(All Album Reviews by Epilepticgibbon)
There's something frankly uncool about Toto. I don't know how big they are in the US these days, but in the UK they've either been forgotten about completely and erased from musical history or they're dismissed as a MOR/AOR band who had a couple of hits in the 1980s and that's about it.
I'll admit that I wasn't hugely excited when I heard that they'd released a new album and the snippets of tracks I heard, combined with cheesy song titles like “Bottom of Your Soul” (how Spinal Tap is that?!), hardly encouraged me to check it out. But that just shows how preconceived ideas and short song samples are no replacement for actually hearing an album in full. The truth is – and you may be shocked to hear this – Toto's new album is a genuine delight, an example of what can happen when an experienced and talented group who have perhaps seen better days come together to produce musical gold-dust. And trust me, I'm as surprised about this as you are.
Don't get me wrong, I've never been a major detractor of Toto, in fact I've liked much of what I've heard the band do, it's just that
1. I haven't heard that much, and,
2. I thought they were a spent force, with their best days long behind them.
I'm glad to write that on the latter point I was very much mistaken.
This is a 10-track album featuring an impressive Toto line-up: original Toto lead vocalist Bobby Kimball is still with the band having returned to the line-up in 1998 after a 15-year absence, and he's joined by fellow founder members David Paich (vocals, keyboards) and Steve Lukather (guitars, vocals), plus long-time bassist Mike Porcaro, talented British drummer Simon Phillips, and the 'new boy', the highly experienced Greg Phillinganes on keyboards and vocals. You may not be familiar with all these names but this is a killer line-up: between them they have years of performing experience but this line-up of the group is still relatively new, though you wouldn't know it from the sound of the album which manages to sound both highly polished and technically assured, on the one hand, and natural and vibrant, on the other.
One might understandably have concerns, but this is not the sound of a band just going through the motions, nor does it feel manufactured or sterile. It's also good to know that the music on the album is the result of a genuine group effort with nearly all the songs on the album having been written collaboratively by five or even all six members of the group, with occasional contributions from ex-band member (and brother of Mike) Steve Porcaro. And there is an extremely cohesive feel to the album despite the numerous songwriters, several special guests, the fact that across the album there are five different lead vocalists, and sometimes three or four on any given track, and that the album moves between hard rockers, ballads, jazz, funk, gospel and lots of progressive rock elements, often mixing any number of these styles together on the same track. This mixture of styles is highly characteristic of Toto and it's always been difficult to know where to place them – are they an AOR/MOR band?, a prog rock band?, a rock band that touches on jazz, funk and soul? It's also been difficult for Toto, with their diverse musical history spread across three decades, to please all of their fans all of the time, but here I think they have created a near perfect balance, drawing on all their diverse past styles but bringing them together to create something new and relatively fresh sounding (I'm not going to tell you that this album is truly groundbreaking – it's still a Toto album and has that feel about it, but nevertheless it's got a real sense of vitality and freshness to it).
Okay, a brief track-by-track guide… the album starts in a real bold fashion with the title track, arguably the heaviest track on the album. It's not exactly Dream Theater but this is the closest Toto have ever come to sounding like a prog metal band – there are some very heavy crunchy guitars on here and they combine, particularly towards the end of the track, with several layers of very prog sounding keyboards and orchestral flourishes. In this sense the track is perhaps closer to Led Zeppelin than Dream Theater. Add in Bobby Kimball's truly powerful vocals on the verses, some Middle Eastern and jazzy touches scattered throughout, and you have an absolutely storming opener.
“Dying On My Feet” starts off as something of a contrast, with a much more jazzy/bluesy opening, but later it explodes into orchestral breaks, a proggy instrumental section, some glorious vocal harmonies, a huge horn section, and a great guitar solo from Lukather. Blimey, this track is all over the place (and I mean that in a good way) during its six minutes and 11 seconds, and yet it all fits together perfectly.
Next we reach “Bottom of Your Soul”, a fairly epic mid-tempo ballad/protest song that is the longest track on the album at seven minutes and was also released as a single (in the US; I doubt it got a UK release). Earlier I criticised this song for its Spinal Tap'esque title and I stand by that, though it's actually the weakest part of an otherwise rather enjoyable track. Some of the lyrics are a bit cringeworthy but its heart is in the right place and musically it's very melodic, with an African 6/8 rhythm and vibe to it, and wonderful interplay between Lukather's guitar and Phillinganes' piano. Spinal Tap would certainly have done it very differently!
“King Of The World” is apparently about the fall of the Enron Corporation, an American-based company that became hugely successful largely on the back of creative and institutionalized accounting fraud but eventually ended up bankrupt, leading to record job losses in the process. Despite the serious subject matter, this is very much an uptempo rock number with a hugely catchy anthemic chorus and a really great instrumental break. I'm sure this will become a fan favourite; it certainly is with me already.
Next track up is “Hooked”, a heavier, grittier and more straight-ahead rock number, described by Bobby Kimball as an in-your-face message about things beyond control in your life. There's no doubt that this is a bit more of a straightforward rocker for the most part, though this doesn't stop it from going into an amazing proggy instrumental passage that features the mighty Ian Anderson (from Jethro Tull) giving it all on a flute solo.
At the half way point of the CD there is yet another definite change of pace with “Simple Life”, the shortest track on the album, a solo composition from Steve Lukather. This is another ballad but a much shorter and subtler one than “Bottom of Your Soul”. In fact it feels so short (and so passionate and beautifully textured too) that you feel that it should be longer and that it's going to break into another verse/chorus, but it never does. Apparently, this was intentional, so that people would want to play it again straight afterwards, and it certainly has that effect on me.
And as you sit there waiting for more, coming to terms with the fact that there isn't any, you're suddenly hit by “Taint Your World”, another swaggering guitar-driven rock number. This really is a raw, rock 'n' roll track if ever there was one, apparently written and recorded to give an indication of how Toto sound live, as well as being a tribute to Van Halen. It's fast and furious stuff, full of a surprising degree of attitude and I must admit that I was somewhat shocked to hear Bobby Kimball use the 'f-word' here – this is not something I've ever really associated with Toto before – but I challenge you to not find the song intensely invigorating.
Then we come to probably my favourite track on the album “Let It Go”, with Greg Phillinganes making his lead vocal debut and doing an amazingly impressive job of it. This follows on nicely from the previous track because it maintains the tempo, though there's yet another change in the style because “Let It Go” adopts much more of a jazz/funk rhythm and Greg's background in soul/R&B means that his vocal style suits the track perfectly. In many ways this is a perfect Toto track due to its mix of rock, jazz and funk, but it's musically complex enough and features enough twists and turns to please many a prog fan too, plus it's got so many layers of lush instrumentation, the standard incredible vocal harmonies, a terrific groove, and yet another outstanding guitar solo from Lukather. I can't see me tiring of this track anytime soon and I've already played it more times than any other on the album.
The penultimate track on the CD is “Spiritual Man”, a soulful ballad with a strong gospel feel to it, telling the stories of different spiritual figures within each verse. I'm not 100% convinced by this track, largely because some of the lyrics don't quite work for me, but overall, taken at face value, this is a sweet and emotional song with typically strong vocal performances, musicianship and production. I appreciate the sentiments and it's certainly not a dud track but it doesn't quite work for me on every level.
The album goes out on a high, though, with “No End In Sight”, a track that starts slowly but builds ever more powerfully, both musically and vocally. The lyrics deal with our dark and troubled times, specifically (but not entirely) focusing on the war in Iraq. I find the lyrics much more affective than those on the previous track and Lukather and Kimball do an excellent job with the vocals. Musically this a powerful and intricate way to end the album and I particularly like the atmospheric keyboard solo that comes about four minutes into the track. The stirring chorus offers both hope and fear about the future and rounds the album off in an excellent fashion.
Overall, I don't have many negative things to write about Falling In Between. Lyrically it occasionally falls down, sometimes resorting to cliché or cornball, but this is not a major complaint and for the most part it's balanced out by sincere vocals and otherwise excellent songwriting. The only other thing of course is that maybe Toto aren't your bag and if you have no interest at all in prog-tinged AOR then I might suggest you look elsewhere. However, I would say that Toto have managed to transcend the usual genre boundaries and have produced an album that does an excellent job of mixing assorted styles and which contains one great song after another. I'm no Toto expert but this is surely one of the finest albums of their career and offers all you could want from a Toto album and much more besides. In years to come I'd be surprised if this wasn't looked upon as a truly classic album.
Best tracks: “Falling In Between”, “Dying On My Feet”, “King Of The World”, “Simple Life”, “Let It Go”, “No End In Sight”.