Maestros of the Macabre combine to give you nightmares.
Owing to the fact that I’ve been off work this week with a severely trapped nerve in my shoulder (and a rare allergic reaction to the damn medication I was prescribed resulting in a mind-warping high-pitched whine in my ears!!!) I’ve been feeling pretty damn low. Now, I don’t know about you guys but whenever I’m down, I have a tendency to cosy-up with vintage horror movies. Some people like slippers and TLC, but I tend to find mist-enshrouded sets, creaky monsters and even creakier dialogue, and that gorgeously redolent atmosphere from the imagination of yesteryear seems to do the trick. And so it has been for me this week.
With all of these creepy chills seeping into my weary bones, the evocative scores to many of these films have lingered in my mind, soothing that infernal whine to a degree. So, to pay my respects for their hidden medicinal qualities, I have decided to provide what amounts to a little tour around some of this spellbinding, often innovative music with the aid of Silva Screen’s early compilation of highlights from a slew of classic British fright films. Entitled simply but perfectly Horror!, this fine selection covers a unique period in genre production. Hammer is here, along with MGM, Sabre Films, Tigon and Lippert Films – some unsung champions of low-budget genre and others redoubtable bastions of classic horror. The music is performed by the Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Kenneth Alwyn, with some of the original composers having written adaptations of their work especially for this release, and the whole thing sounds exemplary, making for a full-blooded appreciation of genre keeping its British end up.
To my knowledge, the majority of these scores have not received full official releases of their own, which is an injustice that I pray will one day be rectified. For now, though, this vivid and highly energized compilation serves as a tumultuous testament to the surging power, skin-crawling finesse and rapturous romance that composers bestowed upon the horror genre during the fifties and sixties.
Just look at that glorious cover-art. The titular entity from Jacques Tourneur’s awesome Night of the Demon announces the dark, dangerous and diabolic with ferocious showmanship, emblazoned with truly satanic colour. I picked up this CD from the Memorabilia show at the NEC years and years ago, but it did have a much wider distribution both here and in the States. Although now an old release, this album is still available if you look around. I spotted copies on Amazon just now. So get your orders in.
Horrors of the Black Museum
The first of two vigorous Michael Gough chillers in this selection, and a rip-roaring opening to the album, for Arthur Crabtree’s full-throttle period thriller was composed by Gerard Schurmann, who also gets two chances to shine on this album. Featured here is the provocative and dynamic Overture, which has been specially prepared for this recording. A broad and spectacular orchestral barrage runs the gamut of shrieking brass and strings, romantic indentures, and boisterous action motifs. The main themes are all addressed in this nonstop gallop of dexterous frivolity. There is horror here, during the first phase, with jangling piano, stabbing strings and demonic brass squalls, and then something a final payoff reminding us that a mad and murderous heart beats at the centre of the eye-spiking, censor-goading melodrama from 1959. In-between, the pace is hyper and exhilarating, almost chase music.
This is horror pomp of the most ear-rattling. The peal of bells during the quasi-adventure phase in the second half adds a giddy zest. The up-tempo pace, the hurried flurries of excited brass, the whipcrack horn-play, the swift curling of the violins – it is very reminiscent of how John Williams would handle the action music for the shark-hunting barrel chase in Jaws. In fact, if you listen to the two pieces, one after the other, it could well seem as though Williams has latched onto this wild, frenetic and deliciously orchestrated tumble of instrumental acrobatics. This is all supposed to be a scene-setter for the bustling and chaotic London streets. Classical elements creep in, with something of a Gustav Holst momentum to the stop-start verve of crowds in motion and the kinetic visual feel of the city is perfectly encapsulated. This opening to the album really grabs you by the scruff of the neck and hurls you into the maelstrom of a busy, large-scale orchestra in full flight.
You will have precious little time to draw breath from now on.
Robert Wise’s classic 1963 interpretation of Shirley Jackson’s gothic psychodrama was visually ravishing in splendidly evocative black-and-white, beautifully detailing the cracks in the characters’ psyches as the supernatural power of Hill House began to terrorise them. Bulging doors and unearthly banging noises, a rickety spiral staircase and some masterfully measured, slow-seeping chills guarantee that the film remains one of the best haunted house movies ever made.
But a crucial ingredient to the pot is its profoundly unnerving score from Humphrey Searle.
This track is from the opening narration from the film, and is entitled The History of Hill House. Searle skillfully weaves a dreamlike symphony that chimes, trembles, creeps and wanders around our imagination with ghostly abandon. The music feels “female” to me, obviously since the film’s central figures are women and the drama centres around the tormented and shrewish sensibilities of the timid Eleanor Vance (Julie Harris) as she falls under the spell of the haunted house she has been invited to help investigate, this is a deliberate tactic of seductive intuition and beatific soul-searching. With moments of squirrelly discord, unspeakably dread-filled tonal clusters and lots of apprehensive lulls, this is the perfect ghostly accompaniment to any dark night in a large, shadow-draped house. I can hear motifs and passages that sound very akin to similar supernatural material that Jerry Goldsmith would come up with in the likes of Poltergeist orLegend. There is a spectral quality from slowly rising strings, floating and caressing the senses, soothing yet pregnant with ill-tidings. Woodwinds trill, but are cleverly subdued and muted in the orchestration. The cello begins a steady intrusion, but is snuffed almost immediately, adding to a degree of unpredictability. We just do not know what Searle is going to deliver next.
He works mainly with soft, delicate phrases but can suddenly unleash a brief wallop of brassy anger. There is a hint of Herrmann in the refined strings – they almost sound afraid, themselves. Trumpet, bass and tuba make a worried appearance, as though they have stumbled through the wrong door … and quickly retreated. This sort of musical materialization and swift vanishing act is a brilliant evocation of the ghostly manifestations that plague the visitors in the house.
A work of sublime unease.
Corridors of Blood
Here, we have quintessential dread and demonics in Buxton Orr’s dense and heaving Prelude to Robert Day’s interestingly overwrought Boris Karloff drama from 1958 (actually released in 1964). Seriously ominous and somber, this brief track features a wonderfully grim five-note theme – a quick note followed by a sustained one, front and back, and a swift punctuation right in the middle – that bleats like Morse Code over a slow, ponderous dirge. Almost an accusation, its tone is indescribably grave and morose, like anguished bells intoning the end of the world. Lots of shrill strings, even more heavy percussion. Marvellously, there is a nice mid-point passage that gives off a Bernard Herrmann-like vibe for stunned and shivering violins, before the slow march is resumed, unavoidable and sans hope. There is the tease that a mighty cymbal clash will happen at the finale of the cue, but Orr deviously truncates the effect, leaving you unsure and apprehensive. Brilliantly done, and just the state of mind that this album demands from you.
Night of the Demon
My favourite of the films assembled here gets a wonderful score from Clifton Parker. It was watching this that inspired me to write this review, in fact. This track is the Overture. It contains the main motifs heard throughout Jacques Tourner’s exquisite 1957 adaptation of the uncanny M.R. James story Casting The Runes. Hard-nosed American cynicism confronts ancient supernatural beliefs as Dana Andrews’ pragmatic scientist arrives in England to debunk and discredit the powers of Niall MacGinnis’ evil warlock. The film’s sense of mystery, menace and magic is unparalleled. Tourneur’s initial plans were to keep hidden the story’s central demon, which has been evoked via runic parchments to slay whoever stands against the black magician, and to merely suggest its existence and, thus, retain a get-out clause of “natural causes” in the audiences’ minds. But the desire for sensation amidst the slew of US creature-features crowding the screens saw to it that Wally Veevers’ superbly realized monster made two terrifying appearances that bookend the film, and brilliantly establish – and rightly so, as far as I am concerned – that such things dwell out there on the fringes of our world and can be invoked for murder. The film is a veritable tour de force (or Tourner de force, if you like) and boasts a magnificently memorable performance from MacGinnis as the immensely charismatic warlock, Julian Karswell, and several standout sequences of high suspense and eerie unease and decidedly monstrous goings-on. As I said earlier, I simply cannot wait for its Blu-ray release.
Parker’s Overture begins with an ominous and sly theme as the main title for the film whirls around the mystical obelisks of Stonehenge. The central motif seems to be saying “Mona Lisa” if you listen, which is appropriately enigmatic and hinting at secrets best left un-prised. Violins keen and swirl, the tone eerie and tremulous, but this suspenseful intro is soon broken asunder with fierce clashes of cymbals, echoing notes from the piano, spooky tick-tocks of the xylophone and a rising crescendo for strings, horns and brass, the music taking on appropriately diabolical size and strength, a ferocious cacophony that only finds release for brief, stone-sheltered respite before another swelling howl of demented fury blusters its way in and drags it from its sanctuary.
Listen to how he has tremors from the drums and cymbals bubbling in the background like a cauldron, and the how the xylophone sounds like skeletal bones. There are a couple of paralyzing stingers in here too, that appear at various junctures in the movie, most notably when a spidery hand appears on the banister behind a rather reckless Holden, who has gone on a mission behind enemy lines, so to speak.
His combination of surging strings and ponderous trombone deliver devilish clasps of yowling wind several times throughout the overture, this hullabaloo helping the track to turn full circle, as though we are caught up in a demonic vortex – which, of course, is precisely what Karswell summons up to prove his point to the ever-doubting fool of Andrews’ Dr. Holden during the terrific garden-party tempest sequence.
Altogether a very powerful track, this is one of the glowering, all-threatening highpoints of the album. The full score utilizes the elements from this with repeated success throughout, Night of the Demon really benefitting from the combination of ancient energy, rousing menace, lyricism and pulse-pounding occultism.
The Abominable Snowman
The first of four Hammer scores on this album, this also hails from 1957, and comes courtesy of Humphrey Searle. His Main Title cue, here, is windswept, expansive and exotic. It speaks ominously of the distant Himalayas and of a high, snow-covered realm of mystery. Gongs and chimes gleam out from far away, echoing with yet more ancient power. They commence with cave-bound depth, almost like a tribal call to ceremony. Gravelly bass provides an ice-encased foundation, almost like the low moaning of a subterranean male choir. A continuous chanting, if you will, that hums deep down at the core. Searle’s major theme develops over this orientally tinged bedrock. Strings swell in huge, slow clouds, like the snow blown off the peaks. Exotic percussion supplies colour to this monochromatic landscape. A reed-like whip snaps tensely in a slow beat. The piece excellently evokes a sense of meditation and ritual, an earnest procession of discovery. Whilst some would say that the exotic flavor is rather clichéd and every bit the stereotypical way in which a fifties English composer would go about devising a theme for a tale set in Tibet, this has an eeriness and an epic quality to it that is weirdly elemental and completely descriptive of the setting in which the humanitarian and moralistic Peter Cushing and his arrogant colleague and nemesis, played by Forest Tucker, find themselves when they go about rooting-out the Yeti in Val Guest’s shivery adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s original screenplay, The Creature.
A short track, but an inspiring one that climbs heights and leaves food for thought. Just like the classic film it introduces.
The most surprising and atypical score of the lot hails from this excellent and highly controversial classic of British extreme. Composed by Paul Ferris, this deliberately takes the opposite stance from the film’s violence and persecution, and is supremely melodic and gentle, and offers a strikingly old fashioned use of genuine “theme” – the very component that is frequently eschewed by modern composers.
Two tracks are presented from Michael Reeves’ notorious 1968 film, both lyrical and spritely, both sublime and haunting and, especially in the second cue, very far removed from the sadism witnessed in the film as Vincent Price’s brutish tyrant, the Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, conducts his campaign of torture and execution around the lush English countryside. Of the two, the harsher, more brittle Prelude is the most dissonant, detailing the opening execution of a “witch” with tense build-up and oddly mischievously orchestrated, faux medieval sense of the baroque. A bass drums rolls, strings shiver, the xylophone dances, the tuba interjects, horns and woodwinds rear up in sharp welters of consummate mockery. This nightmarish litany remains beautiful in spite of its somewhat taunting nature, and I don’t think it is unfair to suggest that a particular phrase of playful lyricism during this Prelude was something of an influence upon Marc Wilkinson’s cult-cherished main theme for Piers Haggard’s not unrelated The Blood on Satan’s Claw, also from Tigon.
In Romanza, the lushly romantic period (which happen to be the English Civil War) swoons into the music, coming to the fore to demonstrate the turbulent love affair that will become the central crux of the violent melodrama that Roundhead Ian Ogilvy and Hilary Dwyer will find themselves caught up in. Achingly lovely, with gentle folk guitar, delicate harp-play and then lilting horns, strings and tambourine developing an instantly unforgettable main theme that has elements of James Horner, Ennio Morricone and even Howard Shore’s music for the Lord of the Rings sieved through its warm, honeysuckle pastoral. This theme has the enviable quality of sounding fresh and unique, and yet strangely familiar, as though a cultural holdover from a bygone time. There is something of a jaunt to it, although still slow and melodic it conveys the sense of movement, perhaps dance. It is simply wonderful. The finale, played on the guitar, is meant to evoke the minstrel and his mandolin, but there is definitely a Western sound produced that is in-keeping with the film’s frequent image of good guys and bad guys riding across the landscape, and of one hero standing-up to a thuggish bully and his henchmen.
As horror film music, this is most unusual. And yet it is able to carry an undercurrent of darkness and tragedy just beneath its peaceful and tranquil, meadow-meandering veneer. There are persistent rumours that the full score will finally become available. I have heard that it should be released before the year is out – the year being 2013 as I write this.
The Curse of The Mummy’s Tomb
Though not one of the studio’s better offerings, and probably the worst of their Mummy pictures, Michael Carreras' 1964 Curse is still colourful, lurid entertainment and provides some fine crypt-defiling, curse-invoking, head-squishing fun (something that was actually referenced with the Mummy sequence in Douglas Hickox’s great monster-mash, Waxwork). Hammer had a wonderful, large-scale score for their first bandaged-rampage film, The Mummy, from Franz Reizenstein, a score that Christopher Lee (who donned the swathes for that one) has often stated that is one of the finest he has ever heard. Carlo Martelli is not quite up to such romantic, sweeping standards, but his work heard in this couplet of cues, The Tomb and The Desert, is forceful, menacing and flecked with snippets of exoticism. An initial fanfare heralds that imperious foolhardiness of colonialism planting its boots where they do not belong, but its arrogance is swiftly submerged in glimmering wafts of unease and wonder. Woods and strings nudge through the dust of the ages with delicate hints of Egyptian mystery. Horn and brass usher in a darker passage of dread. Great cymbal clashes impact with strident warnings to go no further … but, of course, explorers acting under the King Kong-like auspices of an American showman who senses fortune and glory down in the tomb, won’t heed such musical premonitions of lumbering troubles ahead, and the mummy is raised to avenge the desecration of his resting place in the time-honoured fashion.
Cue lots of shivering strings and the staggering beat the big bass drum, which clearly foreshadows the stiffened stride of the cloth-wrapped bad boy. Exotic woods flutter with a snake-charming lilt. Bass and percussion scurry in with jarring jeopardy. Maracas and shakers rattle and twist like scorpions or Scarab Beetles on the advance. A rumbling undercurrent acts as a bed for the whippoorwills of horn, percussion and strings to snaps and pirouette. The harp sees the track out, ending on a note of delicacy that the film, itself, will fail to establish.
Michael Gough is causing all sorts of trouble again. In John Lemont’s much-derided 1961 warped ape-fest, he plays yet another mad scientist whose passions get the better of him. After tampering with growth hormones, his test ape becomes his personal avenger until it attains huge size and then breaks free of his model-house and goes on the rampage through an equally model London. It’s loopy, deranged and all very, very silly. How Gough's chimp turns into a gorilla, we'll never know ... though that's the least of our worries in this breakneck farce. But, in the right frame of mind, this ripe old idiocy is gloriously entertaining, like a crazy, junked-up blend of King Kong (obviously), Gorgo, Murders in the Rue Morgue and even Lifeforce, and it benefits from an unbridled score from Gerard Schumann.
For this presentation, we hear his Overture, which can be richly aggressive in its first half, with martial drums and brass, rocket-propelled strings that spiral up, up and away, rolling woods and an emerging main theme that promises romance and chivalry. In fact, it is in this second half that the track begins to remind me most of Henry Mancin’s lush score for Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce. Somehow, it sounds too beautiful and well thought-out to be attached to such schlock. But it is still a gloriously old school slice of overly decorative embellishment that reveals a composer hellbent on doing the best that he can for a production that he must have known really wasn't worth it.
Fiend Without a Face
Like Konga, Fiend was just luxuriously silly SF pap, directed by Black Museum’s Arthur Crabtree in 1957. Yep, this was the one with the id-summoned tentacled flying brains that attack the cast, including Marshall Thompson and Terry Kilburn, with the intentions of sucking their own grey matter out! Dizzy, daft and dunderheaded throughout, this was the UK’s giggle-inducing retort to all those American Sci-Fi epics of science gone disastrously awry. The title is all very Lovecraftian, and the menace is actually inspired by notions put forward in the immortal classic Forbidden Planet.
Buxton Orr brings his orchestral artillery around once more, and delivers a bombardment of Alex North-like brazen brass and dissonance. Edgy, nervous material that slowly gathers impetus and has the sound of a war picture more than a spongy monster-fest. All of this results in a final heroic fanfare for the first of two cues, Main Title.
His second cue commences as a typical fawning Love Theme for pleasant strings and a softly mellow motif for clarinet. It is very much of the times – the sort of music that accompanies all those old fashioned interludes in the action and the two romantic leads take a moment out of the adventure and the danger for a little canoodle. Orr does provide a tiny trace of unease about a third of the way through. Interestingly, his little woodwind and string motif that starts the romantic phase is something that Alex North would deliver in his otherwise wildly dark and demonstrative score for Dragonslayer, which I have reviewed already. It is always fun spotting connections like this, whether they were intentional or completely coincidental.
The Devil Rides Out
Whoa-boy, here we go with a bit of blistering James Bernard!
Widely regarded as one of Hammer’s best chillers, this 1968 adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s occult bestseller is a charming, thirties-set suspenser that pits the academic wit and courage of Christopher Lee’s stalwart Duc Le Richlieu against the ghastly satanic powers of Charles Gray’s urbane cult leader, Moccata, in a soul-saving race against time.
Giant spiders, the Angel of Death and the Goat of Mendes all make spirited appearances as the good guys do their utmost to preserve sanity and innocence … and maintain a stiff upper lip at all times. The film is spirited and episodic, actually quite comic-book and action-orientated. It also contains some alarming set-pieces. See if you can spot director Terence Fisher trying to move out of the shot before anyone notices during the gate-crashing of the Sabbath!
Hammer’s most prolific composer, Bernard is totally in his element with the material. It might not be Dracula on the prowl, or Frankenstein’s latest atrocity lurching about, but that full-bore symphonic tempest that made his name descends upon you with his customary bludgeoning violence. This track, The Power of Evil, is pure take-no-prisoners stuff. Intense and unforgiving, and defiantly nerve-shredding. Play this loud and you’ll never see your neighbours again.
You pretty much know what to expect from Bernard. He delivered his signature tomb-rattling brass, shrieking violins, ominous bass and thunderous percussion for Hammer many times over – and we never got tired of it. I’ll bet the orchestra did though … they must have been reduced to quivering wrecks by the end of every recording session. This is only a bare minute-and-a-half long, but it will have you in palpitations. That notorious Dra-cu-laaaa motif is reworked with increased muscularity, and with spine-tingling ascending brass and strings, bone-jarring drums and such a raucous squall of outright devilry you’ll have no problem believing Satan is out on the town.
Curse of the Werewolf
Hammer’s only feature film foray into the furry fury of the wolf man was made infamous by Oliver Reed’s intense 1960 portrayal of the cursed Leon, unholy child of a servant girl raped by a deformed and bestialized beggar, who becomes stricken with lycanthropy and then embarks on slaughter in the Spanish countryside.
Presented here are three cues from Benjamin Frankel’s electrifying and intense score for director Terence Fisher.
In Prelude, the theme of anxiety and desperation is drawn out with harsh cries from the horn, piercing strings and discordant bleats from the trumpet. It sets up the notion that all will not end well and displays some considerable musical volatility.
This completely alters in the second of the trio, the sumptuously light and fanciful Pastorale, one of the most beautiful pieces of music on the album, and also one of the most lilting and delightful in all of Hammer’s cannon. Playing in the film as now grown-up Leon decides to leave home and seek his fortune in the big wide world. He doesn’t really get very far, but Frankel’s winsome music – soothing, airy strings, fluttering woodwinds that genuinely make the heart soar – allows him to enter a veritable Disney world of harmonious nature. Playful, puckish and utterly beguiling, this tranquil woodland track aches with nature’s blissful bounty.
But, as captivating as this is, it’s not really why we’re here, is it?
So … blood ‘n’ fury come next, with a vengeance.
Benjamin Frankel creates one of the greatest scores for the studio with the violent, exciting, pell-mell tumult of The Werewolf at Bay & Apotheosis. His dynamic material for the extended climax of the film, in which the murderous and bloodied Leon goes on the run through the town, hounded by the villagers and his own anguished adoptive father, who seeks to put him out of his monstrous misery with a silver bullet, is profoundly ferocious, dazzlingly agile and stuffed with devastating vignettes. Leon inexplicably becomes very acrobatic (something that he lycanthropes in Wolf seemed to have picked up on) and climbs buildings, leaps from rooftop to rooftop like Jason Bourne, and eventually gets cornered in the bell-tower of the church. Some of this ceaseless action-fare, with its giddy sense of speed, movement and impending doom, is acutely similar to Craig Safan’s wonderfully lyrical, exciting and melancholic music for Custer’s Last Stand in his excellent score for the TV miniseries Son of the Morning Star … the seesawing desperation of the violins especially.
The nonstop nature of the track is exhausting, yet Frankel’s writing is incredibly detailed and intricate. There is so much going on that it is difficult to keep up with it all. All the sections of the orchestra have their moments in which to shine, and the headlong rush of the amassed ensemble is apt to have you on your feet and running alongside it. And ultimately alongside poor Leon as he finally bites the bullet and convulses to his merciful death.
The full score for Curse of the Werewolf is available from Naxos.
Frankel’s music is a majestic and fitting way to end an album that has galloped through some of the most terrifying situations imaginable. We’ve met demons, mummies, ghosts, mutant gorillas, aliens from another dimension, mad men and the Devil, himself. A trip and a half, I’m sure you will agree. But it is one that tempers the beating heart and the sweaty palm with soul-enriching beauty and profound complexity.
To have the complete scores to each film would be a dream come true, but this assortment of horrific highlights makes for a memorably haunting experience.
This release comes with a smartly illustrated booklet of notes on the films and their respective score tracks.
Full Track Listing
1.Horrors of the Black Museum– Overture 3.30
2.The Haunting– The History of Hill House 4.31
3.Corridors of Blood– Prelude 1.30
4. Night of the Demon– Overture 3.14
5. The Abominable Snowman– Main Title 1.30
6. Witchfinder General - Prelude/Romanza 6.20
7. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb– The Tomb/The Desert 5.08
8. Konga– Overture 2.32
9. Fiend Without A Face– Main Title/Love Theme 4.24
10. The Devil Fides Out– The Power of Evil 4.29
11. Curse of the Werewolf– Prelude 1.28
12. Curse of the Werewolf– Pastorale 2.10
13. Curse of the Werewolf - The Werewolf at Bay & Apotheosis 6.20
A Macabre and Menacing Masterpiece.
There are lots of horror score compilation releases out there, and many of them offer tremendous value. This one from Silva Screen is an utter delight from lavish start to vigorous, heart-pounding finish. The themes heard here are fabulous examples of how imaginative and thrilling composers were for these British mounted fright-flicks. Much influence and inspiration has been taken from these outstanding works of often ferocious, though sometimes beautifully lyrical passages and orchestral assaults of the uncanny.
Clifton Parker’s Night of the Demon and both The Haunting and The Abominable Snowman from Humphrey Searle are gloriously eerie and frightening, and the sheer bravura power of James Bernard is second-ton-none, but the sheer breadth and verisimilitude of Paul Ferris’ Witchfinder General and Benjamin Frankel’s The Curse of the Werewolf are shining glories in their own right. They represent two of the most distinctive and talented voices that British Horror had to bestow. Incredible music that can be romantic, sweeping and lyrically haunting as well as tempestuous, atmospheric and downright violent.
The range and styles of these scores is extraordinary, and the resulting album makes for a thoroughly beguiling and thrilling experience. Turn the lights down, and the music up … and pray you make through the night.
The Devil’s own orchestra will take you on a breathtaking voyage to some very dark and dangerous places. But the trip is most definitely worth it.
Arm yourself with silver bullets and runic talisman ... and track this one down.
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