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Perimeter II
by “Vir Unis” and James Johnson
“In the Bubble” Music, AtmoWorks 2003

        “Vir Unis” and his colleague at AtmoWorks, James Johnson, have released so
much material in the last two years that it’s hard to keep up with it.
First, the 2-CD Perimeter I in 2001, then “Vir Unis’” own Mercury
and Plastic with its companion album Symbology in 2002, and now
the 3-CD set Perimeter II in 2003, again by the Unis-Johnson duo.
That’s 7 CD’s, not counting the other albums that AtmoWorks has produced in
these years which have some pieces and participation by both Unis and
Johnson. They’re busy guys!

They have produced so much that I sometimes find it hard to tell whose album is whose. They either have a high degree of consistency of sound, or they are playing on each other’s albums whether they are credited or not. The same is true for Perimeter II, in which the “romantic” musical sound of lush synthesizer chords is paired with hard-edge electronic noises and computer-driven rhythms. Lavishly packaged in a folding plastic triple-case usually used for DVD’s, this multi-album has enough room to put all the variety that characterizes the “Perimeter” sound: fast, slow, hot, chilly, sleepy, robotic, and all very digital. Disc 1 has some of the same feeling as Unis’ own Mercury and Plastic but with a lighter texture. The almost-melodic line, often played on what sounds like a fuzz-distort sustained electric guitar, is a signature sound for Unis and Johnson. Together with electronic beats and minor and modal harmonies, this ensemble looks back to the pioneering electronic rock of Europe in the 70’s, especially the German style. Disc 2 I consider the best of the three. It has the most variety and invention of the set: a celebration of technology and modern sound-processing and outright “computer music.” It abounds in special sound-effects, looping sequences, and “fractal” contours. But it is also an impersonal sound, driven by mechanical rhythms and a cool, sometimes even melancholy mood. Its melodies and harmonies are understated, at least in the early sections. It is music to code by, composed with computers, using sound generated by a computer, and played on the listener’s computer. Track 4, my favorite on the album, bounces along with a syncopated beat which is reminiscent of Perimeter I’s “Infinity Walk.” As the album progresses, though, the beats recede and the music turns restful and soft. Track 5 leads into a much quieter mood; it is also one of the more emotionally expressive passages in the album, reinforced by the drifting track 7. The titles, with names like “Mobius Polarities,” “Indivisible Circles,” and “Dimensional Vertices,” are highly abstract, in keeping with the emotional distance of much of this album set. Electronic chill reigns here. Disc 3, which is the shortest in duration of the three, features some of the more “romantic” sounds of the duo, that put the “soft” back into “software” with a sequence of gentler textures. The hard rhythms are put aside, and sustained synthesizer notes dominate. It’s romantic, but it’s still chill, its pretty floating chords wrapped in layers of shimmering sonic ice. Track 2, “Measuring Seasons,” is one of the best tracks of the whole 3-CD set, in which a repeating modal sequence anchors a glittering texture of zippy special effects; the whole thing has a kind of quirky sweetness. The last track, “Moving Language,” lulls the listener with a misty twilight of blue electrons. Perimeter II gives the listener a glowing screen-window into what the twenty-first century might hold for us in artistic expression, as our media become more and more dependent on artificial intelligences of all kinds. Hannah M.G. Shapero June 18, 2003 Symbology by “Vir Unis” (John Strate-Hootman) AtmoWorks, 2002 Symbology is sold alongside “Vir Unis’” other current album, Mercury and Plastic, but it is not the second half of a double album. Symbology does contain a few pieces which “Unis” was not able to include on his Mercury and Plastic album mostly because of time constraints, but most of Symbology has a different quality and style from its companion. “Unis” has compiled his more avant-garde and abstract electronica into Symbology. It is an album which would not be out of place among the ultra-hip vinyl platters spinning on the turntables of Europe’s techno venues. The tracks are filled with the staticky buzz rhythms and cut-up drones of what is sometimes called “glitch,” or with toneless surfaces of sound out of which pop cascades of clanks and pings. In a couple of tracks he is more melodic (I suspect that these are the Mercury and Plastic extras). In the last one, track 6, “Unis” uses a disturbing sound-effect he also used in Mercury and Plastic, that is, a scattering mix of human voice fragments which reminds me of the voices schizophrenics must hear in their hallucinations. The experimental material in Symbology ranges from totally abstract drones to quirky loops. My favorite among these tracks is the clever track 4, “Ringworld,” a sound-glass full of carbonated gleaming bubbles which pour and pop and sparkle. Towards the end, “Unis” achieves a fantastic spatial effect in which you could swear that these sound bubbles were pinging and popping all around you in 360 degrees, even though your speakers might only be in one confined area. It’s worth listening for. Symbology shows that “Vir Unis” can be creative in many different areas; he can use the difficult medium of pure electronics to convey a multiverse of musical ideas. Hannah M.G. Shapero, 1/24/03 Mercury and Plastic by “Vir Unis” (John Strate-Hootman) AtmoWorks, 2002 “Vir Unis,” the Chicago-based electronic composer of grand esoteric visions, has returned with a new album of technological marvels and captivating sound. In the last few years, his solo albums The Drift Inside (1999) and >Aeonian Glow (2000) have set a standard for a “cathedral-like” quality of exalted ambient sound: vast, multi-layered, densely atmospheric, intoxicating in its use of shimmering Impressionist harmonies as well as solid fifths and fourths. Now, in Mercury and Plastic, “Unis” adds rhythm to the mix. His trademark drifting nebulae of sound are now accompanied by insistent electronic beats. Sometimes these quietly tick along, other times they rise up and dominate the surface with elaborate, “fractalized” multiplications. Such rhythms are hardly new for “Unis.” In his collaborations with Steve Roach, Body Electric (1999) and Blood Machine (2001), these electron-driven rhythms power through all the tracks; “Unis” also contributed as a guest on Roach’s 1999 masterpiece, Light Fantastic. You can definitely hear the influence of Roach on Mercury and Plastic, in the use of drifting synthesizer chords accompanied by mechanized and looped rhythm tracks. Yet “Vir Unis” is not just a graduate of the “school of Steve Roach.” “Unis” has gone in a different direction from his mentor, towards a more purely electronic sound, while Roach has always worked with exotic acoustic instruments, and now electric guitar, as sound sources. “Unis” has a distinct melodic style, which he uses both on his solo work and his collaborations; he picks a tone-cluster and then spins a slow orbit around it, hovering just below the organization of a “tune.” This is always effective, especially when he allows the melody to rise over the background in a romantic crescendo. Here on Mercury and Plastic you would swear that this melodic line is played on a rock-style, sustain ‘n’ fuzz electric guitar, but it is completely synthesized. Mercury and Plastic is not always “romantic,” though. As the album progresses, he leaves behind the pretty ninth-chords and floating dreams and moves into passages which are more dissonant and jagged, sometimes adopting an “industrial” style. Occasionally, he will mix in “environmental” sounds, including an inspired passage at the beginning of track 7, where he uses the metallic buzzing of cicadas as a “natural electronic” sound! Track 7 builds to a noisy urban industrial soundscape, reminiscent of pounding steel mills and the roar of the Chicago elevated transit railway. Another sound which “Unis” uses is a fast, shattered mix of whispered human voices played through what used to be called a “vocoder;” the sound is disturbing, as if you were hearing the kind of voice fragments a schizophrenic might hear. This, mixed into the electronic layers, makes for a powerful effect. Interestingly, unlike on his previous albums, “Unis” chooses to close out Mercury and Plastic not with an attempt at comfort or return to the familiar world, but with a chilly, alien meditation built on swampy water sounds, buzzy drones, and electronic beep-echoes. Mercury and Plastic, at over 76 minutes, is a long album. Like other “Vir Unis” works, it has an intellectual understructure which does not allow the listener to just sit back and “zone out” to mindless ambient or “groove” to trance-rhythms. It’s a bit of work to listen to this one all the way through at one sitting, but it’s work well worth it for those of us who love and understand electronic music. Hannah M.G. Shapero, 1/24/03 Portraits Various artists compilation “In the Bubble” Music, 2002 The Midwestern-based group of independents, “In the Bubble,” has grown from the original nucleus of “Vir Unis” (John Strate-Hootman) and the “Ma Ja Le” duo, Chris Short and Paul Vnuk. The Bubble now encloses a cluster of electronic music providers, all working in different styles, (though often collaborating on each other’s albums). Most of them are inspired by European (especially German) trends in rhythmic, electronic, minimalist techno-ambient. This compilation album gives an overview of what you can expect from this talented group. Track 1 is by Saul Stokes, who also records for Hypnos; it’s a placid, easy-going piece of sunny Germanic electronica. Track 2 is by “The Circular Ruins,” the pseudonym of Anthony Paul Kerby. Kerby works with a harsher tone-palette and more driving rhythm than the others, though he stays in a major key for this piece. Track 3, “Transmissions for Dawn’s Color Music,” moves in quite a different direction: it’s a dreamy, romantic immersion into a shimmering sound-pool, created on electric guitar by Christopher Short, one of the “Ma Ja Le” members. Track 4, “Nightfall,” by James Johnson, is an enigma. On the surface it is almost 11 minutes of pretty but repetitive piano and synthesizer noodling. But I believe there’s something else here. The arpeggio piano riff, taken from Chicago’s “Color My World,” repeats until it is no longer restful, but obsessive. And as the piece progresses, Johnson adds in subtle but audible whispers of half-heard, modified voices, sounding like the beginnings of a schizophrenic episode. (They’re talking about me.) The combination of obsessive repetition and these soft voices gives the piece a disturbing quality…at least I think so. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Track 5, by “Interstitial,” is another unsettling episode, a mixture of environmental recordings of street cars, voices, and city noises accompanied by an ominous droning synthesizer pulse. Chicago on a bad winter’s day, perhaps. But track 6, by the guiding Aeonian Light of the Bubble, “Vir Unis,” returns the listener to a warmer world of nostalgia and a kind of pop grandeur. “Vir Unis” channels Vangelis here, creating a Big Sound of organlike chords and synthesized slide-guitar notes. All together, the Bubble is showing that it can shine with quite a variety of iridescent colors. Hannah M.G. Shapero, 8/25/02 The Yellow House by “Vir Unis” and Chris Short “In the Bubble” music, 2002 “Vir Unis” and his talented crew of musical helpers have established themselves just in the last few years as producers of some of the best ambient sound to cross the Millennial Line. In this album, “Unis” collaborates with guitarist Christopher Short, one of the “Ma Ja Le” duo, in a series of excursions into “deep chill” rhythm-less ambient. The title refers to a house once occupied by the artists Gauguin and Van Gogh, whose famous work changed the look of modern art. Short can play blues, country, and rock guitar, and that’s where his playing comes from here ­ but these twangs, in Bubble Ambient, are stretched out and written in foam on the virtual ocean. You hear chords and melodies, but they are interlapped with “Vir Unis’” drifting, shifting waves of electronic and environmental sound. Track 2, for instance, features Short’s improvisation on what seems to be a medley of Pat Metheny’s “Jaco” and Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” This familiar music is washed in a whispering sea-scape of Unisworks, giving the listener a feeling which is a peculiar mixture of comfort and eeriness. In the later tracks, the more experimental side of the Bubble takes over, and Short’s guitar becomes an abstract element in one of Vir Unis’ grand extravagant tidal waves of sound, the 26-minute track 6, “Starry Night.” Up until now, the album has been unusually serene, unlike “Unis’” other unnerving pieces such as Aeonian Glow. But here, the exploding swirling universe of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is rendered into sound with multi-tracking, long-period loops, microtonal tone-clusters, “found sounds” from random radio broadcasts, and outright space electronics somewhat in the style of Michael Stearns. There are moments of intense beauty in this album, and many of them are in this last track, though you may have to put your virtual brains back into your head after you have finished listening to it. It’s a vast whirling universe, all coming out of a bubble in a little yellow house. Hannah M.G. Shapero 6/14/02

Perimeter by "Vir Unis" and James Johnson "In the Bubble" Music and "Zero Music", 2001, Chicago-based "Vir Unis," the creator of the ambient masterpiece Aeonian Glow, teams up with electronic trancemaster James Johnson in the 2-CD album Perimeter. Like most music in the techno-electronic genre, Perimeter is in a minimalistic style, which depends on repetitive rhythms and harmonies, often multi-layered, in which small changes are constantly happening. Sonic elements appear and disappear, set against a steady, unchanging background. In this album, there are very few "acoustic" sounds; it is all electronic, often with a hard edge to it. There are sudden joyous moments of synthesizer swirl, and darker industrial whirrs and whines. As he does in his solo work, "Vir Unis" layers in ghostlike recordings of shortwave radio channel-sweeps and transmission fragments, which you can hear in the softer moments of many tracks. The fast-spinning virtual wheels of the synthesizer engines turn out rhythms that can be far faster than any human hand could play, as well as endlessly changing "fractal-pattern" pulses and tones that are mathematics put into sound. Unis and Johnson honor this theme by using terms from mathematics and physics for their track titles: "Magnetic Monopole," "Cartesian Plane," "Singular Integral," and "Geometry of Recursion." Like most 2-CD sets, Perimeter has a tendency to sprawl, but the longer pieces are sustained by the powerful, insistent rhythm. In my opinion one of the best pieces on the album is also one of the longest, the 15-minute "Infinity Walk" (track 7, CD1) in which microsecond fragments of pure vocal notes are interspersed into a shimmering pattern of moderate, dancelike electronic rhythm. My favorite on CD 2 is also long, track 5, "Cross Hemispheric Coherence," which swells in an impressive crescendo of focused sound. I detect an echo of Steve Roach's recent Core in this particular piece. In this track, as in other tracks, "Vir Unis" sometimes adds in another trademark of his: "tone clusters" which hover around a melody without actually settling down into it. This very independent album, distributed by the artists themselves, is at the esoteric edge of electronic trance-rhythm music. If you are used to listening to conventional music, with its melodies, harmonies, and forms, you will find "Vir Unis'" and James Johnson's work alien and almost impossible to bring into your listening scope. But if you have learned to be a connoisseur of this type of music, then Perimeter is an outstanding example of the genre, and a timely evocation of the electronic- cybernetic world which is so much a part of our lives in this new 21st century. Hannah M.G. Shapero, 1/13/02

"Vir Unis": Dreamers at the Edge of Decaying Light In The Bubble Music, 2001 Dreamers at the Edge of Decaying Light is a set of miscellaneous pieces from the vaults of Vir Unis, aka John Strate-Hootman. He conceived and recorded these pieces from 1988 to 2001, inclusively. This CDR was made available to subscribers of the Vir Unis Newsletter. This is a very interesting disc. It is rare for listeners and fans to get this kind of historical perspective of an artist's career. The pieces represent John's development from a rock and roll drummer playing the synth to one of the leading synthesists in the perpendicular universe. The pieces are unique glimpses at John's experiments. There are dense atmospheres, organic drones, lush samples and experimental beeps and boops. To quote Steve Roach, There isn't a groove in sight! (Steve made that statement in a prom for The Drift Inside.) This is primarily John's deep space minimalism. It is expansive and sublime. The liner notes are sparse leaving listeners to fend for themselves. Deep listeners will go on many different journeys. There is definite thematic integrity in the lack of thematic continuity. This teaser will prompt John's fans to winder how many more treasures he has in those vaults. They hope there are more! ~ Jim Brenholts,

Blood Machine By Steve Roach and "Vir Unis" GreenHouseMusic, 2001 The long-awaited follow-up to Steve Roach and Vir Unis' explosive Body Electric is finally here. Blood Machine is inspired by the futuristic neurobiology and biotechnology which breaks into the news with almost daily reports of new discoveries. Here, two futuristic masters of electronica combine to bring us discoveries in sound and synapse, rhythm and bio-interface. If you are expecting a slam-bang sequel to the noisy and boisterous Body Electric, you will be surprised, because though Blood Machine has plenty of driving rhythms, it has quite a different feel to it. This album is smoother, softer, and less obvious than its predecessor. Roach, in his liner notes, calls it "elegant futurism," which is a perfect description of its sound. And yet, like the machine of its title, when it revs up, it cranks along at an insistent, ticking pace, shooting off fascinating rays of sound as it goes. These steady rhythmic sequences, all produced electronically, are often highly abstract, moving quickly through their fractal variations while retaining their basic beat structure. In fact, this is a "cerebral" album which makes the listener think, rather than just move. Listen closely and you will find an almost mathematical quality to it, as rhythms are played against other rhythms, and their patterns are nested within yet other patterns. But Roach and Unis, despite their powerful new cybernetic instrumentarium, haven't forgotten their musicianship. Though their collaboration is seamless, you can still identify the "musical gesture" of each artist. For instance, you will hear Roach's time-honored "floating chords" accompanying the rhythmic sequences, providing both melodic elements and aural perspective. And every so often there will be a moment which sounds a bit like Unis' Aeonian Glow transformed from Gnostic Gothic to cyber-light fantastic. The pacing of this long (73 minutes) album alternates between extended rhythm sequences and passages of ambient drift. It has a large dynamic range, moving from a fanfare-like loudness at the beginning to long, low-volume, almost muttering passages in the middle, and then back into bright loud waves of sound in the later tracks. Like Roach's 1999 Light Fantastic, Blood Machine fits together into one symphonic composition, in which the tracks are more like "movements" than separate pieces. The centerpieces of this album are track 4, "Neurotropic," (which is my favorite section) and track 5, "Mindheart Infusion," another outstanding track. But throughout the whole composition, there are moments of stark beauty, mystical insight, and near-silent contemplation. Blood Machine sustains the sense of wonder all the way through its pulsing course. HMGS rating: 10 out of 10 Hannah M.G. Shapero 5/16/01

AEONIAN GLOW by "Vir Unis" Greenhouse Records, 2000 In the ancient esoteric philosophy of Gnosticism, the “Aeons” were both measures of time and spiritual entities. They emanated from the transcendent divine world and made their way down to our own world, where they could be either terrifying lords of darkness and oppression, or redeeming beings of light. “Vir Unis,” in a brilliant stroke of creativity, unites the Gnostic myths with the images and sound-impressions from quantum physics (as seen in his track titles) to give us AEONIAN GLOW, a masterful new ambient album. Though “Vir Unis” has been working with Steve Roach, and Roach along with his team of sound-artists add their expertise to this album, the sound here is not at all Roach-like. And though “Unis” uses the familiar language of drones, loops, vast reverberations, and fractal ambient textures, this is very much his own unmistakable style. He builds great complex structures of sound here, which move slowly in sustained, ponderous orbits, without any of the insistent synth-percussion rhythms such as the ones he provided for his collaboration with Steve Roach on BODY ELECTRIC. The sound has a grandeur to it, as if it were in a cathedral– but this is not a pretty, comforting stained-glass cathedral. It is a dark-glowing nebula in warped space, which you enter in trepidation and awe. This is definitely “dark ambient,” complete with dissonant and microtonal harmonies (at least most of the way). Listen closely to the densely stacked layers of sound and you will hear not only resounding synthesizer tone-clusters and drones, but fragments of radio voices, soft eerie whistles, and sometimes a watery trickling and gurgling – much like Robert Rich’s “glurp” sent into outer space. But this is more than the usual Gothic “dark stuff,” though there are passages in GLOW that are truly scary. “Unis” moves between a sense of wonder, striving for light and tonality, and a sense of mystery and terror. Rarely has ambient music conveyed such power and depth. Track 4, “Particle Path,” evokes the subatomic world in an almost whimsical interlude of twinkling electronic notes. But this moment of lightness leads into track 5, “A Night of Passage,” the centerpiece of the album, a 12 ½ -minute voyage which is one of the most intense pieces of electronic music I’ve ever heard. This begins with the sound of synthesized bells, as if they signified the twilight leading to the longest night of the year at the winter solstice. As the piece progresses, the sound-texture builds to an immense size, microcosm united with macrocosm, girded together with metallic drones and roaring industrial thunder. And over all of this, at the climax of the piece, is a kind of organ-sounding, melancholy anthem, rapt in contemplation of the abyss. This is not for the faint-hearted! Listen at your own risk - this may induce mystical experience! Two more tracks after that continue the vertiginous space trajectory, and then the album comes to an end in a peculiar surprise, as it suddenly surfaces back not only into clear musical melody, but into recognizable features that sound like guitar notes and even delicate, melancholy traceries of harpsichord lines, though these are still all electronic. Like Roach, “Unis” chooses to end an album with a piece that does not leave the listener in the ultraviolet darkness, but returns to the outside world of ordinary light. Yet this last piece, titled “Letting Go of this Radiant Hive,” offers no easy reassurance. It is poignant and sad, leaving us with a sense of distance and regret, and a paradoxical yearning to return to the perilous but enthralling dark spaces. HMGS rating: 10 out of 10. My vote for the best ambient album of Year 2000! Hannah M.G. Shapero, 12/3/2000

The Drift Inside by Vir Unis (John Strate-Hootman) Greenhouse Music, 1999 If you are not familiar with the aesthetics of ambient-space music, this album may seem incomprehensible to you – or put you to sleep. But if you are an ambient fan, as I am, it is a wonder. It is a luminous journey through musical inner space, led by one of the brightest stars in the Steve Roach galaxy, Chicago-based “Vir Unis.” His album Body Electric, done in collaboration with Roach, was a frenetic and wildly exciting experience full of noise and action. This solo effort is just the opposite. The Drift Inside consists of 12 electronic pieces, which proceed along at a slow, stately pace. There is no rhythm and only very minimal percussion. Each piece is a meditation on only one or two chords, with volume pulsing softer and louder, traced about by a slow kaleidoscope of electronic effects that come and go. The chords are beautifully chosen, some as tonal as Debussy, others microtonal and more dissonant. All are sunk in that ocean of reverb that is so characteristic of the school of Steve Roach. Roach himself does put in an appearance here and there, but this doesn’t sound like imitation Roach. The first four pieces are especially powerful, seamlessly linked together, and the title cut, number 4, “The Drift Inside,” is perhaps the best on the album. As the title advertises, the album is meant to drift you into an inward, meditative, perhaps ecstatic mental state; it certainly works like that for me. The sensuous yet austere harmonies evoke moods of languid dreaming sunlight, or bracing interstellar darkness, or unearthly visionary landscapes. I highly recommend The Drift Inside for any astral travelling you may be planning to undertake. HMGS rating: 9 Hannah M.G. Shapero, 7/14/00

THE AMBIENT EXPANSE by Steve Roach, Patrick O'Hearn, Vidna Obmana, Stephen Bacchus, Vir Unis Mirage Records, 1999 Ambient music is above all a music of mood, an abstract sound rather than the conventional musical indicators of rhythm, harmonic progressions, and structure in time or tone. What makes ambient music good or great is where it takes you in your imagination, and how effectively it triggers inner states of mind. There is also a subtle musicality to ambient, when it's done by masters of the art. And Steve Roach, with his collaborators, shows once again that he and his team are indeed ambient masters. THE AMBIENT EXPANSE is intended to be a "five- movement collaborative work" rather than just a compilation of five different pieces by different artists. Therefore there is an underlying unity to the set, as well as a similar slow, stately pace. EXPANSE is well-named: it is an expansive, floating soundscape buoyed on vast swells of synthesizer chords. It evokes, as does so much work by Roach, the grand open spaces of deserts, oceans, or outer space. Here, because most of the chords are within the tonal system and either major key or modal, it is an almost always an ambient of light, rather than a fearsome darkness. Steve Roach and bassist Patrick O'Hearn collaborate on the first piece, in which O'Hearn's unmistakable bass work underlies Roach's familiar floating chords. If this is a preview of what Roach and O'Hearn have been working on for their collaborative album, I will be eagerly awaiting it. Vidna Obmana's "The Space In-Between," the fourth movement, is one of the best in the set. In my opinion, Vidna Obmana's music continues to improve year by year, and this is some of the best Obmana I've heard. He has learned to hitch his Euro-Wagnerian harmonic choices to a smoothly flowing, technical American sound, rather than aimlessly grinding about the way he used to do. Of all the pieces on the album, Obmana's is the most ambiguous, with hints of greyness and desolation among the pale clouds. The fifth and last movement, "The Eternal Expanse," belongs to Steve Roach, and is the longest in the set. It opens with an echo of Roach's recent "Dust to Dust," but it also looks back to other Roach ambient works such as "The Dream Circle." Unlike the other pieces, "Eternal" has some dynamic range, moving from soft to loud in big organ-like and almost romantic swells of sound. THE AMBIENT EXPANSE is not for everyone. Its lack of rhythm and trance-like quality are not good background music for working or driving. This is music for listeners who cherish space and silence; it is essentially a contemplative experience, designed not to incite emotion or passion but to lead into an inner world of serenity, to a state of what mystics might call "full emptiness." This review was first published in WIND AND WIRE magazine. HMGS rating: 8 Hannah M.G.Shapero, 10/03/98




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