A pre-eminent bassist and proponent of that oddly-tapped guitar/bass hybrid called the Stick, Tony Levin began his musical life in the late '60s as an in-the-pocket jazzer, playing with artists including vibraphonist Gary Burton and early incarnations of the groove-centric band Stuff. But he's since moved on to become one of the most in-demand session players in genres including rock, pop, and progressive rock... many of the various subgenres that have emerged over the past 35 years, in fact. He is likely best known for his ongoing work with various incarnations of King Crimson, as well as being Peter Gabriel's recording and touring bassist of choice since the start of his solo career.
But what has made Levin such a respected and often called-upon player has been his innate sense of groove, and his ability to find it, regardless of the contextsometimes in spite of it. While he clearly possesses monster chops, he's always placed the music first, consequently becoming an integral part of virtually every musical context with which he's been involved, while at the same time never precisely standing out. That, after all, is what good ensemble playing is all about: sacrifice in service of the song.
Which makes Magna Carta's recent release, Prime Cuts, all the more curious. Fans of the kind of progressive rock-with-a-metal-edge that characterizes Magna Carta releases will find Levin, as always, moulding himself perfectly into the musical contexts presented. And bass players looking to understand the role of the supporting bassist would do well to listen to these six tracks. But the fact is that while Levin's role on each track is nothing short of essential, it's in the way he integrates, not how he dominates. And so one has to wonder why these specific trackstaken from his two Liquid Tension Experiment projects, the Bozzio/Levin/Stevens albums Black Light and Situation, and the Magellan release Hundred Year Floodwere chosen out of the three dozen or so that are available.
Despite Levin's essential contribution to the groove of every track, this is not an album for listeners wanting to hear him in the spotlight. More to the point, it will appeal most to fans of shredding guitarists like John Petrucci, Steve Stevens, and Wayne Gardner, and those disposed to demonstrative displays of blinding technique by drummers Terry Bozzio, Mike Portnoy, and Joe Franco.
This is not fusion; jazz harmonies and contexts are completely absent. There are enough solos to satiate the most discerning of fist-pumping metal heads; there's even a vocal track, "Brother's Keeper, to break up the largely instrumental proceedings. But if you're looking to hear Tony Levin at his best, you'd be better off checking out his more significant and, frankly, vivid work with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson. Levin has, in fact, recently rejoined Crimson to replace the departed Trey Gunn, so there will hopefully be a new album in the cards that will be a greater demonstration of his unquestionable and inestimable talents.
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