Toto - XIV (Frontiers)

A Spectacular return to the band's feared-lost glory days...
Release Date: 
22 Mar 2015 - 11:30pm

Toto: Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they don’t seem to be ever going away, and despite another period between albums wracked with personal tragedy (this time around former bassist Mike Porcaro lost his battle with the disease ALS), the band that between it’s members has sold a staggering half a billion records have returned with possibly their finest work since 1984’s genre-defining Isolation.

I say possibly because I have, at times, fallen into the hate category as far as Toto are concerned, specifically when they seemed to lose the desire to rock some time around the release of 1992’s Kingdom of Desire, and consequently lost interest in the band's progress a little; Sure, with the guitar genius that is Steve Lukather in the band there’s always a bit of swift-fingered showing off to enjoy on all the band’s albums, but for these ears at least the band has lacked a certain something since they parted ways with vocalist Fergie Fredriksen, now also sadly deceased, after Isolation.

Still, that’s water under the bridge now, and I’m delighted to report that Toto in 2015 has got its rock boots back on and delivered a storming slab of progressively-tinged AOR that literally doesn’t stop delighting from the moment you press play to the final fade out. Opening up with the stridently jazzy prog of Running Out of Time is a good move, alerting the listener to the fact that the band is firing on all cylinders, prodigal vocalist Joseph Williams putting in an edgy performance full of all the things he was hired for in the first place; He handles the chorus effortlessly, riding some neat Lukather riffage and lodging the song in your psyche in short order.

Second track Burn is a frankly gargantuan, slow burning ballad built on a simple piano phrase from David Paich (or Steve Porcaro, I’m not sure which) that again refuses to budge from the memory once it’s lodged there, backed up by some elephantine drumming from Keith Carlock (who also helps out with backup vocals on this track). This is Toto transported to their pomp rock glory days circa the albums Hydra (1979) and 1981’s Turn Back, and it is, in two words, monstrously good.

Holy War is a spritely rocker featuring split vocals from Williams and Lukather, before the band stretches itself out on the jazzy, Steely Danesque 21st Century Blues; This is more the Toto we’ve come to expect over the years, but none the worse for that – and it features some of Lukather’s best playing on the album.

Next up is the glittering Orphan, and you can see why the band decided to release this delicious piece of pop rock as a single, hinging as it does on the biggest chorus of an album full of big choruses. Lukather’s solo on the fadeout is another highlight, not least because it heralds the entrance of the albums’ near-epic centrepiece, the brooding Unknown Soldier (For Jeffrey)

Despite being a fine, fine song, Unknown Soldier... gives cause for the only real quibble it’s possible to have with this album – it’s too short! The track has all the hallmarks of being ripe for a position amongst this band’s best, yet at five minutes and fifteen seconds it just feels a little unfinished – surely, after the finely crafted crescendos and diminuendos we get, a tour-de-force solo is what’s needed to give the track its rightful and much-deserved resolution? Maybe in the live arena, eh?..

But that truly is an exercise in looking hard to find fault, and the song stands as is as being rather a fine one whatever my misgivings. Once Unknown... is done we’re presented with keyboard player Porcaro singing his own composition The Little Things, which, despite being a fine piece of pop balladry in its own right sits a little uncomfortably amidst the pomp and circumstance it finds itself embedded in, but no matter – every album needs a bit of light and shade, and The Little Things is very light indeed. 

David Paich leads in vocally on the spectacular Chinatown, and again we’re transported back to the glory days of Toto in the late seventies/early eighties. The whiff of Steely Dan again hangs heavy in the air – not to mention close musical cousins Chicago - but that really matters not one whit as the track unfurls itself gorgeously over the course of five and a quarter sumptuous minutes, This really is Toto at their pompous, jazzy best, and you won’t hear better. And guess what? Lukather throws in another slinkily impressive solo to boot. 

The whistful, refective All the Tears That Shine drops things down a notch, and features a touching, heartfelt lead vocal from Paich. It’s schmaltz, but in a good way, whilst penultimate track Fortune is a laid back piece of funk strutting penned by Williams and obviously designed to show off his elastically impressive vocal chops – and this aim is achieved in spades. Eighties funk rock hasn’t sounded this good since, well… the eighties.

All of which leaves the pomp and precocity of Great Expectations to close things out. As it’s portentious title suggests, it’s an epic, building on a stark, sparse intro of Paich accompanied by piano and cello before breaking out on some quite Pete Townshend-circa-Tommy riffing and blossoming into yet another glorious chorus. It’s the whole album in a triumphant seven-minute microcosm, and it heralds the spectacular return to pomp rock form of one of the genre’s most important – if feared lost forever – acts. Toto XIV is a spectacular, virtually unqualified success.