Saturday, 18 April 2015

Toto's 'XIV' - Album Review

When it comes to AOR and melodic rock, no band has pushed the boundaries of those genres more than Toto. Since forming in 1977, the group of famed session musicians have been creating unique music and have toured the world over many times. While, on the surface, the band's music is very catchy and full of accessible melodies; Toto's songs have always been more complex and had more about them than contemporaries like Foreigner, Styx, or Journey. Due to the members' backgrounds as session musicians, they are well-versed in a number of different styles of music. Strip back the AOR sheen that coats the majority of the band's material, and you will find hints of jazz, blues, funk, and progressive rock to name but a few. As a result, Toto's sound has always been hard to define.  The band's early years fronted by Bobby Kimball, Fergie Frederiksen, and Joseph Williams (in that order) were their most successful. High charting singles like Hold the Line, Africa, and Rosanna helped to keep the band on the radio and filling large concert halls. Toto were always about more than just the singles however. The rhythmic interplay between original drummer Jeff Porcaro (RIP) and bassists David Hungate and later brother Mike Porcaro (also sadly no longer with us) created a groove which few bands could match. On top of this the duelling keyboards of David Paich and Steve Porcaro created rich soundscapes, while the restrained virtuosity of guitarist Steve Lukather held the band together and gave them that trademark hard rock edge. The band has gone through many evolutions: from the polished, melody-led original line-ups to the stripped-back bluesier Lukather-led line-ups of the 1990s; Toto has continued to evolve and create great music. The band's last album, Falling in Between from 2006, was a perfect mix of all the band's distinct eras, and was the last to feature Kimball and long-time drummer Simon Phillips. After a short hiatus, the band regrouped in 2010 with Williams back at the microphone, and Steve Porcaro back as a full member for the first time since 1987. XIV is the album resulting from this reunion, the first with Williams since 1988's The Seventh One. Keith Carlock (Steely Dan) fills the drum stool on this album, and does a good job recreating the groove the band is famous for. XIV is the perfect successor to Falling in Between and continues with the sound established on that album.

Running Out of Time gets the album off to a good start with a trademark Lukather riff. It does well to reintroduce Williams to the Toto fans with a dramatic vocal melody and plenty of excellent harmonies during the song's chorus. The slightly funky guitar patterns here make the song sound like a dark cousin of I'll Supply the Love, and pulsing electronic synths swirl around the guitars and cut through nicely on occasion.  The song's spacey guitar solo brings the prog side of the band's sound to the fore, and creates for a nice instrumental section that fuses guitars and keyboard well together. Burn, built around a sombre piano hook, is a dynamic rocker that shows the best that the current Toto line-up can do. The verses are slower, with Williams' smooth voice leading the way over Paich's repeating piano; but when the chorus explodes through the speakers the song really changes tone. The percussive sound, led by Carlock's drums and session player Lenny Castro's tight percussion, makes for a dramatic tone and showcases the band's harder side. Holy War is a good antidote for the previous song's darkness, and takes you back to the band's lighter 1980s sound. While Williams once again leads this song, Lukather steps up with some vocal support and the first taste of the band's trademark vocal interplay is present on this album. This song would have sat nicely on The Seventh One, and the slightly gospel elements present during the chorus makes for an extremely catchy and uplifting moment. Steve Porcaro's presence is felt with some stabs of powerful synths, something that has been sorely missing from the band in his absence. 21st Century Blues sees Lukather take the lead, and the result is something similar to his recent solo output - particularly 2013's Transition. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a bluesy number with lots of nice lead guitar, and laid-back organ courtesy of Paich. Subtle horn arrangements encase the track, adding to that bluesy feel. This side of Toto has always been my least favourite, but this is still an enjoyable song with plenty to enjoy - particularly Lukather's excellent guitar playing. Orphan has 'single' written all over it. Out of all the songs here, this is probably the closest to the band's early stadium rock sound, with some really expressive vocals from Williams and some big power chord rocking from Lukather at times. It has a smooth chorus, as you might expect, and that helps it to be one of the more immediate songs on XIV. Unknown Soldier (For Jeffrey), dedicated to their late drummer, is another Lukather moment. Starting out with a great acoustic guitar/piano combination, the song soon morphs into a sophisticated semi-ballad with plenty of emotion coming from Lukather's vocal delivery. This is one of those songs that proves Toto are not all about those 1980s hits, and that Lukather can sing more than just the obligatory blues number!

The Little Things is Porcaro's only writing contribution to the album. While he has never been the most prolific songwriter, his contributions have added to Toto's variety over the years. He also sings the song, making it only the third Toto song to feature his vocals. Compared to his previous efforts, this is his best yet. His voice seems stronger than it was in the past, and it really suits the song's delicate mood. While he is ably assisted by Williams in the chorus he holds the tune well, and his gentle keyboard textures take centre stage, with Lukather's guitar taking a backseat. Chinatown is one of the album's best songs, and features vocals from Williams, Lukather, and Paich. This is classic Toto, helped by the addition of founding member Hungate on bass to really bulk out those jazzy instrumental sections. Paich's voice has never been the best but he does well here, and mixes well with Williams during a dynamic verse, before Lukather carries the laid-back chorus with ease over a tight Carlock groove. Paich and Porcaro once again prove a formidable keyboard duo, with patterns that could have easily appeared on the band's self-titled 1978 debut album. All the Tears That Shine sees Paich take the lead for the whole song, and the result is a beautiful, shimmering ballad that will definitely tug at the heartstrings. Paich's ageing voice actually really suits the song, and the vulnerabilities shine through and improve it. The song is piano-dominated, with some gorgeous synths joining in for the chorus that also sees Williams use his voice to help out Paich. Castro's percussion also makes itself heard throughout, adding to the overall atmosphere well. Fortune is probably the least interesting song here, but it is still a nice addition to the album. It has a great Toto feel with some excellent vocals from Williams and fuzzy riffing from Lukather; but the opportunity for a stadium-rocking chorus was sadly missed. The song teases you, building to a crescendo that should lead into a chorus to rival Hold the Line, but it falls a little flat; opting instead for a slightly jazzy feel that is a bit of a let down. All memories of this slight disappointment are soon quashed by the album's final number Great Expectations. Again, all three of the band's main vocalists take the lead here, and the result is spectacular, with some really frantic instrumental sections too that show the diversity of the musicians involved. This is a really dramatic song that encompasses all that is great about the band, and all of their evolutions. It is a true melodic feast to end the album with, and I think this is a song that will define the modern era of the band. Overall, XIV is a triumph. For the band's first album in nine years, it has really placed the band back on the map again after so long. Whether this is band's last album or not remains to be seen, but no matter how you look at it, this a great addition to their vast and excellent catalogue.

The album was released on 23rd March 2015 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Orphan.

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