As soon as it was announced (and fans finished pinching themselves to make sure they weren’t dreaming), Liquid Tension Experiment 3 became perhaps the most heavily anticipated progressive metal album of 2021. After all, it’s been over twenty years since the instrumental quartet—bassist Tony Levin, keyboardist Jordan Rudess, drummer Mike Portnoy, and guitarist John Petrucci—released their last studio collection; despite all of the great stuff that they’ve done (separately or together) over the years, devotees still clamored for a proper follow-up to 1999’s LTE 2.
Thankfully, LTE 3 is precisely that. As Petrucci told Ultimate Guitar back in February, they’d been thinking about doing it for years, but the timing just never seemed right; that is, until around last August, when they met in secret (while taking proper COVID-19 precautions) to record the LP at Millbrook Sound Studios in New York (where the first two records were done). Portnoy—in the press release—admits that getting together for the first time in over ten years was “surreal,” yet they naturally started doing what they’ve always done: bring their own demos to the table while focusing mostly on in-the-moment improvision. The result is a sequence that, if not outright better than its predecessors, certainly ranks alongside them and meets any expectations admirers might have.
Unsurprisingly, the album wastes no time dishing out some intimidatingly complex aggression via the appropriately named “Hypersonic.” Its opening moments alone offer a tirade of speedily synchronized rhythms and riffs whose dizzying ascensions and descensions would seem like self-parody if they weren’t done so damn masterfully. (Of course, Rudess’ trademark quirky timbres come into play, too.) As usual, its nonstop abrasiveness distinguishes it a bit from the more dynamic and fanciful instrumentals of the members’ myriad other projects.
From there, LTE 3 more or less follows the same trajectory but with a few idiosyncrasies per track to give each tune its own identity. For instance, “Beating the Odds” makes great use of majestic horns and emotionally charged guitar melodies to generate considerable breathing room and accessibility. (That said, there is a part halfway in that’s comically close to a segment of “In the Presence of Enemies Part I” from Dream Theater’s Systematic Chaos.) Later, “Liquid Evolution” offers an appreciated respite via its almost New Age fluid transcendentalism, whereas “Chris & Kevin’s Amazing Odyssey” is an aptly self-described “avant-garde Portnoy/Levin duet” full of bizarre bass sound effects and sporadic percussion.
There’s even a cover of Gershwin’s signature “Rhapsody in Blue” that, well, sounds just as you’d assume (which isn’t a bad thing). It’s impeccably faithful but also packed with vibrant flights of fancy and biting tonalities as only these guys could conjure. Afterward, “Shades of Hope” is a one-take ballad by Petrucci and Rudess that truly highlights their compatibility as classy, reserved, and moving creators. It’s also a great prelude to closer “Key to the Imagination,” which—as the title suggests—is the most flamboyantly epic composition of the bunch. It begins somberly and peacefully before diving headfirst into a symphonically schizophrenic display of everything LTE can do. Each moment of soothing solitude is faultlessly juxtaposed by bursts of lovingly theatrical intensity; all the while, the quartet conjure several 1970s prog-rock influences (namely, Yes and Rush) without ever coming across as derivative. As a result, “Key to the Imagination” is a perfectly fitting way to conclude.
Liquid Tension Experiment 3 is a remarkable return for one of progressive metal’s greatest instrumental troupes. It delivers exactly what band enthusiasts expect—no more and no less—with eight pieces that constitute some of the most dauntingly intricate, endearingly colorful, and/or calmly melodic passages the foursome have ever penned. Sure, they don’t really step out of their comfort zone or challenge themselves (or listeners) with radical new directions, but they don’t need to. Instead, they play into their strengths and most adored characteristics to satisfy as much as possible. In other words, Liquid Tension Experiment has a very specific gimmick, and as always, they do it better than just about anyone else here.