Album Review: Levin Minneman Rudess

You just never know what you’re gonna get when superstar musicians team up.  It could turn out to be an egofest or perhaps just a fun jam session without a lot of substance.  The latest gathering of this ilk is the debut album from bassist and Chapman stick player Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, Stick Men and a ton of session work since the 70’s), Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater and his vast solo catalog) and all-world drummer Marco Minneman (tons of great session work plus one of my favorite fusion bands of recent years, The Aristocrats) called of course, Levin Minneman Rudess.  The project was put together by producer Scott Schorr for his Lazy Bones Recordings (LBR), a small indie label that doesn’t normally produce instrumental fusion projects (although he has worked with Levin previously on the Levin Torn White project) so I’m guessing that this a real labor of love for Schorr plus getting the chance to work with musicians of this caliber has gotta be a real treat for the label.  My biggest fear with an album like this is that it’ll be a hastily put together project but that’s not at all the case here as the compositions are fabulous and the playing is so cohesive it seems like these guys have been together forever. (The last time I heard a progressive instrumental trio that knocked me out this much was the great, the sadly defunct McGill Manring Stevens group  – just pick up their great Addition By Subtraction if you want to hear one of the all-time greatest unsung instrumental albums.  I almost forgot that Rudess actually guested on one that album too!).  This supergroup debut is such an exciting album that it could easily end up being seen as a true classic of instrumental progressive fusion.

As everyone pretty much knows, Jordan Rudess has been with Dream Theater for almost 15 years now and, as incredible as that band is, I’ve often felt that his keyboard sounds have needed more grit and soul to them.  Well I’m happy to say that ain’t the case here at all.  I guess in the absence of a true guitarist (outside of Levin’s Stick playing), it’s up to Jordan to bring the heaviness and what he does here is fantastic in that regard and really makes me glad that there isn’t a guitar on this record (although Levin’s use of the Stick does add in that element somewhat) as that really allows Levin and Rudess to really fill up the space.  It’s also so damn nice to be able to hear a bassist as great as Tony Levin really shine rather than be more in the background as the case with a lot of bass playing these days, especially in most of the progressive metal albums we review here.  This is masterful progressive music played expertly by some of the best musicians on the planet but never feels over-the-top or showy.

The album is over an hour long and has a huge variety of song styles from high-energy heavy fusion workouts to some really beautiful ballads.   Marcopolis begins the album and it has a great heavy beginning (not sure if it’s Levin or Rudess supplying the heavy textures) and Jordan has some fast beautiful runs with a fantastic mid-section with Rudess on electric piano under some furious cymbal playing from Minneman.  It’s a great and exciting way to introduce the style of the album which really has a wide variety of styles, from 70’s era prog rock, to some beautiful ballads. Twitch is a great instrumental prog rock piece with a great bass intro.   Frumious Banderfunk is space age funk madness with killer bass lines under some insane soloing from Rudess.  The Blizzard finally takes it down a notch and is a nice ballad featuring some of Rudess’ famed piano flourishes.  Mew is a joyous, melodic progressive rock piece featuring some very intricate keyboards along with some extremely exciting and fun drumming from Minneman who really shines at technical invention but is understated enough on the album to not overshadow the lead instruments (his bass drumming here is just phenomenal btw).  Afa Vulu is a short song that has a high-energy Electronica vibe and is a great feature for Minneman and Rudess to play in that style.  Descent has a deceptively simple bass and drum rhythm under which Rudess applies mostly ambient textures.  Scrod is another great progressive fusion piece that has a somewhat raw and dirty feel to it that’s very exciting coming from such seasoned musicians like these guys.  Orbiter is a slow, almost lugubrious ballad that has a great melody from Rudess and some really beautiful and soulful bass from Levin.  Ya know, it’s a lot easier to bowl people over with fast technique but it takes real skill to pull off ballads like this one and keep it interesting and exciting.  Enter The Core is another short ballad that adds in what’s probably the most classic  Rudess-style happy flourish in the middle.  After those two songs, we really need the energy upped and the band doesn’t disappoint with On Ignorant Elephant – it’s just a friggn’ awesome high-energy rocker with a killer beat from Minneman and some great gritty organ from Rudess.  The drum solo here is just perfect too and this song is easily one of the instrumental highlights of the year.  The album concludes with the upbeat fusion piece Lakeshore Lights and the trance-like Dancing Feet before concluding with Service Engine which, at over eight minutes, is the longest song on the album and it has a really thoughtful, dramatic and even rather majestic quality to it with Rudess pulling out some cool, older keyboard sounds to give the song a distinctly 70’s era feel.  The song even has a short vocal section to add to the dramatic impact.  It’s a great way to end the album with intensity but never going over the top.

This debut album by these phenomenal musicians is one of the best instrumental rock and fusion albums of the year and we can only hope that they’ll continue to work together and further develop their chemistry rather than be a cool one-off band that came together for a brief shining moment.  Let’s hope not!  The album comes in a standard CD but the bonus disc is an incredible package with a DVD of fun and enlightening interviews with the guys as well as jams, outakes and 24 bit audio files.  If you want to pick up a copy, you can do so via the Amazon.com link below.

Rating 9/10

review by Jeff Stevens

Levin Minneman Rudess – Official Site

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Levin Minneman Rudess – Purchase Link

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