Since first fronting the mighty Accept back in the early 80s, Udo Dirkschneider had to overcome many obstacles to present us all with his fine blend of classic-sounding, honest Heavy Metal.
The most recent blow, the departure of both his guitar players, an occasion that would have totally crippled most bands, found the legendary German even more determined to keep his ‘Metal machine’.
So, and faster than you can say “strudel”, he acquired the services of two young guitar talents with whose assistance he brought into this world his latest musical baby, entitled “Steelhammer”.
In a central London hotel, Udo and I sat face to face once more and discussed the process behind the creation of his fourteenth studio album, his upcoming touring obligations, the possibility of him finally performing on UK soil and the recent reissue of U.D.O.’s back catalogue of a good twelve years. Enjoy.
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis.
- Hi, Udo. It is the third time in the last five years that I have the pleasure of sitting opposite you and asking you questions about a new U.D.O album and I have to say that I enjoy doing so each and every time. Why?
Not only because I believe that you are one of the most accessible people in the music business, always smiling and always willing to answer questions (the dream of every music journalist!), but also because that means that you have been busy recording new music, of course!
Udo: Thanks. I mean, yeah: I have always been a member of a working band, both with Accept and with U.D.O., but this album that I am now promoting is already old for me (laughs). We already have a few things in mind with regards the next album. We are always working and constantly thinking of what it is that we want to do next. This thing kind of keeps you young in a way.
- There are other factors involved which are responsible for keeping you young. If one was to look at the list of all past members of U.D.O., it is a full-blown football team, eleven players, but also three substitutes, just in case some of your regulars get tired. So, constant line-up changes seem to bring fresh new ideas and motivation, right?
Udo: (laughs).Yeah that is true but this new line-up was not planned. The last line-up with Stefan Kaufmann and Igor Gianola was…ok. Stefan had been sixteen years with U.D.O. and Igor had been fifteen years with us too. With Stefan, the reason for his departure was related to back problems.
- The same problem that stopped him from being a drummer with Accept back in the day?
Udo: Yes. We had a problem while we did the recording for the album “Rev-Raptor” where we had to stop working for three months as he couldn’t move! He was lying still or visiting the hospital – it was a real nightmare.
At some point he recovered and took part on the “Rev-Raptor” tour which was of course a very long one and it is true that every tour we do is getting longer and longer. He was feeling so much pain that he had to take drugs in order to get by but when you constantly feel in pain you cannot be in a good mood. He was always aggressive and the atmosphere within the band was very bad.
- I am quite surprised to hear that as all the clips we have watched of the band performing live portrayed him as a man full of energy. In “Live In Sofia”, this top quality DVD/Blu-ray release of yours, he seems to be integral to its success. It is quite strange to hear you say the things you do about him.
Udo: It is, I know but that’s the way it was. So, after the last show of the “Rev-Raptor” tour I had a conversation with him and told him “Stefan, I think that the best way forward is for you to stop being on tour with us”. He was not really surprised to hear me say that but it was a case of someone having to stop him, you know, and the best thing was for that person to be me.
I mean, I know Stefan since he was eighteen years old. I told him “this is the best thing to do as otherwise we will only be having more and more problems within the band”. It was only after a while that he turned and told me “it was a good thing that you asked me to stop”, especially after I heard that he still had such problems to deal with.
I actually told him that he could still be our producer and write songs from U.D.O as he did before, that he could still work for us behind the scenes but then he told me that he could not do that for this new album as he really needed to take a break.
He wanted to get back to his studio in his home town and work with music videos; he did not want to be either a producer or write any songs but he did tell me that if I needed his help or in case that something went wrong that I could call him. Working without Stefan after all these years was like a new thing for me.
- So is there not a single idea on the new album that was a product of your collaboration with Stefan? Is everything fresh new material?
Udo: Stefan was involved in most of our past albums but this was a completely new situation. I knew that Fitty (bass player) had a lot of good ideas and his name has been credited on many U.D.O. albums in the past. He actually lives just a few minutes away from my house so working with his is quite easy.
I told him “Ok, let’s see if we can work together” and we somehow ended up writing the whole album together. Also, working as a producer is not something new to me as it is something that I did back in the 80s with Michael Wagner. I was Ok working on the production but I did not want to work like Stefan, using all those computers and stuff; I wanted people to be sitting in the studio with me so that I could talk to them face to face – not using e-mails, Skype or anything else of that sort.
Now, Fitty has a small studio in Ibiza so we did record a lot of stuff there and then we found this guy in Germany, a guy that my brother spoke of, called Martin Pfeiffer, and who’s got a studio in Wilhelmshaven in the north of Germany. We got in contact with him and he started arranging stuff like the drums with Francesco; but the drums were recorded in Italy in his own studio with the help of the Internet. How? I am not sure; please don’t ask me (laughs).
How such a thing is technically achieved is beyond me. Initially he was to come over to meet the band in the studio but then he contacted us saying that he found a way of doing this over the Internet and it worked – unbelievable, but it worked! So it was Fitty, Martin and me who were working for this album and the first major problem we had to deal with was with regards our guitar player.
We had a problem with Igor but this problem was not so new for us. Igor had his own project running in parallel with U.D.O., he had an AC/DC cover band, he was working at a radio station and he also had many private problems that I knew of. When I talked to him, I explained that Stefan was no longer part of the picture and that I wanted to work on a different type of production which involved him being in the studio with me for three to four weeks.
His response to that was “No, I have no time to do this. I can come for two days but then I have to fly back to Switzerland”, to which I said that it was not only financially impossible, but also time-wise difficult to achieve. He continued to say things like “I cannot do this, it is impossible for me” and I was saying “Ok, but that means that I will look for a new studio guitar player to help me out and you will only do the rhythm guitar parts”. We, of course, also had to find someone to replace Stefan and after checking out three hundred different people we ended up with four different options.
It was a real nightmare; we received three hundred different demos which we had to listen to but, on the other hand, it was good to know that a lot of people were interested in the job. One guy was from Norway, one from Germany, one from Finland and the last one was from Russia.
In the beginning I thought to myself “a Russian guitar player”? I was going to have to face problems with Visas being issued and a lot of travelling taking place but I still decided to listen to this guy play and it only took three minutes before I called Fitty and told him “come over, we need to listen to this guy play together”.
He was actually on tour with Paul Di Anno after which he came to Germany for an audition, following which he spent four weeks in the studio with us and doing the whole album (laughs). That was a long audition (laughs)…I don’t know how to best explain it. This guy is twenty nine years old and he performs the basic style of U.D.O., but in a different way.
I remember sitting in the studio couch behind him while he was playing and Fitty sitting next to me and we were looking and smiling at each other. It was very strange; after only two days this guy was no longer new to us – it felt like we had been working together for years and years.
- Udo, still I find your choice of guitarists to be an interesting one. I am sure that if I was to have a look at your personal phone book I would find there the names of many well-known and accomplished guitarists – people whose addition to the band’s line up at this stage would have attracted much interest from the media. Yet, you opted for two very young and relatively unknown guitar players. Why?
Udo: It is true. My aim was for both guitarists to be young and relatively unknown. Of course I could have a more famous guitar player in the band and I know quite a few who would have loved to play for U.D.O. but I was indeed looking for something else. Andrey was perfect.
Then I asked Igor, who was responsible for all our solos in the past, to create solos from the new album but we ended up having similar problems with him saying “I don’t have time to create solos”. He did send me some in the end but, I am sorry to have to say this, they were crap!
So I said to him “Igor you cannot work in two different jobs if your output for us is a couple of solos for a few songs. You need to come into the studio for us to work face to face so that I can tell you how I want the solo to sound like”. He started the same so I told him “Ok, Andrey is here, we have a guitar player who’s playing solos very well so that’s it – you don’t get to play a single note for this new album”.
His response to me was “yeah, Ok, I don’t care”. It was so strange to hear him say such a thing…anyway, when the album was finished we had a conference call and he told me “I know that what I did was not the right thing but I am looking forward to performing in the American tour. Andrey is a really good guitar player and I am really looking forward to working with him”.
That’s when we got an offer to play in a festival in Ecuador to which we needed to respond within a day or so. We sent an e-mail to Igor in that respect and two hours later we received an e-mail from him saying that he is out of U.D.O. because it was becoming too much for him to bear.
He said that to commit to any touring he would have to be given dates two to three months in advance! I thought “What? We are not a hobby band here” (laughs). If someone comes out of the blue and offers us festival slots we need to be able to accommodate such requests so his response was not the one we expected or wanted from him. At that point what are we to do?
Are we to start looking for another guitar player? I started to get a little bit nervous but I understood that something might jell between Kasperi and Andrey so I called our management and asked them whether they could contact Kasperi to do an audition for U.D.O. and after only thirty minutes we had a second guitar player in the band. The good thing is that they are both huge U.D.O. fans – they know more about U.D.O. than me (laughs).
The only thing I regret is not to also have Kasperi playing on the album; I was a little bit angry with Igor, you know – everybody is. I mean, this guy…I don’t know what is going on with Igor but he made his own decisions to which my response was “Ok, it is really up to you to do what you want – if you don’t want to do U.D.O. anymore then that is fine”.
Now, I have two new guitar players, they are working very well together and the show that we performed in Ecuador was fantastic. I really felt on stage like we have been playing together for years. So, this is the new situation in U.D.O. and I am really looking forward to working with these guys and do with them the kind of stuff that that I did with Matthias and Andy in the past like more twin solos.
Stefan was not really into solos but was more of a rhythm guitar player but now I have two players that can do both rhythm guitar and solos so I can do more material in the vein of old U.D.O. For example, there were a lot of songs from the “Timebomb” album that I could not play with the previous line-up live but now everything is open and available, you know?
- Udo, I only had access to the album a couple of days prior to this interview so I do not know the material as much as I would have wanted but from my experience as a fan and from what I got from the spins that I gave “Steelhammer”, what I got very strongly from it is a need to revisit a more old-school sound and style but, at the same time, your songs are quite in tune with what is happening in modern Heavy Metal.
“Mastercutor” and “Rev-Raptor”, both albums that I really warm to, sound very polished and the sound is quite modern but “Steelhammer” sounds more like a classic Heavy Metal album, if you know what I mean. Am I right in saying that?
Udo: Yes, you are. Let me say that I was not really satisfied with the last two albums “Dominator” and “Rev-Raptor”; for me they were both quite cold. The songs were good but the whole atmosphere was cold – they were what you could describe as computer albums.
This time, the first thing I said even before the first note was recorded was “Ok, now I want to have all the musicians together in the studio working face to face”, which happened.
The other important thing is that the guy we used called Martin in the Redhouse studios worked really well with us in creating many different guitar sounds, not just plugging the guitar into a computer and say “Ok, we have these pre-programmed guitar sounds to choose from”. He was working on natural guitar sounds and the same applied with regards the drums. This album does sound old-school.
- I am really happy to hear that it was intentional. Though old-school sounding, “Steeelhammer” has also a few interesting modern touches, such as keyboard sounds which add much atmosphere by operating in the background.
What I enjoyed the most were the light orchestrations used in songs like “Heavy Rain” – a ballad reminiscent of the ones that Ozzy was creating in the late 80s. Or what about “Take My Medicine”; a song whose rhythmical structure, at times, borders on Progressive Metal? I am quite impressed indeed.
Udo: Yes, we did use a few classic arrangements in the background and they were fitting.
- They were not only fitting but also quite beautiful to the point that it made me think to myself “why did Udo not use such things in his past albums”?
Udo: Our producer Martin is also involved in an orchestra where he plays the drums and he is used to creating very complicated arrangements. You have to speak with our drummer Francesco about this as he started crying when he was asked to performed the stuff that Martin wrote for us.
He was so frustrated. He was kicking the studio door really hard screaming “I cannot play that stuff, I am not good enough” but he made it in the end. These are very complicated arrangements and also Andrey was playing some classic stuff over these drum arrangements which were very interesting.
- “Take My Medicine” is a song that does not sound very complicated. Its main melody is pretty straight forward and easy to digest but once you start dissecting it, there are layers upon layers of interesting arrangements.
The biggest compliment that I can give “Steelhammer” is that it sounds like a classic U.D.O album but it is also one that brings the band a step forward in its natural evolutionary process.
Udo: I am convinced that the same group of people that created “Steeelhammer” are also going to work together on the next U.D.O. album. We already speak about all the things that we want to do in the next album and I have already heard some new ideas from Andrey and all I can say is that I have no problem whatsoever with regards the next U.D.O. album (laughs).
This guy has some really great ideas coming from his head, stuff that are unbelievable and Kasperi also has a few great ideas at hand. At the moment I am really looking forward to recording our next studio album (laughs).
- I would not be surprised if your next album was to be released within the next year as you have been very consistent and active these last few years.
There are many good songs on “Steelhammer” but I would like to stick to three and discuss them with you if that’s OK. The first one is “Metal Machine”; a song that I believe you chose as the ambassador of the new album – the stand-out track.
I want to ask you what made that the stand-out track and then I would like you to say a few words about “Basta Ya” – a song performed in Spanish. When my wife listened to it she said to me “is there a language that Udo is not going to try to sing in!?”!
Udo: I see (laughs). This time is it Spanish – next time it might even be Chinese (laughs).
- Then, the last song I would like to discuss and analyse with you is “Time Keeper” because it is my personal favourite. I love the vocal effects you have used.
Udo: This is a very interesting song indeed. It’s like “Metal Machine” in a way which is a science fiction themed song…well, maybe it is not a science fiction song any more as these days we have a lot of robot machines taking over by performing the work normally done by humans in factories, especially in the car industry.
Maybe as the years go by machines will take over the roles of humans more and more, you know? Maybe one day you will have a robot at home doing all your cleaning and stuff – that, in the way, is the subject matter of this song. The video we did for “Metal Machine” was filmed on a German battleship, so there was a crazy Russian guitarist playing Metal on board a German battleship (laughs).
- Ok, so after having operated a tank you now progressed onto battle ships ?!
Udo: Yes (laughs), but the location we chose for the video was great. The film we created was great and also all the photos that we used were taken on board that ship. I love themes like that. “Mean Machine” was more about myself, as I considered myself to be one, and the song “Men and Machine” described the world after it was taken over by robots. “Basta Ya”…
- Sorry to interrupt you here but the first thing that came to mind when listening to this song was Dio’s “We Rock” as both songs are based on a similar type of galloping theme.
Udo: Yeah? That’s interesting. Before we started thinking of doing this song in Spanish we did it in English and that is now the bonus track of the Japanese version of the album. The lyrics of the English version describe the financial crisis that we have been going through these last few months, especially in places like Greece and Spain, but also placed like Cyprus and Ireland. It pretty much says that people have had enough with all this! I don’t really want to get too much into politics here but this problem generates from the banks and their greed. Anyway, that was the idea behind the lyrics of this song.
Both Fitty and I live in Spain and we are always watching TV and are troubled by what we see and hear so we chose “Basta Ya” as the title of this song as it means we’ve had enough. The idea to sing a song in Spanish is not that new as we have been discussing doing that for the last three to four years but we initially thought about writing a ballad in Spanish.
At some point Fitty said “let’s write some lyrics down for the Spanish speaking song” which turned out to be easy as Fitty speaks Spanish perfectly. After that we began recording my vocals, following which we called a friend who plays for War Cry, a very famous Spanish band, and told him “Victor, we have an idea about this song; can you translate these lyrics into Spanish for us”?
He translated everything into Spanish but not everything worked exactly as we wanted to. Victor actually sang all the vocals in the demo as I didn’t know how to sing the Spanish lyrics in the right way.
At that point the idea occurred for us to do a duet together and that is how “Basta Ya” was born. The interesting thing is that a lot of people have already said that it doesn’t matter in what language this song is sung as it really works (laughs). Of course, the Spanish language is an easy one to sing songs in as it is very melodic. Having said that, I would not want to have to sing a whole album in Spanish (laughs).
- Thank God for that (I laugh). So what about “Time Keeper”?
Udo: “Time Keeper” is also in a way a science fiction themed song. The time keeper is somebody that can bring you back to any point in time you want. When people ask me what is the time period that I would like to be able to visit I always say the Middle Ages. So that is the lyrical meaning behind the “Time Keeper” – a song that involves a lot of fantasy.
- The vocal effects that you used on this song – how do they connect to the whole theme?
Udo: These effects are supposed to represent somebody, an entity, talking from a different dimension.
- Talking about strange and unusual lyrics, what about the song “Book Of Faith”?
Udo: This song relates to the whole idea behind the church. You can believe in the book of faith, which is of course the bible, or not – it is as simple as that. This is also a crazy song, you know? When we started working on this song Fitty came to me and said “I’ve got something which I am not sure about” to which I responded “let’s have a listen” and when I listened to the opening bass guitar theme I said “this is like bar music”. I was given a microphone and I started doing something unusual with my vocals and Fitty said “yeah, this works”.
- I do think that is really impressive that after all these years in the music industry you are still capable of reinventing yourself in such a way.
Udo: I think that what is very important in that respect is that every time we decided to do a new album we never said “Ok, which is our most successful album and which contains the most classic songs”, so as to create a similar sounding one. Or how to write songs that sound exactly like “Holy” or “Man and Machine” – we never did anything like that. What we always said was “let’s do something new”.
- That is indeed something that always comes across in your music – both the honesty and passion behind it.
Udo: There are times that people ask me “why don’t you do a song like “Balls To The Wall” again to which I reply “this song already exists” (laughs). I cannot and I will not simply make a copy of a song like that.
I want to make something new every time. By new I mean…well, the basics elements of U.D.O.’s music will always be there but I will always go for some experimental stuff like in “Heavy Rain”. When we last had this guy over from England who is taking care of our lyrics, so we make a correct use of the language, that is, he told me “I have this melody in my head”.
Now this guy is a singer and Fitty is a good piano player so he picked up the melody and started playing a theme close to it. When I listened to the end result I turned to Frank and said “I really don’t want to sing to something that sounds so bad” to which he responded “be open-minded, this thing really works in my mind and I know that you can make it work too”. I took the microphone, gave it a try and…there you have it – “Heavy Rain”.
- I am already enjoying “Steelhammer” very much and I am convinced that the more I listen to it, the more it will grow on me. I mean, I found that sitting on the Tube on my way here, I had many different melodies from the album popping into my head and that is always a good sign.
Udo: I believe that there are a lot of different elements on that album to discover and enjoy. If you take, for example, “Never Cross My Way” you will find that it is a song that almost borders the mainstream.
- I actually characterised it on my notes as a Hard Rock ballad of sorts.
Udo: That’s good. I had one guy telling me “hey, you cannot do this” to which I responded “why not”? I feel comfortable with this – let’s do it and see what happens. Now that the album is ready I have quite a few people telling me “you know what my favourite songs are” and “Never Cross My Way” quite often features on their lists.
- So “Steelhammer” is scheduled to be released on the 27th of May. I know already that you have a very busy schedule with regards interviews, visiting many different countries in the process, and you did mention that you have opted for video which is a much preferable way of promoting one’s music.
How is this video going to be circulated to the fans of U.D.O. ? Will you be mainly targeting YouTube or through perhaps a limited edition of the album?
Udo: I don’t know. What I know at the moment is that the label is doing a few special things with regards “Basta Ya” and I will have more specific information in the next couple of days. After that we will have to talk with the label and see what we want to do with it.
In the middle of April there’s going to be an official premiere of the song “Metal Machine” in Germany on one of the biggest radio stations there and at the end of April we will have the single “Metal Machine” coming out. I believe that the video will be released shortly after that.
- You are one of the few Metal artists I know who still seems to believe in the format of the single/E.P. If I look back at the U.D.O. discography, there is always a single accompanying each album. Why is that?
Udo: When it was decided by AFM records I thought to myself “come on – nobody needs a single” but it is a good tool to have when promoting your music on radio stations, you know? It is good to create some sort of anticipation for the fans – make people more interested in your new album. This time the label will not put out a whole E.P. but only one main song, together with a bonus composition.
- In my experience, releasing an album at the end of May does not leave many choices with regards potential participation in some of the major Summer Metal festivals. Is that indeed the case here or does being Udo Dirkschneider enable you to overcome such obstacles?
Udo: The first festival we will do this year involves a ship and it is the Wacken sponsored Metal Cruise – something that the Wacken organisers are doing for the first time.
After that we will do the Rock Hard festival, then Grasspop, a festival in the Czech Republic. We will also do two more festivals in Germany, one of which is a brand new one, and we will conclude with one each in Finland and Sweden. Accept play Sweden Rock this year so we cannot perform there (laughs), but we are doing another one instead.
- One smile – a thousand words, Udo!
Udo: There are two big festivals in Sweden so the will do Sweden Rock and we will do the other one and that will be all with regards festivals this year. In July, however, we will be visiting South America for two to three weeks and that means that we will be quite busy during the festival season and I believe that our European tour will start at the beginning of September in Russia.
- Will that European tour also involve the United Kingdom? Las time we spoke, during the promotion for “Rev-Raptor”, you said that you were going to play here and you didn’t – I did not forget that, you know!
Udo: Yeah, yeah, I know but this is…I don’t know why. There are not many willing promoters over here (note: in the United Kingdom) and there are always issues with regards money.
Last year nothing really materialised and then we approached a local festival and said “ok, we don’t want to play for money – we only want to do it for promotion” and their response was “no, we are not interested in U.D.O.”! This time we work with a different promoter and so we will see what happens. He is hopeful that we can do two or three shows in the UK – let’s see what happens.
- Fingers crossed! Last time I saw you I was still living in Greece and that was a good eleven years ago, so this is getting a little bit annoying, you know (I laugh)?
- It always baffles me that you should have a problem with promoters over here!
Udo: Earlier today I had this discussion with Malcolm Dome and he also said “why, what is the problem”? Normally English people are quite into German Metal bands.
- That is indeed true. You have Helloween and Gamma Ray playing over here in a month’s time. In the past, we’ve had bands like Grave Digger playing in front of a decent crowd, so why no U.D.O.?
Udo: Don’t ask me – I have no idea!
- I am sure that I will see you at one of the festivals that you already mentioned this year. I only hope that the market will eventually open up for you soon over here as I personally know people who are quite keen to attend one of your shows.
Udo: When it comes to the UK we really don’t care so much about the money. When you are of course on tour, certain countries offer more money than others and what we all decided is that if we can add a few UK dates in between places like Belgium and Holland which are geographically very close it is an easy thing to do. We can then come over with just our guitars and nothing else – only the essentials to help us do those shows and show our fans what this band is capable of doing.
It is the same thing with America now. I have scheduled to play some shows in the US after twelve whole years! It was the same situation over there: bad offers, bad clubs, no record company support and distribution so we often said “we will not play in the US”. Now we have good management, we have a good booking agency, our label AFM records opened up a new office in America and all enabled us to book twelve shows.
The purpose of these shows is to help us see what’s going on over there. So far, the first show is sold out, our tickets are selling very well and we were already told by people over there that next year we will have to go and play over there for two months which means that our business plan really works (laughs). I believe that all we need is to come and play once in the UK.
- If you do manage to do that, to come over here and finally ‘test the waters’, it will not be difficult to convince the organisers that there is interest in U.D.O.’s music. It’s just that one show that needs to be performed for the barrier to finally break.
Udo: Yeah, that is true.
- Udo, we live in a day and age where artists seem to have less and less control over how their music is promoted on the Internet.
There are cases of albums having leaked two – three weeks prior to their release date – something inevitable when people in a position of trust continue to abuse the system.
Do you have any such fear with regards “Steelhammer”? Have you taken any specific precautions to ensure that such a thing does not happen or do you not care at all about such things?
Udo: You have to take a little care so that such a thing does not happen, you know? At the moment we have staff from the US branch of the label asking whether we can have one or even two more songs available for radio airplay to which I say “no, we cannot do that” (laughs). If you do that next day you have these two songs loaded on YouTube.
There are already scheduled promo dates set as I explained previously and we cannot add anything more to that. What is important is that we have our whole back catalogue released in America after twelve years and so there is plenty of U.D.O material to promote.
- I was going to ask you about that as I saw a couple of special editions of “Animal House” and “Mean Machine” around, which is a good thing.
Udo: Yeah. These albums were not available for a long time not only in America but also in Europe. I had my own record company years ago and so I was the one that managed our whole back catalogue in Europe. One company involved got bankrupt, another German company we worked with went also bankrupt and these albums ceased to be available. AFM records now tell me that these reissues are selling so well that they need to press more CDs.
- That was a blessing for someone like me who owns all the first albums on vinyl. Excellent. Well, Udo, I believe that we have covered everything there is to say with regards “Steelhammer” and that we have helped people to understand what it is that you are trying to achieve with it.
I am pretty sure that it will become as successful as your previous releases if not more – something I truly wish for. I will conclude this interview with the wish that you will find a way to finally perform for us here in the UK as we are hungry for good quality, honest Heavy Metal music.
Udo: Me too, always! Thank you very much.
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