LIQUID TENSION EXPERIMENT

There are two types of Dream Theater fans: those who dig the prog side more and those who dig the metal side more. I was the latter of the two which is partially why Liquid Tension Experiment was almost off my radar.

After purchasing almost every single side project by every single member of the band, past and present, I finally set my sights on LTE. Truthfully, it was about what I expected. Top-notch musicianship, some excellent melodies and sequences, and overall just a bit too much for me. Yet, I was more than intrigued to hear their latest album, progressively titled Liquid Tension Experiment 3, because…well, let’s just address the elephant in the room. Mike Portnoy, John Petrucci, and Jordan Rudess have reunited to write new music. Oh yeah, Tony Levin is back too!

I won’t address just why this is such a groundbreaking moment for those who have been living in a cave for the past ten years (and if you have, there’s probably more pressing matters you should catch up on first), but even casual fans like me have been chomping at the bit to hear what they would produce. It turns out, the members of the band have too and with life as we know it shut down due to this pesky virus, tours canceled, and a lot of people quarantining in their house, John Petrucci found a good use for his brand new home studio. 

The buzz had been there for quite some time with various members suggesting they would like to record new music with each other at some point. Some point? In 5 years? 10? Another 22 years from now maybe? Then one day Jordan Rudess spilled the beans that they were trying to find time in their schedule, which was the most specific thing anyone had mentioned. With Mike Portnoy providing his drum services for John Petrucci’s solo album (which had a similar gap in time since his last), it was only natural that they would take this a step further and invite Jordan and Tony along to collaborate.

After officially announcing the return of the band just before Christmas, LTE unveiled their first song, A Passage of Time, on January 22nd. In true form to most debut singles from an album, the band chose one of the more standard songs which in my experience tends to be one of the mid level tunes on whatever album they’re promoting. While this didn’t do anything to heighten my excitement, it didn’t do much to quell it either. So with my promotional copy in hand, I finally got to sit down and listen to one of the most hyped progressive metal albums in some time. 

Liquid Tension Experiment 3 kicks off with the aptly named Hypersonic, a powerful and expeditious journey into the minds of two quinquagenarians, a sexagenarian, and a septuagenarian who undoubtedly were trying to convey the message, “We’re back, we’re going to melt your face, and don’t call us old.” With a flavor similar to Acid Rain, this song runs the gamut of everything we expect from LTE. Fast, melodic, even brooding at times. While they certainly are trying to prove they can still play one million notes per second, that doesn’t take away from the song at all which presents several killers and somewhat subdued riffs to give us a break from the progressive overdrive which prevents our brain from disintegrating from the onslaught of music. All I can say is, “Wow.”

One of my hopes for this album was that they would still concentrate on the beautiful melodies they are all so capable of writing. It’s true, I’ve grown to really love the progressive side of these musicians even if I still prefer the heavier stuff, but their melodic side transcends either dynamic. Biaxident off of their second album was by far my favorite LTE song so it’s fitting that the second track off of their third album goes somewhat in this direction. Antithetical to what they did in the previous song, Beating the Odds starts with a crispy riff before getting into some beautiful musical progressions. In a recent interview, Rudess commented that without vocals, they are challenged to let the instruments do some of the singing and this is certainly where they do that. I can’t say that Beating the Odds has replaced Biaxident as my favorite LTE song but all of the elements that made it so are there. 

With the bombardment of all pieces which make LTE great, Liquid Evolution is a nice inclusion to remind the listener that it’s ok to take a few breaks and mellow out. This song almost certainly came about from jamming and possibly was one where they just hit record. There are a few moments like this which gives LTE3 a well rounded feeling and makes the insanely fast parts pack more of a punch. 

Speaking of which, it is at this point that we hear The Passage of Time, a perfectly adequate song that may have those insane musical progressions, the cool melodies, plenty of notes per second, and a degree of heaviness, but all of those came across as very medial, by LTE standards anyway. If this were any other band, it may have been the highlight but among an album of highlights, The Passage of Time I find to be, um, passable. 

Strangely enough, the next track I could see the average listener finding to be passable but we would be remiss to NOT include a journey of Chris & Kevin as on the debut (and later the Liquid Trio Experiment). For those not in the know, some random photographer could not figure out Portnoy or Levin’s names and continued to call them Chris & Kevin, sometimes interchangeably. So Chris & Kevin join the likes of Bill & Ted who have gone on an excellent adventure, a bogus journey, but unlike Bill & Ted facing the music, Chris & Kevin now go on an Amazing Odyssey. This acts as a good midway point to hear two masters of their craft get weird. Groaning bass notes, pounding drums, and an odd title makes this song as unique as you might expect and honestly I love it. Even for the fans of the first two Chris and Kevin songs, I could see some people skipping this. It’s nowhere near as upbeat or jazzy as the previous adventure or journey, which I never dug too much, so this hits the sweet spot. These musicians always present so many dimensions to their playing, most listeners will be able to find their niche in the catalog and focus on those songs. This is just one more in a broad spectrum of styles.

Oddly, LTE decided to use their reunion to include their first ever cover song, at least on an album. George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was played during their brief 2008 tour so it was only natural to include it here. While this group has always had jazz elements, it’s never been a style that was brought to the forefront, so the inclusion of this lets us see yet another dimension of this experiment. As I was listening to this, my wife remarked, “Whoa! This was in Fantasia!” Having not seen it myself she described (incorrectly) of this song playing during a cool scene featuring whales swimming in the ocean. It turns out that this song was actually used during a cityscape montage and it was another song that played during the whale scenes. It was a happy mistake at the time because we finished listening to the Gershwin classic with a mental montage of whales frolicing in the depths of the deep blue sea. In fact, the song even reminded me of a little known avent-garde musician called That One Guy who has a concept album about water and a song called Whale Race which has a similar spirit. 

With only two songs left on the album, I was already feeling a sense of fulfillment that honestly surprised me. Had the album ended here, I would have been more than satisfied but the final two songs brought this experience past mere satisfaction. Shades of Hope gave John and Jordan a chance to duet like Mike and Tony had (minus the nicknames) and gave the listener a chance to reminisce about their “Evening With” show they performed 21 years ago. When Jordan jams, a lot of the time it seems that he wants to play as many notes as possible but what makes him such an amazing pianist is when it comes down to it, he is just as good at playing only what needs to be played. For example, check out the beautiful easter egg at the end of the self-titled Dream Theater album. Here you get that same Jordan, albeit not as subdued but just as mellow as you might imagine. It’s a perfect segway into the final track, which not only stands as the best track on the album but possibly the best Liquid Tension Experiment song in their catalog. 

I’ve resisted it as much as I can but it should be obvious that this album definitely feels like a certain other band at various points. Nowhere is that more evident than the 13-minute finale Key to the Imagination. This song not only has elements that you can find on any number of Dream Theater songs but also in the best Liquid Tension Experiment numbers. I would expect such a grande finale to encompass every style LTE tends to be known for, most notably turbocharged riffing, but they chose to keep it more on the level. Still faster than your average rock tune, Key to the Imagination focuses heavily on the keyboards and guitars while allowing the bass to get in several punchy and mellifluous moments. Surprisingly, while the drumming on this song is as excellent as one may imagine, there are not many parts that stand, partially because the other three instruments are in top form, and partially because Portnoy just doesn’t seem to get credit for also knowing when NOT to play. Upon relistening, there are several signature Portnoy moments, certainly plenty of first-class drumming, but it fits so perfectly that it is almost easy to overlook. Make no mistake, he is in top form throughout the album and especially this song, but his drumming seamlessly blends with his bandmate’s instruments making this an extremely pleasing finale.

What I love about music is its subjectivity. Not just from listener to listener but even among the same person from day to day or year to year. It actually took me several years to get into Dream Theater because most of my favorite bands like Black Sabbath were known to choose one or two riffs and stick with them throughout a six-minute song. So when Dream Theater finally clicked with me, it opened up a new world. Yet, that world never really included Liquid Tension Experiment because it was just a step too far. It’s hard to say whether LTE’s 3rd album finally opened up my horizons or if this just finally hit a cross-section of my interests. It’s no matter really because as much as we try to have an objective outlook of the music we listen to, it all comes down to how it feels. And LTE3 feels right. It feels like it hits every aspect one could hope for. It feels like the reunion happened at the perfect time. It feels like the music was produced fluidly and naturally. It also feels like we could get caught up in what this reunion means when we should just be focusing on what it is. What it is, is a perfect opportunity for these musicians to get together to write and perform again. It fits into their careers as their other projects are still very much alive and I hope they continue to be (notably Sons of Apollo’s MMXX and Dream Theater’s Distance Over Time being two of my favorite releases over the last decade). In fact, the only speculation we should be doing is whether LTE will be able to perform live and how badly I’ll regret having passed up every other opportunity I had to see them. Fortunately, the deluxe edition of this album has a second disc of jams so at least we will get a taste of what that may be like if/when it ever happens.

ALBUM RATING: A

About the reviewer: Bernard Romero is a history teacher by day and a music and film fanatic by night. He also never thought it would take Liquid Tension Experiment to get him to watch Fantasia 2000 but stranger things have happened this last year.

Cover Medium

Tracklisting:

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: Includes almost an hour of improvised jams.

You can pre-order ‘LTE3’ now here: https://liquidtensionex.lnk.to/LTE3/

The Album will be available in different formats:

•Limited deluxe hot pink 3LP+2CD+Blu-ray Box Set (incl. a poster and 4 art cards, Blu-ray includes a 5.1 surround mix with visuals and full band interview from the studio)
•Limited 2CD+Blu-ray Artbook
•Limited 2CD Digipak
•Gatefold black 2LP+CD
• Digital album (2CD)

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