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(9:55:33 DVD Audio, ‘Cliffhanger’)
TRACK LIST: 1. 1993 Cliffhanger Demo 0:23:25 2. 1994 Cliffhanger Live 1:13:05 3. 1995 Burning Alive! 0:46:22 4. 1995 Live at De Boerderij 1:14:48 5. 1996 Live at Chateau 1:59:29 6. 1997 Mirror Live 1:55:44 7. 1997 Burning 0.06:24 8. 2001 Live at De Tavenu 1:28:17 9. 1994 Live at Willem II (Video) 47:59 LINEUP: Gijs Koopman – bass; woodwinds; keyboards Rinie Huigen – vocals; guitars Dick Heijboer – keyboards Hans Boonk – drums
Prolusion. The Dutch quartet CLIFFHANGER was an active presence in their local rock scene from their formation in 1993 until their eventual disbandment in 2001. 8 active years saw the foursome release 5 official and 6 unofficial albums, in addition to numerous live performances and one initial break-up prior to the second and final one in 2001. "Dug out Alive" collects most of their unofficial and many of their unreleased live recordings, and was self released in the summer of 2011.
Analysis. Usually when I write about a production I follow a certain pattern. Like most people I'm a creature of habit, and when I have found an approach that works I tend to stick to it. But occasionally I get to cover material where I have to leave all habits and common approaches aside, and this archival production by Cliffhanger is a very good example of just that. This is a mammoth production, originally planned as an 8 CD box set from what I understand, but eventually it was decided to release it as a DVD Audio instead. And it isn't strictly a band effort either, although all members have supported this production. It is a production assembled with a great deal of care and affection over many years by Dick Heijboer, the band's keyboard player. Supported by the other members when informed about the plans, and in particular after being presented with the material assembled. The band's original demo, the studio recording of the single track Burning and a whooping 7 live shows have been given an excellent makeover by Heijboer. Of the 7 concerts, 6 were captured on audio only, while a single show from 1994 is presented as a bonus video: all in all almost 10 hours of footage not previously given an official release. With a number of compositions presented numerous times and in more or less different arrangements, the ordinary approach of describing the musical contents, what's to like and not to like, and end up with a final rating doesn't apply in this case. At least not as I regard this production. Instead I choose to regard this DVD Audio release as a biographical project, where the music does the talking, giving the listener an intimate view into the development of this fine Dutch band. The initial demo recording documents a young band with mainly positive compositions, their stylistic expression of choice, flavored with extensive references to bands like Genesis in particular, and also with tendencies fans of bands like Marillion and IQ will recognize: layered, textured synth arrangements for the latter and a certain theatrical tinge in the lead vocal department for the former. Frontman Rinie Huigen isn't a natural vocalist however, and his delivery will be something of an acquired taste: at the onset with a slightly flat voice, and with a tendency to occasionally go ever so slightly off key – a singer with an emotional rather than a strictly harmonic or melodic delivery. The years from 1993 to 1997 see Cliffhanger develop quite a lot as a band unit, and the majority of "Dug out Alive" focuses on documenting that development. We get to hear the band developing their style towards a darker, quirkier and more sophisticated sound. Long compositions of epic proportions are developed and explored, with dark twists that call upon references towards bands like Van Der Graaf Generator and, on a few occasions, King Crimson. Subtly atonal inserts are welcome just as much as rich, soft and light synth arrangements; occasional harder sounding riff inserts have their place just as much as atmospheric guitar soloing similar in character and expression to what Steve Rothery and David Gilmour have become famous for. There's also room for pieces of a shorter and compact nature, but by and large, Cliffhanger became a band with an increasing emphasis on long, refined and sophisticated compositions in the first half of their history. As performers Cliffhanger consisted of talented musicians; their only weak link as such was the aforementioned lead vocals. And it is Huigen's vocal skills that developed most besides the band's compositional approach. In a few years his voice got to be more melodic, better controlled and, by and large, less of an acquired taste than what it was. Partially because the band's new material suited his voice better I suspect, but I suspect he may have taken a few vocal lessons in that period too: still a singer who focuses on the emotional delivery, as I experience it, but with a delivery that slowly developed to become more harmonic and melodic too. And in the bonus video clip, which was recorded in 1994, it's also documented quite nicely that he was a charming presence on stage, communicating well with the audience, and with a distinct stage presence. In 1998, if I understand correctly, Cliffhanger broke up. At least in it's original guise. But 18 months later they reunited for a final go, resulting in the album "Circles", released by Musea Records in 2001. This period of the band's history is covered by one of the concerts promoting that CD. And what we're presented with on this occasion is a band that tries out a rather different type of music, still with plenty of symphonic references, and with the occasional piece referencing their older sound, but with a majority of material featuring tighter arrangements and somewhat closer to AOR, hard rock and pomp rock in style. Cliffhanger broke up shortly afterwards, citing the good, old artistic differences as the main reason. There's more to the material present on this disc than merely presenting the musical history and development of Cliffhanger. Heijboer has made an exceptional effort in presenting the footage with as good quality as possible. Each of the live concerts would merit a release as a separate production by themselves. The sound is generally good, the instruments separated quite nicely throughout, and by and large this is material of high enough quality to be of interest beyond the circle of dedicated fans. I have listened to a fair amount of official live recordings with a substantially lower quality than these recordings, and can only imagine how many hours Heijboer has spent in mastering this material. I'm impressed. The only exception is the bonus video material, where the image quality is substandard and the audio material isn't quite up to scratch either. But while this part of the package may be for fans only, I'm pretty sure that all fans will appreciate those 48 minutes of recovered video footage even if the quality leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Conclusion. "Dug out Alive" is an impressive production. Almost 10 hours of footage officially released for the first time, giving fans and interested parties alike the opportunity to hear themselves the developments of a band from their infancy to their creative peak, and then briefly revisiting the final, troubled days before the band called it quits. Dedicated fans is the obvious key audience for this massive endeavor, but the sheer quality of the material should make this DVD Audio release to be of interest also to others. Those fond of sophisticated neo progressive rock first and foremost, but also those curious about taking an extensive sonic journey through the life of a band from birth to disbandment.
OMB=Olav M Bjornsen: April 4, 2012
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