GREAT LIVE ALBUMS (20)

Live recordings have been a part of the music industry since day one of the crude technology of the earliest devices. In fact, since there were really no studios available for recording purposes, all of those early “records” were “live recordings” in the strictest sense. However, the live album, as we now know it, is a completely different animal. That animal came into its own in the rock era and exploded with the release of ALIVE, a 1975 album by KISS, (a career making release with an overabundance of what has come to be known as “studio sweetening”), and FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE in 1976 (also hurtling “the face” and former Humble Pie guitarist to superstardom). With the unprecedented success of Peter Frampton’s fifth solo release, everybody and their brothers were releasing these documents of their latest tours (sometimes used as stop gaps between studio albums; sometimes used as a means to gain an artist’s release from a record label contract, commonly referred to as the “contractual obligation” record).

A lot of people don’t like live albums. I’m not one of those. Some of my favorite records were recorded on the road. Here’s a list of 20 live albums that I think are the best. These records are all official releases, not bootlegs… that’s a whole other list (and one you may see somewhere down the line, as well). I had a hard time keeping this list to 20 (it started out as a “Top10”) and, I’m sure that your list would look very different from this one. But, that’s what makes these things so much fun, right? So, starting with number 20, here’s the first in a series of reviews presenting 20 live albums that you should check out:

(20) WINGS: WINGS OVER AMERICA

(CAPITOL RECORDS; 1976)

wings over america

To say that the original release of WINGS OVER AMERICA was a behemoth may be overstating things… but, just barely! It was a beautiful thing to look at and – in a time before gargantuan box sets were an industry norm – the three record set (enclosed in a true masterpiece of design by Hipgnosis) was one of the biggest (and, at nearly two hours, one of the longest) releases ever.

WINGS OVER AMERICA inner gatefold painting by JEFF CUMMINS

WINGS OVER AMERICA inner gatefold painting by JEFF CUMMINS

The band (drummer Joe English, guitarists/bassists Jimmy McCulloch and Denny Laine, keyboardist Linda McCartney and her husband… I think his name might have been Lester, but I’m not sure… wonder whatever happened to him?) comes out of the box rocking hard with a medley of “Venus and Mars,” “Rock Show” and “Jet.” Despite the many comments regarding Linda’s musical and vocal abilities, she was – in my humble estimation – just as integral a part of the group as Laine, McCulloch or English… heck, I even like the songs she sang lead on! Anyway, with the aid of a four man horn section, Wings proved from the get-go that they were there to play. Following a great take on “Jet” is another track from BAND ON THE RUN, the bluesy “Let Me Roll It.” Then it’s back to the VENUS AND MARS material with “Spirit of Ancient Egypt” and McCulloch’s “Medicine Jar,” a pair of tunes that had me reevaluating the merits of said album. Side two opens with a stunningly effective version of McCartney’s solo song, “Maybe I’m Amazed,” featuring some awesome, tasty guitar from McCulloch. Another slow blues – and another tune from VENUS AND MARS – follows. “Call Me Back Again” features more solid guitar work and a nice horn chart. When Paul announced this jaunt (as part of the Wings Over the World tour and his first live dates in the States since 1966), the burning question was, “Will he play any of those old songs?” The rabid fans got their answer very early in the set, as a pair of lesser (by comparison) Beatles tunes – “Lady Madonna” and the dreamy “Long and Winding Road” – were given the Wings treatment. The hyper-kinetic theme to 1973’s James Bond flick, LIVE AND LET DIE closes out the second side of the set, with McCartney pulling every cliché from every musical genre he could access at the time he wrote the song.

Wings: Linda and Paul McCartney (photo credit: BOB ELLIS)

Wings: Linda and Paul McCartney (photo credit: BOB ELLIS)

The second album (side three, by the way things were figured way back then) starts off slow, melody wise, with one of the gentler tunes from BAND ON THE RUN, the French dancehall vibe of “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me),” coupled here with a nice, lilting cover of Paul Simon’s “Richard Cory,” itself an adaptation of a late nineteenth century poem about a suicide. Vocalist Denny Laine changes the last line of the first chorus to “I wish I could be… John Denver.” The acoustic set continues with another song from BAND… , “Bluebird” before dipping into Paul’s back catalog once more, with a trio of classics: the country-tinged “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” a rather funky “Blackbird,” and what may just be the perfect ballad, “Yesterday.” A record flip (yes, kiddies, to get from side three to side four, you actually had to physically turn the thing over!) and it’s back to the electric stuff and another dose of VENUS AND MARS music, with the ragtimey “You Gave Me the Answer,” which is followed by McCartney’s paean to a few of Marvel Comics’ oddest villains in “Magneto and Titanium Man.” Denny is back on lead vocals reprising his hit with the Moody Blues, “Go Now.” It’s a nice, bluesy number enhanced by the horn section. It’s rather unfortunate that the best song on the RED ROSE SPEEDWAY album was “My Love.” It’s even more unfortunate that McCartney deemed the slow schmaltz worthy enough to perform live. Side four closes out with the rollicking “Listen To What the Man Said,” highlighted by Thadeus Richard’s clarinet.

Wings: Jimmy McCulloch and Paul McCartney (uncredited photo)

Wings: Jimmy McCulloch and Paul McCartney (uncredited photo)

Side five introduces the new album, WINGS AT THE SPEED OF SOUND, starting with the goofy pop of “Let ’em In,” one of two big hits from the record. Laine’s sinuous “Time To Hide” kicks up the rock ‘n’ roll again before the other big hit, “Silly Love Songs,” gets an early airing. I know that a lot of people cite this song, in particular, as proof that McCartney’s post-Beatles work was schmaltzy pop crap, but I’ve always liked it. So sue me, ’cause I think this version is pretty darn fun! Rocker Paul returns on “Beware My Love,” one of his more muscular forays into the realm of hard rock. Throughout WINGS OVER AMERICA, Paul, Jimmy and Denny had been switching back and forth between guitar and bass (and, occasionally, piano) but, the imaginative bass work (and the tone) on this side is all Paul and, for that reason alone, is the highlight of the set. Paul continues on bass on the final side with “Letting Go” another VENUS AND MARS rocker. “Letting Go” is followed by what is probably McCartney’s most well-known post-Beatles tune, “Band On the Run.” The bass (McCartney again) is quite prominent and the guitars, drums and Linda’s synthesizer cut through at times, but the song sounds thin somehow. It’s still a great rocker. The encores, “Hi, Hi, Hi” and “Soily,” sound better. The guitar interaction between McCulloch and Laine is possibly the strongest of the entire album, with McCulloch on slide and Laine playing a double neck. Paul McCartney wanted to prove that this wasn’t just his Wings, but a cohesive unit of five very talented musicians. I’d have to say that they definitely proved his point with the Wings Over the World tour and the WINGS OVER AMERICA album, which is why it’s one of the 20 best live albums ever.

The most recent release of WINGS OVER AMERICA came in 2013, with standard two CD and three LP versions, a Best Buy version with an extra CD of eight songs recorded at San Francisco’s famed Cow Palace and a sprawling box set featuring all three CDs, as well as a DVD of a television special called WINGS OVER THE WORLD and four books.


ROMAN REMAINS: ZEAL

(HOT RECORDS; 2014)

Roman Remains album

Roman Remains is the electro-industrial pop side project of Leila Moss and Toby Butler of the Duke Spirit. With a sound that draws from the vanguard of the multiple genres that form the basis of their music, Butler and Moss weave an elegant and mysterious veil throughout their eleven track debut, ZEAL. The duo uses an old-school industrial base of such groups as Gravity Kills and God Lives Underwater (both bands that are much-loved and much missed by this scribe), augmenting that with an updated electronic sound that leans heavily on the pop sensibilities of (recent tour mate) Gary Numan and a voice that isn’t too dissimilar to Siouxsie Sioux. Mixing everything together, the result is something new, relevant and distinctly original.

Roman Remains (publicity photo)

Roman Remains (publicity photo)

The first track, “This Stone Is Starting To Bleed,” has that Gravity Kills vibe, while also reminding me somewhat – and I really hate to make this comparison – of the pop tendencies of Brian Warner, minus his “shock-for-shock’s-sake” lyrics and persona. The song also introduces an Arabic theme to the music, which is repeated throughout the album, adding to the mysterious feel. The poppier side of the music drives “Tachycardia,” a song whose melody wouldn’t seem out of place on a tune by Britney or Shakira, even if the lyrical nuances would be lost on either (well, maybe not Shakira… she seems to be fairly intelligent but, you get my drift). “Nest In Your Room” features an ominous, slightly ghoulish lyric (“Hold a thousand mirrors up to your nose/Comb your hair with the scent of a rose”) as the guitars and synthesizers buzz into a hive-like drone. This one definitely has the underlying menace that has always been present in Numan’s music. A dark, Gothic ballad, “Agrimony,” features uncharacteristically gauzy vocals from Moss amidst a minimalist backdrop, the various parts morphing into a very creepy whole.

Apoidea” ups the machine quotient, with more bleeps and wheezes and a heavily synthesized percussive track. With everything kind of going off at once, the tune sounds very disjointed but, a closer listen shows it to be a calculated risk amongst the other, more “standard” tracks. The next track, “Thirsty As a Truck,” has a calliope-like rhythm alongside an odd guitar signature and lyrics to match. “Gazebo” is a slow burning, taut ballad. The beautiful vocals and chiming guitar adds to the mesmerizing tension of the track. The Arabic influences are more prominent on “Influence and Atlas,” which features strong Middle Eastern percussion. The guitars and vocals also evoke the sound and feel of the region’s music. The occasional odd (as in, out-of-place) synth bloop actually distracts from the potential power of the track. A minor complaint for an album of such musical and lyrical depth.

Roman Remains (uncredited photo)

Roman Remains (uncredited photo)

There’s a sort of sexy menace that permeates “Animals.” The track is a fairly solid mash-up of Creatures-era Siouxsie vocals (not to mention the Budgie-style berating of several percussion instruments), some “clanging” guitar chords and a strange, modernistic take on traditional Hip-Hop. “Vulture Bird” starts with a serious horror movie minor key introduction and things just get weirder and more violently ominous as it moves along. Along with “Nest In Your Room,” this is probably my favorite (at least, as I’m writing this). A throbbing synthesized bass line and a pumping-heart drum beat, again, takes “It End In Other Ways” to a dark, dark place, a modern equivalent of the Gothic Darkwave music that all the hip young ghouls danced to in the graveyard a few years back. There are a lot of comparisons to be made but, in the end, ZEAL is emphatically, above anything else, a Roman Remains album. I, for one, can’t wait to hear their next progression.


OUR LAST ENEMY: PARIAH

(ECLIPSE RECORDS; 2014)

Our Last Enemy album

I gotta be honest here, boys and girls: I have not listened to industrial metal since… oh… the late 1990s or there-abouts, when Fear Factory was tearing it up, in the studio and on the road. Having said that, I gotta be honest about something else: I absolutely love Our Last Enemy’s new album! Now, I don’t know how much this has to do with my liking the record so much, but it is produced by former Fear Factory bassist Christian Olde Wolbers. There are FF references and head-nods (head-bangs?) aplenty, alongside healthy dollops of Type O Negative, Black Sabbath, Ministry, Korn, Alice Cooper and Zakk Wylde’s Black Label Society. That, of course, means that aside from the full-throated growls of Oliver Fogwell (how apt a name is that?) and Matt Heywood and the down-tuned guitars of Bizz Bernius (of Genitorturers fame), there is plenty of metal, hard rock and just plain ol’ rock tossed into the mix to make things truly interesting.

Our Last Enemy, 2013 (publicity photo)

Our Last Enemy, 2013 (publicity photo)

PARIAH is a loose fitting concept album. The “Pariah” is a poor soul who somehow finds himself reborn at the center of great upheavals throughout history, sometimes as a mere witness, other times as the epicenter of whatever crisis happens to be unfolding. This chaotic theme is played out very well – musically and lyrically – by the apocalyptic Australians. For 13 tracks (and three remixes… of which, more later) the often crushing musical feel compounds the sense of misery (and hope for redemption) related in the lyrics. So, let’s take a look at the high points of a very fulfilling album, shall we? The first few tracks are standard industrial metal, but gain points for a few things. “Devour the Sun” is basic pummel-you-into-submission metal with some very cool “horror movie” keyboard accents. The glass-gargling vocals take some getting used to but, by the end of the track, you can tell that they are a major asset to the ongoing success of this band. By the second tune, “Wolves of Perigord,” the concept emerges, full-blown. This song, in particular, showcases the percussive side of Our Last Enemy. Seemingly every instrument – including the guitars – is used as a percussion instrument. Drummer Zot Cillia thunders his way through the track, as he does throughout the disc. The music kinda takes a back seat as the vocals move the story along on the lyric heavy “10.000 Headless Horses.” A creepy, atmospheric video for the tune has been produced by the Blackley Brothers (check it out below). Some biting guitar jabs open up the instrumentation on “Internus Diablos Verni,” giving the song the feel of a heavier Guns ‘n’ Roses. The whole vibe, however, is sorta reminiscent of Black Sabbath… without sounding anything like them. A kinda stun guitar sound (rather like Zakk Wylde) gives “Low” an odd hair band air to it. As always, the vocals and keyboards (provided by Jeff Ritchie) are exceptionally spot on. “Carrion” has a funky sort of Red Hot Chili Peppers thing happening at the start and introduces a synth pattern that wouldn’t have been out of place in Gary Numan’s “Cars.” The pace, quality, and diversity of the music continues to pick up.

The Fear Factory factor comes into play on “Pariah BC,” which also features a disjointed vocal melody that reminds one of Alice Cooper’s late ’80s/early ’90s work (“Poison,” anyone?). There’s more Fear Factory comparisons on “Don’t Look Now,” as Fogwell vocally channels Burton C Bell. The rest of the band adopt a cool Deftones stance. “Pariah AD” is all Type O Negative/Black Sabbath gloomy, doomy stuff… which is awesome! An added bonus is the guitar solo, with a lot of single, bent notes that sounds a lot like “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” from the Coops. “Decoy” is, quite simply, heavy, abusive and stifling. There’s an awesome groove to “What You Say,” with synched melodies from guitar and voice. It also has that big, chanting monks sound that Sabbath used to great effect on more than one occasion. “Ants In the Farm” starts with a nifty, spongy sounding bass line and evolves (de-evolves?) into another FF-like song, with heavy doses of Korn tossed in. The boys saved the best for last. “Into the Light,” with its atmospheric, mostly whispered lyrics (’til at least mid-song). It also features a great, reverb-drenched guitar coda, adding to the funeral dirge menace. Bizz’ guitar takes an exceptionally cool hard rock turn toward the end of the song, echoing to a great sounding piano outro (as these types of songs often do).

Our Last Enemy, 2014 (publicity photo)

Our Last Enemy, 2014 (publicity photo)

And, there you have it… a feast for metal-heads and industrialists the world over. Well… except for… the three “bonus” tracks. Anybody who has ever read one of my reviews over the last 20 years will know that I am not a fan of remixes. Especially remixes of brand new songs. I’m one of those hard-headed people who thinks that if you liked the original version well enough to release it, why mess with it? Anyway, the remixes are for “Internus Diablos Verni” (by Mortiis… I actually kinda like it), “Devour the Sun” (by Angel from Dope Team Cybergeist… uh… yeah… not so much) and “Pariah AD” (by Divine Heresy’s Travis Neal, it’s called a “Karloff Mix” and plays up the horror movie keyboards… I guess it’s okay but… it’s still a remix, right?). For me, that makes 13 (the originals) up and three down (the remixes) but, I guess, if you are into remixes, then that truly is a bonus for you.


BILL NELSON: GETTING ACROSS THE HOLY GHOST

(COCTEAU DISCS/ESOTERIC RECORDINGS/CHERRY RED RECORDS/PORTRAIT RECORDS; reissue 2013, original release 1986)

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I fell in love with Bill Nelson, his songwriting, his voice and his guitar playing in 1977, with LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE, the fantastic live release from his then-current band, Be Bop Deluxe. In the early ’80s, I rediscovered Bill through a pair of commissioned works for the stage – DAS KABINETT (THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI) and LA BELLE ET LA BETE (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST), both for the Yorkshire Actors Company – and 1982’s THE LOVE THAT WHIRLS (DIARY OF A THINKING HEART); the second commissioned piece was released as a bonus record with THE LOVE THAT WHIRLS… and stands in stark contrast to the album proper’s poppy New Romanticism. I eventually discovered Nelson’s Red Noise project during a trip to the used record bins at a local shop; I initially passed on those releases as virtually every review I read at the time called it – and I’m paraphrasing here – “A disappointing attempt at electronic dance music.” Anyway, after Red Noise, finding a new Bill Nelson record in the hinterlands of Illinois became an effort in futility; now, nearly thirty years after Red Noise, comes the expanded edition of one of the man’s most well-received records, GETTING ACROSS THE HOLY GHOST (called ON A BLUE WING in North America and Australia). The new edition features a remaster of the original ten-song UK version of the record, as well as a second disc featuring the two EPs culled from the same recording sessions: WILDEST DREAMS and LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT.

Bill Nelson (photo credit: SHEILA ROCK)

Bill Nelson (photo credit: SHEILA ROCK)

There seems to be a vague theme running through …HOLY GHOST… , a theme that reminds me of Sunday mornings in a small country town or village. “Suvasini” is a short, introductory ambient piece with a nice jazzy guitar running throughout; it leads into “Contemplation,” which features a snaky kind of guitar, some mid-’80s poppy keyboards and a slinky bass line (courtesy of Iain Denby). Bill’s voice has always been sort of an acquired taste; here, he straddles the stylistic line that falls somewhere between David Bowie and Bryan Ferry. The song itself is very poetic and lyrically dense (as in, a lot of words). The only part I find objectionable is a sax part that tends to ruin the feel of the whole track. “Theology” is closer to the esoteric near-rock of some of Be Bop Deluxe’s more experimental stuff. The number rather reminds me of solo John Foxx or, maybe, a type of Enoesque Ambient rock. Preston Heyman adds an industrial (as in, machinery) percussion thing that is very cool. There’s more of that industrial sound happening on “Wildest Dreams,” a happy kinda tune that also tosses marimba into the percussion mix. You know, I really like Nelson’s more experimental pop stuff but, I gotta say… I really miss his exceptional guitar playing on some of this material; 1980’s style keyboards just don’t do it for me, though there is a great violin solo from Peter Greeves. “Lost In Your Mystery” could have been an outtake from Bowie’s LET’S DANCE sessions. The music has a very Asiatic (in reference to the Continent, not the band) and pre-programmed (it all sounds synthesized) texture and feel; it’s a very laid back song with an equally laid back vocal from Bill.

In its original form, you could listen to those first five songs before being forced to flip the record over to hear the rest of the music. That’s the way I’ve chosen to review the first disc of this reissue, picking up here with the music on Side Two. “Rise Like a Fountain” comes across as an Adrian Belew/King Crimson kind of thing… if Crimson were an ambient band. Iain Denby chimes in with a great (fretless?) bass part, plus… there’s an actual guitar solo (short though it is). There’s an unfortunate BEVERLY HILLS COP/Harold Faltermeyer synth vibe (sorry, folks… great movie, horrible theme song) happening on “Age of Reason.” Nelson’s vocals are pretty good but, I’m not sure they actually save this thing, especially once the Clarence Clemons-like sax bleats (provided by William Gregory and Dick Morrisey) come in. Simply stated, the tune comes off as nothing more than dance music for left-footed mathletes. “The Hidden Flame” continues the dance floor goofiness, though some nifty processed piano and some funky lead guitar somewhat negate the damage. As always, Bill’s vocals are a highlight, as is the stinging guitar solo toward the end. “Because of You” is up next. Now, this is more like it: Great guitar, great lyrics (“Nailed to the cross of love/Because of you”), funky bass; this number could easily have worked as a Power Station song. The album ends with “Pansophia,” a very short (less than a minute) nylon-string guitar solo laced with minimal processed piano and ambient noises. So, in the harsh reflective light of nearly three decades, the first half of GETTING THE HOLY GHOST ACROSS fares much better than the second half, though there’s enough meat on the bones to enjoy this rather dated blast from the past, mostly because… well… Bill Nelson!

Bill Nelson (LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT)

Bill Nelson (LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT)

And, so, we’re on to the second disc of this collection as we ponder the question: What would a “Deluxe Edition” (or reissue of any kind, really) be without “bonus material?” That material usually manifests as a vault-clearing effort to delve into the artist’s psyche at the time of the recording of the feted release. Thankfully, the minutia that practice entails is eschewed for a more slim-lined package that includes the two EP releases associated with the 1986 album… a total of eleven tracks. Even though the sequencing here is kinda wonky, for the purposes of this review, our exploration will begin with the music from the first of these releases, LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT. Following the first cut from the later WILDEST DREAMS record, the seven tracks from …SPANGLED MOMENT – five of which were issued as part of the original English cassette version of the …HOLY GHOST,,, record – follow in sequence. It should be noted that this release is more of a “mini-album,” clocking in at a little less than a half hour. “Heart and Soul” is another synthesized, mid-tempo dance tune, featuring sax and clarinet solos from Ian Nelson. This is probably as stuck-in-your-head catchy as you’re likely to hear from Bill Nelson. Nelson’s minimalist approach to guitar-playing is once again the touch point for the title track, which is awash in various keyboard texturing, a slinky bass part from Denby and another Morrisey sax solo; the track is… okay… just not great. Though brighter in tone, “Feast of Lanterns” comes off feeling like an extension of the main album’s “Pansophia.” This longer investigation of that tune’s themes features some backward guitar alongside some well-placed harmonic guitar swells and ambient keyboard for a little added atmosphere. The result is quite a pretty piece of music.

Bill Nelson (publicity photo)

Bill Nelson (publicity photo)

Illusions of You” has a nice band vibe, very happy and bright. Bill’s guitar is more prominent here than elsewhere, which is a welcome sound; everything seems to come together on this track… except for Ian Nelson’s sax solo, which somehow seems terribly out of place here. With an almost somber kinda Peter Gabriel feel that belies a sprightly Denby bass line and Nelson’s vibrant vocal performance, “Word For Word” is a slow-build non-ballad. A neat Spanish guitar solo gives way to one of Bill’s trademark ambient electric guitar solos. “Finks and Stooges of the Spirit,” besides having one of the greatest titles ever, is quite possibly the best tune from this period of Nelson’s career. It’s an electronic rocker, with a dense instrumental bed menacing just below vocals that border on the dispassionate (think Gary Numan). Since I’ve been a little hard on him, I must compliment Ian Nelson’s woodwinds; they are an integral part of this wall-of-sound production. Bill’s reverb-drenched solo leads into a short duet with Ian’s clarinet, which really adds to the (intentionally) disjointed feel of the number. Like the closer to Side One of the original LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT release, “Nightbirds” closed out Side Two – and, indeed, the entire record – in similar fashion: It’s another short ambient soundscape, this time featuring Iain Denby on bass. For pure atmospheric effect, it certainly does a nice job, as it leaves the listener yearning for just a bit more.

Bill Nelson (WILDEST DREAMS)

Bill Nelson (WILDEST DREAMS)

Now, back to the top, with the “Wild Mix” of the WILDEST DREAMS’ title track. You know how I feel about remixes… don’t like ‘em. However, this one seems to have a little more of that industrial percussion that Preston Heyman brought to the original album version, as well as a more prominent bass line and… wait! Is that an extended violin solo from Peter Greeves? Okay… I may actually prefer this version to the one found on GETTING THE HOLY GHOST ACROSS. “Self Impersonation” (or, “Self Impersonisation,” as it was originally titled), which crops up after “Nightbirds,” is another ambient thing with some heavy percussion aspects (this time, by Bill himself, who plays everything on this cut) and just enough soloing and noodling throughout to remind us that Bill Nelson coulda been a big shot rock star guitarist. Up next is another version of “Wildest Dreams.” The single mix is basically the album track cut by a few seconds and featuring a more vibrant high-end (for airplay, doncha know?). It doesn’t sound too bad, removed, as it is, from the entirety of the album. “The Yo-Yo Dyne” is another keyboard and percussion piece, with a cool pipe organ thing happening. Once more, this is all Bill, all the time. The song has an odd, Reggae feel to it – not that Reggae is odd, just in this setting. A nice way to end the record, I suppose, but a tad too repetitive to be allowed to go on for five minutes. As mentioned above, this may not have been my favorite period in Bill Nelson’s career, but there is enough meat on the bone to intrigue.