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The Ten Best Westerns of All Time

The Western movie was once the backbone of Saturday film fare and the symbol of simplistic American values, imprinting strong influence on my youthful male psyche.

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The Western movie was once the backbone of Saturday film fare and the symbol of simplistic American values, imprinting strong influence on my youthful male psyche. I began enjoying them during the early 1960’s, when JFK was still our Commander-in-Chief, T.V. Dinners were an acceptable innovation and there was no such thing as the Internet because it would be many years before Al Gore would invent it. Just to show how much my parents trusted me, they shipped me and my sister off to the Saturday matinees nearly every week, where I savored such cinematic Wild West gems as The Sons of Katie Elderand Fist Full of Dollars. In those days, before the turbulent campus protests against the Vietnam War and the shocking assassinations of our idealized leaders, the price of my weekend movie ticket was a scandalous fifty cents.

As a little buckaroo, I was captivated by the talents of Burt Lancaster, James Stewart, Henry Fonda and the larger than life presence of John Wayne. These actors portrayed the archetypical western hero who saved the girl, cleaned up the town of evil outlaws in black hats and loved his horse like a firstborn child and not necessarily in that order. In the mid sixties, the standard mold changed when an obscure television actor named Clint Eastwood sported a 3-day beard stubble, wore a filthy Mexican poncho and smoked skinny cigars while acting in a movie directed by Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone. As a result of this superb collaboration, the landscape of the well-worn genre changed considerably and paved the way for my favorite western of all time; and this is where my list begins.

THE WILD BUNCH (1969)

In 1968, director Sam Peckinpah took a film crew to Mexico and assembled what I consider the best ensemble of actors that ever appeared in a western movie. This includes William Holden, Earnest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Edmund O’Brien, Warren Oates, Robert Ryan, Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones. Several of these players were Peckinpah alumni, having acted in his previous films Major Dundee and Ride the High Country.

The story begins in a Texas border town in 1914, set against the milieu of the bloody Mexican Revolution. Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his aggregate of professional outlaws attempt to rob the local bank, only to be ambushed by a group of miscreant bounty hunters. To complicate matters, Pike’s former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) is working as a railroad detective and is leading the group of hired bushwhackers. Though several of Bishop’s gang members are killed during the foiled robbery, many more townspeople are mistakenly gunned down as a temperance union parade gets caught in the deadly crossfire. 

With their money running low, Bishop tells his gang that they have to start thinking past their guns as “those days are running out fast.” Paradoxically, he and his men head south of the border, where they are enlisted by Pancho Villa’s rival, a General named Mapache, who hires them to steal a load of rifles from an American Army transport train. While successful in their enterprise, Pike’s band is hotly pursued by Thornton and his men and at Mapache’s behest, are nearly double crossed by the general’s subordinate.

During the bloody climax of the film, Bishop and his associates take on the General and his army of cutthroats in an attempt to retrieve one of their own. With shotguns slung over their broad shoulders, watching Bishop’s crew walk the road to the general’s camp, accompanied by a crescendo of marching drums and Mexican folk music is one of the coolest buildups ever filmed. To capture this exquisitely choreographed marathon of violence, Peckinpah employed innovative multi-camera shots and juxtaposed slow motion with real time action. With epic carnage and quintessential story of loyalty among thieves, this movie is an unforgettable dose of testosterone. 

SHANE (1953)

Shane is undeniably one of the greatest westerns ever made. Let me start by heaping praise on George Steven’s eye for the camera. The same one that captured the stark, cinematic Texas landscapes that jumped from the pages of Edna Ferber’s epic novel Giant. For Shane the scenery of dark clouds and majestic Wyoming Mountains enhance the reality of a small, western town standing as a symbolic beacon, foreshadowing the coming of mechanized civilization. This backdrop is populated by settlers carving out their place in the west, which is the centerpiece of conflict for this exceptional film.

The story begins when a mysterious stranger named Shane stops at the small family farm of a tenacious settler named Joe Starrett. Shane longs to leave his gunfighter past behind and is befriend by the farmer, who hires him to help work his patch of land. Starrett’s young son Joey is captivated by Shane, who in turn forms a respectful, unrequited admiration for Joe’s wife Marian.

As the story progresses, Shane is drawn into the settler’s struggle against an aging,  grasping cattle rancher named Ryker, who desires to protect his cattle empire and drive the sod busters from the valley. When goaded by one of his henchmen, a vastly outnumbered Shane and Starrett dispatch Ryker’s bullies in the best barroom brawl ever filmed. Reeling from his crushing defeat at Grafton’s saloon, the desperate cattle baron summons the help of a professional killer named Jack Wilson. The film climaxes with Shane accepting his destiny as a lifelong gunfighter, meeting the menacing quick draw villain in one of the best shootouts ever filmed.

The picture works superbly because it succeeds in telling a good story, short of gimmicks with nicely paced action and gorgeous visuals. Alan Ladd is brilliant in the lead role with great supporting performances by Van Heflin and Jean Arthur. However, Jack Palance nearly steals the show with his turn as the cold-blooded Jack Wilson. Shane stands today as a simple, powerful and vastly entertaining picture; an example of flawless directorial skills and superb acting.

THE SEARCHERS (1956)

In 1955, John Ford went to Monument Valley Utah to film what I consider his western masterpiece, The Searchers. This scenic American canvas was the perfect setting for this atmospheric tale of tenacity and vengeance. In this film, John Wayne delivers his most nuanced performance as Ethan Edwards, an ex rebel returning home from the Civil War under mysterious circumstances. His homecoming is short lived, as Reverend Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) and his band of Texas Rangers recruit him and his adopted nephew, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) to repel a party of Comanche Indians from the neighboring ranches. Unfortunately, the raiders kill Ethan’s brother and beloved sister-in-law, in addition to capturing his nieces Lucy and little Debbie. When Lucy is discovered raped and murdered, Ethan and Marty myopically hunt for young Debbie, who is the captive of a Comanche chief named Scar. Along the way, Ethan manages to dispatch bushwhackers while in a scene brimming with comic relief, Marty breaks up the wedding of his childhood sweetheart, Finally, the two men rejoin Clayton and his Rangers to take on the Comanche’s in a climatic battle, where the long-suffering Debbie is eventually rescued.

The seasoned director assembled a cast of his regulars, including Ken Curtis, John Qualen, Hank Worden and Harry Carey Junior to make this terrific film. This experienced company turned in the kind of solid acting that moviegoers came to expect from a John Ford vehicle. Ward Bond is in top form as Captain Clayton and delivers some of the film’s most amusing dialogue. Additionally, a lovely, teenage Natalie Wood has about five minutes of screen time playing the older version of Debbie.

At the center of this great movie, is the relationship between the two searchers, played by Wayne and ably supported by Hunter, who must ride together day after endless day in their search for the elusive Scar. The natural chemistry between these two actors makes this film a standard of the western genre.

TOMBSTONE (1993)

In early 1994, when I went to see a B-movie western about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, I never thought it would be one of the most entertaining films of all time. This is the same year that Lawrence Kasdan released his highly anticipated 2 ½ hour epic retelling of this legendary lawman’s career. Ironically, his mega budget film turned out to be an interminable bore, offering a flat, dreary performance by Kevin Costner. Conversely, Tombstone, directed by the late George P. Cosmatos is anything but lackluster, with a superb ensemble cast featuring Kurt Russell as Wyatt and Val Kilmer as Doc, in the most colorful rendering of these characters I have ever seen.

On hand as the bad guys, are Powers Booth as the affable Curly Bill, Stephen Lang as thickheaded Ike Clanton and Michael Biehn, turning in a notable performance as the educated but psychopathic gunslinger named Johnny Ringo. In a particularly interesting sequence, Ringo and Doc exchange barbs across a faro table while speaking in Latin. How many times have you seen that in the Wild West? 

The plot line follows the prototypical OK Corral story about Earp and his brothers going to Tombstone to make their fortune. After the famous gun battle with the Clantons and McLaurys, Wyatt’s older brother Virgil is crippled by a gunshot to the arm and younger sibling Morgan takes a fatal bullet to the back. Seeking vengeance on a Biblical scale, Wyatt is accompanied by consumption ridden, drunken Doc, who in spite of his afflictions is loyal to a fault and deadly with a short barreled colt.

This is the best version of the Earp saga and though not quite historically accurate, Kurt Russell turns a nicely layered performance, breathing life into a complex character. Though often too brief, there are some excellent supporting appearances by Dana Delany, ThomasHaden Church, Billy Zane and Charlton Heston. Additionally, the scenery (filmed at Old Tucson Studios) is authentic and the stylish costumes are second to none. I have seen this film at least ten times and will probably watch it another ten times before I ride off into that big saloon in the sky.

UNFORGIVEN (1992)

In 1992 Clint Eastwood finally got around to filming Unforgiven, a script for which he had purchased the rights many years earlier. It is a thoughtful, uncompromising look at how violence begets violence; and that the traditional line between the good and evil is not as clear as it appears on the surface. For film buffs impressed by Oscar, the film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, who turns in one of his finest performances as the town sheriff Little Bill.

This tale of retribution begins in a town called Big Whiskey with a drunken cowpoke named Quick Mike slicing up a whore named Delilah’s face, after she giggles at size of his male anatomy. When the other prostitutes led by Strawberry Alice (Francis Fischer) go to Little Bill seeking redress, he lets the offending drover and his partner Davey off with a mild punishment that includes the price of a few horses. Incensed at this miscarriage of justice, the women take up a collection to establish a thousand dollar bounty for anyone who will kill the two ranch hands.

Upon hearing of the blood money offered, a fledgling, young gunslinger calling himself The Schofield Kid arrives at the farm of William Munny (Eastwood), who is raising two children without a mother and struggling to make ends meet. The kid informs Munny he is seeking his services as paid assassin. Munny subsequently enlists his former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and the trio set off for Big Whiskey to snuff out the unsuspecting cowboys.

During the long ride to their destination, it is poignant foreshadowing when Will reminds Ned of his wild days as remorseless killer. He vividly describes his ruthless killing of an innocent drover that weighs heavy on his conscience. Nevertheless, Munny reflects that his deceased wife forever ended his drunken, murdering ways with Ned reassuring him that, “You ain’t like that no more”. With intelligence supplied by Skinny the Saloon owner, Little Bill discovers that the whores are offering a reward for the two ranch hands. Acting swiftly, he musters his team of deputies and after nearly beating him to death, sends another bounty hunter named English Bob (Richard Harris) packing. When Will and his comrades arrive in town, the sheriff also inflicts a savage beating on him while he is too sick to defend himself. In spite of this setback, the trio manages to kill Mike’s friend Davey in a heart wrenching sequence, which is enough to inspire Ned to forfeit his share of the bounty and head home. Unfortunately, Logan is captured and tortured to death by the sadistic Little Bill.

Eastwood the director masterfully demonstrates how unglamorous a killing can be when Schofield shoots Quick Mike while he is using the outhouse. We learn the ultimate irony is that the kid, anxious to prove himself as a bad man, has absolutely no stomach for the taking of a life. Chillingly, it is Will, who after a few swigs of whiskey has no problem transforming back to the precision killing machine of his earlier days. When he discovers that Little Bill has taken Ned’s life, Munny slaughters the sheriff, his deputies and the saloon owner who was foolish enough to display Logan’s body in front of his establishment.   

This film is a masterwork of understanding the complexities of human behavior. Though Will Munny is supposed to be the unforgiving killer, he is the protagonist of the story. In a scene acted with near perfection by Eastwood, he wisely reflects to the kid, “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got an’ all he’s ever gonna have.” When Schofield attempts to justify his actions, he suggests to Will, “Well I guess they had it comin’,” to which Munny succinctly replies, “We all have it comin’ kid.”

Though he represents law and order, Little Bill is clearly the antagonist who blindly believes in his own righteousness. When he is gunned down by Will, he incredulously exclaims, “that I don’t deserve to die like this.” Ultimately, it is Munny who has the clearest sense of purpose and in the face of overwhelming odds, remains cool under fire. He teaches Little Bill his last lesson; that deserve has got nothing to do with it. 

To add insult to injury to any movie fan grinding his teeth at my list of choices, I am offering what I consider the ten best westerns of all time
                                                             
The Wild Bunch
Shane
The Searchers
Tombstone
Unforgiven
High Noon
The Long Riders
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Winchester 73
The Magnificent Seven

Music

The Beauty and Journey of Hellions’ 20s Series

Australian alternative band Hellions have written a series of songs that journals the band’s history and growth. Josh Hockey explores.

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Australian based Hellions are an alternative heavy band that have taken their audience on a journey of evolution. They have taken their sound from brutal hardcore to an atmospheric theatrical production unlike anything else. Over the years their music has matured and developed as they have as people into something special. 

Hellions have established countless themes through their music since their 2014 debut album, Die Young. The prominent example of this is the series of “20” based songs that appear on each of their albums. “22”, “23”, “24”, “25”, and “26”, are all songs the band write to keep track of themselves. Through the lyrics of these songs, they explore where their lives are at that point in time, and touch on their current values and beliefs in a powerfully emotional way. While each tie in with another, each one is unique and has its own meaning. They have become some of the most highly anticipated tracks of every Hellions release. 

(L-R): The Hellions discography- Die Young, Indian Summer, Opera Oblivia, Rue

22

This all began back in 2014 when Die Young released featuring the closing track “22”. The song takes you on a passionate journey through the exploration of youth. The freedom of youth is often underutilized, and the innocence and joy of being young can all go to waste. Worrying too much about silly issues or stupid mistakes drag you down, and you lose the passion for life that was once the only thing keeping you going. This is what “22” is about. It is preaching to you to be everything you want to be. It is telling you to break out from the norms. It is telling you to make the most of the time you have. If you take the leap you’ll fly, and this song makes you feel like you can.

An empowering chorus asks the bitter question of “why should we squander ever-waning youth”. The fast verses build perfectly and work to mesmerize you into a feeling of inspiration and freedom. This all leads up to, and hits its peak, with the final verse. “We are the wild ones, forever free, forever young!” A warcry of the aforementioned emotions, this section of music is as effective as anything I’ve heard. Every time I listen, it fills me with adrenaline and puts a smile on my face. Passion and joy fill the vocals and sends a shiver down your spine as the raw-strength of this closing verse hits you at your core. 

The message that “22” sends out is important, and the way it does is breathtaking. “22” shows the array of emotions they were experiencing at that time in their lives, and adds an optimistic edge to everything else they touched on during the album. Looking on the bright side, at this stage, the entire world felt like it was at their feet, and was theirs to explore. They’re determined to fight off mediocrity and are desperately trying to maintain their freedom.

23

“23” was the closing track of Hellions’ 2015 album Indian Summer. Tying back in with “22”, it speaks of releasing oneself from the rut of mundanity. They dealt with the ditches of mediocrity and conformity and despised it more than anything. “23” explains the inner monologue behind dealing with these issues and takes you through their mental journey to regain their freedom. 

Opening up with an erratic rhythm of guitars and drums, and leading into frantic structured verses, “23” is an intense listening experience. Lyrically it walks us through the process of self-discovery. The world cannot hold you back, and you embrace the freedom that comes with realization. Liberated and elated, you reject the conformity of the wooden world. “Brother can’t you hear the inexorable sound? The march of time drawing close.” The walls of the world are closing in and “23” wants to inspire you to get away. 

Hellions want you to be the wild ones that they referred to in “22”. An enormous build and phenomenal riff-filled instrumental and vocal release references “22” and shows how they have changed since then. “These contemporary lies are no longer bothering me, I’ll never squander ever-waning youth, the bullshit doesn’t matter because you’ve always got you.” Much more certain of themselves now, they are grabbing their dreams with both hands and running with them. It isn’t the time for talking, it is the time for acting. 

There is a sensation of empowerment as the certainty and assuredness hammer home the power of “23”. It has its peaks and lows and appears to be fully designed this way. It wants to take you on this journey with them, and it does so in a beautifully powerful way that ends Indian Summer on an incredibly high note. 

24

Opening up as the first track on the 2016 album Opera Oblivia, “24” kicks in by referencing “22”. “Breathe, be still, be free” are the opening words of “22”, and is representative of the process of reminiscing. Moving on lyrically they speak of getting bogged down in the judgment of others, and how this brought them waves upon waves of embarrassment and discomfort.

Instrumentally “24” takes a heavily theatrical approach, and involves a conscious effort to make everything sound dramatically bigger. This musical dramatization works fluently, with every note feeling like it is exactly where it needs to be in order to create an uplifting anthem.

Finding out who you are is integral, and although it may cause some social discomfort, Hellions want you to discover yourself. “We are born and raised as cattle to be the same, but we are not the same we have to change and if we don’t we’ll suffocate.” This chorus features the strong clean vocals as well as the passionate yells and adds to the emotional effectiveness. “24” begs you to help change the world. Referencing “23”, they ask their mother and father for forgiveness and express their fear of time closing in. This slides nicely into the final anthemic singalong of the chorus and ends “24” with the bringing together of people. Feeling like an enormous group hug, multiple voices come together to serenade you through the chorus as the song comes to a close. An incredibly strong way to open an album and a fine addition to the series, “24” was the indicator that Opera Oblivia was going to be something special. 

25

“25” is the closing track on Opera Oblivia, and is a message about the importance of valuing the past as much as the present. It also touches on reclaiming oneself, the beauty of art, love, and having a passion. It is the most diverse of the “20” songs as it touches on so many things, but it does this in a way that isn’t messy. Every word feels like it belongs, as does every instrumental note, and it is clear the amount of love that went into crafting this song. 

Why spend so much time regarding the work of others and drawing from it when everyone could be making their own inspiration? “25” takes on a form of self-dialogue as well as everything else as they empower themselves with the idea of continuing their freedom. “And as long as we sing, we can stay young like this.” They acknowledge their inspirations and their creations and examine the fact that they are living out their childhood dreams every single day. The reason that they are living these dreams is because of those inspirations, and that is why we need to cherish every single piece of art that means something to us. You have no idea just how much it could end up meaning in the future. 

Reinvent the world, like we used to: screaming.” Take the initiative to make whatever change you want to see in the world. Nothing is stopping you. Years can pass and things can change, but if you create something that means something to you, or to other people, it will be immortal. Like Lennon, Cash, Sinatra, Morrison, or Jackson, anything you create will maintain its beauty until the end of time. “25” is Hellions taking pride in their own art, as well as acknowledging the great musicians, poets, and artists before them that inspired them. As time slips away from them and they feel like they are losing grip on their youth, they know deep down that they will always have their art, and they will have the undying love and passion for it that will keep them forever young. All of this passion, inspiration, and integrity, comes from love. The love for art and the love for creating, as well as the love for the world. They want to help fix it, and “25” is asking for your help.

26

“26” is the closing track of Hellions’ 2018 album, Rue. It is a good indicator of how far they have come. It is more polished and theatrical, and thus makes it a perfect album closer.

Suggesting a series of battles against mental health and one’s inner demons, “26” deals with what holds people back when dealing with such troubles. They work themselves half to death to numb the pain, and when they finally take a second to rest the demons come for them. They run and run, and the next thing they know the world has passed them by. People they relied upon are getting on fine without them, the world continues to move without them in it, and that feeling of isolation only makes things worse. Happiness is an impossibility when the idea of suicide is constantly in the back of their minds, reminding them that they always have that escape plan if they need it. 

Maybe we’re dredging up the discontent we’ve held subconsciously, accumulation of the pain we’re not acknowledging. But my dear friend we’ll survive.” Things may be hard at times but there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. This anchor dragging you forever down needs to be cut loose. Hellions are saying it is time to revolt against the inner demons. They don’t want to become another product of an unrelenting mental disease, and “26” takes you through their pain, their anguish, their suffering, and their rise out of that rut.

We may be plagued by a glitchy condition but your voice isn’t forbidden, speak up”. One of the more powerful messages sent through Hellions songs. They don’t want you to waste your freedom, and on that charge through to the end of the song with soft instrumentals that remind you that it will all be okay. “26” is one of the more heart-wrenching additions to the series, and closes out Rue in a painfully beautiful way. The lyrics and instrumentals work together in a poetic and vulnerable fashion that makes it all the more effective and admirable.

The 20s Series takes you on a journey and is an indicator of the mental and emotional journey Hellions have gone on together over the years as a band. From the inspirational uplifting “22” to the daunting and vulnerable “26”, they have expanded themselves musically and personally in every way possible. These 5 songs are just the surface of Hellions near flawless discography, but picking them out and exploring them on their own merits has been an experience that I have loved. My admiration for this band is unmatched by almost any other act, and I think their music is something that needs to be experienced to be believed. Having listened to this band since their debut release in 2013, it has been an honor seeing them expand their sound. More recently I attended their Rue album tour at Max Watt’s in Melbourne. There was a special feeling throughout their entire set, and as the deafening singalongs were a constant throughout, it hammered home just how much this band means to people. The 20s Series documents the highs and lows of what they have gone through, and builds up the Hellions that we see today.

You can purchase Hellions’ discography from Bandcamp or from UNFD.

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Music

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Once more on vinyl

The Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode, ‘Once More With Feeling’, comes to vinyl. We take the record for a spin.

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The acclaimed genre-bending series Buffy the Vampire Slayer pushed a whole lot of boundaries — but few were as wild as the 2001 musical episode “Once More With Feeling.” It was one of the first modern TV musicals (a trend that’s only gotten more popular in recent years) and an insanely ambitious proposition.

Series creator Joss Whedon (who would go on to direct the first Avengers film to universal acclaim) wrote and directed the Season 6 episode, which featured all original tunes that were not only catchy and creative in their own right — but also integral in moving the plot of the episode, the season, and even the series forward with some momentous reveals hidden amongst those show tune lines. He also scored a surprisingly great musical performance from the show’s actual cast, as opposed to simply dubbing in professional musicians.

The episode’s soundtrack received a CD release back in the day and drifted into geeky cult icon status for the past decade and a half. But, Buffy’s iconic musical is getting a new shot at primetime all these years later thanks to niche distributor Mondo. The company puts out everything from special edition posters to soundtracks, and its latest offering is a high-end take on “Once More With Feeling.” The pressing is on 180-gram vinyl and comes on blue splatter vinyl as well as a red variant. Like most Mondo releases, it features some gorgeous cover art, as well as in the gatefold, and even a geeky bonus for old school fans. Original creator Joss Whedon has written up some all-new liner notes to go along with the release (complete in its very own “Slaybill”), giving fans a bit more insight into the beloved episode.

Though the appeal here is obviously meant for Buffy fans, it’s worth noting there are some great songs on this album. Whedon is a proven songwriter and would go on to pen the award-winning web series musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog. He showcased those skills in spades here, with a line-up that spans everything from rock ’n roll to ballads. “Under Your Spell” is a slow, foreboding track about love. “Rest In Peace” is a snarky punk rock number loaded with Buffy-centric gags. There’s “Standing,” a ballad about growing up and moving on in life; and the full cast closer “Where Do We Go From Here?” a sweeping tune that set the stage for the remaining run of the series. Then, there are the clever gag tunes, such as the medley “I’ve Got a Theory / Bunnies / If We’re Together,” and the short tunes such as “The Parking Ticket” and “The Mustard.”

Buffy was a low-key hit when it debuted, and the show has only grown in popularity and acclaim in the years since. Along with being an excellent album all its own, “Once More With Feeling” now lives and breathes as a pop culture artifact of a creative force who would go on to make a couple of the biggest movies (Avengers, Age of Ultron) and most beloved TV shows (Firefly) of the modern era. It’s also one of the boldest episodes of network television ever put to the airwaves, and yes, that still holds true to this day. If you’re a Buffy fan from way back, a new fan who found the series on streaming, or just a curious collector who digs on colored vinyl sets — “Once More With Feeling” deserves a spot on any shelf, regardless of what leads you to pick it up.

Buffy on red vinyl

Order a copy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Once More With Feeling on vinyl from Mondo.

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