Expectations are set unreasonably high when a revered band records its first album in over twenty years, especially when it's from a collection of musicians as extraordinary as LIQUID TENSION EXPERIMENT. The supergroup — consisting of DREAM THEATER guitarist John Petrucci, now DREAM THEATER keyboardist Jordan Rudess, former-DREAM THEATER drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist / Chapman Stick musician Tony Levin (KING CRIMSON) — produced two records in the late '90s that set a high bar for instrumental prog rock. The news that the group reconvened during the summer of 2020 for another studio recording after two decades attracted much attention, as well as the prospect of Portnoy recording with his former DREAM THEATER bandmates again. The resulting record, simply titled "Liquid Tension Experiment 3" in the tradition of their previous albums, doesn't quite match the near-perfect highs of its predecessors, though ultimately remains well worth the lengthy wait.
Opening track "Hypersonic" continues the tradition of first songs from prior LIQUID TENSION EXPERIMENT efforts, begins with a 30-second barrage of whirlwind musicianship reminding you that the band is going to take you on an expansive journey, and still has the musical chemistry to pull off every twist and turn. Petrucci storms out of the gate with crunchy metallic riffs while the rest of the band steers through a super-jazzy display of dexterity, with Portnoy impressing in particular by showing his most frenetic drumming since his Dream Theater days. Levin's work on bass and Chapman Stick lays a thick and rumbling underpinning to the proceedings as the song weaves its way through tempo changes throughout, culminating in a scintillating display of shredding from Petrucci.
The elements that make for one hell of an album opening would be exhausting if the band tried to maintain that for entirety of the record. One of the reasons that the group is as revered as they are though is that they are capable of balancing those moments of indulgent histrionics with moments of calm, catchiness and beauty. "Beating The Odds" is a high-energy rocker that would have been at home on the soundtrack of a late '90s SEGA arcade racing game, punctuated by some of the most beautiful guitar work of Petrucci's career. "Liquid Evolution" is a piece of new-age prog that allows for both the band and the listener to catch a breather before heavier guitar squeals from Petrucci and more pronounced keyboard work from Rudess returns to drive "The Passage Of Time".
"Chris & Kevin's Amazing Odyssey" is another break from the frantic prog mayhem, with Levin showing how much he can bend riffs with his Chapman Stick while he's backed by Portnoy's improvisational drumming. Over-the-top indulgence returns tenfold with the group's cover of GEORGE GERSHWIN's "Rhapsody In Blue". The group had performed that track on live shows over a decade ago, but the band's first proper studio recording of the song is filtered through layers of circus prog forming the perfect mix of dexterous, whimsical and bonkers that one would hope for from such a cover. "Shades Of Hope" is a beautiful single-take duet from Petrucci and Rudess that at times is evocative of Elton John's "Funeral For A Friend", before the album closes with the sprawling epic "Key To The Imagination", accentuated by Rudess's most beautiful keyboard performance on the record.
"Liquid Tension Experiment 3" isn't quite the sublime genre definer that the supergroup's first two albums were. But as outlined above, everything that made the quartet's diehard fans fall in love with those records is more than delivered in droves.