REVIEW: LIQUID TENSION EXPERIMENT – “LTE3”
In the modern musical world “supergroups” are a very common thing, musicians from prominent bands, joining with musicians from other prominent bands, and doing side projects. In the prog community, it’s even more popular, and it seems at least one new project is announced every year. In the mid to late 90s though, this wasn’t really a thing. And so back in ‘98 when Mike Portnoy (Transatlantic, Sons of Apollo), John Petrucci (Dream Theater), Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), and Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel), got together to form Liquid Tension Experiment, and release their self-titled debut, it was something new and fresh. A follow-up album came the year after before the band went quiet. Jordan joined Mike, and John in DT, and there was little point in continuing LTE. Time passes however, bands change, and musicians move on, and so after 22 years the stars are aligned, and the boys are back with ‘LTE3’ which is everything fans could expect.
While 2020 and worldwide lockdowns caused misery for all and wrecked exceptional havoc on the world’s music industry, it did however finally give these four incredibly busy gentlemen the free schedules to get together and write and record a new album over the span of two weeks. And while some of the feelings were a bit surreal (Mike, John, and Jordan hadn’t been in the same room together for over 10 years after Mike left DT) it didn’t take long for them to begin to play and turn the clock back. Indeed the time hasn’t seemed to have touched any involved, prog must be a fountain of youth as the guys range in ages from 53 (Mike and John) to 72 with Tony, and they play the music that would make the average mid-20-year-old musician quake in their boots. LTE was always a vehicle for their most wild, fast, gloriously self-indulgent, and fun musical ideas. Its instrumental prog metal turned up to 11 and is something one will either love, or find totally obnoxious, and unlistenable. This new release isn’t likely to change anyone’s minds. Its speed and technicality are proudly in your face from the first second, if you didn’t like the old stuff, you won’t like this, if you loved the old, then you’re in for a long-awaited treat.
There are only eight tracks, so avoiding a song-by-song comment without missing anything is a bit difficult, but I’ll do my best. The band knew going in that fans of the earlier albums expect these albums to begin with a bang, something in the listener’s face that’s going to take your breath away. And they don’t disappoint with the aptly named “Hypersonic.” For the first 30 seconds, we are met with an unrelenting blistering barrage of guitar, bass, and drums that picks up speed as it goes along. At 31 seconds there is an almost audible inhalation of breath as the music stops for a moment before it starts again, just as intense, but now with keyboards added to the mix. The song makes for a perfect intro, and while it is largely in your face, things slow down and get melodic about three minutes in. Jordan’s keys take on a much larger jazz fusion sound, and it and the guitar lead with the melody. And melody in abundance there is on this album, it is not endless technical wankery, (there is plenty of that of course), but they know how to write a good earworm as well.
There have so far been two music videos released for the album, “The Passage of Time,” and “Beating the Odds,” which deserve mention. “Beating the Odds” was the second released video, and also the second song on the album, and the strong melodies I mentioned previously are in full bloom throughout. It’s an incredibly upbeat, and cheerful song, something to make you smile while digesting the musical precision around you. “The Passage of Time” has been out for about three months now, and takes a heavy, aggressive, slightly darker approach, but it still retains strong melodies, and has some really beautiful guitar, and key work. Of course, peace doesn’t last too long, and the speed and aggression we all love come back.
There are two duets as well on the album, the first, a bass and drum piece “Chris & Kevin’s Amazing Odyssey.” It is perhaps the most unusual, and experimental song on any of the three albums the band has done. The bass is upfront, and slow lumbering scratches of Tony’s Chapman Stick grind eerily out of the darkness, while the drums play sparse, yet aggressively struck patterns. The music slowly picks up speed, but this song harkens back to Tony’s ‘Thrak’ era King Crimson days, and the improvs they would perform live. “Shades of Hope” however is a piano and guitar duet which is the polar opposite. It is for lack of a better term a ballad and a slow, sad one at that. It’s music that plays over a movie heroes love dying in their arms in the rain. It’s pleasant enough, but I don’t care much for it.
The prog-metal version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” however comes as both a surprise and a delight. The tune is of course an old jazz standard and not one that ever did much for me. During their last tour in 2008 however the band did an arrangement of it during their concerts, so they thought it would be fun to properly record it for those of us who didn’t get to see it. Gershwin would likely be turning in his grave if he could hear it. Or maybe not, he was a man whose finger was on the pulse of the times, and times change. The 13-minute version presented here captures the main melody, and even mood of the piece all while shredding it into a thousand pieces and technically steamrolling over anyone who gets in their way. It’s a lot of fun and one that jazz musicians would likely find of interest for the unique approach if nothing else.
The album is rounded off with “Keys to the Imagination,” which fairly well encaptures the album as a whole. This is to say it hits a variety of tempos, from the slow beginning to the hyper-aggressive, blistering finish. It also has some of the nastiest riffs on the album, with Tony’s bass just pounding the listener over the head. It makes full use of its 13 minute run time, a jazzy, melodic middle section is of course present, and then it all comes back around to the main riffs and wraps the album up with a thrilling conclusion.
The members of Liquid Tension Experiment have long been masters of their craft, and instruments. Time has not dulled their creativity, nor time slowed them down any, and ‘LTE3’ is a testament to what happens when you put the right group of musicians in the same room even after 22 years; magic can happen. It’s a blazing, adrenaline rush of an album, and not one fan of instrumental progressive metal will want to miss.