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Saturday, December 31, 2011

I'll have the Lamb...

In my last entry I referred to a few examples of slavish musical re-creation, but I thought I'd close out the year with an example that takes things to a whole different level.

Cover, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, 1974

Certain albums have a sound all their own, and there is no doubt that the 1974 Genesis album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway has a distinctive sonic signature. The bass notes are thunderous but articulate, the analog synthesizers blossom with a warmth that the soon-to-arrive digital models could never hope to approximate, and the guitars shimmer with crystalline arpeggios. It's all the more astonishing when you realize that the recording was made with the Island Mobile Studio.

In the early 1970s, mobile studios were becoming popular among well-to-do bands. Of course, the most famous example is the Rolling Stones' mobile studio, which captured the sounds of their own Exile on Main Street as well as Deep Purple's Machine Head, in which the recording truck was immortalized in the lyrics to “Smoke on the Water.”

The Rolling Stones Mobile performs Exile duty, as Keith makes a daylight apperance on the right.

Though their portability was an asset in turning any far-flung location into a potential studio site, there are drawbacks and functional constraints a-plenty. So it's quite amazing that Lamb producer John Burns and engineer David Hutchins would succeed at crafting a monumental collections of tones, especially when one considers the fact that Brian Eno was adding to the complexity by assisting Genesis with assorted frequency generation.

As to the album's content, it was certainly a stunning declaration of Peter Gabriel's creativity. The convoluted, hallucinatory tale of a young punk named Rael (who essentially goes down a mid-Manhattan worm hole) provided Gabriel with an opportunity to explore a gamut of emotions, from fear to the explosively angry outrage of the line, “You cannot buy protection from the way that I feel!”

Peter Gabriel as Rael, main character of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

After emerging from the recording process, Genesis took Lamb on the road. Already known for elaborate stage presentations, the band went to new heights in an attempt to provide visual context for the sounds and images of their new album. Hundreds of slides were projected onto multiple screens as Gabriel transformed himself into the album's central character, a character who himself undergoes a multitude of mental and physical changes over the course of 90 minutes. I was fortunate to see Lamb live in both Philadelphia and New York, and it was an unforgettable musical experience.

Peter Gabriel is about to reveal a Rael transformation as Michael Ruthford (left) and Phil Collins (right) chart the complicated musical waters.

In November, at the Keswick Theater in suburban Philadelphia, I had an opportunity to relive that experience. Or at least, I hoped to tap into at least a little of the wonder of that live experience.

The Canadian band The Musical Box (named after an early Genesis song) has built a reputation based on their ability to recreate the music and live presentations of Genesis. After they obtained the rights to perform The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the Genesis organization assisted the band by providing access to the 1000+ images form the 1974 tour, as well as props and guidance regarding how the original show was presented.

Original concert programs from the 1974 Genesis tour.

So how was it? Careful. Where the original Genesis presentation surged with an explosion of creativity, The Musical Box replication of Lamb tread lightly, almost trading any sense of energy for the assurance that no mistakes would be made. The overall sensation was one of Lamb Lite.

Interestingly, the Keswick was loaded with security people enforcing a “no photos” rule. I'm not sure why that would be such a concern to The Musical Box. After, they're essentially a Canadian cover band recreating the staging of events from nearly forty years ago, so it's not like any leaked photos would be a big surprise.

The Musical Box play Lamb. Never a good idea to leave your flash on when sneaking a shot. Oooops...

Anyway, told that no photos were allowed, I had to take one, security goons be damned. Even though it's a lousy, blurry image, the act itself provided great personal satisfaction. After all, these words are being written by someone who used to disassemble his Minolta SRT-101 and lenses to sneak into the Tower Theater to take surreptitious photos of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust tours. Now that was worth shooting!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Return to Fillmore East

On Friday, November 25, the Allman Brothers Band took the stage of the Philadelphia’s Tower Theater as they have done a number of times before. But this night would be different, as the second set was dedicated to performing the seven songs that made up the band’s breakthrough album, 1971’s The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East.

The Fillmore East album cover is on the screen while its songs emerge revitalized by the musicians below. November 25, Tower Theater, Philadelphia.

The concept of a legacy band recreating an album from its storied past is certainly nothing new. Just two weeks ago tickets went on sale for Roger Water’s The Wall tour, now super-sized from indoor arenas to a stadium spectacle.

But there is a key difference: the Pink Floyd fans who will patronize Waters’ shows will not stand for the slightest deviation from the original album. Indeed, Waters has gone to great lengths to ensure The Wall in 2012 will sound exactly like The Wall of 1979.

The Allman Brothers Band, in contrast, are a band built on a heritage of musical improvisation. As the band worked the endless string of college gyms and dank clubs leading up to the recording of the Fillmore East album, they built a reputation: the songs might remain the same, but their performance from night to night could go in any direction. The idea was one of jazz-influenced musical freedom, which combined with the band’s deep blues and r&b flavors to create some of the most potent music of the era.

The live Fillmore East album was a showcase for the talents of guitarists Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, who unleashed virtuoso solos that twisted through songs that unfolded with a musically organic feel.

Fortunately, in 2011, the Allman Brothers Band is still based on the ideals of its founding fathers: the musicians may have changed, but the creative approach remains.

Derek Trucks (left) and Warren Haynes reinterpreting the storied Fillmore East album, November 25.

At the Tower, guitarists Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes borrowed only the spirit of Allman and Betts, the song structures of the iconic LP simply providing a pallet which Trucks and Haynes used to create their own works of art.

Now more than ever, with attention spans shrinking to microsecond durations, the idea of a musician being expected to stand on stage and captivate an audience with a long solo seems almost quaint. But both guitarists were able to do just that at the Tower show. Truck’s unorthodox slide guitar approach is his calling card, but his fretted playing revealed a lyrical aggression that took the music in unexpected directions. And Haynes – equally inspired as a young guitarist by power trios as well as bands like the Allmans – brings a muscular, tough stance to the songs, building his solos to crescendos of howling double-stop bends.

The long set only faltered toward the very end, with an extended, unstructured percussion workout in Betts’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” as original drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks (Derek’s uncle) joined forces with percussionist Marc Quinones on a journey that really went nowhere. Jaimoe and Trucks were strong the rest of the set, the driving percussive snap that characterized their early careers having evolved into a warm, jazzy swing.

The few lackluster moments did little to dim the energy and creativity on display, and as “Whipping Post” thundered into gear with a low register shove from the outstanding bassist Oteil Burbridge, the Allman Brothers Band of 2011 was flying the same musical skies the original lineup frequented four decades earlier.

If Friday’s show deftly walked the line between respecting tradition and creative reinterpretation, Saturday’s performance was all white hot musical interplay, full of towering crescendos and unexpected twists and turns – including a nod to Jimi on the eve of his 69th birthday with a quote from “Third Stone from the Sun.”

Trucks and Haynes push "Mountain Jam" to the dark side, November 26.

Mountain Jam” began with airy passages down familiar paths, but soon the skies grew threatening as the music darkened, Trucks and Haynes shifting the song’s comfort level from passive to aggressive territory. Finally the song heaved into a dark-matter-heavy cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused,” a crushing climax to music that had begun with one feeling and ended with another that was diametrically opposed to its origins. The final song of two brilliant sets, it punctuated a night that simply overflowed with highlights.

Carrying on the tradition, November 25.

Over the course of these two outstanding performances, the Allman Brothers Band made it clear that the group that exists here in 2011 is every bit the equal of the original lineup from 1969. It can’t last forever, and it’s likely that we are reaching the closing chapters of this legacy, so listeners who think that musical substance matters more than image or marketing should appreciate this while they can.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Slayer Mastermind Kerry King

It's true: Slayer is a musical force of nature. People who dismiss them as “a metal band” are missing the point of a musical power that is daunting when witnessed in person. Precision and talent, craft and endurance: these are hallmarks that characterize the music of Slayer, raising them to a singular level.

You can be forgiven for watching recent video interviews with the voice of Slayer, bassist Tom Araya, and coming to a surprising conclusion: “He seems like a really nice guy.” But the black soul of Slayer is guitarist Kerry King: scowling, wrapped in chains with spikes protruding from his imposing build, shaved head pitched with broad swathes of black tattoo ink. King lords over the stage of Slayer with each performance, plugged in to the aural overload, rarely pausing to survey the chaos playing out in the pit at his feet. He is consumed by a singular purpose – to ensure that Slayer is never anything less than a precise, frightening, and stunning sonic maelstrom.

One of my favorite works by this greatest of metal bands is Diabolus In Musica, and I had an opportunity to talk with Kerry King upon the release of this recording as the new millennium neared...

Kerry King surveys Slayer mayhem, 2009.

Even members of Slayer get phone calls at awkward times. When Kerry King, guitarist for the mightiest of metal bands, is phoned and asked how he’s doing on the morning of Slayer’s 1998 American tour kickoff, King replies that his head still bears shaving cream from a pre-tour shaving touch-up. But King is not one to let grooming get in the way of talking about Diabolus In Musica (American Recordings), Slayer’s latest testimony to the power and glory of unrelenting heavy metal.

From the opening seconds of the dramatic “Bitter Peace,” it’s clear that Slayer’s latest not only retains the fury characteristic of the band’s catalog but also introduces a new element of sophistication in the song construction and performances. Slayer sophisticated? Those who dismiss the band’s music as Neanderthal pounding might be surprised at what they’d discover if they actually listened to Slayer.

The process of recording a Slayer opus comes after months of intense rehearsal. By the time the band occupies the recording studio, the battle plans are well laid out.

Kerry King in the studio. Many of Slayer's most harmonically-complex compositions are the work of King.

Musically, it is 99% done,” King explains. “Sometimes we’re lagging on the lyrics, but musically we’re 9/10ths of the way there. The only thing that might change is if we get a cool lyric idea that might call for altering the riff.”

With Diabolus in Musica safely recorded and in the stores, King is anxious to hit the road. Intricate riffs – hurtling back and forth between King and co-guitarist Jeff Hanneman – are a hallmark of the Slayer live sound. Launching these complex communiqués over the rumbling foundation built by bassist Tom Araya and drummer Paul Bostaph requires intensity and concentration.

I think this is one of the coolest things you can do musically, because you have to be on it for the entire show,” King notes. “From my perspective, as a guitarist, your average rock act only has to be on it come lead time. If you’ve got a lead coming, ‘Well, I’ve got to be on it right here.’ But in a sense, some of our songs are pretty much entirely lead-like.”

Aside from the musical merits of Slayer, the aura that surrounds the band has spooked parents since their inception “at the dawn of time,” as King jokes.

In the beginning we were just the bad guys, more or less, and I think that just stuck with us over the years.”

Though Diabolus in Musica song titles like “Death’s Head” and “Perversions of Pain” betray no softening of Slayer’s attitude, new competition has arrived. Now acts like Marilyn Manson occupy the nightmares of parents who seem to have forgotten that Alice Cooper played the same shtick two decades before.

I think parents are going to be more worried about him than us when we’re on tour, because we don’t change the way their children look,” King speculates. “He inspires kids so much they want to emulate him. And we’ve never really done that – we’ve just been part of a genre where it’s about the music. I’ve got a bald head, the singer’s got long hair – nobody ever wants to come out and just look like us, like they do him. So I think that’s why he gets so much more flak than we do.”

One of the first bands to rouse parental ire was Black Sabbath, and Slayer has joined the lineup of Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne’s hugely successful Ozzfest. King feels that Ozzfest’s congregation of hard music fans creates new opportunities for his band to present their music – especially for people who might find a typical Slayer gig a bit too intimidating.

Kerry King, bringing the Australian masses around to Slayer's way of thinking, February, 2011.
Photo: Andrew Stuart/

Oh yeah, any big festival like that would help,” says King. “When you’re playing to giant masses like that, they might have always secretly wanted to go check out Slayer, but they never could. When Ozzy’s on the bill, or somebody more tame, they get the opportunity.”

King feels that bringing new fans under Slayer’s influence through high-profile shows like Ozzfest would be a positive development.

I’m happy with my success, but for me the goal would be to get to another level,” King admits. “I mean, we’ve been here forever, I’ve played everywhere I want to play. So if there is any goal for me to have, it would be maybe to get a platinum record instead of a gold record. But if I don’t get it, I’m not going to dwell on it.”

Regardless of whether the ranks of Slayer followers swell in the years to come, for King the sonic impact of his band remains his primary focus. And though Diabolus in Musica offers further proof that Slayer is one of the most inventive of metal bands, King feels that there are greater discoveries ahead for his band.

Personally, if I wasn’t in Slayer and I wasn’t playing this kind of music, this is still what I’d be listening to. It’s the kind of stuff that I really like. I think there are all sorts of opportunities that I haven’t even touched yet in this stuff.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Love Letter to Billy F. Gibbons...

Dear Billy:

Brother, you and me go way back.

Yeh, that's right - that was me right in front of the stage, at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. What tour? Fandango. 1975. That was my first ZZ show of… Well, hell, Billy – I’ve lost count. It’s definitely measured in the dozens, maybe closing in on 100?

Early Tops, bearin' down on the meat, easin' off the potato salad...

I’ve flown to California to see you at Lake Elsinore, and I’ve sweated Dusty’s health problems (not to mention that little pistol-in-the-boot incident). Followed a tour from Pennsylvania to Ohio and back to New Jersey. I’ve got a pretty long tale built up following your little ol’ band from Texas.

Yes, I've got one from back in the day right here. And a damn fine idea it is...

I saw you just over a month ago, at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey – man, I love those smaller theater shows, though I’ve seen you lay down the power in places ranging from that size on up to baseball stadiums.

But Billy, we gotta talk. I’m getting tired.

Whoa, not of ZZ Top!

But it’s that set list. Sometime in the last ten years or so, you drove the Eliminator right into a rut, and you’ve been pretty much stuck in the mud ever since.

Take this past weekend. You played Austin’s first La Grange Fest, and broadcast it live on Sirius. I thought you might sneak in something special, but it was business as usual. This weekend was the same as last weekend which, with the exception of the change-by-the-tour selection of about three songs, was the same as the last 300+ weekends. Heck, compare Saturday night’s set list to what’s on the Live from Texas DVD, filmed five years ago, back in 2007. The more things change…

Diggin' deep with Miss Pearly! Look at your bad self - have mercy!

You and Dusty and Frank have been working stages for more than four decades. Not counting greatest hits or compilations, you have 15 albums to dig into. Even your old contemporaries, the Rolling Stones (you gave them a run for the money a time or two, remember?) take great pleasure when they tour now in trolling through the back catalog, offering up little-heard gems and giving their audience a “Who knows what they’ll play tonight?” thrill. Unfortunately, we ZZ fans almost always know. Sad to say, wondering if we’ll get a “Surf’s up!” or a “Hell yeah!” in the break in “La Grange” is often the dramatic concert highlight these days.

As recently as 1996, when you played the Tower Theater in Philadelphia, you were really mixing it up. “Stop Breaking Down Blues,” “I Walked from Dallas,” “Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings,” “Brown Sugar,” “What's Up with That,” “Heard it on the X,” “Bang Bang,” “Rhythmeen” - have mercy! Man, what happened to that adventurous set list spirit? I don’t expect the three of you to huddle around the camp fire and cook up a new set list every night, but let’s stop going through the motions and start going through the back catalog!

A few years back when you were out on the road with modern-day Lynyrd Skynyrd, they played a hand you might want to look into: a verse or two and a chorus or two of about ten songs everyone wanted to hear packed into a seamless medley. That neat trick opened up the set list for some more interesting material. The casual fans got to hear their comforting medodies, the deep fans got their deep tracks. We’re all happy! Imagine putting the tempo-simpatico synth-pulse tracks into a nice eight minute package, leaving plenty of acreage for something like “Black Fly” or “Poke Chop Sandwich.” Now you’re cookin’ with hot sauce!

The ZZ Tops, running down that set in Red Bank, New Jersey, 8/31/2011.

OK – es bastante for the stage work.

I've always defended your guitar skills to those who see nothing more than the cartoon-ish image that, admittedly, has helped bring you so much success. They must be too blind to hear the tone, taste, and most important – talent. Those albums from Antenna to Mescalero – you were pushing guitar tone right out of the zone, and playing fierce. In my mind, it was just about down to you and Jeff Beck as the Big Two among the heavyweight guitar contenders.

Things were awful quiet in that long delay leading up to Mescalero and the silence that followed. So when you guys split with Bill Ham's management, I thought that might open things up. I was expecting something – but what we've got is nothing. That weird album of covers of your songs that just came out, ZZ Top - A Tribute from Friends? I mean, really?

Billy – now hear this: get up, get in studio, get busy! If RCA or whatever corporate megalith that passes for a 'major label' these days doesn't want you, I'm betting an ATO or similar label would. Let's get that creative renaissance happening, Rev. Do a cover album of blues songs if you can't get it together to write anything. At least that would be something. Do people want to hear Wyclef Jean and Nickleback – not to mention that nightmare of a Mick Fleetwood so-called “supergroup” - doing ZZ Top songs? Hell, no – they wanna hear you!

Inner spread of Tres Hombres vinyl. Heaven on earth.

Think about that spread of Mexican delight that filled the inner artwork of Tres Hombres like some kind of beautiful dream. That was ZZ Top. The current ZZ Top, toting a sleepwalking set list and avoiding the studio? Taco Bell.

C’mon, tres amigos – get out in that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans! And don’t forget the jalapenos…

Hasta la vista en la taqueria!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A new blog plugs in with Frank Blank’s back pages

Thinking about my first post here at FRANK BLANK MUSIC, I was dreading the idea of dredging through my past in an attempt to tell you who I am and where I'm coming from. But then: “A-ha! I've done this before!” At least partially...

In October 2002, I was asked to write about life in the 1980s Philadelphia punk scene in a retrospective for Philadelphia City Paper. Writing as Frank Blank – my musical alias adapted from Brian Eno’s “Blank Frank” - I had covered that musically-chaotic time frame for this weekly newspaper for nearly the entire decade.

Yes, it leaves a good portion of my musical life untold – but it's a start...


It was all Mick Jones’ fault.

The Clash were playing the Walnut Street Theater in September 1979. At the time I thought -- still do think, actually -- they were about the coolest band around, so I moseyed on down to the Benjamin Franklin Hotel at Ninth and Chestnut to see what I could see. What I saw was The Clash, happily sitting around in the lobby and chatting with their fans. After getting my Give ’Em Enough Rope poster signed by all four band members, guitarist Jones and I had a wide-ranging conversation about rock. The topic of playing guitar came up, and I mentioned I’d always wanted to play, but since seeing Jimi Hendrix when I was 13 I had only watched with longing.

"Why don't you, then?" Jones asked. "I'm no better than you are."

A Beavis-like light bulb began buzzing in static over my head as the idea sank in. Hmm... Why don't I? The punk ethos in action!

Attempting fierce Strummer Scowl with Informed Sources. Mohawk chick in background not impressed.

Shamelessly copying Joe Strummer, I armed myself with a black Fender Telecaster from Eighth Street Music and set about establishing "A Big Career in Rock Music." Flash-forward several months, and we find my newly formed band, Informed Sources, on stage at the Elk's Center on 15th Street at the first Philadelphia Punk Rock Festival. It was also our first gig. In front of hundreds of frantic, nascent Philadelphia punks we launched into our big opener, "Change." Such a glorious noise we made -- until approximately 13 seconds later, when all those nice loud guitar sounds came to a startling halt. It turned out that the guitar cable, though appearing fully inserted, had worked its way just shy of completing the circuit into the amplifier. A problem easily fixed once found -- but in that 90 seconds or so I learned a new aspect of terror.

But survive I did, and -- along with Sadistic Exploits, Decontrol and Autistic Behavior -- Informed Sources began building the foundation of Philadelphia's contribution to the quickly evolving realm of punk rock.

Bearing down on the downstroke. Informed Sources, East Side Club, Philadelphia.

Before playing I'd already been involved in the city's music scene, first as a member of the fan-organized booking concern The Swingerz, led by David Wildmann, and then running Omni's at Ninth and Walnut with Denise Herman and WXPN's Lee Paris, a figure worthy of his own book. In Omni's confines we presented bands ranging from Bauhaus to Dead Kennedys - until the club burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances. I still have a good number of albums with water-damaged covers, rescued from the rubble after Lee, our pal John Koo and I begged a cop to let us into the ruins to salvage what we could.

The later Informed Sources lineup: Drummer Sky Kishlo (who joined after Doug Mosko departed), singer Joe Stack, bassist David Gehman, and your blog host. As soon as Philadelphia's old Abbotts Dairy factory at 2nd and South Streets met the wrecking ball, every punk band within 100 miles turned up for promo photo shots.

Informed Sources played throughout the region in the early 1980s, with X, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Flipper, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Bad Brains and countless more. It was a thrilling time, sharing stages with bands that I was excited just to see live. And my apartment became an ad hoc motel. Jello Biafra camped under the stairwell one night, John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X another. That was probably the last era in rock history where you could read a feature about a band in Rolling Stone and find one of the members emerging from your bathroom the next morning.

Provide lodging, get the opening slot on the bill. A touring John Doe of X settles into the Blank estate in Riverloft Apartments, Philadelphia.

When Informed Sources ground to a halt, I was invited to join my favorite band in Philadelphia, Bunnydrums. It gave the exploratory group a three-guitar lineup, with all three guitarists having totally different styles. It was a prescription for chaos, but somehow it worked, and some of the best shows I was fortunate enough to play with them still rank among the most powerful performances I've ever heard, regardless of my own participation.

Your blog host sports some fancy headwear with singer Dave Goerk as we do the Bunnydrums thing. This was a reunion show at University of Pennsylvania in tribute to influential DJ Lee Paris

During the Bunnydrums era, City Paper's Michael McGettigan approached me about writing a biweekly column for the newspaper. I hadn't written about rock since I was a teenager interrogating Robin Trower and Jethro Tull, but there were so many good bands that weren't getting any press at the time that it seemed like a good idea.

I quickly found out how many good bands there were who not only weren't getting any press but who would get really pissed off if you didn't show up at their gigs. I also found out how easy it is to make enemies when your words get printed, and how hard it can be to find something to say about some truly awful music created as a result of someone's best efforts.

I'm sure a lot of that still applies to all the poor souls trying to convert their love of music into words today. But in my eyes, the one thing that really differs in the Philadelphia scene of the late '70s and '80s versus today is the physical environments where the music is presented. Though the turgid confines of The Hot Club had character to spare, I loved seeing bands in bigger spaces. There was the narrow-but-long expanse of Filly's on Chestnut Street, the multi-floor Rainbows/Kennel Club near 12th and Walnut, the subterranean big room of the East Side Club at 13th and Chestnut, the spacious Ripley Music Hall at Sixth and South, the balcony-equipped Love Club near Broad and South, and across the Delaware River, the former Latin Casino had undergone an astonishing metamorphosis into the cavernous “new wave” playground Emerald City.

Though Philadelphia now has a handful of influential small clubs, the bigger spaces with character to match have fallen by the wayside in a city often more obsessed with dance club culture than rocking out. But during a brief-but-glorious era those long-gone clubs hosted bands like Public Image Ltd., The Pretenders, Simple Minds, Wall of Voodoo, U2, The Ramones -- and they were big enough to hold the crowds that followed those groups while giving local bands some high-profile opening slots.

Ah yes, musical time has marched on, and not always for the better. But as bracing as a nice blast of modern Pantera or Meshuggah's math-metal can be, it is fun to dig back into one's roots. In fact, I still plan to remaster and release the works of Informed Sources on CD. There's just one problem: the studio multitrack master tapes manufactured by Ampex at the time have a flaw that necessitates baking them in an oven before they're copied, lest they fall completely apart. Was that era really so long ago that time already demands preservative procedures? Horrors!

Frank Moriarty is the author of Sonic Kaleidoscope: The Creative Chaos of 1970s Rock, with a foreword by Brian May of Queen, published by Cooper Square Press in fall 2003.

So what do you think? Did you play in bands in this era? Attend shows? How do you think today's music scene stacks up to this era, either musically or, more importantly, as a musical community? Your comments, please...