Sunday, August 23, 2009

Clash of the Titans

In the feast or famine world of blog posts, going into this weekend I felt like I had nothing to blog about. Now I have a couple of things to post about which is pretty cool. So I'm going to start with the post I'm most excited about, I was in a Toto mood but wasn't sure what to say that I haven't said already about this great group. I thought about a career overview except I've already covered two of their albums in my Favorite 100 Cds list and I've read an excellent overview of their career already at Popdose so I thought I would focus on a single album. Isolation came to mind because it's an album I always go back to like comfort food though I covered that album before so I decided to go with Hydra from 1979.

When I started buying Toto records a lot of their back catalog was in the cut out bins for the "Nice Price" including Hydra. It had this weird record cover, all blue green and a Steve Lukather (Toto's guitarist) looking guy in silhouette with the Toto sword from the first record cover. What was this record cover trying to say? Rock and roll dungeons and dragons in a sewer? Isn't a hydra one of those snake beasts with multiple heads from the Ocean, why would you wait for one in a sewer? It's not like one of those urban myths where you drop an alligator down a manhole and it grows up to eat people. You don't find a lot of hydras at the pet store.

Anywho, the gatefold cover opened and there were pictures of the band inside like they were scholar / adventurers or something which made it even weirder. So maybe the idea was to set up this concept that they had mythic stories to tell, which would go well with what is Toto's proggiest album. I remember a BAM magazine interview where David Paich (keyboardist, vocalist and main songwriter) said the first record was made to have a commercial sound to prep an audience for Hydra, the album they really wanted to make. So let's take a look at Toto's most epic effort.

In Greek mythology the Hydra was a 9 headed creature that lived in the water and protected an entrance to the Underworld. The creature would grow back two heads for each one that was cut off except for one which was the main head. Hercules defeated the hydra as one of his great tasks. These notes in small font I had to look up because I only had a vague idea of what some of these things were.

What inspired this post was browsing through Toto videos on You Tube (I know, exciting person I am!) and finding all these promo clips for this record which I never saw before. I'm watching the Hydra one for the first time right now (linked in the song title above). Oh wow, the video pretty much is exactly how I pictured what the album cover was about. Toto plays in the famous sewer while a guy (not Steve Lukather, an actor who kinda resembles his haircut) goes to rescue a woman held captive there presumably by the hydra only away? Interesting (reminded me of Monty Python). I never got this song lyrically, I just love the sheer progginess of it. Toto is a band of musicians who can definitely play and they go off here with dizzying solos and breakdowns and handclaps and everything. I'm a fan of prog rock and so I can't put down a chance to hear these world class musicians stretch out. Maybe the different types of musical bits and riffs stuck together that make up this track make it like a hydra, a multiheaded monster. Usually music of this type is done by British bands, it's refreshing to hear a more American take on the genre (I know other bands like Styx or Kansas has done it too though). When I saw Toto perform in 1999 Paich included the piano part of "Hydra" in his solo, the fans totally marked out. Looking back at the video now from the vantage point of about 5 minutes ago, I wonder image wise was it a good idea to play in a rat filled sewer? It invites non fans to say it was where they belonged (you know who you are :).

In mythology, St George defeated and slayed a dragon to save a town from being terrorized by the beast and converted them all to Christianity

From hydras to dragons, Toto has it in for reptilian creatures this time out. This was a track I would skip to often on the record player, I think Jeff Porcaro's drumming is fantastic. The way he goes from a steady cowbell beat to thunderous fills is amazing. The lyric "I can see by the look in your eye /you've never seen the man with nothing to say" has stuck in my mind all these years for some reason. This is another song where I just found the video clip and watched just now, great stuff. If anyone has ever wanted to see singer Bobby Kimball jump off a ladder in slow motion surrounded by smoke, this is what you've been waiting for!

3. 99
In mythology...naw, just kidding they drop the mythology theme from this point forward. Like many, I thought this song was about Agent 99 Barbara Feldon from tv's Get Smart. Paich has said in interviews he was inspired by George Luca's THX-1138.

The lone hit from Hydra and I think it only made Top 30 on Billboard. A disappointing showing considering the prior album had a Top 10 hit with "Hold The Line". Nonetheless, I've heard this song often on adult contemporary radio. It has a sleek, mellow groove and a great keyboard solo by Steve Porcaro. Really classy how this song keeps a dynamic to it with how it builds and falls without ever getting noisy. This song may have the most love for a number this side of Sesame Street. My only complaint is at the end of the track, they repeat this musical pattern over and over getting increasingly quieter until they're hardly playing at all. That part goes on way to long for me. The rest of the track? Pure magic. And I am still thrown that guitarist Steve Lukather sang most of the ballads considering in interviews he doesn't come across as super sensitive or anything.

You didn't think you would really get through a Toto album without a girl's name in a song title did you? David Paich takes lead vocals again (he has like three on this record, I can't think of another Toto album from the classic 1978 - 1990 period where he had this much) to tell Lorraine that it's almost over between them. This one was a track I would skip over sometimes, it had an odd juxtaposition of this quiet classical sounding verse and jaunty 50's sounding chorus. I don't like how those two mesh, even now. Not a favorite of mine.

5. All Us Boys

Another song I used to skip a lot back in the days of vinyl, where I would flip over the record and head straight for "White Sister". This song was frustrating for me because the fast beat and sizzling guitar solos were right up my alley, it just had these dorky lyrics I couldn't get past. Something like "All Us Boys want to drink and kick, carry a stick, we're getting older and so much bolder" I think. Toto tries hard to position themselves as rock and roll bad boys, the types mother's wouldn't want to let near their daughters. Instead they come off as trash talking mathletes ready to live it up by lightly unscrewing salt shaker caps in a restaurant. The next guy to use this salt shaker is gonna get it! I'm a rock and roll rebel!

6. Mama

Oh the 70's, when you called your woman "Mama" as in "Hey foxy mama" or "That mama is a stone cold fox" or any other variation on that phrase like "Loni Anderson is one foxy mama". "Mama" has a nice jazz/R&B feel that allows singer Bobby Kimball to really do his thang. Session playing on all those Steely Dan records really paid off here for these guys. I also will give props to the rhythm section of drummer Jeff Porcaro and bassist David Hungate, whose work here pops and grooves well. As Pearl Jam says, heyfoxymophandlemamathatsme.

Oh the 70's, when you had to disguise your drug songs. At least I take this for a drug song, I never researched it or anything. Just knowing some of the band member's reputation for being in love with a certain white powder along with lyrics like "Do you love me / White Sister / Do you love me when I play your game" or later "When I call your name". Cooocaainnne! A sort of self loathing love fest for the "White Sister"...hmm...sounds like addiction to me. One of my favorite Toto tracks, another fast paced rocker that let's Lukather really fly. When I saw them live this was the set closer, total awesomeness.

One of the nicest of the Toto ballads and one sung by Bobby Kimball no less, I liked that it was just voice with keyboards and about 90 seconds long. Like a lot of secret loves, it feels incomplete. Easy to relate to as a teenager.

And that was Hydra, Toto's second album. It went Gold which was considered a disappointment after their Platinum debut. Their career would continue a downward slide on the third record until Toto IV turned it all around. Back in the day I would play all of the Toto records a lot, this one of course was for that progressive rock Toto mood when I wanted to hear a lot of their solos. Now that some time has passed, I can even enjoy the songs I used to skip a little more than I did then which is nice. Think I'll put on some Hydra while I wash the dishes now. Because that's something all us boys would do now.

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