Liquid Tension Experiment 3 (InsideOut, 2021)
Quite some things have changed in the last 22 years of the four members of progressive supergroup Liquid Tension Experiment, but others have not. Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Sons of Apollo, Neal Morse), John Petrucci (Dream Theater), Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater, Dixie Dregs) and Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel) meet the challenge of replicating the electrifyng mix of virtuoso progressive comping and seamlessly fast execution shown in the initial two chapters and Liquid Tension Experiment 3 is a statemement for the future of instrumental metal progressive, no matter what has happened since chapter two.
The reunion of the supergroup, after they last played in 2008, materialised when Petrucci coupled again with Mike Portnoy for his solo recording last summer and that event triggered the drummer to propose the LTE reunion, due to unexpectedly empty schedules for all in 2020. Soon Rudess started working on proposals and they used the same pattern as in the past: a set of full days in the studio -between late July and early August 2020- alternating work on the previously written material as well as jamming sessions to draw ideas from -with the first day of rehearsals fully dedicated to build the momentum through improvisation. The result is an album -more correctly a double album- which is boisterous, trumphant, obsessively devoted to virtuoso composition and execution and ultimately forward-looking in the rendition of the peaking style of the quartet. An enthralling and exhilarating bombastic metal progressive outcome, that perfectly captures the spirit of the first two records, accompanied by a second disc in the deluxe version, A Night at the Improv, with over sixty minutes of live improvisations.
Many of the tracks in Liquid Tension Experiment 3 veer in a similar direction to the ones played over two decades ago: the opening Hypersonic -the fourth track in chronological order the band finalized in the studio- harkens back at Acid Rain, from the second album. A ferocious and fastest riff in 5 by Petrucci alternates open string and highest frets of ascending fragments on a minor scale on the lowest string. Levin, Rudess and Portnoy double the machine gun hysteria with casual effort, until it eventually falls down through some ebullient all-band unisons, through descending and ascending patterns. The quick break propelled by the slide by Levin at Stick opens for the odd-placed synth chords, that moves in descending chromatics, until there’s the very first progression at 1.13 and a fast arpeggios theme by keys again drive to the reprise of opening theme. That ultimately closes the initial section and the first break by Portnoy brings back the initial set of jagged odd-rhythm groupings by Petrucci at 2.54. This prolonged intro/first chorus, that pays an hommage potentially to neoclassical 80’s shred guitarists, needs some rest and consequently the rhythm halves for a more melodic section at 3.22, masterfully driven by the guitar, lasting approximately one minute.
The high stamina is perfectly balanced by a flavor for highly structured progressive writing. The counterpointed bridge at 4.10 is a masterful dialogue between the four, balancing odd rhythmic pauses and eventually setting the scene, in an almost ironycal way, for igniting new fuel in the engine. This tempo up and downs are bringing the listener in a different world in comparison to Acid Rain: where the former had a solid and progressive thematic development, here the contrast between odd rhythmic cells and temporal breaks and crescendo catch the eye. Similarly, the four leave everyone riveted on the seat at 4.32 with an unexpected slower tempo, propelled by Levin‘s fatty and groovy Stick. Petrucci builds a smart solo, accentuating the interplay with Portnoy‘s drumming. The odd solo guitar groupings that the drummer unabashedly excites at 5.31 can bring back at Dream Theater‘s Awake era, check Innocence Faded‘s solo for an example. At the top of the tension a Paradigm Shift-like guitar riff is amazingly counterpointed by Levin at 6.45. Then Portnoy plays with upbeat start and stops, in a perfect Images and Words style, which kind of breaks the track in the middle and brings it in an unexpected place for just few seconds. It is the time, then, for the overly structured coda, during when the band brings back, in a reversed order, the first two themes.
There’s inevitably room for epic pieces, notably two of the tracks are over 10 minutes long. The last in the first disc, Key to Imagination, was the third song the band created in the studio and it eventually brings the listener back to the memory lane until When the Water Breaks. The piano and solo guitar duo at the start, actually a melody improvised by Petrucci, is moving and elegiac, and gains an increasingly emotional edge once Levin joins them on the higher register of the bass. The intro stops for a fatty, exciting bass riff at 1.26, marking a new start. Rudess lights the fuse first, building a maximalist progressive Hammond progression, then Petrucci drives a slow thrash metal accompaniement on the lowest register of his 7-strings guitar. Key to Imaginatin is based on fugue-like orchestrations, with the main theme brought back and in, disguised in many forms: first Petrucci extends it and gives it even more urgency at 2.43, until Rudess replays it at 3.29, this time in a pastoral electric piano setting. The slow tempo break at 4.10 exposes a juicy descending strings riff by the guitar, until the previous Hammond section is quoted again. At 5.30 the track definitively gets up high with an Egyptian like riff, that finds outlet in Rudess‘s ferocious synth solo -and Levin‘s driving and aggressive funk fingers technique.
Key to Imagination alternates skilled integrations of multiple thematic cells, subtly breaking rhythms, adding small variations, while still managing the climax and the progressive building of energy in a the typical Liquid Tension Experiment fashion. The trademark Dream Theater style is visible in sight, notably at 9.56 with a series of unison start and stops á la The Dance of Eternity or few minutes later at 10.48, when the songs ends in a plateau created by a wall of synths. And the ending coda again has the trademark of the 90s metal progressive, with a Learning to Live feel. During the inspired outro, Petrucci seems even to quote a couple of passages from the Images and Words closing track.
If the epic tracks are fueled by the cerebral writing, the shorter Beating the Odds explores a more fluid flow of ideas. Starting from a twisted and deceiving riff by Petrucci alone -an apparently straightforward power chords progression played on the second beat of the bar, that eventually drives a joyful mood. The guitarist alternates with Rudess, the first playing this theme using alternate picking a la Glasgow Kiss, the second with a funny Moog flavor. Opening up the scene, until the chorus comes in with a singing melody at 1.31, which is funny and enganging. The major tonality mood of the track is maintained even in the following synth solo, propelled first by a menacing metal rhythmic figure and then by a bouncing rock riff. That’s not surprising to spot Petrucci and Rudess engaging in a rollercoaster, fifteen seconds long, unison ride at 3.50, before the main intro theme and the chorus are repeating, in an even more enfatized way, with the guitar closing in a playful fading out solo.
It should have been inevitable to watch closely the interaction between Mike Portnoy and the former teammates. Expectedly the drummer indicates the first ten minutes in the same studio of the three of them sounded weird. Even more weird to remember that 22 years ago the rehearsals for Liquid Tension Experiment 2 were the stage for the proposal made to Jordan Rudess to join Dream Theater again (he was proposed first immediately after Kevin Moore‘s departure). After that moment the quartet had reconvened in full only during the tour in 2008. And Rhapsody in Blue got eventually prepared during that tour, but never recorded before. Trumphant, parodistic and majestic at least. A potential atomic bomb, filled with irony, obsessively virtuoso figures, during which Gershwin‘s theme is reinterpreted through unabashed and unapologetic manouvres. Rudess alone reinterprets the theme at the start, before the full synth orchestra, added with majestic drumming and hard edged guitars, enters at 1.05. A fast, a crescendo pattern ride by Petrucci brings back the theme, this time scratched by the distorted guitar. Things become even more interesting when, at 2.34, Petrucci takes a bite of the theme and modulates it moving it up and up, and again does the same with another slice of the same theme shortly after. The ascending variations end at 3.51 with an aerial plateau and all the four going rubato.
Rhapsody in Blue is a genuine rock progressive exercise of self-reflection, with the inevitable charm of the pompous renditions matched with great arrangement techniques. So when the track becomes a joyful rock and roll jam -well, more a twisted jam- it’s no surprise to see the four of them playing with parody at the highest degree (Tony Levin fits perfectly the momentum adding Thela Hun Ginjeet‘s bass theme in a break!) until the main theme gets revised at 7.05 with deep power chords and luscious synths. Let the guitar solo end and there’s a new outburst of cartoon-like music, a weird mix of dixieland, that Rudess aptly orchestrates with weirdest sounds, before Petrucci adds a melodic theme built on Gershwin‘s progression, until the trumphant finale.
Improvisation has notably played a key role in the development of many Dream Theater songs, although the band basically never let any but few improvised parts in their discography. So, at the time the two LTE chapters were released, it was the first time to hear the future Dream Theater mates improvising live, from a certain point of view (thanks probably to Tony Levin, the mind behind many of the greatest progressive rock improvised records). Liquid Tension Experiment 3 is even more devoted to improvisation: the story continues on a similar pattern, with the third chapter of the Chris and Kevin saga, the Portnoy-Levin duo pieces, and with another masterful and passionate duo between Jordan Rudess and John Petrucci. But that’s the second disc, A Night at the Improv, to be the jewel in the box. The five tracks, more correctly the five excerpts from four different jams, each originally an half hour long, show a different side of the musicians. Your Beard is Good, notably, starts with an easy upbeat medium rock feel, building the crescendo minute after minute -which sounds so weird thinking how much information they usually bring in few bars of a composed track. While Blink of an Eye sneaks through up and downs, with frequent accelerations and releases, ranging from wide calm moments, to intense and tearing sections. Petrucci combines the emotional lyricism of The Count of Tuscany and the extended solo syle of To Live Forever during the intense finale, which holds the breath for many minutes.
Liquid Tension Experiment 3 is a testament to the highest degree of the istrumental progressive rock, paying a homage to that instensity, complex writing and virtuoso execution style created twenty years ago by the band. The quartet again shows how they are still able of pristine explorations, fresh sounds and explorations through new depths, regardless of the time passed.
Liquid Tension Experiment 3
1. Hypersonic 8:22
2. Beating the Odds 6:09
3. Liquid Evolution 3:23
4. The Passage of Time 7:32
5. Chris & Kevin’s Amazing Odyssey 5:04
6. Rhapsody in Blue 13:16
7. Shades of Hope 4:42
8. Key to the Imagination 13:14
Bonus Disc: “A Night at the Improv”
1. Blink of an Eye 10:28
2. Solid Resolution Theory 10:02
3. View from the Mountaintop 5:24
4. Your Beard is Good 14:31
5. Ya Mon 15.24