Toto XIV is a virtual greatest hits record, covering every facet of the band's classic sound, with a fresh contemporary production that's bigger than Ben Hur's big bits.
Toto XIV is a different beast compared to the band’s last album, Falling In Between, released some 9 years back now. There’s been a fair list of events to document in that space though. There has been the break up with vocalist Bobby Kimball; a live reunion to support Mike Porcaro (sadly suffering with ALS); the return of Steve Porcaro and David Paich to touring; the return of famed vocalist Joseph Williams (of Fahrenheit and The Seventh One fame); the departure of drummer Simon Phillips - with Steely Dan drummer Keith Carlock joining for the recording of this album (but now replaced by Shannon Forrest for the tour); a lengthy (now settled) lawsuit and not least of all, the return of original bassist David Hungate for the tour and also several tracks on this album.
I wasn't sold on XIV straight away like I was Falling In Between. But that goes to my previous point about the complexities revealing themselves over time and also the fact that while FiB was a true rock record, XIV is more laid back and inclusive of the band’s true historic sound.
This is a Westcoast/AOR record with moments of rock angst, much like the two Joseph Williams fronted albums.
It appears simpler on the surface, but the truth is it has a ton of layers, subtle and sublime arrangements and an underlying intensity.
Produced by CJ Vanston and the band, this record is the sonic equivalent of Gone With The Wind.
The word “subtle” gets used a lot in describing the songs here. The songs work far better as an entire listening experience. This flows beautifully as an album start to finish. So with that in mind, let’s go track by track:
Running Out Of Time is the lead track and our first taste of Joseph Williams back fronting the band. It’s a pulsating track that leads off with a definitive Luke riff similar to that of the opening to Falling In Between. But it’s a lot smoother and considered than FiB.
The bass of Tim Lefevbre (his only appearance on the album) thumps, but its Joseph that’s well in control. He sounds a million dollars and just sounds so comfortable alongside the unmistakable Toto sound in play.
The verse rolls along in quick time before a sonic blast of a chorus tears the song up.
Joe hits some notes not heard on a Toto record since The Seventh One while Luke’s guitar solo is measured and blended with some fine Paich keyboards, bookended by the song’s bombastic chorus.
Drumming legend Keith Carlock gives the sound an added complexity that continues throughout the album.
Burn is really quite extraordinary. It’s a song with two distinct aspects. A haunting verse and one of the biggest, most bombastic choruses Toto has ever composed.
Opening with an instantly memorable Paich piano hook and building slowly with a subtle drum fill and added keyboards, Joseph’s lead vocal is electrifying and simply devours the song once the chorus literally explodes. The bass line (courtesy of Lee Sklar) and Keith’s drumming delivers a rhythm section music aficionados will be in raptures over.
Just when the song couldn’t get any better, in comes some massive layered vocals only Toto can deliver. It reminds me of the mood of I Will Remember from Tambu.
The last minute of the song offers so much intense musical interplay that I found myself still discovering new parts a dozen listens in. Paich and Steve Porcaro’s piano layering in particular.
Lenny Castro as always adds percussion that simple cannot be described.
Holy War is, if anything, a defining Toto song. It just sums up this band and for me, sums up everything that I love in music. What appears to be a fairly simple melodic rock song is so much more once you dig beneath the ridiculously catchy chorus (where Joe shares lead with Luke) and the smooth melodic verse. Joseph’s vocals appear so simple, but listen to the execution of the softer vocal lines - such finesse cannot be taught.
The lyrics bite deeper than usual for Toto, talking religious hypocrisy and pleading for peace.
Luke’s guitar solo is classic Toto, classic Luke.
21st Century Blues is the first of several left turns in the album, with a distinctly Luke solo flavored track here, a bluesy mid-tempo swaggering song that could easily have fitting amongst his last couple of solo albums. David Hungate is playing bass on this track, the song is further Toto-ized with Carlock’s drumming mirroring that of the great Jeff Porcaro and Joseph Williams adds some fine harmony vocals.
The 6 minute track reaches its peak at the 5 minute mark, after which comes a flurry of piano and guitar dueling, which really makes the song.
Orphan is Joseph at his very best. Another extraordinary track, this song is a feel good rocker from the start. You just know something special is coming and the song deliverers, bursting to life with an energetic, melodic verse and a pomp-tastic blast for the chorus.
Once again, the song appears simplistic, but once you get further involved, you can see just how complex it is and the drumming is really exceptional. Luke again attends to bass duties.
My only wish is that the concluding part of the song featuring Luke’s lead guitar solo went for longer before fading out.
Luke is back on lead vocals (plus acoustic and electric guitar and bass) for the slow to mid-tempo epic Unknown Soldier. The moody, atmospheric five minute track has layers of instrumentation and percussion and a short, but decisive chorus, but the real joy of the track is the intense musical backdrop, which shows the genius of the talent in this band. The percussion and drumming in particular is another mind blowing display.
Luke’s constant touring in recent years has really fired up his voice. His vocals on this album are quite honestly the best I have ever heard from him.
It’s time for a break in the intensity of the album. And it’s time for Steve Porcaro to make his lead vocal debut on The Little Things. Steve isn’t that far from Joseph Williams’ tone and sounds great on this laid back, acoustic driven Westcoast melodic pop song. A simple song it seems, but the background layering of acoustic guitars and percussion take repeated listens to dissect. Hungate again appears on bass to give it that authentic Toto rhythm.
Chinatown is another song that only Toto could ever write. Or get away with! The song almost defies description, but I’ll try.
Leading off with a piano intro and a Paich vocal, there is a very quick back and forth with Paich and Williams trading lead vocal lines, but when Joe’s in control, he is accompanied by a bombastic burst of instrumentation, energy rivaling that of Burn from earlier in the album.
Then Luke buts in with his lead vocal delivered over a smooth jazzy passage of music that leads to the equally smooth jazzy chorus. Only Toto can do three lead vocals within the first minute! The subtle guitar/piano work is quite unbelievable as is the drums/percussion. So the song is jazzy, Westcoast pop song with a rock hook and a bluesy bass riff from David Hungate. Don’t forget the horns and saxophone. Genius!
It’s time for a sentimental ballad. While the second half of the album may appear softer than the first, this is the first real ballad. All The Tears features David Paich on lead vocal and some more outstanding piano work, with Luke taking over for the smooth, instantly likeable chorus hook, Joseph in the background on harmonies. The song has a really appealing chorus, a beautiful track all in all. Tal Wilkenfeld guests on bass on this and the following track.
Continuing a mid-tempo pace, Joseph Williams returns to lead vocal duties for the very smooth rock track Fortune. Another track that grows on repeat listens and features a distinctive Lukather guitar presence, not to mention plenty of Toto-esque special effects and percussion fills. Luke’s guitar tone is pure classic Toto. The closing minute or so of the album features another round of piano/guitar dueling that typifies the adventurous nature of these great musicians.
The regular album closes with what has to be another milestone song for Toto. This is just impossibly good. Mixing the history of the band into one track and reminiscent of the crazy good Dying On My Feet from Falling In Between, Great Expectations is a wild and crazy seven minute track. Starting very low key with some orchestration, piano and Paich’s vocal, the song quickly accelerates, moving from 5 to 95 within seconds, with a dashing slice of frantic keyboards and some thumping bass from Lukather. Joseph Williams then takes over vocals as the song goes from strength to strength, ramping up the pomp with every twist. Piano joins in for a higher pitch, anthemic chorus before turning back to how it all started. At the 3 minute mark the rule book is thrown overboard and it’s a musical free for all. The song winds through a restrained guitar solo, some atmospheric arrangements, an ethereal medieval styled guitar riff before turning complexly insane, featuring a truly progressive section of classic Toto IV harmonics, keyboards, piano, percussion, guitar and then bang….back to one final epic chorus. Breathtakingly good and the perfect way to close out any album.
For Japan there is the added bonus of another Steve Porcaro song – Bend. What's more - it's all Steve on this track - he plays all instruments. The song features another quiet vocal, over a new-age styled simple arrangement. The song lasts just under 3 minutes and isn’t essential, but at the same time, is a beautiful, sentimental song featuring some classy acoustic guitar work from the "other" Steve.
Toto’s complex history is replicated in their music. No one does it like Toto does.
The long wait between records was entirely worth it. Toto deliver another all-time classic with Toto XIV - a record that hides it’s complexity within some apparently simple songs whose layers are pealed back with every subsequent listen until your mind is filled with layers and layers of instrumentation and orchestration. Sometimes you feel as if you are listening to an entirely different song by paying attention to the different aspects within them.