Earlier this month, former Toto bassist Mike Porcaro died after a long battle with ALS. He was 59. Replacing David Hungate (who’s since returned to the line-up), he’d joined the band in time for the seminal Toto IV tour, and continued to tour until his diagnosis in 2007. This week, Toto released their first studio album in nearly a decade.
It’s been a monster of a month, in other words, capped off with the bittersweet triumph that XIV is really good. Not just ‘alright for a band nearing their fourth decade’, but by wider contemporary rock standards. Keyboardist Steve Porcaro has said: “We are treating this like it is Toto V. We just want to be the best version of ourselves that we can be.” Which is pretty much exactly what we get with XIV. Toto clearly haven’t sought to reinvent themselves, but rather to deliver the strongest, shiniest rendition of their own sound. A sound that still values consumable pop tunes _and__ _considered, first-class musicianship.
Toto are, at their roots, shit-hot session musicians. Session musicians who pioneered American ‘radio rock’, yes, but always propelled by that erudite ability to push themselves musically – having cut their chops with Steely Dan, George Benson, Sonny & Cher and myriad others. Accordingly, their 38-year career has seen them dive into jazz, funk, prog rock, pop and blues; shaping a sound that’s at once familiar and daring. In that sense, they’re perhaps better equipped than many acts of their generation for a convincing, multi-dimensional comeback.
Running Out Of Time opens an instantly winning case for present-day Toto, armed with a hard, surprisingly modern-sounding riff ready to ring ‘oh-wow-this-is-really-good’ bells in any sceptical heads. The brooding Burn follows this with Africa-tinged contemplation, and a glorious AOR chorus – lead. Slides of sax in 21st Century Blues are subtle and genuinely cool, not tacky. Guitar showcases in the likes of Chinatown are superb, without straying into fretboard wankery – piqued by choice notes of jazzy suaveness (Steve Lukather’s longtime affection for Steely Dan is unashamedly clear here, bolstered by Dan drummer Keith Carlock and the slick bass grooves of Hungate).
Yes there are certain…ahem, ‘cornball’ moments (”all in the name of peace and love/what are we fighting for?” Williams and co cry earnestly in Holy War), but from the band who coined the immortal “I bless the rains down in Ahhhhfricahhhh!” refrain, we should hardly be surprised. And in an age of cynical smart-arsery, there’s something oddly warming about an act who can pull of such lyrical sincerity. Especially with the touching, balladic likes of The Little Things and All The Tears.
XIV wasn’t written as a tribute to Mike Porcaro, but in a sad twist of timing its stirring, heartfelt nature makes a triumphant ode to this noted figure in rock history.