New York City-based Magna Carta has turned the release of instrumental progressive rock albums into major events. The label’s roster of all-star projects includes Liquid Tension Experiment (featuring Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy on drums, John Petrucci on guitar and Jordan Rudess on keyboards, along with respected bass player Tony Levin), Bozzio Levin Stevens (as in Terry, Tony and Steve) and Niacin. The three-piece outfit is actually a much healthier outlet for bassist Billy Sheehan than Mr. Big’s fluffy pop rock. And when Sheehan blends his rock tendencies with the jazz and funk leanings of Hammond B3, piano and synth player John Novello (Chick Corea, Andy Summers) and drummer Dennis Chambers (George Clinton, Stanley Clarke), the result is a guitar-free hybrid that’s as magical to hear as it must be challenging to play.
That has never been more apparent than on Time Crunch, Niacin’s fifth and best-sounding record — both musically and sonically. Each of the 11 tracks here takes on a life of its own, from the breathless and funky slam of album-opener "Elbow Grease" to the jazz-piano styling of "Invisible King" to the intricately delicate "Glow" — a song dedicated to Novello’s wife, who lost her battle with breast cancer in 2000. Niacin even offer their own distinct take on two cover pieces, funneling the trio’s thick sound through Jan Hammer’s "Blue Wind" and a rather distorted version of King Crimson’s "Red."
The presence of Novello’s Hammond B3 on many of these tracks gives Time Crunch a decidedly retro and majestic vibe, a la Yes, Traffic, Blind Faith and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. But the band complements its nod to some of prog’s pioneers with dervishes of modern funk and flashes of advanced studio wizardry.