This isn’t the first time a band has been faced with such an ultimatum, and what usually breaks the contract is a covers album, an acoustic covers album, or sometimes a live album. Maximal obligation filler with minimal effort. But there was a complicating factor that changed the minds of the members that ultimately represented the band on the new recording Toto XIV (that’s 14 for the non-Roman among us), being Lukather, David Paich, Joseph Williams, Steve Porcaro, and drummer Keith Carlock. That was the mounting medical costs for Mike Porcaro, bassist, who had been dealing with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) for years. The thought was that they were contractually bound to do one more Toto album, perhaps the last Toto album. Why not really work it? Why not use it to help defray the costs of Porcaro’s bills?
So Toto set off to make one of their best efforts in many years. The story behind Toto XIV is good, but the music that came from it is never half-hearted or obligatory. as a matter of fact, the term that applies most succinctly to the record is “est.” When the band rocks, as found on the openers “Running Out Of Time” and “Burn,” they’re at their hardest. When they stretch out and get proggy, as with “Unknown Soldier (For Jeffrey)” they’re at their proggiest. When they swing, like on “Fortune,” they’re at their jazziest. Original bassist David Hungate appears on a few tracks, further solidifying the reunion qualifications.
I’ll admit that I was hesitant about the release. While I liked the first single “Orphan,” I wasn’t sure that Toto was the right messenger for such an all-inclusive statement like “You’re never alone in the world if you believe in each and every one of us.” Even so, I found myself going back to the song again and again. All the reasons to discount the song were trumped by better reasons to like it. There’s no such ambivalence to other tracks on the disc.
That’s saying a lot. I’d written the band off some time ago. I think a lot of people had. While never a superfan, I thoroughly enjoyed tracks like “I Won’t Hold You Back,” “Make Believe,” and “I Will Remember.” If someone told me last year that I would have something positive to say about a new Toto album, having had a very negative opinion of their cover record Through The Looking Glass, I would have thought them crazy. The difference may be that there is a sense of deep investment here, which would have been clearly interpreted even if I knew nothing of the story of the record’s inception.
Each member brings something revitalized to the mix, and although it has been said in numerous interviews by now, this is Joseph Williams’ victory lap. Having been the singer on Fahrenheit and The Seventh One, and having seen his excesses get the better of him, Williams positively tears the roof off of the arena. There is age in his voice, but not obtrusively. He hits those high notes and low notes with equal vigor and soul. Lukather is Lukather, the archetypal go-to guy for guitar work. Paich and Porcaro bring all the texture you expect from Toto. After all, the piano sound is the group’s signature instrument, if you think about it. Almost every one of their big hits is anchored by piano, and that is not lost on Toto XIV.
It’s one of those exceedingly rare instances where a band comes back with unexpected energy and with purpose, and to think that this very nearly could have been a paint-by-numbers contract-killer makes the story all the more compelling. Sadly, Mike Porcaro passed away on March 15. If this album is in fact meant for him, it is a gift of integrity, brotherhood and love. And if this record is the end of the band as has been claimed, I don’t think you could cap a career better, although I am now — shockingly — hoping they will reconsider.