent, Echolyn, Spock’s Beard, The Flower Kings, or Beardfish, to name but a few—Argot (and the band’s debut) is certainly a “must-have” album.

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Solstice – Prophecy (2013)

Solstice_Prophecy4 out of 5 Stars!

Solstice is a shamefully obscure band from the U.K. that released only five studio albums between 1984 and 2013, with Prophecy being the most recent. Although with only five studio releases in a twenty-nine-year period, with numerous lineup changes through the decades, plus the band taking lengthy breaks, the reason for Solstice’s continued obscurity is certainly understandable. After all, it’s not like the Prog-Rock community has been continually bombarded with announcements from the band regarding fresh material, news of upcoming album releases, world tours, etc., right?

Be that as it may, Solstice plays majestic, engaging, complex, and often-hypnotic Symphonic and Neo-Prog material with Prog-Folk influences, and with the band featuring female vocals, I’m sure many fans of artists such as Magenta, Flamborough Head, Curved Air, Mostly Autumn, Thieves’ Kitchen, and Introitus will find much to savor here.

On Prophecy, the band shows its gift for successfully offering up a delicate balance of acoustic-based passages along with electrified fare, typically with a dreamy atmosphere on which the serene vocal melodies float. This is never more evident than on both the opening tune “Eyes of Fire” and on the lengthier “West Wind.” Then, on “Keepers of the Truth” and “Blackwater,” the band adds a larger degree of fiddle to the overall instrumentation, and with the more upbeat tempos, often creates a sound similar to early Kansas, only melded with a group such as Magenta (thanks to the female vocalist, of course).

My favorite track, however, is the seventeen-and-a-half minute epic “Warriors,” which takes the listener through numerous moods and tempo shifts, with both acoustic and electric segments seemingly united in a perfect marriage, and lovely vocal segments loaded with rich background harmonies. Here also is where—due to the electric guitar and synth trading off enjoyable solos in the lengthy middle Neo-Prog section, and the vocals popping in with rhythmic accents—the band once again reminds me primarily of Magenta. Simply beautiful and captivating in its tunefulness and scope.

All in all, although Prophecy is not an essential item for Prog-Rock enthusiasts to add to their music collections, it’s nevertheless a splendid release that contains enough alluring moments to justify its replay value. And as mentioned earlier, fans of female-led Symphonic and Neo-Prog bands, especially those who prefer a somewhat lighter, more acoustic touch, will certainly delight in the material.

Also please note, along with the five tunes described in this short review, the album also contains three additional “bonus” tracks. “Find Yourself,” “Return of Spring,” and “Earthsong” were originally recorded back in 1984 for the band’s debut album Silent Dance, but were remixed by Steven Wilson from the original tapes for inclusion on Prophecy. Although none of these tunes adds any extra magic to the main bulk of the album, it’s still nice to compare the band’s past and present style, which, frankly, hasn’t changed all that much.

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Cast – Power and Outcome (2017)

Cast_PowerOutcome4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although Cast is still quite obscure in many parts of the world, including America, this Mexican band has been around for more than twenty years, has released more than twenty albums, and continues to create stunning material in a similar realm as groups such as United Progressive Fraternity, The Flower Kings, Druckfarben, Kaipa, Spock’s Beard, Magic Pie, and Kansas.

Power and Outcome, the band’s latest release, is yet another fine collection of classy, complex, majestic, and jaw-dropping Symphonic Prog. Songs such as the grand and glorious, nearly twelve-minute opener “Rules of the Desert,” along with “Illusions and Tribulations,” the two-part magnum opus “Details: a) Circle Spins” and “Details: b) Start Again,” plus “The Gathering” and “Through Stained Glass” are loaded with layered and pomp keyboards and contain metallic-tinged guitars, a dynamic rhythm section, the occasional violin, and pitch-perfect vocals, both male and female. During the majority of the ten tracks, lush melodies and challenging instrumental soundscapes abound, along with enough tempo and mood shifts and other sonic surprises tossed in along the way to keep listeners on the edge of their seats.

After so many years, with so much talent within its ranks, how this top-notch group has remained “under the radar” for so many Prog-Rock fans is another of life’s annoying little mysteries. I’m hoping this latest album reaches a wider audience and finally brings Cast the recognition it so truly deserves.

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