In between the career cornerstones of Toto’s successful self-titled 1978 debut and the multi-million selling IV in 1982, there were a brace of releases that must have had Columbia Records close to pulling the plug on the renowned session musicians.
While its 1981 follow-up Turn Back certainly lacked the variation that fans had come to expect, the previous release Hydra had it in spades, mixing the rock, soul, jazz, funk and pop of their debut with grandiose orchestral-style arrangements, unorthodox rhythms, and musicianship that was simply off the scale.
From the film score sound effects that herald the lengthy title track to the closing ballad A Secret Love, nothing is played completely straight. David Paich’s melodic piano and organ are tempered by Steve Porcaro’s off-kilter melodies and original synth sounds, the drums of Jeff Porcaro and David Hungate’s expressive bass lay down foundations rooted in jazz fusion, funk and progressive rock, and the inimitable Steve Lukather comfortably plays in whatever style the song dictates.
The most obvious prog-friendly tracks are at the beginning; the multi-part atmospheric title track switching from a funky verse to a gritty guitar riff and a tricky ensemble triplet that was still being used live recently to showcase Simon Phillips’ drum prowess. St. George And The Dragon is more of the same, a simple verse branching out into a clever Lukather riff and Porcaro’s subtle drum patterns, while both Mama and 99 – the latter inspired by George Lucas’ cult film THX 1138 – stretch out from funk into jazz-fusion territory with extended keyboard solos. Even the seemingly straight-ahead rockers All Us Boys and White Sister don’t keep the same structure all the way through, the players putting in all those clever fills and little time changes that make Toto so unique. Vocally the album is a little different too, recognised lead singer Bobby Kimball only fronting half the album whilst Paich and Lukather chip in with their own distinctive styles.
Hydra may not be entirely groundbreaking, but the band did create something a bit different with this album, and as is usually the case with such things, it wasn’t one of their biggest sellers. However, they did manage to carry over the bits that worked to carve quite a career for themselves without completely compromising their integrity. They sporadically returned to more complex ideas for the odd track on albums like The Seventh One, Mindfields and Falling In Between, but Hydra remains the most eclectic release in their catalogue.