REVIEW – TOTO – XIV – Frontiers Music – by John Beaudin
March 24, 2015 – You can call the band Toto a lot of things but underachievers they are not. Individual members have played on over 5000 albums with half a billion in sales, not to mention 35 million of the groups own projects. These guys have never known the term “fair-weather” when it comes to their craft. Just a passing glance at Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller,’ for instance, shows a huge Toto influence. Steve Porcaro co-wrote and plays on ‘Human Nature,’ so does the bands other keyboardist David Paich, Steve Lukather’s on guitar and that’s Jeff Porcaro on the kit. It’s basically Toto with Michael Jackson on lead vocals. Five past or present members of this band are all over ‘Thriller’ which was released just seven months after their tasty-monster ‘Toto IV’ – the one with five singles and six Grammy Awards.
Paich says the fortuitous big-bang moment for Toto came in September, 1975 when he, bassist David Hungate and Jeff Porcaro started working on Boz Scaggs breakthrough album ‘Silk Degrees.’ It was a last chance for Scaggs and a perfect storm for three visionary forces hungry to build on a sound. They certainly did that. The album tipped five times platinum with three hits including one of the best blue-eyed-soul tunes of the seventies, ‘Lowdown.’ Steve Lukather was brought in on follow-up ‘Down Two Then Left’ but the back-up band had bigger ideas by then. Though they continued to work with Boz for a few years their priority quickly became the band which in 1977 was Lukather, Paich, Hungate and the Porcaro brothers Jeff and Steve.
Toto’s self titled debut exploded in 1978 with three big singles, ‘Hold the Line,’ ‘I’ll Supply the Love’ and ‘Georgy Porgy.’ I was 18 and in high school and everyone was asking about these “studio cats” who could do almost anything. Their sophomore album, ‘Hydra’ did what second albums usually do – disappointed a few fans though half the songs were easily as good as anything on the debut….and was it me or did ‘All Us Boys’ sound like a show-tune? The next album, ‘Turn Back’ didn’t have a hit and almost lost Toto their recording contract but the boys showed they could cook something inspired under pressure when ‘Toto IV’ came out. Remember ‘Rosanna.’ ‘Africa,’ ‘Make Believe’ and ‘I Won’t Hold You Back?’ It seemed they had reached their zenith but what’s that cliche’? What goes up?
At the height of their career Toto had some garden variety Rock’n Roll drug drama. Allegedly lead singer Bobby Kimball was kicked out because of his issues. Sure there were four singers in the band but Bobby was the lead guy.
His replacement Fergie Frederiksen (who passed away from cancer on Jan 18, 2014), at least on paper, seemed like Toto’s saving grace. He had a more powerful voice but it just didn’t work – It didn’t quite sound like Toto so that experiment only lasted two albums (‘Isolation’ and the ‘Dune’ soundtrack). Then came Joseph Williams. This guy sounded like he was cut from the cloth. Williams sounded more like Toto than Toto did but drug rumours followed, he lost his voice on tour and after two spectacular albums (‘Fahrenheit’ and ‘The Seventh One’) he was gone by 1989.
That party-down-tomfoolery is a canvas to much of music. It’s happened to the biggest, killed a few and certainly took the spirit from many. Toto was as immune to it as they were ready, sometimes in spite of themselves, to kick it’s ass.
The last time I saw the band Heart their drummer Ben Smith said something interesting at a drum clinic before the show. That when the dust settles Ann and Nancy Wilson just want the band members to work their asses off without drama – they’re sick of it. Looks like Toto has moved on as well. If there was a sign on their studio door it would read, “Only the inspired welcomed, no drama-no time and everyone needs to contribute more than yesterday.”
With better health Toto welcomed old friends back. After all everyone loves a good reunion Kimball came back as lead singer in 1999 and recorded three strong studio albums with Toto (‘Mindfields,’ Through the Looking Glass’ and ‘Falling in Between.’) and three live projects until that relationship soured yet again.
Now Williams is back as lead singer 27 years after “The Seventh One.” He has played occasionally with Toto and even guested on their last album but there is no mistake he is their champion behind the mic now and his voice sounds stronger than ever and that Joe Williams growl is back too.
Toto XIV, even though it’s actually their 13th studio album, is meant to be a sequel-of-sorts to Toto IV, more like Toto V. Beyond the confusion this is easily one of their top albums of the last 20 years . It’s not Toto IV nor should it be in 2015.
The album kicks off with ‘Running Out Of Time,’ a punchy rocker with a bad-ass guitar riff from Lukather. First impression? Where would they be without this guy. Really Luke (as his friends and fans call him) is the backbone of Toto. He’s not playing with too much coffee in his veins seriously fiery jet fuel may be his poison. I had to pause for a second, and that’s not easy on a hellfire tune like this, and ask, “What other guitarist from the seventies is this galvanized in the calling? What other band? The tune sets the tone and Williams forceful vocals serves as a conclusive stamp that all the finest parts have finally come together again for this band.
‘Burn’ solidifies the charge. It’s another driving tune but this one builds. It’s a reminder that falling in love is easy but encompassing the other persons secrets, past and lunacy – that’s the challenge.
Lukather greets us with another enduring riff on “Holy War.’ It’s also a reminder of what great bands do with multiple proficient voices and Toto’s done this Piggyback/Relay lead vocal thing well since the beginning. Williams and Lukather juggle this tale of the politics of war and the lies and hidden agendas behind the photo-ops. Sure, it’s serious but the cry for accountability doesn’t get in the way of it’s breakneck haunting melody. Its one of four tunes on XIV that feature original TOTO bassist David Hungate who left after the recording of Toto IV in 1982. Hungate says he was a little nervous recording with Toto again but he did tour with his old band mates last year so that tension was short lived.
’21 Century Blues’ tackles some cool bouncy phrasing from Luke with Hungate keeping the pace and new drummer Keith Carlock doing what he’s famous for keeping an incredibly tight groove.
The first single ‘Orphan’ welcomes Williams trademark growl that was a highlight on “The seventh One.’ Singing with conviction is one thing but this guy belts it like a preacher last chance for redemption. Yell it for survival baby!
A real highlight on XIV is the official return of Steve Porcaro. Even though he’s guested on quite a few Toto albums since his departure after ‘Fahrenheit’ in 1986 this is a satisfying homecoming. ‘The little Things’ serves as his first lead vocal on a Toto album since 1982’s ‘It’s a Feeling.’ There’s two gorgeous ballads on this project and this one balances that melancholy brand from the 80’s with modern charm.
‘Chinatown’ sounds old because it is. Lukather asked Paich to finish the tune that goes back to 1977. Being an offspring of that Boz Scaggs era it comes upon it’s ‘Silk Degrees’ west coast blue-eyes-soul honestly and it has three lead vocalist. Paich hands it to Williams and Lukather does a little Georgy Porgy vibe on the chorus.
One of my favorite tunes on the album is the aforementioned gorgeous other ballad, ‘All The Tears that Shine.’ with the exception of Williams who sings the chorus deliciously this is all Paich. A delicate lament on crumbling/complicated love. Paich has always been a huge part of Toto as a keyboardist, writer and arranger but this song reminded me of his wonderful deep tones. For anyone missing actual melodies and not just campfire, one-trick chants on radio this tune is your drug!
Anyone doubting the pairing of Toto and Yes on tour this summer needs to check out ‘Great Expectations.’ This is the best of all worlds in that multi-layered soaring prog-rock extravaganza. Even Lukather says he was ‘Channelling his inner Chris Squire” while tackling the bass on the tune. It’s also another Paich/Williams/Luke vocal tag-team that hopefully will appear on further projects. Epic in that rock opera vein it’s a perfect sandwich with the lead off track ‘Running Out of Time’ that fortifies that this version of Toto is not only healthy but discerning, wise without being or feeling old.
The music industry has changed much since that first Toto album in October 1978. Getting a hit on the radio sometimes takes five producers and twice the writers but Toto has kept it clean on XIV. These are incredibly strong melodic tunes played with conviction by a few dudes who have seen the best and worse in each other and have decided it’s not how you fall down but how you get up. – by John Beaudin