Liquid Tension Experiment is: Tony Levin: Basses, John Petrucci: guitars, Mike Portnoy: drums, and
Jordan Rudess: keyboards.
It’s no secret in the industry that the first Liquid Tension Experiment album was both a creative
and commercial success for Magna Carta Records, the label gambling on the fact that their fan base
could take a trip that prog-rock-dangerous and emerge unscathed and, in fact, renewed.
It seems that the band felt the same joy in the making that the label felt in the promoting. For,
indeed, Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci (both from Dream Theater), bass monster Tony Levin (no
resume required), and keyboardist Jordan Rudess (the same line-up as on the first album), had such
a great time together that Jordan was tapped for the keyboardist post within Dream Theater.
So all of a sudden, Liquid Tension Experiment becomes 3/4 of Dream Theater with the fourth wheel
being possibly the most respected bassist in the business, Tony Levin.
But this animal is a thornier beast than the lush prog rock of Dream Theater. Liquid Tension
Experiment has always been about fierce creative interaction, a mixture of the spontaneous and the
composed, almost violent but good-natured collision (think bumper-cars) countered with periods of
Oh, yeah, and childbirth. Super-elastic drummer Mike Portnoy explains. “‘When The Water Breaks’ is
the big epic centerpiece of this album. It’s a seventeen minute song, an actual composition and
not a jam. It’s just the ultimate Liquid Tension piece, if I had to pick just one to represent
everything this band is about. It accomplishes everything. The sessions for the album were
actually split into two chunks: one in October, one in November. Originally, the entire album was
supposed to be completed in October but five days into the sessions , John’s wife went into
labor and he had to split. The remaining three of us were left in the studio so we just jammed on tape for a couple of days. But because he had to leave, we scheduled some sessions for November, after John had settled in with his baby daughter. But anyway, that’s where the title ‘When The Water Breaks’ came from, because we were pretty much finishing up the writing of this big epic piece when the water broke and John had to split (laughs).”
This, ahem, break, also caused a curious situation with a track called ‘Chewbacca’. "‘Chewbacca’ is
another one of the trio jams", Mike explains, “except this one has guitar, unlike ‘914’ which was
an improv left as a trio. But John actually went off and learned all of Jordan’s keyboard parts,
so John is doubling all of the keyboard parts to give it the illusion of an actual composition,
where actually it’s just a jam.”
Like that first ground-breaking Liquid Tension Experiment album, LTE 2 was a sort of trial by fire, a
shocked immersion into a creative bath that could only bear stormy results. Mike figures this was
a product of the recording environment. “We all have our individual influences which stick with us
through everything we write but I think when it comes to Liquid Tension, more of the stuff we
might look to is instrumental like Frank Zappa or the Dregs. There are even moments that remind me of
Phish. But, basically, when it came time to do the sessions, everything was so quick, it’s like a
whirlwind of writing and composing and there’s no time to gather outside influences. It’s
basically ‘lock the four of us in a room and bounce ideas off each other.’ Musically, the result
is very similar, but I think the biggest difference is that with the first one we had five days,
and with this one we had about two and a half weeks, which is still quick. It was done in
Millbrook Studios, which is near where I live. You live right there on the premises, so it’s an
amazing working environment for a project like this, where you are writing spontaneously.
Basically you are in the studio all day. You work until the wee hours of the night, and then you
just walk into another room and go to sleep in your bed, and you wake up the next day and throw on
your sweats and socks and you go right back into the studio and continue working. So, basically, you
are locked in a studio for literally a week on end without even seeing sunlight or daylight. It’s a great creative atmosphere. It keeps you focused.”
If anything, LTE 2 just might be more daring than the debut experience, perhaps the product of
all that goodwill and external support by fans of the first project. The band most definitely
created greater dins, balanced by seas of extraordinary calm. ‘Acid Rain’ is one of the wake-up
calls, buttressed by post-metal riffing that would be the cornerstone of a hit single, if the band
didn’t take so much pride in exploding it. “’Acid Rain’ is probably the fastest and most shredding
of all the songs on the album,” confirms Mike. “John’s playing a seven-string guitar on that.
Basically it’s just speed and endurance, with really killer guitar and keyboard solos within an
"'Another Dimension' also showcases the diversity this project has to offer", continues Mike,
"because there are moments in it which are incredibly heavy and easily could be a Dream Theater
piece of music. And then there are moments in the middle where it goes into a really crazy, complex
time signature, and then off into left field and you find yourself in the middle of some Italian
restaurant in Milan or something serenaded by an accordion and a guitar (laughs)." Check it out.
It's truly the most jocular moment on either of the two records to date.
As contrast to the mayhem, however, Mike and John defer to the wisdoms of Jordan and Tony. “’Liquid
Dreams’ is another improv. It’s a super mellow one where Tony was really able to showcase some of
his famous bass lines, some of his super-cool grooves. There are moments on it that are definitely
very Peter Gabriel-esque. And that’s definitely the result of Tony. ‘Hourglass’ is a duet between
Jordan and John, just piano and acoustic guitar, and it was the very last thing recorded during
the sessions. It was like 2:30 in the morning, the very last night, and the two of them got
together and made this interesting thing close to the album.”
Curiosity about Tony Levin has been sustained and constant for years, although little is known
about the man himself. Mike would agree to a characterization of Tony as a balance between the
eccentric and practical. “Yes, I would say somewhere in between. He’s the ultimate professional.
He’s played with everybody from Pink Floyd to King Crimson to Yes to John Lennon. When it comes to
the music, he’s there to get the job done. He’s very efficient and incredibly talented. And, then,
when you put the instrument down and you hang out with him, he is definitely a bit eccentric at
times. He loves his coffee. He carries an espresso machine with him everywhere he goes, and he’s
got a million and one stories.”
All told, in the world of instrumental prog, it would be hard to find another record that finds so
many emotional hues, while seeming strangely grounded, cohesive, focused. It is the distinct,
self-assured vocabularies of these four instrumentalists that accomplished that feat.
Mike underscores the effect this project has had on the make-ups and dispositions of its creators,
offering some thoughts on the next Dream Theater album. “Everything is going amazingly well with
Jordan. This is the first Dream Theater album that we’ve ever written and recorded simultaneously,
and that was inspired by the working environment we had with Liquid Tension. John, Jordan and myself
just had such great chemistry writing that way that we decided to carry that into Dream Theater.
We’re just really excited for people to hear it. It’s really progressive, and it’s sort of like a
cross between Liquid Tension and Dream Theater, with vocals; very theatrical. But I think we owe
it all to the experience of making this second Liquid Tension record.”
released June 15, 1999
Liquid Tension Experiment is:
• Tony Levin - Bass (Peter Gabriel, King Crimson)
• Mike Portnoy - Drums (Dream Theater)
• Jordan Rudess - Keyboards (Dream Theater, Dregs)
• John Petrucci - Guitar (Dream Theater)
supported by 4 fans who also own “Liquid Tension Experiment 2”
I was wondering how they'd follow up to the debut, and I'm pleasantly satisfied.
I've actually found myself having more fun with this record, as it's easier to play through in one sitting. The debut had tracks that felt like they were being technical for technical sake (My Head Sometimes) that just really interrupted the flow.
Not so on this. There's about 4 tracks I'd consider favourites, but, "Stella" has that "My Heart Sometimes" atmosphere.
I can't wait to see what happens next. sinthevainglory