TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 12 February 2013
I'd never heard this album in its entirety until I started researching an article for Drummer magazine on Jeff Porcaro. My original intention was to write a piece on 'IV', famed for tracks such as Rosanna and Africa. As I worked my way back through their albums I expected the first to be the least impressive. Surely they'd be just finding their chemistry? I knew the core of the band had worked together a lot already as sessionistas, but I wasn't prepared for the magnificence of this at all.
Sure, it's not 100% consistent in some respects, although it's more a matter of their wide range not necessarily appealing equally to all. In term's of musical prowess and focus it's 100% consistent though, and personally I regard Toto's eclecticism as a major strength, in these days of niche-marketed uniformity. At the time of release the dullards at Rolling Stone found Toto's eclecticism and use of four vocalists* weaknesses... oh dear! As a musician myself I find, even amongst fellow musicians, that people seem to think 'the public' can't cope with more than one person taking lead vocals. Of course there are countless example to prove such narrow thinking wrong, I'll just mention one: The Beatles!
There are tunes here many will know, Hold The Line being the prime example. But there are also such lesser known gems as the rockin' Girl Goodbye, or the joyful keys-driven pop of Rockmaker - both totally new to me - the latter blending American pop rock gloss with a proto-eighties (remember this was recorded in '78!) semi-English pop vibe. Or did Toto subliminally inspire some of our more whiny punk-soused acts of the 1980s? It hardly seems credible, but there's a definite sonic parallel, even extending to the vocal stylings of composer/keys player David Paich. The same cannot perhaps be said of Steve Lukather's out and out US rock guitar. Lukather's sound was so ubiquitous in the '80s it can sound a bit generic now. But first of all he's superb, and secondly, having recorded many hundreds of sessions, he was practically a one-man genre in himself. If his sound has been much imitated, that shouldn't detract from hearing him at source.
And, as Leftin points out in his review (the only other person to review this masterpiece so far!), there's the utterly magnificent Hold The Line. This superb song shows how stripped back and lean the Toto sound could be. The multiple vocal options Toto had at this point give a rich range of varied voice textures, from the softly delivered Georgy Porgy, sung by Lukather, to the pop-rock bombast of Hold The Line, sung by their 'official' lead vocalist Bobbie Kimball, who is possessed (even now) of an amazing voice, with superb harmonies thickening the mix wonderfully left, right and centre.
When Georgy Porgy first faded in to my speaker I immediately knew I'd heard it many times over the years. It was in fact one of the singles from the album, rather surprisingly to my mind. But I'd never realised it was Toto. I think it's a terrific song; the vocal choruses are almost 'throwaway' funky soul (and feature Cheryl Lynn guesting on vocals), in that it has a light humour, but musically it's pretty heavyweight. By contrast the main verse is simply achingly beautiful, the lithe rhythm section grooving in a mode that's languid but energised, charged with laid-back blue-eyed soul eroticism. Jeff Porcaro's relaxed, fluid sixteenth note hi-hat groove is rhythmic perfection embodied, and the tracks slinky groove benefits hugely from Lenny Castro's congas and percussion.
Vocalist Kimball's You Are The Flower is a straight-ahead funky-soul genre piece. I'm not sure who sings this; is it Kimball (he's credited on the Wiki entry for the album), or Cheryl Lynn again? Whoever it is, their voice is incredible. And the oafs at Rolling Stone didn't think Toto had one decent singer, when they had at least four... Unfathomable ignorance! Girl Goodbye, like all but two tracks (Kimball's Flower and Steve Porcaro's Takin' It Back), is another Marty Paich composition, and starts with either Porcaro or Paich's synths dominant - I don't always like their choice of sounds (very 80s sounding, even for 1978!), but man, they can play. This track features the most ebullient prog-funk-rock riffery of the album, barring only the opener, where one feels the band's energy and instrumental prowess soaring. Turn it up loud, rock out... Bliss!
Takin' It Back is another newly discovered gem to me. Some friends of mine like Toto best in maximum rock mode. Personally I prefer their mellower more soulful stuff, like Takin' It Back and Georgy Porgy. Rockmaker manages to slide right between - to limbo under, if you will - these two poles, in a blissfully melodic pop vein. I love this music: intelligence, passion, artistry, deftly switching gears dynamically, and displaying appropriate disregard for the limited worldview of such genre-specific numbskulls as were then reviewing records at Rolling Stone (the kind of monotone morons who now seem to entirely dominate the popular music industry).
There's astonishing breadth of vision musically here, but whilst it's staggeringly rich, the Toto sound circa 1978 is both a lot leaner than it would be at later stages in their career, and much subtler too, relying less on the rock bombast of some of their 80s records. Hold The Line is probably the best known track on the album, and also one of the best examples of their more pared down sound, but almost all of this album is terrific. To hardcore Toto fans my slight distaste for what I find a slightly portentous opening instrumental, Child's Anthem, might be sacrilegious, but hey, it's just not my favourite track on an album that is otherwise stuffed with gems.
An astonishingly assured debut, which ranges musically and emotionally over a very large territory, this is a truly splendid album. Hydra has a few good tracks, but Toto only really got near to this level again with IV. and as good as IV was, I'll probably be picking this album for my article instead. It's certainly my favourite.
* Actually there are five featured vocalists: Kimball, Lukather, Paich and Steve Porcaro, plus guest Shery Lynn.