In the wonderful world of progressive rock, creative forces
ebb and flow, collide and spark, break apart and resume their earlier pathways. Liquid
Tension Experiment is one such magical collision; the meeting of art rock minds from
four different headspaces, Dream Theater's guitarist John Petrucci and drummer Mike
Portnoy, creating sweet communion with the cool, electro-jazz wizardry of keyboardist
Jordan Rudess, and the monster organic bass lines from Tony Levin, he of King Crimson,
Peter Gabriel, John Lennon, and Bozzio Levin Stevens fame.
In the fall of '97, this frighteningly talented foursome crossed paths, generating in one action-packed week in upstate New York, some of the most visceral, spiritual, and meticulously textured instrumental progressive rock dared attempted in the late '90s.
The prog rock pedigree of the players involved is undeniable. Dream Theater have been the new champions of progressive rock, crafting three full-length masterworks amongst a myriad of secondary curios, celebrating and succeeding with a prog metal alloy earlier forged by Rush, Queensryche and Fates Warning. Their latest album, "Falling Into Infinity", has edged bravely closer to true art rock, away from metal, and its effects can be heard through the cerebral, intricate work of Petrucci and Portnoy on "Liquid Tension Experiment". LTE may be the most chops-crazy display to emanate from this duo to date, an enthused opportunity to create well outside the restrictions of Dream Theater's self-imposed commercial considerations.
Jordan Rudess was one of two keyboardists considered by Mike Portnoy for this experiment but Portnoy is unequivocal about Jordan's appointment to the gig . "Jordan is a complete virtuoso, and is one of the most talented players to have ever touched the instrument." His credits include work with Jan Hammer, drum ace Rod Morgenstein and instrumental prog pioneers, The Dregs.
Tony Levin is probably the most influential and enjoyable bassist on the progressive rock scene. Having worked with the likes of John Lennon, Yes, and more recently Bozzio Levin Stevens, he is most celebrated for his fretlessly fluid and instantly memorable bass lines for Peter Gabriel and King Crimson. "Security", "So", "Discipline", "Beat", "Thrak" .. . these are some of the most soaring musical bass guitar records ever recorded. Very likely, Tony Levin is his instrument's greatest ambassador.
So with the organizational impetus of Magna Carta's Pete Morticelli and Mike Varney, these four talents were gathered, and sent away to Portnoy's home in the early Fall of '97 for six hours of coffee, pizza and creative freeflow, establishing a common language on which to build Liquid Tension Experiment.
An astonishing and intense week of heavy-hitting collaboration would begin and end. The results sound like months of work. Lead track 'Paradigm Shift' announces the record with a blast of fingers-flyin', ludicrously progressive metal. 'Osmosis' settles it down for an exotic time travel through world music. 'Kindred Spirits' rocks out once again, sounding oddly like a mad scientific sampling of the best of Kansas. The mid-section of the record alternates short, painterly, funked-up pieces such as 'The Stretch', with more ever-recurring Vai/Satriani-inflected hard rock like 'Universal Mind', until the listener is confronted with a tongue-in-cheek closing number called 'Three Minute Warning.'
And logically, this 'Three Minute Warning' is actually a near half hour of improvisational madness. And also logically, there is a warning of sorts, Portnoy providing the following caution about the experience one is about to swallow:
"'Three Minute Warning' is not for the musically faint-hearted, impatient, or critics of extreme self-indulgence. If you fall into any of the above categories, please hit the stop button on your CD player after track #8."
In direct contrast to the 45 minutes of intelligent electrics that precede it, 'Three Minute Warning' is a completely spontaneous, live-in-the-studio, rollercoaster ride, an improvised jam unto death, a whirlwind of emotions captured by some of the most capable players in the world. As Mike enthuses, "not a single note or beat was discussed beforehand." In fact, the boys were having so much fun that at 27:12 of the proceedings, the 24-track master tape ran out. Luckily Portnoy had been running a live-to-two-track DAT back-up, from which the final 1:19 is cobbled. Noticeable sonic differences ensue, a funny, fitting and fleeting close to a record that was so much joy to produce.
Ultimately, the music on Liquid Tension Experiment throbs with a sort of hard rock vision, despite covering an astonishing array of styles. There is a consistent heaviness throughout the album, or at minimum a buzzing hive of highly electric activity which keeps academic and purely emotional listener alike craning to see where the band will take them next. Mike Portnoy's drumming is stimulating but relentless.
John Petrucci displays altitudinal, attitudinal axe-crazy acrobatics, but never ceases to be melodic. Jordan Rudess chimes in with his own, jazz-inflected keyboard voices, never crowding out his ability to write cohesive and moving songs. And, of course, Tony Levin is simply Tony Levin, coaxing sounds out of his array of futuristic basses that sound so human at times, it's scary.
Dream Theater producer Kevin Shirley was brought in at the conclusion of this wild ride, bringing his recent experiences with Aerosmith and Journey with him, enthusiastic at capturing so much rock virtuosity on one record, working towards his stated goal of demarcated instrumental identity within such a surprisingly cohesive band setting. The mix that Shirley developed concentrates on the separation of instruments and the spontaneity of the performances, something he describes as "early Deep Purple".
All in all, Liquid Tension Experiment is a resounding, proof-positive success, an internalization and effortless emanation of prog rock knowledge, generations deep.
And it rocks.
LIQUID TENSION EXPERIMENT 2
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