Yes drummer Alan White, and super-sidemen Tony Levin and David Torn keep very busy in their regular line of work. Recently, all three had a little bit of time off from the regular grind, so what do they do with it? Hey, they’re dedicated musicians…they made some music together, natch.
To anyone familiar with these names, Levin Torn White just from the title should have them salivating, for these guys have the resumes and reputations of the highest order, and live up to their acclaim every time they set out to do anything from minor session work to playing on sold out world tours with the biggest prog rock bands in the business to creating masterpiece records of their own. Yet, when Levin, Torn ad White got together to make a record, it was their idea of kicking back, tossing around ideas, and having a little fun playing together without the pressure of playing up to the lofty expectations of a King Crimson, Yes or John Lennon session date. But as the consummate professionals that they are, they’ve left no ragged edges, no loose ends. They might be playing loose, but they’re never sloppy. Would you expect anything less from these guys?
And these guys are no strangers to each other; Levin appeared on Torn’s Cloud About Mercury (1986) and Torn returned the favor by joining the short-lived project Bruford Levin Upper Extremities in 1999. By bringing in White, an old acquaintance, this little confab is roughly replacing Bill Bruford with White in B.L.U.E.; sort of akin of going from Close To The Edge to Tales From Topographic Oceans, drumming-wise.
As a collective personality, this is a band that makes concise, sharp-edged grooves. No, there’s not the math-y cranial rock of King Crimson, the sweeping, multi-part splendor of Yes, or the unpredictable, loosely-shaped mindfucks of Torn’s solo records. While entirely instrumental, it’s a little misleading to call this music fusion because that implies there’s jazz in it. There isn’t. But it’s also too dense and complex to call it rock (and just too danged efficient to call it prog rock).
LTW resides in a no-man’s land between those two music forms, a style invented solely to best utilize their vast skills and strong individual unique attributes. White is the muscular, straight-ahead rock drummer who can change meters and tempos on a nanosecond’s notice. What he might not have in Bruford’s highly nuanced swing, he compensates with a great feel for the groove and having worked with Chris Squire for thirty-nine years, now, it didn’t take long to develop the right rapport with Levin. Levin, by the way, is widely praised as a bassist for so many things he does well. This record makes it clear why he gets all the props: whether it’s playing bass conventionally, with “funk fingers” (drumsticks attached to the tips of his fingers), or by playing the Chapman Stick, Levin can range from the percussive space normally occupied only by the drummer all the way up to the higher, melodic tonal palette territory of the guitar. As a guitarist, Torn is great; he can shred and he get delicate like the best of ‘em, and he’s got a wicked atonal streak in him. But his signature play is the unreal textural soundscapes he rolls off of his axe. With Levin pulling nearly triple duty at times, Torn has the freedom to dig deep into his bad of sonic tricks and add the weirdness that helps to set the music well apart from this being just a wanking session.
These gentleman waste little time in overwhelming the listener. Forty seconds, to be exact; that’s how long the Torn’s textural overhang in the opening passage of “No Warning Lights” lasts before the three commence with a rumbling din that starts strong and then kicks it up a notch. Just as you’re getting rocked down to your toes, it vanishes and the crisp, righteous Jan Hammer funk of “Ultra Mullett” (YouTube below) gets dropped on your lap. Torn’s whining guitar enters the frays and bloodies it up some as Levin mans both a Stick and bass guitar to weave a irresistible rhythm in lock step with White.
The aptly titled “White Noise” is the drummer’s time in the spotlight, his stilted rhythms sparring with Levin, and Torn lays back to supply feedback, electronic splashes and odd effects while White punches out licks like a prize fighter. Torn goes for a heavier sonic blast on “The Hood Fell,” while the hallowed rhythm section metes out a tight, midtempo groove. The intensity of the first four tracks alone is an earful, and sets the tone for an uncompromising set of performances.
“Cheese It, The Corpse” is the song to go to if you want to hear stoked up Levin and Torn solos. Immediately following that is the ambient, sonic wash that Torn wrings for “Convergence,” his weeping, isolated guitar being the only other noticeable sound. The formula is largely repeated for “Sleeping Horse,” only with Levin’s light bass lines lurking around. Think of these as ballads, Levin/Torn/White style. “Pillowfull of Dark” broods and lumbers, keyed by Levin’s super low bass lines and Torn’s dynamic sampling.
There’s more, and I’d go on, but I’m running out of adjectives. Levin Torn White is just the kind of album you should expect from these crackerjacks. Three musicians who are only constrained by limits when working for others, don’t hold much back here. If there’s any surprise, it’s how well each uses their immense talents to bolster the immense talents of the others. I believe the phrase for that is “the sum is greater than the parts.”
This album ain’t for the weak, but it’s lethal combination of brawn and brains makes it the release of the year for those who crave that in their music.
[NEED A SECOND OPINION?: Check out Tom Johnson's Levin Torn White review right here on SER.]
Levin Torn White dropped on September 13, by Lazy Bones Recordings.