April 30, 2021, a year ago

By Carl Begai

feature heavy metal liquid tension experiment


"I've never created so many albums in such a short period of time."

Which sums up Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci's lockdown experience when asked the obligatory question of how he's been coping with the ongoing global pandemic. He spent March - May 2020 working on his long overdue second solo album, Terminal Velocity, and at the time of this interview was neck deep working on the follow-up to Dream Theater's Distance Over Time album. In between these projects he and bandmate Jordan Rudess (keyboards), King Crimson's Tony Levin (bass), and former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy decided to (finally) resurrect their instrumental prog juggernaut, Liquid Tension Experiment. After years of talk in the press about how a reunion maybe / might / may / could / should happen, the foursome regrouped and spent the summer of 2020 working on what became LTE 3. It's been 22 years since the last album, but if you are fan of LTE2 and the 1998 debut the new album will make you feel like no time has passed at all.

"It's something that's been asked about, requested over and over, so we've always known there was a demand for it and that people really enjoy the other two albums," Petrucci says of the reunion. "Especially after Mike left Dream Theater, I think that made it even more of a special thing to think about reuniting in Liquid Tension because it would bring back some of the nostalgia. It wasn't until the pandemic hit that it started to take shape. Everybody was off the road, nobody had touring plans, it became more of a realistic conversation that maybe we could do this. Even before that it was talked about, and at one point Mike had said he was up for it and I said that as soon as I got my solo album done we could go ahead. His response was 'Oh, so in another 15 years...' because my last solo album came out 15 years ago (laughs). We talked about it, we joked about it, but finally it was 'Yeah, let's do it because everybody is home.'"

One of the expected talking points following the announcement of a third Liquid Tension Experiment album being recorded was, quite naturally, how it would work given Portnoy left Dream Theater in 2010 under a cloud of professional and personal conflict. Wounds from the split have long since been patched up, but fans have long memories and some have spent years bitching and moaning about Portnoy's replacement, Mike Mangini, not being worthy of sitting behind the kit. When word got out that Portnoy had recorded all the drums for Terminal Velocity, however, there was a welcome lack of whining from said fans.

"People have made their peace with that. I don't get asked that in interviews but I do see the comments sometimes on social media. Not as much as a long time ago, obviously. Because my solo album was the first recording we'd done together since he left Dream Theater there was some of that, and I was hoping there wouldn't be any drama connected to it because it was all about the music. I found that people were really cool about that, they were very respectful, and just happy to hear us play together. People have realized that Mike Mangini has created some amazing albums with Dream Theater, he's been on the tours and the live albums, and he is accepted as part of the band. As a guitar player I get to play with both guys which, on a selfish level, is amazing for me (laughs). The fans get the best of both worlds and I've seen a lot of positivity, and thankfully not a lot of drama which is really cool."

Petrucci reveals it was more than just the pandemic that cemented LTE3 as a do-able project rather than an ongoing pipe dream...

"Liquid Tension Experiment was always there, there was no weirdness; everybody was always too busy to commit to it. Terminal Velocity was actually the first album I recorded in the Dream Theater studio, in our headquarters, which is something that we've been building and working on. After that became a reality and the album came out as good as it did - the drums sounded great, Mike's kit was set up in the room already - we figured we could do this even with the pandemic going on. All the pieces were together and we knew that it would work. Sometime it's the logistics that hold you back from doing something, but that wasn't part of the equation."

And unlike a lot of albums put together over the last year, LTE3 wasn't done remotely.

"I am so not into working remotely, you have no idea," Petrucci admits. "We all got together for this record and worked together in the same room. For the new Dream Theater record we're working on, we've all been together as well excerpt for James (LaBrie / vocals) who is back home in Canada. He is connected and we do have him on screen, but the other four of us are working in person. There was one day where we had a tiny section to work out and Jordan said 'I'll just try tapping in from home....' and for the couple hours that we did it, it was the worst thing (laughs). I'm never doing that again. It was horrible; I don't know how people work that way."

You might as well order take-out and get your inspiration that way...

"Exactly, and a big part of that is... forget about the whole sonic thing. It's so frustrating just trying to communicate with someone on screen. It's not the same thing as when you're playing together in the same room and hearing the music coming out of the speakers."

In spite of 20+ years having passed since album #2, Petrucci says things simply fell into place when it came to working out musical ideas for LTE3. There was no awkwardness in the wake of Portnoy's split with Dream Theater, no having to work at finding a comfortable rhythm or routine.

"We've all said that in our little blurbs and things, but it's all true," says Petrucci. "Tony even brought in his espresso machine like he did for the other two albums (laughs). Basically, the way it works is me and Jordan bring in a whole bunch of ideas that we've collected. Whether we use them or not doesn't matter - it's nice to be prepared - but before we even touch that stuff we just jam. We did four extended jams, all a half-hour or more each, and that loosened us up. Ideas developed during those jams, and that's where one guy might latch on to something and then somebody else hears it. Things start off a little blurry and then slowly come into focus. We'll just sit there and listen to it all, we take note of the cool moments and maybe turn them into something. It's super creative, and the cool thing is when I listen to this new album I can hear everybody's compositional personality. You might not know from the outside as to who wrote what, but I can hear Tony's section, I can hear Jordan's progression, that's one of my riffs, that's a section that Mike arranged... it's so collective. And with a project like this, that's instrumental because you really get to hear everybody's musical personalities in a very cohesive way."

With Petrucci having coming off recording his solo album, and both he and Rudess with the next Dream Theater album on the horizon, it's a safe bet there were leftover song ideas floating around that ended up on LTE3.

"I did have some ideas that I collected," Petrucci reveals, "and when I do that they can be used for anything. There's a song called 'Out Of The Blue' on Terminal Velocity that I wouldn't use for Dream Theater, and it's obvious why when you listen to it, but a lot of stuff just crosses over. There are different riffs and licks and progressions can sort of be used in any circumstance, but even with that being said, if I took that same riff into a Dream Theater session as opposed to a Liquid Tension Experiment session or my solo album, it would come out different in every situation. It's a different mindset when you're working with different people or when the setting is different, and those elements shape the music. And that's even though all three of these albums are being done in the same studio with the same engineer, they all sound completely different. It's bizarre how that happens."

With Petrucci, Rudess and Portnoy all being a part of Liquid Tension Experiment, there is the expectation of hearing very obvious Dream Theater-isms over the course of LTE3. Fans will not be disappointed. Check out closing track "Key To The Imagination", for example, which screams with the sound and vibe of Dream Theater's third album, Awake.

"It just happened that way and we just can't help it. Three of the guys who were in the band together composing instrumental music, that's bound to happen. And I agree, those moments are in there. Mike even said it a few times: 'This reminds me of a moment from this or that album...' It's not like we have a switch that we can use to shut off that part of our musical personalities. I also think there is a sound that's associated with when we play together."

Instrumental music is a hard sell on the best of days, but Liquid Tension Experiment has always made it work if one has a taste for it. Like its predecessors, LTE3 is fun to listen to because for all the virtuoso talent and potential for musical wankery that exists with the band, the tracks get to the point rather than leave the listener hanging or bored.

"That's great, and I think especially with instrumental music that's really important," Petrucci agrees. "There are no vocals, so of the instruments aren't keeping your attention you're screwed. I like the fact you say it's fun to listen to because I got the same response to my solo album from a lot of people. These are albums you should be looking forward to listening to, not something to be impressed by but only listen to once. On the last Dream Theater record we really focused on making the songs more to the point, I guess you could say, and making it more listenable. The funny thing is with Liquid Tension, even though it's coming across that way, the jam sections and solo parts are a lot longer and drawn out, and I notice that's something that happens when we get together and write for LTE."

"When Jordan and I wrote 'State Of Grace' (on the debut album), that was one of the first things we did as far as writing together in the setting of writing a guitar / piano piece," he adds. "We found out right away within a couple notes that we had an awesome chemistry. We wanted to make sure we hit on that magic again on this album (on 'Shades Of Hope') because I think it's a really cool side to the two of us. We did a whole album of that stuff (An Evening With John Petrucci And Jordan Rudess), so I think it's good to continue that tradition on the record. It also adds a little bit of a break from all the craziness (laughs)."

In closing, Petrucci reveals that fans who have enjoyed Terminal Velocity and LTE3 will be pleased when the new Dream Theater record surfaces later this year.

"We're getting there. We still have a lot to do and it won't be out until later this year; we don't even have a title yet. It's definitely building off of the last album, but as always we don't like to repeat ourselves. It's more spontaneous, energetic, fun, heavy.... all the things we've been talking about today. I this those qualities of my solo album and the Liquid Tension album are following through on the new Dream Theater record."

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