Death by Power Ballad: Triumph, “Let the Light (Shine on Me)”

Written by Music, Power Ballads

Triumph was an arena rock staple in the late ’70s and through much of the ’80s, particularly in their native Canada, where they were known for their bombastic, pyro-filled shows, as well as bassist Mike Levine’s inexhaustible collection of sports apparel. They had a few gold records here in the States, and a handful of rock radio hits (“Magic Power,” “Lay It on the Line,” and the like), but never made it to the level of stardom that their countrymen Rush managed to achieve in the same period.

Unlike Rush, whose approach to music has always given the appearance of a united front, Triumph had two distinct, dichotomous camps—the guys who just wanted to rawk yer ballz off (Levine and drummer/vocalist Gil Moore) and the sensitive, progressive-minded Artiste with a capital A (guitarist/vocalist Rik Emmett). Thus, any given Triumph album—say, 1984’s pretty awesome Thunder Seven—would have its share of arena stompers (“Spellbound,” and the Zeppelinesque “Cool Down”) alongside pastoral instrumental passages (“Midsummer’s Daydream”), with an occasional what the fuck moment (“Time Canon”) tossed in for good measure.

Things got pretty ridiculous, though, by 1987, when the band belched out Surveillance. The music was a typical pastiche of the ridiculous (“Rock You Down”), the anthemic (“Never Say Never,” “Carry on the Flame”) and the instrumentally showy (“Intro: Into the Forever,” “Prelude: The Waking Dream”). The liner notes, however, attempted to tie the vast and various incongruous pieces together by attaching a literary quote to introduce each song’s lyrics. The extra percussion you heard was the sound of Aristotle, Lucretius, Alexander Pope, Blaise Pascal, and others rolling in their graves. Or perhaps they were rocking. Anyway, once you got past the pretentiousness, it was … oh wait—it was impossible to get past the pretentiousness.

Hung at the end of Side One (track 6 on the CD), “Let the Light (Shine on Me)” cut through the band’s literary aspirations with a beautiful, steadily building anthem to persistence and commitment. It truly stands as one of Triumph’s more … um … triumphant moments.

After a synth and gee-tar intro, Emmett addresses his beloved with a summation of frustration:

I’ve walked beside you through a thousand dreams
Sometimes I wonder where the journey leads
We never seem to get to where we want to go—No!

That last “No” is practically screamed, and it opens up the music behind the verse, releasing some tension. The keyboards are a bit more up-front; the drums are likewise more pronounced. Emmett slides back to the fore with a promise and a request:

I won’t betray the trust you have in me
I’ll never lose my faith in what can be
Don’t ever be afraid to let your feelings show—No

This “No” is more of a plea than a scream, and it sets up the lovely bridge, as Emmett’s voice begins its climb into the upper portion of its already high register.

Nothing to fear, no place to hide
We got to face the truth inside

A bit of descending guitar noise blasts us into the chorus:

Let the light that shines in your eyes shine on me
Let it shine forever
Let the light shine on me
We can build a dream together now

It’s a striking sentiment, made more so by a perfectly executed key change and the keening nature of Emmett’s voice, an instrument well suited to the naturally ascending nature of a rock anthem. It’s a remarkable thing, really; you can hear it even in the naked setting of an acoustic performance, as in this one from 1988.

The second verse is a bit on the bland side—one-in-a-million odds are mentioned, as are the taking of chances and the weak exclamation, “Yeah.” I can imagine this verse being lifted from a Gil Moore song about rawking one’s ballz, but I can’t be sure. It does, however, lead into another terrific bridge, then back into the chorus. There’s a bit of soloing, of course (Emmett has been known to rock the Flying V or double-neck on occasion, so there’ve GOT to be solos), before a vocal breakdown in which an indeterminate number of Emmetts bounce “Whoas” and “Forevers” and “Let the light shines” for a few bars, before zooming into the chorus again.

Something this grand and gorgeous might have portended well for the band (though one still had “Rock You Down” to get through on Side Two), but Surveillance was a commercial dud in the U.S., and Emmett left Triumph in 1988. According to the band’s Wikipedia page, as part of a longstanding agreement, when Emmett walked away, he did so with a minuscule financial interest in the group, and no say whatsoever in any future projects—a deliriously bad career move, even by rock and roll standards.

Triumph is back touring, though—playing festivals and smaller venues. If ever I am fortunate enough to see them play, I shall buy a lighter for the sole purpose of raising it high and demanding they sing “Let the Light (Shine on Me).” I’ll let you know if it works.