When people talk about “The band you love to hate” or the other way around, “The band you hate to love”, Nickelback usually comes to mind. Or Sabaton. Or Volbeat. Or, if you’re Swedish, Takida. Please! Those guys have nothing to complain about. Also, bands like Winger, Warrant and Poison has been force-fed a lot of crap during the years. Sure, those guys haven’t had an easy life in that department, but no band comes close to Toto when it comes to being crapped on, spat on and hated. For some reason, everybody and their mother seems to hate this band and especially the music press and critics. Why that is, I’m not sure, but probably because they are world-class musicians, has had shitloads of hits and sold millions and millions of records. And they write commercial and radio friendly songs! My, my, my! The fact that the boys has been working as studio musicians is something that isn’t looked easy upon, when it comes to pretentious music critics. One thing they (the critics, that is) loves to point out is how soulless and completely without feel and emotion the Toto guys are. Because, you do know that if you’re a great musician and really knows how to handle your instrument (and voice), you’re all about technique. Great musicians can not play with feel. That’s the rule. But hey, if you’re a useless shithead that can’t hold a tune to save your life, if you don’t even know how to tune your guitar, if you only know two chords that you can play if you really try hard, then you’re an artist and you convey your message with feel and attitude and emotion. What a load of rubbish! What it really comes down to is that most music critics are tone-deaf, non-musical and totally clueless of what it takes to be a musician. Here’s the deal – it doesn’t matter if you’re Dream Theater, Yngwie Malmsteen, Toto or Kurt Cobain or Johnny Rotten, if you play the music you love, you do it with conviction, feel and emotion, no matter how technical your playing is. If you say that Yngwie or Steve Lukather don’t bleed when they play, you don’t know anything. Two chord punk music doesn’t equal feel and brilliant musicianship doesn’t equal sterile and plastic players – thosea re facts. I hear lots of feel when I hear Steve Lukather play, but I only hear crap when I hear Nirvana do it. It’s a matter of taste, see and there is no right or wrong. So, the Toto guys have been eating crap for most of their careers, but I guess they smile anyway when they’re on their way to the bank. Steve Lukather formed the band with keyboard player David Paich, singer Bobby Kimball, brothers Steve and Jeff Porcaro, keyboards and drums and bass player Steve Hungate, released their debut self titled album in 1978 and sold millions of it due to the massive hit single “Hold The Line”. Two albums, Hydra (1979) and Turn Back (1981), followed and even though they sold well enough, they weren’t the huge success that their debut was, much to the fact that none of those albums contained any smash hits. That wasn’t the case with the follow-up, Toto IV (1982) – the last with Kimball as the singer – which contained the hits “Rosanna” and “Africa” and that album made Toto superstars.
But for me, it was with Isolation from 1984 that Toto became a great rock / AOR band. I liked their previous albums a lot, but Isolation – that featured new singer Fergie Fredriksen and new bassist Mike Porcaro – put them in the highest division, quality wise. That continued with 1986′ Fahrenheit, a softer album that featured another new voice Joseph Williams and in my opinion – an opinion shared by many – Toto reached their peak with their masterpiece and magnum opus The Seventh One (1988). After that, everything fell apart. Williams was sacked due to throat problems, a result of heavy cocaine use and the band went on a smaller hiatus before they kicked the band into motion again, as a four-piece hard rock band, leaving Lukather to handle all the guitar work plus lead vocal duties when their new singer Jean-Michel Byron didn’t work out. Kingdom Of Desire (1992) shocked their fans with a much heavier and harder sound, but it didn’t matter, grunge and alternative music was the thing and Toto were looked upon as musical pariahs. They gave it another try with the underrated Tambu (1995), that featured new drummer Simon Phillips who replaced the now deceased Jeff Porcaro, but things didn’t look that bright for the band as their popularity had faded fast. They brought Kimball back as a the lead singer, released three more albums – Mindfields (1999), Through The Looking Glass (2002) and Falling In Between (2006) – before the band decided to call it quits. Toto were no more. Or so we thought. Fast forward to 2010 and the band decides to get back together for some gigs to raise money for former bassist Mike Porcaro who battles ALS and whose medical bills were getting too high for him and his family to handle. One thing led to another and before they knew it, the band was back together for real again, now with Williams and Hungate back in the band. Next step, new record, of course. Which kinda happened at a convenient time. This side of 2010, AOR and melodic rock aren’t bad words anymore and the renaissance has made it way easier for bands like Toto to both tour and make new music. And to be honest, the guys aren’t exactly kids anymore and the records the have released after 1997 hasn’t really been up to par with their heyday albums and they really needed at least one more great album before they call it a day for real.
But the big question is, do they have it in themselves what it takes to make a true killer record anymore? It would be so easy for them to just look back and make a carbon copy of any old hit song. Hey, let’s make another The Seventh One and rewrite “Can’t Stop Loving You”, “Pamela” and “Home Of the Brave”. To be honest, the first time I heard the single “Orphan”, I was worried. It didn’t stick at all and it felt both abstemious and dull. It also had the sound of The Seventh One, albeit second-rate. But luckily the tune grew on me and after a few listens I found it a great little pop tune, but maybe not right as the first single. But a single makes no great band, it’s the whole album that is the judge if you still got what it takes and after the opening track, “Running Out Of Time” was through, my expectations had raised quite the bit. It’s a terrific song that sounds like classic Toto all the way, a bit on the progressive side, but still very catchy. “Burn” follows and it keeps the XIV trek interesting – big and heavy AOR, melodic and memorable, but not cheesy – great stuff. “Holy War” continues on the progressive side and even though no rewrite, I’m thinking about “Home Of The Brave” here, my guess is that that tune was the groundwork for this song. A killer tune, no matter how you look at it. “21st Century Blues” has a ballad vibe, but is really built on a blues foundation. Mixed with a pinch of AOR an a classic Toto melody makes it a highlight on this album. “Unknown Soldier (For Jeffrey)” is a progressive, very powerful ballad, dedicated to their late drummer Jeff Porcaro who died in 1992. Easily one of the best tracks on this record. “The Little Things” – a nice little pop song – would have fitted perfectly on Isolation, it’s very much Toto and a killer tune. “Chinatown” is without a doubt one of the best songs on this album. It’s progressive pop and takes us back to the early days of Hydra and Turn Back. The album dips a little with “All The Tears That Shine”. It’s not crap, but kind of dull and I find my mind going elsewhere. Same with “Fortune”. It has a jazzy vibe, but the song is a bit of a mess, sounds unfinished and doesn’t really go anywhere. With its almost seven minutes, “Great Expectations” is the album’s big prog-rock track. With a spellbinding melody, Toto mixes heavy arrangements that makes me think of both Dream Theater and Flying Colors. The last time I heard Toto go all in like this was with the instrumental “Dave’s Gone Skiing” from Tambu, one of my favourite Toto songs of all time. Brilliant.
Except a few minor setbacks song wise, there is really nothing to complain about here and I completely surrendered to this album after one listen. It grew on me even more after the second, so yes, if this is Toto’s swan song, then they can go out with their heads held high, but I really hope there will be more records from them. It might not say that much, but this is easily their best record since The Seventh One and even though this sounds completely like Toto, there are no radio friendly pop hits here. The melodies are still memorable, but the over all style has gone in a more progressive direction, heavier and more complex. The production is kind on the ears as well and crystal clear, but sounds a bit too compressed which affects the dynamics, but the album is still dynamic enough. Also, Simon Phillips has left the band after 22 years and is replaced by Keith Carlock. Now, Phillips has always been a fantastic drummer with a personal touch and that’s why it feels strange that it doesn’t affect the rhythm section at all. Yes, Carlock is that good. At least I can’t hear the change of drummer. And speaking of good, it’s really awesome to be able to state that Williams’ set of pipes still are world-class. After a few years of voice difficulties, Williams can hit those notes again – splendid! For any Toto-fan, this album is a must. I would strongly recommend it to any fan of AOR, melodic rock and for you lovers of a great player. For the rest of you, this album contains great songs and if great songs are what gets you going, then get this.
P.S. Mike Porcaro passed away just three weeks this review was being written. My condolences to Mike’s family and friends. D.S
Jon Wilmenius (8/10)
01. Running Out Of Time
03. Holy War
04. 21st Century Blues
06. Unknown Soldier (for Jeffrey)
07. The Little Things
09. All The Tears That Shine
11. Great Expectations