The rebirth of all-instrumental prog rock supergroup Liquid Tension Experiment feels like an unexpected visit from an old friend – and it comes as a welcome surprise. Last seen on a 10th anniversary tour in 2008, much has happened in the interim years, chiefly founder Mike Portnoy’s exit from his main band Dream Theater in 2010 (something that made the prospect of a reunion with fellow DT members John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess under the LTE banner unlikely).
Liquid Tension Experiment’s history is inextricably entwined with that of the prog metal giants. Formed in 1997 by Portnoy, the two albums LTE released at the end of that decade, LTE1 and LTE2, featured Petrucci and Rudess alongside bassist and Chapman Stick maestro Tony Levin. The chemistry generated by the quartet during the recording of the second album in 1999 prompted Rudess to finally accept Portnoy and Petrucci’s overtures to join Dream Theater, despite the keyboard player having previously rebuffed them.
Assorted permutations followed the initial incarnation: Liquid Trio Experiment (Portnoy, Rudess and Levin, minus Petrucci) and Liquid Trio Experiment 2 (Portnoy, Petrucci and Levin, mostly minus Rudess), as well as that anniversary tour from the original line-up. But then Portnoy’s split with his Dream Theater bandmates seemingly put an end to it all.
Until now. The aftershocks of his departure have finally settled. Even before Portnoy added drums to Petrucci’s 2020 solo album, Terminal Velocity, all four LTE members had expressed a wish to renew their collaboration. But it took Covid and a wiping-out of everybody’s schedules to get them together in a studio again – socially distanced, naturally – for the first time in more than two decades.
And so here we are, with LTE3, an album that sticks to the blueprint of its predecessors with four fully composed tracks, a pair of duets and an on-the-fly jam, plus a retooled cover version.
Like all great prizefighters, LTE land a knockout punch in the first round and
never look back. Opening number Hypersonic delivers a similar sensation to a deep glug of super-strong coffee. Its core ingredients – Petrucci’s fluent skylark melodies, Rudess’ classical keyboard embellishments, Levin’s low Chapman Stick frequencies and Portnoy’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink drumming – are separable from each other yet all part of one gigantic, multitempoed, earthquake-inducing whole.
The ‘Wow!’ that concludes Hypersonic is the sole human voice throughout, but don’t let that serve as an obstacle. These songs are daubed in melodies handed down by the instrumental players. Beating The Odds sees Petrucci and Rudess run riot through painting a triumphant tidal wave of colour and notes.
Bass players tend to sit in the background and follow the drummer. Not Levin, who adds a supple, fleet-fingered spine to the jazz-flavoured Liquid Evolution, and also excels with Portnoy via the brooding, stripped-down duet Chris & Kevin’s Amazing Odyssey (a continuing in-joke that extends back to the first album when a photographer got the pair’s names wrong). It’s downright insidious.
The band’s avant-garde side is further revealed by their reinterpretation of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue. Performed on past tours, here they tear it apart over the course of 13 minutes, throwing away the instruction manual and proceeding to rebuild the parts with the carefree disrespect of such past progressive giants as The Nice and ELP.
The sentimental Shades Of Hope provides Petrucci with a showcase of his own, another reminder that he can play with real passion and finesse (incredibly, this song was captured in a single take). Those same qualities are further rammed home as the guitarist and Rudess barrel extravagantly through another 13-minute epic, Key To The Imagination.
Elsewhere, LTE go up through the gears together on the band’s first ever entirely group-written track, Passage Of Time, Rudess dominating the song’s latter stages with a section of true orchestral-flavoured beauty before everyone combines to drive the song past the finish line.
The artistic success of LTE3 will doubtless prompt Dream Theater fans to wonder if a reunion with the band’s original drummer is on the cards. Speaking to this correspondent recently, Petrucci headed the idea off at the pass. “Please don’t speculate beyond that. I feel spoiled because I get to play with both Mikes,” referring to Portnoy and current DT sticksman Mike Mangini. And in truth, this isn’t an album to encourage ‘what ifs’. Rather, LTE3 is a deeply satisfying listening experience that should be filed in an extremely small folder that’s marked: ‘Positive outcomes of the coronavirus.’