Hydra is Toto in their purest form.
The last 10 years have been kind to Toto, given both the critical reappraisal afforded to “yacht rock,” the ad-hoc genre of smooth Southern California pop they helped originate in the 1970s and the strange afterlife of their 1982 single “Africa” as millennial meme, which reached its peak/nadir with (depending on whom one asks) either its mid-2018 cover by Weezer or its more recent use as part of a solar-powered art installation in the middle of the Namib Desert. But while the group of virtuoso L.A. session men turned soft-rock hitmakers’ cultural cachet has arguably never been higher, the retroactive goodwill extended toward the band’s Platinum-selling Toto and Toto IV albums has only gone so far: leaving less successful, but arguably more ambitious efforts like their 1979 sophomore album Hydra wallowing in comparative obscurity.
Released a year almost to the day after the band’s self-titled debut, Hydra feels at once like a faithful follow-up and a departure: a tension that’s dramatized in the album’s cover photo, which places a real-life recreation of the band’s sword logo into the hands of leather-clad guitarist Steve Lukather. More even than Toto’s fantasy-paperback aesthetic, the image screams peak prog rock—and the title track lives up to its promise, with seven and a half searing minutes of ornate guitar riffs, circumlocutory melodies and a synth line that leaves no doubt in my mind that keyboardist Steve Porcaro has played Dungeons & Dragons.
But while not all of Hydra qualifies as yacht rock—unless, of course, your definition of “yachts” includes the ships the elves of Middle-earth used to sail to Valinor—nor is it quite the unqualified Renn-Fest rock its title and cosplaying cover art suggest. The lyrics to “St. George and the Dragon” carry on the title track’s swords-and-sorcery themes, but David Paich’s lead piano line has a bounce straight out of the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes.” Similarly, lead single “99,” surely the only song inspired by George Lucas’ pre-Star Wars cult film THX 1138 to crack the upper reaches of the Top 40, pairs its unabashedly dorky lyrics (and, again, synth solo) with the billowiest of soft rock melodies. By the Billy Joel-esque pop-rocker “Lorraine,” the band has more or less abandoned the fantasy conceit in favor of their standard impeccable craftsmanship.
But it’s on Hydra’s second vinyl side that Toto really shows off their versatility. The album’s third single, “All Us Boys,” is an uncanny Cheap Trick pastiche: proof that Toto could rock as hard as their more critically esteemed contemporaries, even if they didn’t always choose to. “Mama” follows in the jazzy blue-eyed soul tradition of the group’s 1978 hit “Georgy Porgy”; “White Sister” treads again into hard rock territory, with Lukather’s clenched-fist riffage and lyrics that I’m just going to go ahead and assume are about cocaine. The only real bum note is struck by closing track “A Secret Love”: while its almost proto-synthpop keyboard intro suggests the album is ending on an experimental note, the meandering ballad that ensues just feels unfinished, disappearing into the ether when it seems like Hydra should be going out with a bang.
On paper, Hydra was a textbook sophomore slump: an album that replicated the genre-hopping, chameleonic tendencies of its predecessor without also replicating the hits that made it a success. Neither artistically compelling enough to win over the critics nor commercial enough to sustain the first album’s momentum, it basically just kept the band’s middling late-‘70s reputation in a holding pattern. And the fact is, that reputation wasn’t wrong. Everything that’s been said about Toto is true: They were slick, faceless professionals in a time when slick, faceless professionalism was increasingly frowned upon; their music was as airless as Steely Dan’s without the benefit of Becker’s and Fagen’s acerbic lyrical sensibilities; they made the aforementioned Billy Joel sound as raw and personal as John Lennon.
Maybe that’s why Hydra appeals to me more than the better-known albums that bookend it: its rough edges—as rough as Toto ever got, anyway—and conspicuously geeky aesthetic are signs of personality in an oeuvre that otherwise seemed deliberately personality-free. You’ll never hear Hydra playing in a grocery store or a dentist’s office, let alone the Namib Desert; none of its tracks, God willing, will ever be sullied by Rivers Cuomo. Hydra is Toto in their purest form: at once unmistakably of its time and hopelessly out of step with it, unique and utterly forgettable. May it live on in immaculate obscurity forever.