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ARTmania 2023 – Festival Review

ARTmania 2023 – Festival Review

Allow me to preface this review by saying that, since this isn’t the first ARTmania edition to be reviewed by the Progspace team, I’m going to keep the intro to the festival itself short and sweet: It is the Romanian music festival to follow for prog fans all over, with a bigger-and-better lineup every year, and it takes place in one of the most beautiful and history-filled regions of the country. So, if you’re into prog and Transylvania also happens to be on your to-visit list (for reasons other than Dracula and related topics – the exasperated Romanian in me very much hopes), consider booking a spot for the fest.

Even though, as you may have already deduced, I’m Romanian born and bred, I haven’t attended ARTmania for quite a few years. Whether it had to do with work, the pandemic, or who-am-I-going-to-leave-the-cat-with syndrome, there have been years when the stars just didn’t align. Enter 2023, when I just couldn’t possibly say no to this lineup:

So, without further ado, if you like either of these bands perhaps you’ll also enjoy this (unavoidably long) review. Among the obvious takes on the performances themselves, you’ll also encounter accounts of my bumping into—and actually approaching—some of my biggest music heroes while wearing hotel slippers and my just-woke-up-after-a-concert face, typing notes for this very review under a soggy plastic bag, as well as various other attempts at being witty and charming. Were they successful? I say read and find out.


Day 1

Armed with our festival gear and a bag full of records brought from Bucharest in hopes of signature ops, we arrive to the iconic Sibiu square just in time to grab our access bracelets, a bite to eat, and a quick look around the festival area: two stages; stands for merch, records, books, food and drinks; spots reserved for two charities, one of them in support of our beloved Ukraine; entertainment areas of various kinds.

As will be the case for the entirety of the festival, the first band is about to take its spot on stage like clockwork, with the downside being that it’s quite the military clock: precisely 5 minutes between bands performing on alternate-but-close stages, which is pretty tight for someone who doesn’t want to miss a beat (like someone writing a festival review, for instance). The upside is that, to me at least, this is pretty much the only major organizational faux pas.

Breaking the proverbial ice falls to the Swiss veterans from Samael, a black-turned-industrial metal band that has been around in progressively different iterations since 1987. Brothers Vorph (vocalist, formerly known as Vorphalack) and Xy (drummer / percussionist / keyboardist, formerly known as Xytraguptor) are the only original members still in the band’s lineup. From the onset they exude pure metal class, with every musician on stage dressed in all-black and playing almost entirely black instruments. An elegant-meets-cultish feel, punctuated by Vorph’s dark makeup and soon-to-be-unveiled intricate tattoos, red and blue stage lights, and symbols projected on the main screen: the moon, the snake, the yin and the yang. Their sound is growl-led dark, foreboding metal with recognizable black metal roots overlaid with industrial electronica, undeniably engaging and energetically delivered. In what I perceive as a nod to old-school fans who are also here for the day’s headliners, black metal royalty Emperor, the setlist includes many tracks from the band’s earliest albums, most notably “Ceremony of Opposites” (1994) and “Passage” (1996). The balance with newer material, such as “Solar Soul” (2007) or “Hegemony” (2017), is well struck, but with notable caution given to the controversy stirred by their style changes over the years.

Now it’s time to experience the infamous 5-minute break between bands and stages for the very first time as I make my way to witness fellow-Romanian band Asemic performing on the secondary stage of the festival. With a 10-year history and 2-album track record, the Bucharest-based band focuses on instrumental progressive metal with highly technical compositions and influences ranging from psychedelia to djent, from jazz fusion to oriental music. They sound polished and professional throughout, atmospheric, guitar and bass-heavy in the best ways, but they appear to lack some confidence in their own proficiency. For, when it comes to communicating with the audience, whether verbally or non-, Asemic is a bit anemic (yes, I wrote down this sorry little wordplay). But who can blame them, I guess, when they’re playing a festival alongside (most likely) some of their biggest music heroes?

Speaking of music heroes, my personal favorite act of the day—and one of my favorite acts in the entire festival—is fast approaching. Prog is such a magnificent beast in that it can be both highly cerebral and beautifully emotional. It stimulates your mind, it reaches your heart, and some bands balance both of these arts like masterful wizards. Pain of Salvation is, in my humble opinion, one such band, and as they take the stage with the intro riff to ‘Accelerator’ while the “Panther” imagery is being projected in the background, my heart has already propelled to my throat, where it will stay for the remainder of their performance.

They own the stage from the second they step onto it, their laid-back appearance (from The Mandalorian shirts to no shirts at all) and ongoing humorous remarks in stark contrast with the seriousness of their music. A few sound imbalances can be perceived from where I’m standing, with some instruments being at times more audible than others, but it doesn’t take away from the sheer beauty of the performance. By the time guitarist Johan Hallgren adds his voice to frontman Daniel Gildenlöw’s while the plaintive instrumental swells on ‘Meaningless’, everything that may have seemed imperfect simply fades away. As they travel through mostly recent eras of their music (“Panther”, 2020, and my personal favorite “In The Passing Light of Day”, 2017), with brief stops along their earlier days (such as with “The Perfect Element, Part I”, 2000), every warm and raw vocalization, every soft and piercing note, every break followed by yet another soar fills the evening air, taking my breath away without warning. They feed off each other’s energy and channel it right back into the audience through sounds that swiftly go from roaring thunder to soft, piano-led whispers (currently, in live performances, under the masterful hands of Vikram Shankar). And, as the performance approaches its end, drummer Léo Margarit steals the show by alternating furious drumming with singing in the clearest countertenor voice on ‘On a Tuesday’. On the very last song, ‘The Perfect Element’, all three voices—Daniel’s, Johan’s, and Leo’s—unite into a beautiful harmony that lingers for quite a while above the mesmerized crowd.

By the time I leave the main stage, the secondary one is already up-and-running for the arrival of Romanian metalcore band W3 4R3 NUM83R5. They clearly have a following, and, in contrast with Asemic before them, they seem to feel right at home on stage. Energetic, gutsy, dynamic, as one would expect from a proper metalcore band. And, while I actually enjoy some metalcore music, something just doesn’t click for me with this performance. They sound good, they fill the stage in all the right ways, they’re communicative, the audience vibes with them. But, at closer inspection, I believe what leaves me wanting more is that they sound like they’re emulating pretty much any metalcore band out there. Parkway Drive, Bring Me The Horizon, As I Lay Dying—I sense a little bit of everything here, right down to singing in English. It’s a good band, with a well-prepared performance that ultimately ends up feeling a bit derivative.

Darkness has set over the square just in time for majestic headliner Emperor to take over the main stage, their royal imagery already on full display amidst emerald green lights. Perhaps now would be the best time to confess that, while I fully understand the impact this band has had on the metal scene, especially since I have very close friends who are massive fans, black metal has never really been my thing. I can appreciate the technical prowess, the dark, somber mood and symbolic intricacies, but I fail to perceive nuance from one track to the next. The fact that I can’t grab onto comprehensible lyrics either, so as to anchor myself into the music, just poses more difficulty. Nevertheless, I will share my thoughts on the performance objectively, with the caveat that, if you’re a true Emperor fan, you might not find the level of depth you’re looking for in this review.

The band takes to the stage solemnly, an attitude they will maintain throughout their performance given that their music doesn’t lend itself to witty commentary or singing along with the audience. The crowd is clearly awed by their presence, and, in spite of the admission above, I’m still starstruck as well, because while I may not follow Emperor, I do quite dedicatedly follow founder and frontman Ihsahn’s amazing contributions to anything and everything prog. The setlist is almost entirely comprised of tracks from the band’s first two albums, “In the Nightside Eclipse” (1994) and “Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk” (1997), in what is clearly an ode to their truest fans, for whom they also periodically reunite in special one-off live appearances such as this one. From beginning to end, the performance sounds impeccable even to a non-convert. A symphony of speed, accuracy, and gravitas; an eerie atmosphere that envelops every sound, from low growl to operatic harmony, among violent light pulses that mimic the thundering rhythm. As the performance ends, a close friend who is a major fan tells me that, if he had to go home after this single act, he would be more than satisfied.


Day 2

The day starts quite surreally with an unforeseen encounter with none other than Ishahn himself. I’m wearing my morning face, hotel slippers, and luckily a shirt with a band he likes: Leprous. The unpreparedness doesn’t deter me from approaching him to ask for a picture, though, which I’m frankly quite proud of.

Having the whole day at our disposal for once, we arrive in the square much earlier (again with the bag of records, but updated to the day’s lineup), have a proper lunch, and take our time checking out the merch and records on sale. While doing so, I can’t help but notice that many of the other festival-goers are proudly displaying brand-new shirts from the merch stand.

I excitedly take my place in the audience just in time to witness Vulture IndustriesBjørnar Nilsen strut onto the stage wearing an elegant suit, complete with hat and cane. And this is when the magic starts. For what I’m about to realize not only by the end of this performance, but also by the end of the entire festival, is that this is my absolute favorite frontman of all. I’m sorry, Steven and Daniels (not a typo, there’s two of them) and Ihsahn and Ross and Einar, but Bjørnar has completely stolen my vocalist-loving heart. The man is a natural-born performer, a force of nature unleashed on an unsuspecting audience. Vocally, he’s rough around the edges—a bit Frank Sinatra, a bit Nick Cave, a bit Serj Tankian. His expressions, exaggerated and theatrical, down to the piercing blue eyes scanning the crowd in a warning plea. The instruments sound foreboding and heavy, softened in places by melodic riffs and layers of trumpet vs. piano-led big band sounds, reminiscent of Star Wars Cantina music. There’s a twisted carnival feel that is as humorous as it is creepy. The imagery projected continuously on the main screen, essentially a compilation of the band’s album artworks in sync with the setlist spanning nearly their entire discography to date, is itself socially satirical. But the joke’s ultimately on all of us, since, amidst metaphors, Vulture Industries paints a very clear picture of the world we inhabit. As the act nears its end, Bjørnar comes closer and closer to the audience, singing his final notes while firmly holding the hands of people nearest to him, all undoubtedly as mesmerized by this incredible performance as I am.

Serbian band KOIKOI is the only act in the festival lineup I’d never heard of before, nor did I have much time to look them up, so this is a very fresh and spontaneous take on what I’m about to experience. I immediately love that the band has two female members, Emilija Đorđević and Ivana Miljković, as I am a proponent of (significantly) more diversity on the rock and metal music scenes. They are both vocalists, as well as multi-instrumentalists, covering guitars, bass, and synths. The other two members, Marko Grabež and Ivan Gizmo, cover vocals and guitars, respectively drums and electronics. And they are, in short, quite exceptional. Indie and fresh, the perfect mix of rock and pop with lovely synth layers and vocal harmonies performed in their native tongue, complete with folk influences that round out their signature sound. They easily project their vibrant energy onto the audience, the mutually recognizable Balkan rhythms an unspoken common language. A very pleasant surprise and definitely my favorite secondary stage act of the festival. And I’m clearly not in the minority, for I see people rushing to buy band merch right after their performance.

One of my most anticipated acts of the festival is on next: English masters of djent TesseracT, whose recent single (‘War Of Being’) I’ve had on repeat all the way to Sibiu. Little did I know that they would play it live for the first time on this very stage. They come on guns blazing, sounding fierce with the harsh vocals and heavy instrumentals of ‘Natural Disaster’, a single from their next album that so far has only been heard in live performances. In a similar vein to Samael on Day 1, they look elegant and a bit alienish in their all-black attire, with the only pop of color being frontman Daniel Tompkins‘ red makeup, tastefully mirrored in the predominantly red graphics projected in the background. If you’ve listened to TesseracT, you can already imagine what they sound like live, as their performance is almost eerily true-to-record. The mathematical precision that goes into their compositions also goes into their live shows, with every instrumental layer a piece of what appears to be a perfectly designed prism. Vocally, even live Daniel achieves an effortless glide between clean and harsh, chest and falsetto, that in the moment also reminds me of Monuments’ amazing Andy Cizek. In fact, both of them are up there with my favorite vocalists.

It’s pretty much a flawless performance, but one that ends up feeling a bit too technically charged even for fans. There’s something about the festival setting and the setlist incorporating some of the band’s most intricate tracks (from albums ranging from “One”, 2011 to “Sonder”, 2018) that gives the performance a bit of a monotonous overtone.

Whether by design or because someone withdrew from the festival, for once there is no band performing on the secondary stage, and we have a full 30 minutes to prepare for not only the day’s, but also the festival’s esteemed headliners: prog icons Porcupine Tree. A message is projected on the main stage screen, asking all participants not to use their phones for photos or videos during the band’s performance. Skeptic that I am, I secretly wonder how many people will actually respect this wish.

There’s something quite unique about the headliner of a show. While people gather at a multiple-act event for different reasons and with different degrees of appreciation for one performance over another, the headliner is usually universally liked, if not even loved. There’s a sense of community and oneness that builds around that singular act, and I can feel it very palpably right at this moment. We’re all about to experience something truly unique: a rare live appearance from a band that would-be musical genius Steven Wilson started as a joke back in the 80s, that unexpectedly became larger-than-life and genre-defining, that released a secretly recorded enormity of an album after more than 12 years of absence, and that will most likely never tour again. Now say that 10 times fast…

As I settle into the perfect spot to pretty much watch music history unfold before my eyes, Porcupine Tree blasts right into the “tanananananana” of one of my favorite tracks ever, ‘Blackest Eyes’, leaving me transfixed for at least the first four songs in succession. Needless to say, I have no notes for that segment to speak of, but it’s all pretty well etched into my memory. The audience goes crazy (and, surprisingly, most people even respect the band’s no-phone rule), the stage is filled with dynamic lights and video montages that accompany each track, and Steven Wilson looks and sounds as if he hasn’t aged a second. He’s friendly, funny, chatty, apologizing to the crowd for taking so long to play in Romania and making witty remarks about the band’s extensive music catalogue that couldn’t possibly be covered in one performance. No one seems to care whether they play newer or older material; it’s like pointing a finger to a random place on a map and everyone immediately knows exactly what it is. We all just get lost in riffs and beats and mouthing lyrics we’ve heard a million times and could hear a million more: ‘Open Car’, ‘The Sound of Muzak’, ‘Anesthetize’, ‘Sleep Together’, even the fresh ‘Harridan’ and its psychedelic bass line.

They sound just like you would expect. OK, they sound better. In fact, they sound so true-to-record, down to the perfectly-timed vocal effects, that one might be tempted to look for the man behind the curtain (if you don’t get this reference, my wittiness has been for naught). But the man is none other than Steven Wilson himself, and he is standing right in front of us. It helps that he’s accompanied by some of the best in the business: long-term music partner Richard Barbieri on keyboards, Gavin Harrison (Pineapple Thief, King Crimson) on drums, Randy McStine (originally known as Lo-Fi Resistance) on guitars. And, of course, the entity that Steven refers to as “the invisible bass player.” It’s effortless, it’s meticulously prepared, it’s familiar and familial. Steven’s voice sounds like home, the band backing him beautifully throughout. They look so down-to-earth and unassuming, like a group of friends who just enjoy making music together for the sake of it. And I guess that’s what they’re actually doing, only as close to perfectly as one can hope to achieve within a lifetime.

In-between songs, Steven reads out a sign someone in front is holding: “Steven, can I have your guitar pick, please?” He throws it, it’s caught; it makes for a wholesome little concert moment. As the encore slides into ‘Halo’, Steven states he’s sorry if people’s favorite songs haven’t been played. He then mentions that, while PT is not the kind of band to have a ‘Free Bird’-level hit, if he absolutely had to name one it would be the very song about to end this surreal show: ‘Trains’. And, looking around at all of these people singing, clapping, sharing a moment of genuine happiness, the thought that crosses my mind is that even a non-fan couldn’t help but pause at this brilliant performance.


Day 3

I wake up thinking Ihsahn is probably no longer in the area, so I can resume my regular, non-starstruck routine. I’m right; he isn’t around, but when I bump into someone looking strangely familiar, I realize Randy McStine is. And he’s sharing a table with Gavin Harrison. Me? You’ve guessed it: wearing my morning face, hotel slippers, and this time a Vulture Industries shirt. I’m actually satisfied it’s not a Porcupine Tree shirt; it would look too staged. We take a picture, my mind secretly wondering if Steven Wilson will make an appearance too. He doesn’t, but it’s still a blissful moment. A running joke is started about hotel slippers becoming my signature look, which I find is totally doable since buying them in bulk isn’t even that expensive.

As we make our way to the square, new batch of records on hand as you’ve probably come to expect, things are looking a bit cloudy. It won’t rain, I think, as the forecast predicted no rain whatsoever for the duration of the festival. Well, it turns out that forecasts can be wrong, as the first drops of rain are about to fall within the next few minutes. Luckily I’m well-versed in concert-going in rainy conditions, so I’m hardly phased by this turn of events. I just feel cheated by meteorology. The organizers, who appear to have relied on the same forecast as me, react remarkably quickly and provide raincoats for sale before the day’s acts even begin.

There’s one other notable change today: among the sea of black band shirts, quite a few tropical-patterned ones have emerged. This can only mean it’s Haken Day! And I think no one but these fantastic guys could get a bunch of metalheads to wear floral print. In public.

It isn’t yet raining very hard when the Swedes from Port Noir officially start Day 3 of the festival. I’m excited to see them,as unlike many I really like the direction they’ve taken their music over the years, from progressive metal to near-progressive pop, peppered with elements of hip-hop and R&B that give an interesting modern twist to the more traditional style they originally stemmed from. Maybe because I’m expecting something high-energy, I’m a bit disappointed by what feels like a lack of excitement on the part of the trio on stage. I sense a disconnect between the commentary expressing gratitude to be here and what is actually felt in the performance. I find the setlist a bit unbalanced as well, especially for listeners who don’t know the band very well, as between post-2019 tracks heavily bearing their new sound, there are a few songs from an entirely different era, when they sounded almost like a different band. All in all, I find it difficult to connect, and the performance sadly ends up feeling a bit disappointing in spite of everything being quite good sound-wise.

RoadkillSoda is up next on the secondary stage, and, for the Romanian audience, there’s not much need for an introduction. It is one of the better-known, best-sounding local bands, with quite a loyal following amassed along their 12-year and 5-album career. They veer heavily toward stoner rock and they do it well, grungy vocals and melodic-heavy instrumentals on point. They’re professional and have fantastic rapport with the audience, and even as the rain is getting heavier their performance goes on smoothly, empowering messages punctuating the pauses between songs.

Just as the Romanians are wrapping up their act, the main stage becomes a lush, colorful tropical setting that announces Haken’s imminent arrival. Their equally colorful stage entrance, donning the signature nature print shirts so swiftly embraced by fans, is almost humorous given that the audience is watching this impossibly tropical scene through a blanket of not-quite-as-tropical rain. Even so, if you’ve ever watched a favorite band perform live in the rain, you probably know that you cease being aware of it the second the music starts. And such is the case with explosive ‘Taurus’, opening the band’s performance in an insanity of distortion and synth-y ethereal vocal harmonies.

Even if I fully expected it, I’m still awed by how incredible this band sounds live. I’m stuck between wanting to just take it all in and needing to type about a gazillion notes, which is becoming increasingly harder to do with the rain falling heavily on my unprotected phone. Smart gal that I am, I figure I can keep my phone under a transparent plastic bag and continue typing while the phone stays protected. Sure, the bag gets wet and the screen gets foggy, but understanding one’s own notes is overrated anyway (spoiler alert: I laughed really hard at the notes I took on this day).

I love that the setlist bites right into “Fauna”, which is one of my top 5 favorite albums released this year. But, truth be told, the entire musical offering is pretty much perfectly balanced. You get tracks from “Virus” (2020), “Affinity” (2016), and “The Mountain” (2013) in one fell swoop. You get massively technical metal with pounding bass and thunderous drums, space-time-breaking riffs and solos, and then you get sudden jazzy, café concert breaks, only to be swept right back into the eye of the storm with a menacing growl that had not long before been a mere delicate falsetto. These very regular-looking guys are out there effortlessly solving musical equations, while the crowd looks on, mouths ajar. As I’m excitedly typing (as it turns out, not entirely incomprehensibly) under my soggy plastic bag, I can’t help but smile at the sheer joy of partaking in this experience. The only thing missing is Einar Solberg’s beautiful voice on ‘The Architect’.

While it’s clearly not an easy feat to follow Haken and the surreal performance they just delivered, I sincerely believe the next band to take on the secondary stage has been getting a lot more hate than it deserves. Sirenia is a Norwegian gothic metal band continuing the legacy of founder Morten Veland’s former project, Tristania. Female-fronted, with occasional harsh male vocals and melodic instrumentals bearing symphonic elements, it is perhaps not the most original band in the genre (Epica and Nightwish immediately came to mind when I first heard them at soundcheck), but it sounds professional and quite polished. The hate, as I understand it, stems from them being off-genre at this particular fest, but honestly so is black metal. Or indie pop-rock. So I disagree with this assessment, hope it’s not rooted in sexism, and genuinely enjoy the band’s performance. I particularly liven up during their cover of Desireless’ hit ‘Voyage, voyage’, which I find very nicely executed. And, of course, I thoroughly appreciate the female singer, as well as the cultural diversity within the band.

As the festival approaches its end and the rain is still falling quite heavily, I’m getting increasingly excited about the next and final act, as it is one of my most anticipated. I know I’ve said this multiple times before, but what can I do if this lineup appears to have been custom-made for me?

For a few solid years now, I’ve been strongly drawn to neofolk music exploring Norse culture in an intimate way, with Wardruna, SKÁLD, and more recently Gealdýr being some of my favorite musical projects of this kind. Einar Selvik’s Wardruna was undoubtedly one to set the tone, so the chance to finally see them live after two failed opportunities to do so fills me with anticipation. And I am soon to be rewarded, for this performance is like nothing else I’ve ever witnessed before.

It’s not a musical experience as much as it is a journey. An act of art and culture infused with spirituality, a sacred ancestral understanding that goes beyond language. Visually, it’s an ongoing balance act between light and shadow. Men and women wearing clothes from another time and another place, singing in voices that evoke a spectrum of human emotion and complete each other in otherworldly tones. Playing instruments—variations of drums, flutes, harps, horns, or lutes—whose sounds mimic those of the earth itself, the tribal rhythms mirroring the thudding of our own heartbeats. It’s atmospheric, it’s haunting, it’s primal, and it deserves so much more solemnity. Because, unfortunately, all around me people are chatting incessantly, clearly unaware of the artistry happening before them. Or of how offensive their behavior is to the people giving their all on stage. It’s like trying to meditate in the middle of a frat party, and it takes me three attempts to find a place where I can finally focus on the performance. I desperately try to understand why these people don’t just leave, since this is the last act of the festival. And I make a secret wish that Wardruna returns one day, in a setting more appropriate for the intimate connection they’re trying to establish.

When the end of the performance draws near, Einar breaks character and addresses the audience in a much more relaxed way than expected. He talks about how this beloved project isn’t a joke or a form of escapism, but is rooted in a desire to take something old and create something new through the language of music, which he believes (as do I, for that matter) brings people together like nothing else can. He announces he will perform one last song, by his own admission not ‘Smoke on the Water’, but a song about remembering someone who has crossed over and letting them go. A beautiful way to end a performance and a festival, I believe. For the next few minutes, this man, alone on stage with just his voice and his odd-looking ancient instrument, makes the rest of the world fade away.

To me, Wardruna is what Emperor was to my friend on that first night of the festival: the act that could start and end it all, while still leaving me perfectly satisfied. And it’s a pretty poetic parallel too, since Einar Selvik was, at one point, the drummer of black metal band Gorgoroth.



I wrote a lot, I know. But, given how much I enjoyed this ARTmania edition and the amazing acts they managed to bring together—kind of like Santa bringing you exactly what you asked for in your heartfelt letter—there’s no way I could have written any less. I guess if you’ve made it this far, you’ve already decided to accept me as I am. And I’m grateful for that.

I spent one more morning in Sibiu after the festival ended, but there were no more encounters in slippers. Gavin and Randy were still there, but I let them be. After all, they too are human and deserve to have breakfast in peace. Whether Steven was also there will forever remain a Schrödinger’s cat-type mystery.

You might also be wondering if I got all those records I was carrying around signed. I did, every single one. Yes, even Porcupine Tree’s. I was lucky enough to meet the wonderful guys from Pain of Salvation and Haken in person, while my beloved Vulture Industries recorded a message for me I will forever cherish. The rest of the records were signed in absentia, thanks to a bunch of wonderful people I’m lucky enough to have in my life.

Music lover for what feels like a lifetime, concert-goer for a great many years, I can safely say I’m definitely also a festival-goer now. And I clearly have to visit the north someday soon.

ARTmania 2023 photo galleries:  Day 1  |  Day 2  |  Day 3

About the Author

Alina (WuTheLotus)

Music fiend from Romania. Sometimes I write.

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