Introduction

The German thrash metal scene of the 1980s, often called Teutonic thrash because of the old Germanic tribe name, is not the most obscure or overlooked part of metal overall. Bands like Sodom or Kreator are popular and, relatively speaking, commercially successful. In terms of available information, the German metal media also make this scene quite approachable to a new listener: interviews, articles and documentaries are all available today within a few clicks.

Why make a guide to Teutonic thrash metal then? There are two reasons. First, because despite the international popularity of the so-called German big 4 of thrash and a few others, a lot of attention is indeed limited to these four bands, consisting of the two mentioned above, Destruction and Tankard. The second reason is that nearly all of the available resources are only in German.

This is an invitation to take a look under the hood of a fascinating and very influential scene.


The Aggressive Beginnings of the Teutonic Thrash Sound

A Tight Scene: The Ruhr Area in the 1980s

Before we talk about the music, it is worth shedding some light on where this scene was located. If you look at the provenance of most groups, you will find cities like Essen, Gelsenkirchen and Bochum. All these cities are in the area called Ruhr in Western Germany. The area and the region in general is a place with a lot of industry but especially coal mines. The “Zeche”, a word describing the mine but also the community around it, was what gave jobs, or at least the ones that with an acceptable pay. The work there is hard.

Andreas “Lacky” Lakaw, drummer of Darkness, a band that was very early active in the area, describes it as such:

The Ruhr-area in the 1980s was indeed still loud, dirty and hard. Most metals were working class kids. The metalheads of the region had the “work and dirt” spirit. This means that the music also had to be loud and hard. It was the case in all of the “Ruhr-Pott”, not only in Altenessen. It was maybe more concentrated there.”

People knew each other, quite a few bands were fond of this New Wave of British Heavy Metal coming from England and started therefore forming their own bands. It is not a coincidence that there bands started coming together and could play. One element is the amount of youth centers allowing a bunch of kids to play and store their equipment in exchange for cleaning chores.

Lacky continues about this: “The element that made Altenessen such a big name in heavy metal history, was that people were doing music themselves in cellars or youth centers and were screaming their frustration out, regardless how terrible it sounded at first.”

One youth culture center became progressively a meeting point for live shows and music in general. The “Zeche Carl” was also a mine building that was out of order and converted into a venue and a bar.

“ “The Zeche Carl” did contribute a lot to the starting of the metal scene. We were allowed to hang out there, we got music rooms free of charge and at some youth disco evenings we could play a metal song from time to time. Over time, the “Zeche Carl” would be more known as a live music venue. It had a capacity of 650 people, it was interesting for bigger acts, but small live shows were constantly taking place as well. The “Mephisto”-Club was more like a big bar in the cellar of the “Castle Horst”. A lot of beer, a lot of music, a lot of metal fans from everywhere. Every weekend, all hell was let loose and after hours, it went on on the parking lot. It was a great time. There was a live show in the castle itself only once and we, as Darkness, were playing.”

In the following video, you can see an excerpt from the movie “Verlierer” that was set in the region. For that specific scene, the makers of the movie wanted a heavy rock band, but they were convinced to ask for something harder to reflect how it went on at the time. This way we ended up with this scene, where Violent Force plays in the Zeche Carl with Mille Petrozza from Kreator and Josef “Peppi” “Grave Violator” Dominik from Sodom, who plays a supporting role in the movie,somewhere in the public.

The nearby scene in Düsseldorf was also very concentrated, you would have one cellar with rehearsal rooms including bands like Deathrow and Assassin. Same goes with Velbert:

“Because we were bound on very friendly terms with the Düsseldorf scene, besides Assassin, we knew of course also the guys from Deathrow. They were already very advanced musicians.”

“The Metal-Fans from Altenessen and Velbert were very close to each other, a true friendship. My first pen contact was Atomic Steif, we also got our first show this way, together with Violent Force

Atomic Steif was a drummer that was playing with Assassin, Living Death, Holy Moses, Violent Force and even Sodom later. Not unusual for musicians of this scene to play in a variety of bands. Kreator and Sodom had a few members going from here to there as well for example.

Some bands that were formed outside of the area would then become acquainted with the scene and be very integrated, sometimes even moving there like Holy Moses from Aachen and Destruction from southern Germany.

Extreme Metal Precursors

On the video linked in the chapter above, you surely can notice how the song sounds like a more aggressive and violent Motörhead song. You also can see the spikes and the outfits. These things are not by chance. The German scene was one of the places, where the original influence of Venom was taken so much to heart, that when Possessed and Slayer came around, a lot of bands decided to go in that direction as well. Additionally, you will find widespread fandom of punk bands like Discharge or G.B.H.

Lacky explains: “Our influences were surely similar. We put diverse rock and metal elements with hardcore- and punk-attitudes together and developed a new style out of it. Sodom called it Witching Metal, we called it Dark Speed Metal. When the American bands like Slayer or Metallica came, it became all thrash metal. We, in the Ruhr-area, were going on in more raw and slapdash way.”

Especially of the very early bands, the early raw demos, and sometimes even first albums, are filled with screams, fast playing, Satanic lyrics and an evil atmosphere – all of which were a huge influence on what would later be solidified as black metal. Although a lot of the rawness and chaotic playing was due to circumstances and not necessarily an artistic master-plan, the effect is undeniable.

Naturally the most commonly associated band with the development of black metal were Hellhammer and then Celtic Frost which, has to be added, were signed under Noise Records that was a Berlin based label responsible for releasing a good portion of the most popular and best German thrash releases. However,

Out of the Venom infused early demos, a few gems stand out if one is interested in the later black metal inspirations. Naturally, Sodom is known and sometimes classified as first wave black metal, especially with the EP “In the Sign of Evil”. The other absolutely essential EP to understand where black metal came from is Destruction’s “Sentence of Death”. A few others stand out for different reasons. Let’s take a look at the 1982 demo of Holy Moses : “Satan’s Angels”. Although the underlying music is clearly heavy metal, the screeching of Sabina Classen is quite unprecedented:

The wish to sound evil was also accompanied by the wish to look evil.

The band members were also known to walk around like that, with a clear wish to provoke, sometimes leading to situation in which Schmier from Destruction had to persuaded to not show up with bullet belts to a family funeral.

Lacky remembers: “Everything was pure provocation. I would describe my development around my hard music taste indeed as a private revolution against the old establishment in my environment. Nobody was really extremely religious, but with this cliché of crosses turned upside down, you could provoke perfectly”.

Early Assault

Indeed, a few kids would get thrown out of school for some of the shirts they wore. Sodom was still trying to set ablaze a pentagram in the backyard for their album pictures. To illustrate this, a small peek at the cover art of old demos is worth it.

The demos and music generally circulated in the form of tape trading.

Lacky confirms: “I indeed did a lot of tape-trading. I can’t say exactly when it started. It was probably at the start of the 1980s with my first pen-pal. It could be through school or through friends, sooner or later a contact through mail would happen. It wasn’t anything unnatural at the time. One would send a self made mix-cassette, got another one back, was happy because you could learn about new songs and soon after, the planning for the next homemade sampler was going on. The anticipation and happiness of that working style is hard to describe and incomparable with something like sharing a Youtube or Spotify playlist. You could turn around and you had another tape with another pen-pal. When I founded Darkness in 1984, my first wish was a double-tape deck, it made a lot of things easier. The first foreign contacts came when I started sending out our first demo “The Evil Curse” from march 1985. The reach circle then exploded. I don’t even know how we financed it. Were the shipping costs so low at the time? I had partners in the USA and Japan to quote the furthest. It worked out somehow. We can’t forget that what reads as fast and easy, was a long and cumbersome process. You send a cassette to England and receive in eight weeks a reaction. You send a demo to the USA and waits three or four months for an answer. Some copies of copies of copies were not really well listenable, but that didn’t matter at the end.”

The result of that is that you would have bands that would acquire a genuine underground status and being extremely high in demand even before signing to a label. Some others would also be rediscovered later on, retaining their status as extreme metal pioneering underground classics. The most obvious example is Poison. Coming from Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany alongside the other at the time underground only Outrage, they only managed to release one of their demos, although recorded in a studio, in 1993 on a very small Belgian label. Today, Into the Abyss is an undeniable black/death/thrash classic, from a time where these genres weren’t clearly separated and yet, you can hear elements of all three on this fantastic release. From the elusive scene of Hamburg, Minotaur would release demos and the album Power of Darkness that is such an assault, it is hard to not see it being on the limit of what is thrash and what is death metal. Protector is also one of those groups where that Possessed influenced line-crossing is the clearest.

Another curious situation arose with Samhain who managed to forge a name for themselves with their demos including Eternal Death. When the opportunity came to be signed to a big label however, the name of the band had to be changed because of an American band already having the rights to the name. They were already known as Samhain, even the merchandise was already there. Butnow, they had to establish the name Deathrow instead. At least, Noise Records accepted a sticker “Former Samhain” so that people knew what were buying.

The very influential raw and evil sound had soon morphed into a no less aggressive, but generally more competent direction. The professionalization, or the attempt thereof started. American bands became popular and thrash metal started to become a thing on its own. However, there is a period of albums and EPs released usually as debuts, that still have those early days chaotic evil atmosphere. For those albums, bands were happy to release anything at all and usually just played their demo material in the studio.

The Success and Professionalization

Soon after the underground popularity, a few big metal labels in Germany saw what was happening and wished to get those bands signed. Manfred Schütz, the label head of SPV/Steamhammer was searching to expand the new metal roster of the label after Destruction. Upon receiving Sodom demos, he said: “The band is so shitty that they have to sell a lot of records”. After seeing the lyrics, Schütz decided also to open a separate label, Devil’s Game, to release something by Sodom. The recording sessions were rough to say the least, which in a chaotic unclear decision-making led to debut being only an EP.

What was mostly happening were label bosses wanting to have a piece of the more brutal heavy metal cake, while bands, often still composed of 17-18 year old kids, just were happy to record an album at all. This is a pattern that one can observe almost universally on the German thrash landscape. Quickly, Karl Walterbach from Noise Records, he himself rooted in the punk scene in Berlin, wanted to make some business and grabbed Tormentor, signed them and convinced to change their name to Kreator because of already existing bands. Mille Petrozza, the leader of the group, was reportedly quite badly treated by Karl. He didn’t fight back and kept with the harsh attitude of the Berlin boss because of one main motivation: to make it. In contrast to a lot of others, Mille wanted to make it from the Ruhr area. In an environment where you could either make some decent money through very tough work in the mines, like Tom Angelripper, the alternatives to make it out of the environment were mostly limited to football or music. This led Mille to continue relentlessly and focus on the music.

For others that got signed, the experiences varied. Darkness for example remember their contract with Tales of Thrash as terrible but being happy to even get one, they didn’t think about it otherwise. Holy Moses and Living Death were singed on Aaarrg Records. Century Media was also founded around that time to release the music of Despair. In all cases, a common trend can be observed: bands wanted to get better, seeing their debuts and demos as amateurish, as much as considered cult classics nowadays in black metal circles.

All were ripe for the next step, so was Vendetta signed under Noise, Klaus “Heiner” Ulrich remembers: “Well yes, since Go And Live … Stay and Die was more focused on speed, we did Brain Damage a bit more technical and progressive, through that in my opinion also a bit more mature. If I remember correctly we had already a good part of Brain Damage already written when Go and Live… came out. We recorded both records in one year!”

The same wish was expressed by Lacky: “Most bands, including us, were at the start very sloppy but then comes a phase in which people want to show what they can do. We started with that on Defenders of Justice”

In some cases, a simple change of personnel triggered an overall change of style. Deception Ignored by Deathrow is a technical thrash album, which is mostly due to Uwe Osterlehner having to join on guitar and help out the band after the sudden departure of Thomas Priebe. He ended up shaping the sound o the record. In a less dramatic but still very noticeable case, Frank Blackfire joining Sodom pushed the band strongly into two classic unquestionable thrash metal classics with very strong guitar playing : Persecution Mania and Agent Orange. He would later join Kreator for Coma of Souls and come back to Sodom in 2020 for Genesis XIX.

In that phase, the band even managed to record a music video for the promotion of Agent Orange:

In this phase, the list of records released that can be considered classics or even worthwhile is long. We meet bands at their creative youthful explosion, artistic maturing, but also a form of settling of the sound. The sound is becoming thrash metal through and through, even if still retaining some of that extreme aggression and assaulting violence so characteristic for the scene.

Diversity

Overlap with speed metal

Looking at the roster of some of the labels mentioned in the last paragraph, one can notice how many power and speed metal bands are there, right near the thrash metal ones. Bands like Running Wild can be found on Noise Records, Steamhammer had Rage. This is not only just a random geographical proximity, but often people also didn’t differentiate between speed or thrash metal. In many cases, what today would be classified as clearly speed/power metal bands, had a rehearsal room right next to a thrash metal band. In the old tiny, converted bunker in Düsseldorf, you could find rehearsal rooms by Deathrow, Assassin, Warrant and a variety of other bands just two steps from each other. In the less dusty and more expensive building in front of the bunker, Warlock had their room with a bouncer who would decide who was allowed to take a peek in and who wasn’t.

This proximity can also be observed in just the sheer number of excellent German bands that sat between speed and thrash. Out of that lot, Living Death is a spectacular one, releasing a rough debut and only improving from there, becoming a cult classic band, signed on Aaarrg Records and sharing members at diverse points in time with many renowned groups. Protected from Reality remains one of the triumphs of German metal.

Another classic is Hellish Crossfire by the Hamburg based Iron Angel who see themselves more as a speed metal band but still retaining the ambiguity.

In the South, in Franconia, the northern part of the region of Bavaria, Paradox would also sit on that more melodic speed metal note while retaining the thrashy forward going attitude with Product of Imagination and Heresy, a concept album about the history of the cathars.

Vendetta came also from the area and so, Heiner remembers: “We can’t really say regional scene. Sure, we had contact with Paradox, Charly and his folks are cool people and we played gigs together. Daxx (note: the guitarist and singer of Vendetta in the 1980s) had surely more contact, he even wrote some lyrics for some Paradox songs recently.”

This serves as a reminder, that the Ruhr-area was indeed a central scene. Although Hamburg and also Frankfurt, with Tankard and Exhumer, had scenes as well, a lot of other provenances of bands were probably too scattered to create such a epicenter. However, one place outside of Germany needs to be at least mentioned in this article.

Switzerland

Some of what happened in Switzerland at the time would warrant a separate article. There is even a book that is only about Hellhammer and Celtic Frost out there. Why include it at all? The reason is that it would be hard to not at least mention this scene that is so close to the German one and shares a few trends if not pioneering some. The precursor extreme nature of Hellhammer, the signing to Noise Records and subsequent professionalization and wish to become better at their craft as Celtic Frost is a pattern shared by many German counterparts. The odd but very violent Messiah, later even switching to full blown death/thrash metal, should not be forgotten.

Lacky notes: “We played a show in 1987 with Messiah. We got along very well. That was our first contact with the Swiss metal scene.”

It is also worth mentioning how Destruction is often classified as a German band while the village where they came from is on the very border of Switzerland. Destruction was much more active within the Swiss scene at the very beginnings of the band, before having intense contacts with other German bands.

Out of the vicinity of Celtic Frost rose an exceptional band: Coroner. Starting as roadies for Tom G. Warrior and the others, the power trio would start a career of unparalleled, cold and gripping technical thrash metal, sign on Noise Records and deliver one of the most solid discographies in the scene. The band would have a very recognizable visual aspect, designed by the drummer and lyricist Markus “Marquis Macky” Edelmann, as well as a strong menacing vocal delivery of the bass player: Ronald “Ron Royce” Broder. The technicality and virtuosity presented by the guitar player Thomas Vetterli, known under the alias Tommy T. Baron, would only be paralleled by the German Mekong Delta.

Technical Thrash Metal

Mekong Delta remains the main flagship of the lesser-known side of German thrash: the technical part. Mostly centered around Ralph “Ralf” Hubert, the band changed personnel so often, that it is usually characterized as a solo project with session musicians. Ralf was reportedly fascinated by this mix of punk and metal, but he wanted to turn it to his own personal sauce, to his own perceived next level and so he did. Coming from a progressive rock background, the music he wrote for Mekong Delta is dizzying, complex and very unique, often taking inspiration from classical composers, especially from the 20th century which gives the music a different edge than many other technical counterparts.

Although at first glance, the music seems at odds with the rest of the scene, Mekong Delta fits in the grand scheme of German thrash very well, marrying the violent sound the regional bands were playing around, because Ralf Hubert was mostly located in or near the Ruhr area as well, to a unique progressive approach. Besides the two big names being Mekong Delta and the Swiss Coroner, Deathrow, as mentioned before,had a very surprising phase on Deception Ignored that is full blown technical thrash. The change in style was due to a fast change of the guitar player, shortly before the album writing and recording phase.


In the Studio

As bands were being signed to labels, first studio experiences happened. A few producers and studio engineers ended up being often the go-to people to send metal bands to. One of them was, indeed, Ralf Hubert. His work with Mekong Delta was just one side of his input and work for the German thrash scene, his studio work is also impressive: -producing nearly all 80s output of Living Death output, some Deathrow, one 90s album by Protector, the legendary Flag of Hate EP by Kreator and two albums for Holy Moses; even training Andy Classen, the guitarist of Holy Moses in lead play. Additionally, he is credited on countless speed metal records, showing, again, the proximity between the two scenes.

Ralph “Ralf” Hubert in the studio

Ralf Hubert is not the one, however, who would become the most talked about producer in German thrash. That honor has to go to Horst Müller, although not always for good reasons. Horst Müller ist remembered well for his work at the Casablanca Studio in Berlin and made a name for himself as producer of early Running Wild but also a great help for Hellhammer and later Celtic Frost. Destruction also recorded the Sentence of Death EP and Infernal Overkill with him. There is an undeniable characteristic crisp sound to the recordings he was involved in. When the time came for Sodom to enter the studio for In the Sign of Evil, Horst was reportedly mostly concerned with having a good time smoking weed while the band, to the horror of a Steamhammer worker that had to check on the band, was figuring out and fiddling around most of the things themselves. The procedure didn’t necessarily go better on Obsessed by Cruelty where the result was so disappointing for Manfred Schütz of SPV/Steamhammer, that he decided to send them to re-record the album and this time, to not regress in the quality. The band was shipped to a studio near Nünberg with the instructions to behave, order executed mostly with the help of beer cans. This version, containing a bonus track, should have been the definitive version. Accidentally, the original Horst Müller recording was sent to Metal Blade to be released in the US while the second one is found on the Steamhammer version. For those who wish to compare, nearly all versions of the album found on Youtube are the Steamhammer version, while the Spotify version bundled with In the Sign of Evil is the original Horst Müller one.

Kreator shared similar stories of a chaotic recording session for Endless Pain with a producer that, again reportedly, was more concerned with smoking and not taking the band seriously than wanting to deliver a good album. Horst Müller, regardless of these anecdotes, remains an important part of the history of German thrash. In a bizarre development, he disappeared at one point and nobody seems to know what happened to him.

Steamhammer version

Many bands, in the movement of trying to improve what they did, ended up recording with Harris Johns. This producer was known for his professionalism coincided with bands also trying to get overall at least a slightly more professional approach. Of his output, we can cite Pleasure to Kill by Kreator, Harris trying to fulfill the vision of the band of a sound like Possessed. Harris was reportedly someone who really tried to deliver the sound bands wished for in general. His credits include Tankard, Grinder, Exumer, Paradox, Vendetta, Deathrow, one album by Protector on which he shared production with Ralf Hubert and, finally, Persecution Mania and Agent Orange by Sodom.

Beyond the 1980s

The commercial and artistic crisis

The explosion of the 1980s and the widespread interest could not last long. With the new decade also came the era of downfall for thrash metal. However, if one just wants to see see the reason why bands disbanded, took a pause or had issues, it is hard to pinpoint a single reason for these problems. Naturally, the commercial interest and label support for thrash in general was vanishing. A lot of bands were simply tired of issues with labels but also of the constant touring. Deathrow stopped mostly because of exhaustion with covert art decisions behind their back and lawsuits. Most bands were not fully professional, even Tom Angelripper did make Sodom his sole work without income from the mines late in the 1980s and still worked as a gamekeeper in the 1990s when the band lived through its own crisis. Assassin stopped after having their whole equipment stolen. Darkness was mostly done with being stuck in a very bad contract. Destruction had an extreme personal crisis leading to a full-blown break up. Kreator was not saved from the 1990s either, releasing perplexing albums in a hostile environment for thrash metal. Groove metal, grunge and diverse industrial gothic experiments took over, making artists question their commercial and artistic relevancy. Other bands came through this time a bit better, never considering music as a main job but as a hobby with potential money coming in, like Tankard, but even them felt at loss at the situation.

The exhaustion of some bands can also be explained by the very taxing lifestyle of living on tour while often having to work at the same time. A few people tragically died following accidents or alcohol/drug abuse which also added fuel to the fire.

Chris Witchhunter from Sodom and Olli “Zeuten” Fernickel from Darkness suffered from this as Lacky remembers: “Yeah, we were quite extreme. We always gave full power live and outside of the stage, we also did live life in the fast lane. We were young though. When you are twenty years old, your body can more or less take harm like this in. Nowadays it isn’t as easy. Olli was something like a Jim Morrison of heavy metal, he took everything that came into his hands. It was sadly foreseeable that he wouldn’t become old.”

As a last illustrative chart, included are albums that didn’t really fit in any category. The albums of Protector that were of almost unparalleled aggression for example are included. The band did not follow the course of other German thrash bands and instead made the leap into thrashy death metal. Some early 90s output of classic bands is also included, the extremely violent Tapping the Vein or the interesting and engaging Coma of Souls by Kreator. The album version of Into the Abyss by Poison was also released in the 90s. Exumer has to be mentioned as a good example of a re-discovered nowadays popular band. Last but not least, there is a band on which it is very hard to find any information: Asmodis. The nonsensical title Fahr zur Hölle Pfleischmütze is a very fun album with a blend of technicality, sheer raw aggression and speed metal moments, being on the crossroads of German thrash.

Renewals, Continuations, Torch-Bearers and Reformations

With the 80s ending, the main purpose of this article is coming to an end as well. But it wouldn’t be fair to end on a negative note. Indeed, after the crisis period, a clear return to form in big bands that managed to survive is observable. M-16 by Sodom and Violent Revolution by Kreator not only marked the definitive confirmation of come backs, commercially and artistically, but even brought new fans in. Outside of Germany, the original early sound was continued in Eastern Europe in the 90s with Aspid or Törr. Naturally the influence of German thrash would continue with black metal and even death metal, early Cannibal Corpse and Deicide to name two. One of the most exciting torch bearers of German thrash remain the later bands that started to mix black metal with thrash. The natural continuation of the sound can be found in bands like Desaster, Nifelheim, Deströyer 666 as well as newer acts like Cruel Force. To list every band worth listening that takes clues directly from German thrash would warrant another book.

Lacky is very happy about this development: “I always was and still am a fan of the underground scene. For me, it brought us at least as much good metal as the big bands. That’s why I always really liked bands like Desaster. And since a few years, there are more and more young musicians that are cming with a new thrash wave. Bands like Traitor, Teutonic Slaughter, Space Chaser or Taskforce Toxicator will hopefully hit our ears with a lot of good songs in the future.”

Additionally, we start to see more and more of the old bands reforming, re-releasing old albums, playing live-shows or even recording new material.

Lacky explains: “All old Darkness members never stopped playing music. Everyone just went different ways. Me and Arnd wanted to make a comeback with new people in the 1990s but the spirit of the old times wasn’t back yet. Then, around the new millennium, we started with a new project under the name Eure Erben: thrash metal with German lyrics. We did play a few Darkness songs there. At some point came the split and re-thinking. It took a long time for our actual line-up. The chemistry had to be right, it doesn’t always work out, even if we talk about friends that want to help with a new start. At the end though, everything turned out great, we are on one page and the fans accept the band almost even more than in the 1980s. It can go on for a few more years like that.”

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Quorton

French metal fan living in Germany. Specifically curious about interesting regional scenes and how culture and languages influence the music.

3 Comments

MiaMetal · August 18, 2021 at 5:54 pm

Great bands ,special Necronomicon.

SpawnOfArchspire · August 24, 2021 at 7:01 am

A great article but I thought it was a traditional metal(Heavy ;Power ;Speed ;Doom) site

    Marco · August 24, 2021 at 2:57 pm

    Yep you’re right! We’ll sometimes write about some stuff outside traditional metal (see our Into the Coven segment). While there isn’t a ton of overlap here, I think Ride into Glory’s biggest asset is that we have in-depth scene articles and guides that help folks learn more about great heavy metal. This falls right into that so because of the quality of the article I decided to work with the author to help publish it.

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