Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Toto was on an impressive roll as they approached the end of the millennium. Pared down to a quartet of guitarist/lead vocalist Steve Lukather, keyboardist David Paich, bassist Mike Porcaro and drummer Simon Phillips, they re-established themselves on 1992’s Kingdom Of Desire and 1995’s Tambu as a kick-ass progressive hard rock/fusion band who could still bring a tear to your eye with an emotional ballad, never abandoning their signature knack for catchy melodies and tight harmonies. Although they maintained a loyal & passionate fan base overseas, they were virtually ignored in the US & UK. There wasn’t much they could do to remedy that situation, as radio stations were unlikely to play a “heritage” artist that hadn’t had a hit single in more than a decade. I doubt that the band expected to reignite the commercial success they had during the ‘80s at this point, but bringing back original lead vocalist Bobby Kimball as a full-time member for the first time since 1982’s mega-successful Toto IV was a step in the right direction that would enable them recapture the sound of those early records.
The first album released by this reconstituted version of Toto was Mindfields (1999), a sprawling 14-track, 75-minute opus that travels through many musical styles and moods, and would have been a double-album had it been released during the vinyl era. The cover art only hints at the psychedelic imagery featured throughout the packaging, which includes a lineup of yellow umbrellas emblazoned with infinity balls emanating from a topless Eiffel Tower, a bellhop named Martin with some kind of root vegetable for a head, a lion-zebra hybrid, a squadron of aircraft firing at a giant butterfly, and numerous other bizarre & thought-provoking images. The music throughout Mindfields is just as interesting as the visuals, and it’s clear by the diversity as well as the extended running times of most tracks that they were not interested in mainstream success anymore. In aiming to please themselves they created another high-water mark in their already impressive discography. I expected the continued high quality of their musicianship but Bobby Kimball is the real surprise here. Already in his early-50s by the time this album was released, my jaw dropped numerous times as I marveled at the power of his voice, which was just as expressive & distinctive as it was during the band’s early years.
♪ “Cruel” – The album opens with this bouncy midtempo tune with a chugging guitar riff, half-note piano and horn blasts. It immediately sounds like the Toto of their hit-making years, with a little Chicago mixed in (there was always a little crossover between the two back in the day). I love the softer pre-chorus (“Lift your head up babe, pull yourself together”) and the brighter, harmony-drenched chorus (“It’s such a cruel world when you have to think twice…”). It could/should be shorter than 6 minutes but that doesn’t keep this from being an essential addition to their catalog.
♪ “Caught in The Balance” – Another song whose extended running time nearly kept it from being essential, but the more I heard it the more I liked it. The one-minute intro features soft synth washes on top of a Stewart Copeland-esque reggae-inspired groove with Lukather guitar blasts. The upbeat, shimmering chorus puts this one over the top: “It’s a crime to live my life without you…and when I close my eyes I’m caught in the balance.”
♪ “High Price Of Hate” – The longest song at more than 9 minutes, this slow blues number features massive performances from everyone. It may not break any new ground but it’s still a high point in their career. Kimball is in fine form and the interplay between guitar & organ is a key reason that it had such an impact on me.
♪ “Better World” – This 8-minute progressive epic starts with nearly 2-1/2 minutes of instrumental brilliance: synth, electric piano, light percussion and searing David Gilmour-esque guitar shifts to a syncopated driving groove with incredible accented drumming from Phillips. There’s also an outstanding 90-second instrumental outro, and between these two sections of musical excellence lies some beautiful melodies and strong vocals, especially during the chorus (“Oh…let’s make this a better world”).
[Toto – “Better World”] [audio http://k003.kiwi6.com/hotlink/brre6n2p0v/Better_World.mp3]
Other Notable Tracks:
The subsequent concert recording Livefields (1999) is a much better representation of the Toto live experience than 1993’s Absolutely Live. While the latter had an impressive set list, the lack of at least one of their two best lead singers (Bobby Kimball and Joseph Williams) impacted their overall sound. Also, Simon Phillips had been a last-minute replacement for the recently departed Jeff Porcaro, so the band was only beginning to gel as a unit. By the time Livefields appeared, Kimball was back and Phillips was their full-time drummer, making it their first definitive live album. Between the main CD and the 3-track bonus disc they delivered 19 songs and 3 solo showcases (by Lukather, Phillips & Paich). Only a handful of these tracks would appeal to casual fans who only know Toto’s biggest hits (“Rosanna,” “Hold The Line,” “I Won’t Hold Back”), but for those of us who have enjoyed their entire discography there’s one highlight after another. The sound quality is perfect, with every nuance of their performances clearly audible. They throw in a few surprises, including a long-lost track from Toto XX: 1977-1997 (“Tale Of A Man”) and even an acoustic version of one song from the short-lived Jean-Michel Byron era (“Out Of Love,” which appeared on the Past To Present compilation), although they skipped everything from the Fergie Frederkisen and Joseph Williams eras. The acoustic section also features “Mama,” “You Are The Flower” and “The Road Goes On,” offering a nice contrast to the full electric power of the rest of the show. Even the songs I didn’t love from the original albums become standouts in the live setting, proving just how deep their catalog is. In case I haven’t made it clear yet, this is a spectacular live album that should appeal to anyone who has ever enjoyed their music.
There comes a time in just about every artist’s career that they release a “covers album,” a collection of other people’s songs. Very few are essential listening and most are aimed solely at their most ardent fans, with the worst offenders offering up the dreaded “Great American Songbook” (only the best of the best can truly pull that off). Fortunately Toto didn’t go down that route for Through The Looking Glass (2002), instead focusing on a diverse collection of artists that inspired them during their formative years. The recent lineup of Lukather, Paich, Kimball, Porcaro & Phillips continued their winning streak, even though some of the choices (The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Elton John’s “Burn Down The Mission,” Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” and The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You”) are either a little too faithful to the originals or the re-workings lack a spark of inspiration. In most cases I would have preferred to hear the originals, since I’m a big fan of a majority of these artists, but they put their own stamp on a handful of tracks that deserve special mention.
♪ “Maiden Voyage/Butterfly” – A combination of two Herbie Hancock songs, one from his acoustic jazz years with Blue Note Records in the ‘60s and the other from his ‘70s funk/jazz-fusion period at Columbia Records. With light percussion & a programmed rhythm track, the other musicians take a back seat to Steve Lukather for this 7-1/2 minute instrumental excursion. His sweet guitar tone and dynamic soloing are reason enough to hear this album.
Other Notable Tracks:
Released only four years (and one studio album) after their last live album, 25th Anniversary – Live In Amsterdam (2003) is every bit as essential as its predecessor. Of the 19 songs included here, only 4 are repeated from Livefields, and there are more deep cuts featured this time. It’s heavily weighted toward their first four albums (for a total of 14 tracks), but we also get to hear Kimball handle a couple of songs originally sung by Joseph Williams: “Home Of The Brave” and “Till The End,” the latter squeezed into a medley that begins with a full airing of “Waiting For Your Love” (with an incredible acoustic guitar solo by Lukather) followed by sections of “Georgy Porgy,” “Lion,” “Hydra” and “English Eyes.” I love how they stretch out some songs, such as “Africa” and “Rosanna,” into interesting directions without being over-indulgent or overstaying their welcome. There will be a couple more live albums discussed next time, but I highly recommend the two covered in this post as definitive statements of Toto in concert.
I will be temporarily suspending this series as I await the release of their latest studio album (and first in 9 years), Toto XIV, at the end of March 2015. This record marks the return of Joseph Williams and is being touted as the “true follow-up to Toto IV.” Comparing their new release to their best-seller from three decades ago is likely a result of record company hype, but I have high expectations that I’m sure will be met or exceeded. For my next post I’ll revisit the other studio album released since Through The Looking Glass along with two live albums and Toto XIV. Until then I will write another artist series which should begin within a couple of weeks.
If you’ve been enjoying these Toto posts and want to learn more from an insider’s perspective, I urge you to read this informative interview with Steve Lukather from October 2013, conducted by Ultimate Classic Rock: