In some ways, it couldn’t have been more surprising, and not just because David Paich, Steve Lukather and Steve Porcaro have been together, off and on, since the 1970s. Or that their last meaningful work with returning frontman Joseph Williams dates back to the Reagan-Bush years. Or even the long layover between Toto albums of any kind before XIV, due in March 2015 via Frontiers. It’s in the way they’ve come together, along with a group including founding bassist David Hungate, long-time recording partner Michael McDonald, new drummer Keith Carlock and others, to pull this off.
“Running Out of Time,” the perfectly attenuated opener, quickly establishes Toto’s credentials. The verses feel like prog, the chorus like soaring pop. Toto was always more than the sum of its hits, and “Running Out of Time” holds within its DNA a bit of everything that made them as reliably listenable and they are consistently overlooked. Don’t get the idea, however, that XIV is about laurel resting. That song’s clock-ticking theme, for a band that hasn’t released an new studio effort since 2006’s Falling in Between, couldn’t be more fitting — and Toto seems all too aware of it. In keeping, they spend much of the rest of XIV contesting every trope that’s risen up around them.
Those expecting the typical Toto ballad will welcome “Burn,” even as its inventive construction — contemplative and then exploding with emotion — challenges the ear. XIV is, in fact, dotted with that kind of involving musical originality, as with “All the Tears,” where a trickling jazz-inflected undercurrent reveals dizzying new depths. They push themselves lyrically, too. “Holy War,” besides providing a platform for Lukather to untether a few nasty licks, dives into darkly complex topical waters. “Orphan” finds a barking Williams pushing his voice into vivid new places — with a lyric that’s just as frank. Lukather’s incisive, confrontational “Unknown Soldier,” subtitled “For Jeffrey,” faces all that’s been lost within their family — but bracingly frames it within the larger sacrifices made by a country in what seems like a perpetual state of war.
Not that there aren’t touchstone moments for long-time fans. The similarly topical “21st Century Blues” and their cooly episodic “Chinatown” — the latter of which smartly brings together all of Toto’s front-line singers — both catch a sleek, urbane groove not unfamiliar to anyone who first came to know Toto through their early work behind Boz Scaggs. “The Little Thing” reminds us of every sweetly romantic moment from 1986’s Fahrenheit and 1988’s The Seventh One, Williams’ initial collaborations with Toto. Powered along by a cool intertwining of Williams and Lukather’s voices, “Fortune” echoes the endlessly inviting prog-pop of 1979’s underrated Hydra — and then the album-closing (and perhaps winkingly titled) “Great Expectations” completely reanimates it.
Ultimately, that might have given XIV more of a feeling of culmination, if not for the manner in which this group so consistently tested itself. By so doing, XIV has escaped the sense of embalmed valedictory that often surrounds such enterprises. Instead, Toto has produced a visceral, entirely present return, one that acknowledges their best moments even as it builds upon them.