What happens when you take four of progressive music’s premiere virtuosos and let them jam together? Well, you get Liquid Tension Experiment. Though the band consists of 3/4 of Dream Theater, they’re more than just a DT side project: this is progressive metal exhibitionism at its most bombastic. Expect some incredibly dynamic, technical playing in a far less accessible package than you might be used to.
LTE is entirely instrumental, meaning that if you don’t like instrumental music, you can pretty much stop reading here. Considering that Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci consist of about 90% of Dream Theater’s songwriting force, there’s an unavoidable DT coloring to the album’s sound (mostly in the tracks “Universal Mind” and “Kindred Spirits,” both of which are excellent), further instilled by future DT member Jordan Rudess’ keyboard playing. But this has as much in common with the progressive rock of yesteryear as it does with the modern scene, as well as ties to instrumental rock/metal virtuosos like Vinnie Moore and some passages that are just off the wall. Technical intensity is coupled with appropriate mood and atmosphere to create textural, moving soundscapes. This dynamic is all the more impressive when it is taken into account that much of the playing on the album is improvised (which explains the length of many of the tracks that feel just like extended jam sessions).
But either way, there’s no doubting the instrumental ability of the band members, considering their reputations. What’s truly at stake here is the strength of the songwriting, which in the wrong hands could end up sounding incredibly tiring or pretentious and masturbatory. This is where LTE delivers in spades; the album is deep and compelling. Songs are generally divided into two categories: the long and the short. The longer tracks are the highlights here, each consisting of several memorable, intertwined themes that rotate around one another in between much soloing and changes in mood, pace, and tension. “Paradigm Shift” flirts with a King Crimson-esque sound (possibly due in part to 80’s KC bassist Tony Levin being the band’s fourth member) before venturing into mellow territory and back again. “Freedom of Speech” features some haunting piano work (a change from the mostly synthesizer based playing Rudess utilizes here) and more strong playing. “State of Grace” is the Petrucci/Rudess piano ballad that would later appear on their live album, featuring some of the most emotive playing on here. And the five part epic “Three Minute Warning” goes above and beyond the call of duty, incorporating all of the above and more.
The shorter songs are much simpler, generally consisting of one particularly idea that’s jammed out for as long as possible, with the basic formula being improvised as the song progresses. “Osmosis” works a New Age feel and some unique drum effects, while “The Stretch” plays with a funky beat and some fine bass work from Levin. “Chris and Kevin’s Excellent Adventure” is Tony and Mike’s solo expedition and features the only vocals on the album (some whistling and spoken parts). These songs are generally less interesting than their longer, more beautiful counterparts, but they still have their merits.
Now obviously this isn’t for everyone, but for fans of this kind of thing, you really can’t go wrong. Liquid Tension Experiment definitely delivers the goods in a way that few others can and this album, as well as its sequel, show off the best that this brand of progressive metal can offer.