Toto – Hydra (1979)

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Last weekend I reminisced about Toto’s forgotten fun ‘n’ raucous rocker, “All Us Boys”. But reconnecting with that song really got me reconnected to the entire album it originally came from, Hydra. I soon started playing the entire album in my head, which lead me soon led me to play it for real. Man, I gotta admit, it still does it for me, which is more than what I can say about other rock records that came out in 1979. And so, as promised on that OTM from just five days prior, here’s my thoughts on the entire album, nearly thirty years after bringing home a fresh vinyl copy of it from the record store.

Toto, like Chicago, has received its share of unexplained hatred over the years. Even where there might be some examples that bolster the claims that Toto was a lightweight act, there’s long been a tendency to paint all of their work with that broad brush, even as there’s plenty of examples that counter such criticism. One such example is Hydra.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Toto’s Steve Lukather discusses key songs from his career, including “I Won’t Hold You Back,” “99” and “I’ll Be Over You,” and the time that Miles Davis tried to lure him away.]

Released right at the end of the seventies, Hydra was seen as something of a disappointment to some who liked their self-titled debut album. Others who didn’t like Toto much to begin with ravaged it. Those kind music sages over at Rolling Stone Magazine had this to say about Hydra around the time of its release:

Like this group’s Wizard of Oz namesake, Hydra is a hapless little dog, memorable only for some directionless whimpering…The music is annoyingly lightweight and derivative, while the vocals–to put it mildly–are abysmal…Toto may continue to thrive in the rock-starved Top Forty, but these guys have absolutely nothing new to say as they bounce from one syrupy sub genre to another.

Ouch.

I disagree. With a thirty year glance back, Hydra has held up remarkably well, especially compared to the disco and new wave that was enjoying the height of popularity of the time; it would have been easy to make a record at that time that hopped on those bandwagons, but Toto didn’t bite. They also could have aped Bruce Springsteen and received instant street cred but Springsteen followers never made nearly the impact of their Boss. Instead, Toto did what it felt comfortable doing: straightforward, polished, R&B-inflected rock.

The reasons for Toto’s second album being an overlooked gem isn’t just because it’s an album that didn’t sound too much of it’s time (the bandmembers’ extreme professionalism and chops pretty much assured that), but the vast array of styles shown here. Rolling Stone and others slammed that, too, pointing out as proof the band lacked identity. But variety is never a bad thing, as long as it’s the quality that remains consistent. On Hydra, it did. What is a little more astonishing about that variety is that every song was written or co-written by the pianist/singer David Paich.

The album begins as a concept, signaling the boys were going to make that “grand statement” record. However, the concept lasted for only two songs (then again, Sgt. Pepper‘s concept lasted about that long, too). “Hydra,” the song is probably the closest they got to prog-rock, an extended, seven and a half minute mini-epic with multiple sections running at different tempos, and dramatic, story-telling lyrics about a modern-day fairy tale of saving a damsel in distress from the “wolves in Times Square” and “the Dragon Lord playing solitary.” Anchored by an insistent, three chord vamp, a solid bottom coming from Jeff Porcaro (drums) and David Hungate (bass), Steve Lukather’s tense guitar and and Paich’s emotionally charged lead vocals. It didn’t send King Crimson or ELP back to the drawing board, but it’s plenty substantial and more melodic and uncluttered than what progressive rock had become by that time.

The title cut is followed by another dragon-themed tale set in New York City. The Bobby Kimball, sung “St. George And The Dragon” pretty much flopped as a single, even though in a lot of ways is similar to their first hit “Hold The Line.” “Ninety-Nine,” on the other hand, fared much better, becoming the lone hit from the album. Sporting a soft jazz shuffle a little reminiscent of “Georgie Porgie” from the first album, this one is also given a sensitive vocal reading by Lukather. Luke later admitted he hated the song, and I’ve probably heard my fill of it myself a long time ago, but it remains a good example of Paich’s ability to meticulously construct a pop tune by pulling together measured elements of r&b, rock and soul.

Side one of the original vinyl closed out “Lorraine,” a dual-mood piano-based that’s tender in the verses and gets tough on the chorus. And then of course there’s the lovable, aforementioned “All Us Boys.”

“Mama” (see live video from 1980 above) is reason alone why Bobby Kimball was hired; even with capable vocalists like Paich and Lukather, few, much less those two can belt it out so hard and nail it like Bobby did for this wrenching, sweaty soul number. It’s also a great illustration of why Jeff Porcaro had few peers among session drummer; listening to just his part reveals some sly hi-hat, cymbal and snare work that doesn’t just come from even above-average percussionists. Plainly speaking, “Mama” is one of the best deep cuts Toto ever recorded.

“White Sister” is another rocker, but this one’s got the swagger and soul of Otis Redding. Kimball again makes the song come alive, and Lukather’s guitar solo makes nearly explode. “A Secret Love” ends the album, which sounds like an unfinished ballad. Easily the weakest track, but also the shortest and being tacked on at the end, it’s easy to overlook.

Even though Hydra didn’t sell as well as the debut album, they group avoided the sophomore slump by playing with a little more edge than before. It was more ragged than what they made their reputation on, and yet all the trademark precision remained intact. They never quite used this formula to make an album again, which makes it somewhat unique in their catalog. In fact, when considered in the now-completed canon of Toto’s output, I’d even put it in the upper tier of Toto albums. Hydra isn’t a masterpiece, but it deserves its due; a lot of bands would have killed to make an album that good.

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