It’s almost beyond comprehension that the last time muso quartet Liquid Tension Experiment recorded an album was 22 years ago. Yes, more than two decades. A pre-9/11 world. Five U.S. presidents ago. People not yet born then are now adults… you get the drift. In those days, Jordan Rudess was a long-haired newcomer to the Dream Theater fold, Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci’s now grown offspring were just babies and toddlers, and bass legend Tony Levin was only in his early fifties. Arms were skinnier and faces less hairy. Various band histories have been made in the interim, dozens upon dozens of albums recorded, hundreds of concerts played, and grey hairs duly sprouted (for all of us, guys, not to worry).
Levin is now 74, and Portnoy & Petrucci the fifty-somethings. And with the pandemic of 2020 came their collective availability to gather and record their better-late-than-never third album, simply titled LTE 3. It’s fitting, then, that the first track the Tensions wrote when reconvening is one they named The Passage Of Time. The title could be construed as misleading, however, as the piece instantly roars to life driven by Petrucci’s menacing guitar riff, and offers no sign that any of these guys have slowed down or mellowed in the slightest with age. The track alternates between heavy chugging and soaring, epic solos, reminiscent of the glory days of Dream Theater (we might as well acknowledge that elephant right away; with these guys playing together again, there are going to be plenty of those moments).
Likewise with frenzied album opener Hypersonic, a dazzling battery of notes which gives way to grooving riffs, lofty melodies and expansive chords. Unmistakably LTE, it’s a ferocious and spellbinding piece, encapsulating every facet the fans love in one eight minute powerhouse track. The ageless and chameleonic Levin, looking more like a cool high school shop teacher than a septuagenarian rocker, is one of the most impressive musicians in rock history. There isn’t the time or column space to devote to his colossal resume, but you most likely know his famous Chapman stick playing and patented ‘funk fingers’ from his records and world tours with the likes of King Crimson and Peter Gabriel. Here, as with the first two records, he lays down astonishing grooves amid flurries of notes as though he’s been saving his most intricate and virtuosic playing all these years for just such an occasion.
The Rush-infused Beating The Odds is a striking and positively joyous track, cemented by Rudess’ sunny chords and Petrucci’s sleek soloing. A sublime composition, it’s fair to say that it resides in the upper tier of their work and is an early favourite… but there’s a lot more to come.
Chris & Kevin’s Amazing Odyssey is the oddball piece of the record (not to suggest any of this music is particularly normal), and like its cousin on the debut album, it’s a jammy duet from Levin and Portnoy. But where Excellent Journey was a whistle-festooned slice of lighthearted funkery, Amazing Odyssey is a droning, sludgy slab of low-end atmosphere from the Crimson end of the spectrum which is more of a highlight than expected, given how it looks on paper. I could easily listen to these two cats go on for a while longer, but as the piece trails off, Levin’s Chapman stick signals the beginning of the longest track, a rather unexpected cover of George Gershwin’s famed Rhapsody In Blue. Well, I say unexpected despite the boys having played live renditions in the past, so fans may be familiar with the idea, but there was little indication it would ever appear on a studio album. Naturally, the classic piece has been progged up with an elaborate arrangement that allows the band to stretch out and make it their own for a while, tossing in quirky sound choices and variations on the themes. It’s pretty clear that they had a good bit of fun doing it, too.
Follow-up track Shades Of Hope is the second of the album’s two duets, recorded in one take but this time featuring – you guessed it – Rudess and Petrucci. Rudess, as we know from his solo work (like the outstanding and highly underappreciated Explorations album – seriously, check that out), often delves into many styles far removed from the explosive, heavy rock dynamic of his day job. So his elegant and tasteful playing is not unfamiliar here. Petrucci too has a keen ear for beautiful melodies and can command the crying, expressive notes with the best of them when he exercises restraint. A truly lovely and perfectly placed breather, this is an integral piece of the puzzle, not a track to be overlooked or forgotten over time.
The epic finale Key To The Imagination, as one might expect, runs the gamut and is so loaded with varying moods and styles, it takes several spins to even begin to grasp the scope of it. Rudess shifts from a rosy-sounding piano to organ and his trademark pitch-bending while Levin rumbles the speakers with rubbery, booming bass. Petrucci and Portnoy, clearly thrilled to be playing together again, are deliciously in sync with a jaw-dropping twin attack recalling the vibe of many of their classic moments together. It’s a stunning arrangement; spilling over with tradeoff solos, relentless riffage and time shifts galore, the piece eventually achieves a majestic and uplifting climax, and then with the splash of a gong, an hour and an album are both over in the blink of an eye. I’m trying to avoid overly bold statements, but whatever your favourite LTE track is thus far, this one is likely to rival it.
Ultimately, this new platter reveals a more mature four piece, a legitimately dignified collection of players who seem to gel even more now than they did way back in the 1990s. They’ve produced a collection of pieces that fall perfectly in line with what fans are likely expecting from such skilled musicians, but with more emotion and a deeper resonance than before. This isn’t merely an exercise in run of the mill scales or soulless sixteenth-note extravaganzas – this is often stirring stuff, and I expect we’ll see it on many year-end Best Of lists. Well done, fellas – and I mean that. This is going to make a lot of people very, very happy.
Hypersonic ⋅ Beating The Odds ⋅ Liquid Evolution ⋅ The Passage Of Time ⋅ Chris & Kevin’s Amazing Odyssey ⋅ Rhapsody In Blue ⋅ Shades Of Hope ⋅ Key To The Imagination
Bonus disc: Blink Of An Eye ⋅ Solid Resolution Theory ⋅ View From The Mountaintop ⋅ Your Beard Is Good ⋅ Ya Mon