Virtuosic instrumental jazz-rock fusion doesn‘t pull much ink, and the reason is obvious: It’s made by and aimed at a non-rockcrit breed of human. Why journalists don‘t get it: 1) We assume that people listen to music so they can hear the words. (Har!) 2) We don’t play instruments that well, so the pros‘ extreme dexterity makes our dicks feel small. 3) We aren’t tech-heads; we can hardly plug in our Macs.

Proficiency pimps though they may be, the three L.A. dwellers who constitute Planet X possess a quality that many music evangelists can worship: insanity. The Xers live to play weebling, burbling, gabbling, loud monster music with bizarre time signatures and no vocals. And like few technoids, they actually rock.

Keyboardist Derek Sherinian explains why. “I‘m very based in classic metal — Van Halen, Ozzy. No matter how complex the rhythm gets or how altered the harmony gets, that spirit has to be there. I like to be able to hang out with Zakk Wylde and drink beer, and then go with Steve Lukather and play fusion, then go with Yngwie Malmsteen and play some gargoyle metal.”

Sherinian’s past labors — with over-the-top rockers Dream Theater, on his solo CD, and on tour as a sideman with Kiss, Alice Cooper and lately Billy Idol — reinforce his rock-god credentials. He‘s Planet X’s spokesman, and he readily cops to being the trio‘s biggest egomaniac. Just as quickly, though, he ranks himself third in terms of chops. (No disgrace in this company.)

Quiet, pale Australian drummer Virgil Donati, who writes most of the music, consoles him: “There’s something to be said for being the worst player in a band.” Sherinian concurs, saying contact with Donati and Planet X guitarist Tony MacAlpine (also a concert-quality pianist) has given him a shot of Vita-Gro.

Despite piles of solo releases, the edgy, alert MacAlpine is modest enough. Asked how he manages to keep track of the count when his supersonic digits are rampaging across the fretboard, he confesses he sometimes doesn‘t, “much to Virgil’s dismay!” He describes Donati‘s attitude: “’I have an epiphany: Why don‘t you learn to count?’” All three laugh their heads off.

They can afford to mock their own asses, because there are no dull points in Planet X‘s three-pronged attack. The guys’ third album, the new MoonBabies, is their best yet thanks to an evolved group feel, high-definition production by veteran drummer Simon Phillips, and bottom boost from bassists Tom Kennedy, Jimmy Johnson and Billy Sheehan.

The title track lifts off with some really stellar space gibbers, whooshes and bangs — none of that cheap suborbital fizz you hear so often — before igniting the afterburners with manic guitar and keyboards set against slower, off-accented drums. (Capable as the skinsman is — Sherinian says he‘s never known anyone who practices as much — Donati leaves most of the bluster to his teammates while holding the conglomerate together with group-conscious musicality.) Charging in after another intro of eerie noises is the headbanging prog of “The Noble Savage,” which alternates between Gigantor riffs and weightless soars. The rest of the CD touches indirectly on the sacred stones of Yes, Genesis, Allan Holdsworth and Tony Williams, but always cranks several degrees past geek level into realms of crazed bravado and speed-bag battery. The live staple “Ignotus per Ignotium,” a Balkanized minor-key stormer in 94, ends the campaign on a satisfyingly doomy note.

Planet X get some of their sweat-iest receptions when they tour Japan and Europe. They knocked ’em dead on Bulgarian TV — but then, the Bulgarian national anthem is in 74. In America, tastes and venues tend to be compartmentalized. Planet X played their first gigs at the jazz-oriented Baked Potato; they‘ve also assailed the rock-headed Whisky. And they drew pretty much the same devotees, who might not ordinarily patronize either club. This suggests a certain essential obscurity; the band is named after the “missing” planet in our solar system. That planet is, however, inhabited by creatures who speak the trio’s language.

“We disregard trends completely,” says Sherinian. “There are people who like to watch musicians go apeshit on their instruments — uninhibited, no boundaries, the pure, real shit. That transcends all cultural barriers, all countries, all over the world. And as long as that is there, Planet X will take it wherever people will have us.”

PLANET X | MoonBabies | (Victor)

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