Tony Levin

REVIEW: Liquid Tension Experiment – Liquid Tension Experiment (1998)

LIQUID TENSION EXPERIMENT – Liquid Tension Experiment (1998 Magna Carta)

Liquid Tension Experiment is a supergroup on Magna Carta, which should tell you much.

Featuring not one, not two, but three guys from Dream Theater, plus Tony Levin, Liquid Tension Experiment is the progressive fan’s dream band.  Granted, keyboardist Jordan Rudess wasn’t in Dream Theater yet when they did this CD, but that’s where people know him from today.  Drummer Mike Portnoy and guitarist John Petrucci are the other driving forces behind Liquid Tension Experiment.

To use phrases like “mind blowing”, “insane”, “incredible” or “the shredder’s wet dream” don’t even begin to touch what the album Liquid Tension Experiment is about.  The liner notes by Mike Portnoy reveal that this project was assembled based on a wish list of players and their availability.  Rudess and Levin were on the list but guitarists just weren’t available, so that’s how Petrucci stepped in.  Together they had six days to write and record this album.  That it turned out so incredibly well says volumes about these guys as musicians.

Liquid Tension Experiment is not just an instrumental album with wicked playing.  The compositions are strong enough to make the album rise well above similar projects.  Magna Carta is loaded with insane projects by the best players in the world, but how many of those albums are good for repeated listenings?  The melodic and tonal sensibilities of Petrucci in particular really keep the album grounded, in a way that even lay people can enjoy.  Levin adds the Chapman Stick and a new agey flavour to the lighter material.  Check out “Osmosis” for a fine example of this.

Most of the album is heavy jammin’. It’s Mike Portnoy, and he does that so well. Together, they create a challenging sound but one with enough hooks that anyone can get into it. You might not realize how many time changes, weird chords and tempos you’re being exposed to, but you are, and you’ll be far better for it.

Together the album consists of nine songs and one spontaneous jam that exceeds 28 minutes! In fact, the tape ran out while recording, so the tail end of the song is from a DAT tape that Portnoy always runs when rehearsing. According to the notes, this piece ironically called “Three Minute Warning” was 100% improvised. “Not a single beat or note was discussed beforehand.” And no fixes or overdubs were made after the fact. It’s over 28 minutes of pure improvisation, and it came out brilliant. Everybody needs some of that in their life, to experience what pure free-form musical genius sounds like.

Must-hear pieces include “Paradigm Shift”, “Osmosis”, “Freedom of Speech” and “Universal Mind”.  It goes without saying that the 28 minute jam is essential as well.

This self-produced album also just sounds incredible.  The sonics are huge, but when the layers are peeled back, you can hear everything so clearly.  The Chapman Stick also adds a huge palette, sometimes heavier than lead and others lighter than a feather.  I’m sure the excellent audio is partly due to the mixing skills of one Kevin “Caveman” Shirley.  Don’t hesitate to pick up Liquid Tension Experiment if you see it.  There was also a second album made called 2, but this is the one to get if it crosses your path.

5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Alice Cooper Goes to Hell (1976)

Happy Halloween, folks!  And what better way to celebrate this day than with the king of horror rock, Alice Cooper?

ALICE COOPER – Alice Cooper Goes to Hell (1976 Warner)

Last time, he welcomed you to his nightmare.  Now, journey with Alice as he takes you straight to hell!  Subtitled (in the inner booklet) as “A Bedtime Story”, Alice Cooper Goes to Hell is another concept album, to follow a concept album.  Steven is back.  It’s a pretty mad concept, and one that ties into not only Nightmare, but also Nightmare 2, decades later.  Steven will fall asleep, and follow Alice down a dark endless staircase, “the pit where he doesn’t want to go, but has to.”

Written and produced by Alice, Bob Ezrin, and Dick Wagner, Goes to Hell features a backing band with a name you might recognize: The Hollywood Vampires.  It’s not the same band, obviously (Johnny Depp was 12 years old), but it does demonstrate just how long Alice has been using that name for a band.  Among the many musicians herein, you will recognize many:  Steven Hunter, Dick Wagner, Tony Levin, and Allan Schwartzberg are probably in your record collection many times (credited or otherwise).

Goes to Hell doesn’t have the fire, or the reputation, of Welcome to My Nightmare.  It is the beginning of a long slide that did not fully right itself until after Alice had kicked the booze for good.  It is, however, an under-appreciated album with fun and nuance in the dark shadows.  The title track is one song that still graces the live stage.  Here, Alice seems to be paying for his crimes committed.  “For criminal acts and violence on the stage, For being a brat refusing to act your age, For all of the decent citizens you’ve enraged, You can go to hell!”  You’ll never have so much fun on the road to H-E-double-hockeysticks, this side of an AC/DC album.  Quintessential Alice, this is, and indispensable too.  Anyone who has ever liked the biting humour and celebrated riffs of Alice Cooper will love “Go to Hell”.  Bob Ezrin adds the usual accompaniment to the mix:  horns, keys, and gang vocals condemning Alice to hell!

A full three years before Kiss, Alice Cooper went disco.  If you like disco rock metal music, then “You Gotta Dance” to this one.  This is a track that some Alice fans would probably love to bury, but it has its moments.  Steve Hunter plays a wicked funky guitar solo.  There is always instrumental integrity.  “I’m the Coolest” slows the pace to a jazzy drawl.  At this point I imagine the character of Alice is meeting various people down in hell, perhaps the man in charge himself.  “Didn’t We Meet” suggests this.  “To look at you, deja vu, chills me to the core.”  Then, “They say you’re the king of this whole damn thing.”  These three tunes are all quite a departure from hard rock, but Alice has always been so diverse.  The hit ballad “I Never Cry” (#5 in Canada) is very pretty, unusually so for Alice.  It is, according him, an “alcoholic confession”, and not the only moment on the album that touches on his drinking.

The first side of the album has some great tracks, but only the first (“Go to Hell”) really rocks.  Side two is similarly diverse and dark.  “Give the Kid a Break” is a campy musical number, with Alice pleading his case before the judge.  “I don’t know why I’m down here, I don’t deserve to roast or bake.”  Predictably, things don’t go well, since the next song is called “Guilty”!  “Guilty” is the hardest rocker on the album, and one of the only songs to be played live occasionally through the decades.   Not that all the other songs on the album suck; Alice just sounds right when he’s rocking like he always has.  And the lyrics rule:

Just tried to have fun, raised hell and then some,
I’m a dirt-talkin’, beer drinkin’, woman chasin’ minister’s son,
Slap on the make-up and blast out the music,
Wake up the neighbors with a roar,
Like a teenage heavy metal elephant gun.

If you call that guilty, then that’s what I am.
I’m guilty, I’m guilty!

This is right up the alley of a tune like “Escape” from the last album.  It’s a shot in the arm and just when you need it.

With “Wake Me Gently”, we are back in ballad land, and it is unfortunately the longest song on the album.  It sounds like an Ezrin creation, but in comparison to his other works, it is among his lesser creations.  The string section is the highlight.  Then he turns up the funk again for “Wish You Were Here”, with the help of Wagner on funky gee-tar.  “Havin’ a hell of a time my dear, wish you were here.”  Sounds like Alice has more than enough of hell by now.  Steve Hunter plays the blazing Lizzy leads at the end of the song.

In a surprising-but-not turn, Alice pulls “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” out of the hat, an old Vaudeville song (1917) once performed by Judy Garland in 1941.  It actually works within the concept of the album, and predictably, Alice perfectly camps it up.  It blends splendidly into “Going Home”, with Steven finally escaping his nightmare.  Was it a nightmare?  “I wonder what happened to Alice,” he ponders.  This is pompous, overdone Ezrin, just the way you like it.  Orchestration and thunderous percussion lend themselves well to this dramatic close.

It’s pretty clear that the reason Alice Cooper Goes to Hell is not as fondly remembered as Welcome to My Nightmare is the sudden change in direction to balladeer.  There are only three rocking songs on an album of eleven tracks, and Alice was always primarily a rock artist, albeit an experimental one.  You still found his records in the “rock” section of your friendly neighbourhood record store.  Three rockers aside, the rest is a diverse assortment of music, well put together and played.  Clearly, that has to be the key.  But there is more to it than that.  Nightmare seemed a more celebratory affair.  It felt lively; it felt alive.  Goes to Hell sounds less so.  Alice’s lungs seemed weakened, just a smidge, from how they used to bellow.

Alice Cooper Goes to Hell is worthy of praise, not derision.  Just remember — it’s not a rock album.  At best it’s rock opera.  Proposed analogy:  Goes to Hell is Alice’s Music From the Elder.  They even have the same producer!

3.5/5 stars

Happy Halloween kiddies!