Originally released in 1982, Toto’s ‘IV’ undoubtedly represents the highlight of the band’s career. The three albums preceding it had received widespread praise and sold well, but it wasn’t until ‘IV’ that the group achieved the acclaim of their peers.
‘IV’ was a commercial success, reaching platinum status within a year and spawning two international hit singles in the form of ‘Africa’ and ‘Rosanna’, but the album also garnered a whole host of Grammy® awards, six in total, including Album of the Year, Record of the Year (for ‘Rosanna’) and Producer of the Year, awarded to the collective members of the group.
Toto may not be exactly en vogue at the moment, but that doesn’t alter the fact that in the early 1980’s the group had a huge following, which is hardly surprising as its members were masters of polished, popular rock. Some will argue that Toto never really came up with an original idea, unlike, for example, Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Foreigner. However, Toto managed to take the basic, raw energy of groups such as the aforementioned and refine it, thanks largely to flawless arrangement and production skills, into an album that seems deceptively straightforward yet in reality is highly complex.
The two most memorable tracks are the atmospheric (and atypical) ‘Africa’, and ‘Rosanna’ [trivia alert] the video for which made a star out of dancer Cynthia Rhodes who was snapped up by Sylvester Stallone for a lead role in ‘Staying Alive’.
‘Rosanna’ aside, I always thought the album only really got going on the second side – or track six in this digital age – the run-on songs such as ‘Afraid of Love’ and ‘Lovers in the Night’ have more bite, yet it’s true to say that ‘Waiting for Your Love’, the low-light of the entire piece also forms part of the second half. In all fairness, perhaps the mediocrity of ‘Waiting for Your Love’ is exaggerated by ‘Africa’, which immediately follows, a timeless classic most will remember.
Before summarising the fidelity of Columbia’s SACD re-release, I’ll come clean and say up front that I’ve long been a fan of this album. There are one or two so-so songs, but on the whole the piece is engaging, fun and a showcase for performers on the top of their game. Steve Lukather’s contributions are outstanding, as are the vocals of Bobby Kimball who left the band during the production of ‘Isolation’, the follow-up album and another favourite, only to return in 1999.
It was always going to take a lot therefore, to dull my enthusiasm for the recording, but the team responsible for this re-release have managed to mess up in so many ways that I grimaced, winced and pulled other equally unpleasant faces throughout almost the entire forty-two minutes.
The disc is two-channel only, so a creative surround re-mix was not the cause of my dissatisfaction. It’s not a hybrid disc, which means you can’t play it in a regular CD-DA machine, but that wasn’t the killer blow either. No, what my disappointment all boils down to is the woeful technical presentation. Firstly, the entire disc has had all the dynamic range squeezed out of it, where there were once loud and soft passages, now each track is equally loud. ‘Good For You’ is one of the disc’s gentler songs, but it’s just as loud as the tracks around it, songs that should be deafening in comparison.
Secondly, and worst of all, are the disc’s horrible, splashing, unstable high frequencies. As you can imagine given the nature of the beast, crashing cymbals and rhythmic hi-hat feature prominently throughout ‘IV’, but on this version of the album they have no tonality or voicing, in fact they’re little more than bursts of white noise. Jeff Porcaro’s delicate hi-hat work has descended into an indistinct mush and it’s nigh on impossible to distinguish between a ride and a crash. The high-frequencies of SACD are problematic at the best of times, often sounding unstable and harsh if a recording does not receive the due care and attention it deserves, but this disc takes that foible to a whole new level. Vocals are forward and overly dry while cymbals fizz with unwanted and unwarranted HF energy, a particularly abhorrent trait in my system where Tannoy super-tweeters afford theoretical (albeit inaudible) 54kHz extension. Lukather’s ‘I Won’t Hold You Back’ vocals are similarly affected, his delivery having a sibilant buzz not dissimilar to the sound produced had he swallowed a swarm of bees.
Then we’ve got the disc’s inconsistent bass to deal with. Sometimes tracks have a deep, rich and forceful bass-line – during ‘Rosanna’, ‘I Won’t Hold You Back’ and ‘Africa’ for example – upon others low frequencies disappear almost entirely, ‘We Made It’ being the album’s worst victim and one that is exasperated by a raucous lead vocal and untidy tambourines. And lastly, let’s not forget the cameo appearance by Mr. Analogue Tape Hiss, who makes a brief but clearly audible contribution during the opening bars of ‘It’s a Feeling’.
As for redeeming points… the disc does provide a wide and clearly defined front soundstage and the left to right guitar pans are convincing throughout, especially the three dimensional trickery of ‘Lovers in the Night’. Some drum elements have a sense of immediacy (listen out for the passage two minutes into ‘Good For You’) and there are occasional glimpses of deep bass, but none of these can rescue what is a sorry excuse for an SACD disc.
To summarise: I now have three copies of ‘IV’, one on vinyl, a CD and the new Super Audio CD. The vinyl has the most convincing dynamic range – remarkable given the inherent limitations of the format – but suffers from all the usual stylus-in-groove failings. The SACD version is excruciatingly bright and the high-frequency element set my teeth on edge. Horrible. That, incredulously, leaves us with the CD version; it suffers fewer flaws than either of the other two and presents the album in the most rounded, enjoyable way. The SACD offers nothing above and beyond 44.1kHz 16-bit, just the opposite in fact, and is therefore one to be avoided.
Since this review was written, Columbia have re-released ‘IV’ as a multi-channel SACD title. Read the review of that disc here.