There are multiple meanings of the word "indulgent" that get thrown around a lot. One is applied to progressive rock or metal and involves talented musicians not even attempting to write songs but just to explore their talents in musical form (which some would suggest means getting lost in their music) Hello, Tales from Topographic Oceans. Another is applied to shred, sorry, neo-classical musicians and involves them playing as many notes as is humanly possibly in any given short amount of time. A third, not so musical, meaning tends to be applied to ice cream, because you have a right to indulge yourself once in a while and rack up those calories. Screw the diet. Splurge.
Liquid Tension Experiment has always kind of been all three of these meanings simultaneously, though your mileage may vary. When I heard their debut album, back in 1998, I was blown away by how in your face it started out. I realised that Paradigm Shift was as much a portfolio as a song, the sort of piece that I could imagine played in 1973 by musicians like these who got thrown a quarter of a century backwards through a time portal invented by bass played Tony Levin (because he just has to be a mad scientist) and found themselves worshipped as gods, kind of like Deep Purple but on steroids. Or maybe the portal took them a decade further back to a point where they failed to find an audience because nobody believed they were real but they still inspired Neil Peart and Yngwie J. Malmsteen to get into music.
This third album is something of a surprise, given that the first two were released a year apart, back in the last millennium. It's been twenty-two years now, if we ignore the Liquid Trio Experiment album in 2007 that omitted guitarist John Petrucci for family reasons. This is all four of them back together and they're a seriously talented bunch. Petrucci, of course is best known for Dream Theater, just like Jordan Rudess and Mike Portnoy, even though the latter left over a decade ago. Tony Levin has been part of King Crimson for forty years now and has worked with everyone, from Peter Gabriel to Buddy Rich via Tom Waits and David Bowie. These are the exact opposite of nobodies.
So what's the new album like? Well, it's like Liquid Tension Experiment.
It kicks off with Hypersonic, which is a fresh attempt to become even more in your face than Paradigm Shift. It's eight minutes of musical insanity that will have musicians soiling themselves because, while they've finished Guitar Hero twice, they'll never ascend to this level of virtuosity and they know it. It'll either knock your socks off or leave you utterly blah because there simply isn't middle ground to find. It is what it is and you'll either adore that or be instantly bored. Now, it doesn't stay at hyperspeed, I should add, but it's never simple music.
In other words, it's emphatically music for musicians. As a kid, I loved the Harper Hall trilogy by Anne McCaffrey, part of her Dragonriders of Pern fantasy series. It follows a young girl called Menolly who has great natural musical talent but has to flee her home because she isn't allowed to use it. Once at the Harper Hall, the teachers sit her down with sheet music of an insanely complex masterpiece that they can play together as a group, so they can gauge what she can do. She nails it absolutely and throughout, expressing her joy at how wonderful it is and can they play it again? And these teachers, highly talented themselves, just look at her because merely playing this piece, which they know, drained them and they're spent. I recount this because it's clear to me that, should Menolly find herself in the United States in 2021, Liquid Tension Experiment would become a quintet.
I like this album, as indulgent as it is. Hypersonic is so complex, we almost need to play it at half speed so our ears can keep up. Beating the Odds is slower and more emotional. Liquid Evolution is that high caloric ice cream, utterly decadent and lush, a mere three minutes long but a piece of joy, Levin's bass a warm comfort, Petrucci's guitar an exercise in restraint and the combination of drums and keyboards a jungle of sounds to envelop us. It's a magical piece, simultaneously the opposite of a song like Hypersonic and just as overtly part of what this band can do.
As different again, so's Chris & Kevin's Amazing Odyssey, which is experimental and avant-garde. Is the cello sound coming from Levin's bass or Petrucci's guitar? It's unusual, whatever instrument is making that sound. And then it's Rhapsody in Blue, the old Gershwin standard, that hasn't ever sounded quite like this before, but is explored for thirteen minutes in jaunty ways that Emerson, Lake & Powell might have taken. Shades of Hope revolves around some soaring Petrucci guitar, while Key to the Imagination is in many ways a thirteen minute version of the album in miniature.
I'm not sure exactly when you'll be able to hear this. I've had a copy for a while but usually wait until albums are released to review them. This was supposed to be out on my fiftieth birthday last month, but I'd heard it had been pushed forward because of leaks. Now, it seems that it's been pushed back again because of printing errors in manufacturing but I could swear I saw it live on Bandcamp (which it isn't now). So maybe it's out and maybe it isn't, but I had this review ready to go so here it is. If this is your sort of thing, this is a must. I may go up a point with my rating yet.