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Triumph

Just a Game

Review by John Pierpoint

Triumph were a very successful Canadian Trio, active from 1975 to 1993. For most of their career, the line-up was: Rik Emmet, guitar and vocals, Gil Moore, drums and vocals, Mike Levine, bass and keyboards. Before their drift towards heavy metal and stadium rock (from Progressions of Power onwards), Triumph were a great rock’n’roll band with a lighter, melodic sound and a wide repertoire of musical styles to draw from.

This, their 1979 third album, is in my opinion their absolute finest. Every track is memorable and interesting, and there are some great guitar moments to be heard. In common with many other albums of that decade, the production (by Levine) is rich, yet spacious, with plenty of air.
I first bought it on vinyl back in 1980, after attending one of the band’s all-too-rare UK performances as a naïve teenager (it was only my second or third concert). While they were there to promote their new Progressions of Power album, it was this album that I picked up first after seeing them perform. I was swayed by the rather elegant gatefold sleeve art, which depicted the musicians as pieces in a giant chess game being played by unseen, sinister forces. The cover even featured a complete board game on the inside faces which – legend has it – was designed by Levine to be unwinnable. (I’m sure I’ve completed at least one game of it though. . .)

While the band as a whole works as a tight unit, it has to be said that the “man of the match” here is Rik Emmett. His guitar is a joy to listen to on every track, pulling great riffs, solos and rhythmic touches out of his capacious bag of tricks. He has a light, delicate touch, but can also grind out the heavy riffs when that’s called for.


This review is available in book (paperback and hardcover) form in Music Street Journal: 2021  Volume 5. More information and purchase links can be found at: garyhillauthor.com/Music-Street-Journal-2021.

Track by Track Review
Movin' On

The opener kicks things off with a live audience recording and Moore’s counting in, before cross-fading to a studio-recorded performance. To modern ears, maybe it’s a bit ploddy for the all-important album opener. Back then though, there was less of a tendency to smack the listener over the head with an intense curtain-raiser. Instead, the listener was often drawn in by degrees, beguiled by a pleasurable and easy opener. It’s certainly a fairly basic song about being in the music biz, with no real surprises, but it flows beautifully and is peppered with some excellent Emmett guitar. Moore’s vocals are raw and just about holding together in places, but that’s what this song needs. It’s also damn catchy! You’ll be humming this to yourself for days after hearing it.

Lay it on the Line
Some nifty multi-tracked guitar introduces this song; and then after the first verse the other instruments kick in to drive it onward. Emmett is on lead vocal this time, with his more refined and laid-back tone, yet he can still give it bite when the lyrics demand it. The chorus has a great staccato guitar riff, but it’s Emmett’s lead guitar interjections that really make it shine. The climax is a soaring guitar solo that lodges in the brain and makes you want to play it again and again.
Young Enough to Cry
This is a monster blues number with bags of swing from Levine’s bass. Moore takes lead vocals: gutsy and impassioned. Emmett’s solo in the middle is sparse and thoughtful, but I love the way the song seems to gain momentum and power as it rolls on from this point, with the guitar taking up the anguish of Moore’s lyrics in its intermittent screams and cries.
American Girls
This is the sort of song that probably prompted some of the bad reviews the band was getting in the music press at the time (at least in the UK). It’s a straight-up rock tune containing some plainly awful lyrics that read like they were penned one drunken night in the tour bus. But who cares? It’s great!


The introductory spacey synths and guitar wails are joined as full-on guitar riffing fades in. Then the guitar dives into the main riff that kicks it off. Moore handles the vocals. The verses here aren’t much to marvel at: they seem to be just treading-water, doing the bare minimum to deliver the afore-mentioned rather daft lyrics. The choruses pick up the pace though. Then there’s a simply ridiculous spoken double-entendre, “Gentlemen, please rise and salute American girls!” (followed by a quick rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”). There’s a great little solo where Emmett’s guitar swaps speakers with each phrase, as though we are hearing the guitarists of a dual-axe band trading licks. Near the end, he seems to quote Dave Gilmour as he launches into the final solo playout. To be honest, verses aside, it’s a lot of fun. The guys were obviously having a ball creating this song!

Would anyone get away with releasing a song like this these days? Well, maybe The Darkness would. . .

Just a Game
Side two (on vinyl) fades in with the beautiful, powerful, melodic intro to the title track: a paean to the life of the travelling musician (the recurring theme of this album). The verses are sparsely – but perfectly – arranged, with plenty of air around the instruments. The final lines of the verses ramp up the power to steam into the choruses. Triumph often use backing vocalists on their recordings, and they are used to good effect on the choruses here, helping Emmett's vocals to soar above the crunching guitar riff. Following a middle-eight that serves as a pause, Emmett gives a blistering solo which leads into a more highly-charged verse. Multi-tracked guitar wails tease the listener for a while before the final chorus comes in.
Fantasy Serenade
Emmett used to put solo acoustic pieces on every Triumph album. While some groups might regard such things as mere album-fillers, in the hands of this guitarist they become eagerly-awaited treats. If you like the intricate, acoustic offerings of the likes of Steve Howe and Steve Hackett, then Emmett’s confections will surely appeal to you. This one is no exception: a beautiful, delicate, nylon-strung confection - with just a smattering of keyboards in the background - that is, sadly, over too soon.
Hold On
For me, this is the album’s highlight – possibly the best song the band has ever done (although there is some stiff competition). It’s a song that Emmett apparently wrote when he was in high school. The opening arpeggiated guitar chords promise something grand, and the song delivers on this. Emmett takes the vocals, in a simple, understated song, with appropriately dreamy backing vocals. A bridge and the first chorus bring us to the main part of the song: a very Who-like arrangement, with definite echoes of Pete Townshend in the guitar part.

Following a brief instrumental that sounds like it’s going into a fade-out, there’s a stirring middle-eight that is the climax of the song, with Emmett sounding like Steve Howe in places. Then the song hangs on a sustained guitar note before dropping down to ticking high-hat and pedalled bass riff with disco guitar chords that lays the stage for some beautiful, climbing guitar chords, then a final chorus with some excellent Emmett fretwork in the gaps.

It’s wonderful to hear a rock song with such life-affirming lyrics, about the joy of music and the gift of being able to play it.

Suitcase Blues

It would have been tempting to end the album with “Hold On” and its upbeat, affirmative message, but the band chose to close with this melancholy little number instead, which in a way makes sense. It presents a more realistic view of the globetrotting musician’s life: after every great performance, every rapt reception by thousands of fans, there is the coming-down, the journey back to the quiet of a seedy hotel room, drinking alone and thinking longingly of home, perhaps thousands of miles away. It’s a quiet, simple blues with a walking bass, livened with some elegant jazz-inspired guitar work. Despite its plaintive tone and almost desperate imagery, there’s something heart-warming and comforting about this song. For all its simplicity, it grabs the listener. Emmett’s vocals are suitably low-key and restrained.

 

 

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