Editor’s note: In this installment of EhOr, Jay Kumar looks back at Canadian power trio Triumph, who used a combination of hard rock and showmanship to put together a successful, if sometimes under the radar, career.
Big riffs. Booming drums. Hot solos. Anthemic choruses. Upbeat lyrics. Endless touring. Lights, lasers and pyro. From a hard rock standpoint, Triumph had it all. It wasn’t enough to translate into big-time U.S. success like their compatriots Rush, but the band made its mark on AOR radio and as a successful arena rock touring act.
The power trio first formed in 1975 in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, where drummer/vocalist Gil Moore and bassist Mike Levine were looking for a guitarist to round out their band. They joined forces with Rik Emmett, who had been playing in a band called Act III. Moore and Levine were already very business-savvy and had lined up a number of gigs before Emmett joined. Moore wrote blues-based hard rock songs, while Emmett’s contributions had more of a prog-rock feel with classically-inspired guitar parts.
The hard rock act quickly amassed a reputation as a potent live attraction and landed a deal with Attic Records to release their self-titled debut in 1976, which found Moore and Emmett splitting vocals on a collection that echoed Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent and some prog on Emmett’s 8-minute-plus “Blinding Light Show/Moonchild.” The album didn’t do much in the U.S., but a subsequent tour helped the band make some inroads in the States, particularly in Texas.
Things got a little confusing with Triumph’s second release, Rock & Roll Machine. Released initially in Canada in 1977, the album was re-released internationally after the band signed a deal with RCA, but this version was re-sequenced to include songs from Triumph’s first record. The album was then released a second time in Canada with a different cover and the international track listing. Despite the multiple versions, the album got a little FM airplay in the U.S. with the title track and Moore’s take on Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way.” Emmett’s high-pitched wail on songs like “Bringing It On Home” drew comparisons to Geddy Lee, the singer of another Canadian power trio starting to gain some traction in the U.S.
After touring for much of ’77 and ’78 with a high-octane live show that featured arena-ready lights and pyro, Triumph went back into the studio and released Just a Game in 1979. The band eschewed the long prog suites and streamlined their sound a bit, scoring their first U.S. top 40 hit with Emmett’s anthem “Hold On,” which hit #38 in September 1979 and became a live favorite. Another FM staple was “Lay It On the Line,” another majestic Emmett-sung jam that’s become a signature song for the band. Just a Game was the first of several Triumph albums to go gold in the U.S. The band’s follow-up, 1980’s Progressions of Power, also went gold but didn’t have any lasting hits. “I Can Survive” squeaked into the Hot 100 (#96). Moore’s songs had more impact than Emmett’s this time around, but the album set up Triumph’s biggest success.
The year 1981 was a big one for Triumph. Like fellow Canuck hard rockers April Wine, the debut of MTV in August resulted in airplay of videos of some older Triumph songs like “Lay It On the Line” and “Hold On,” and later songs from the next album, Allied Forces. When the band’s fifth release came out in September, it was a distillation of everything that made Triumph a potent hard rock unit: galloping rockers like Moore’s “Hot Time (In the City Tonight),” the title track and “Fool for Your Love,” Emmett’s AOR classics “Magic Power” and “Fight the Good Fight” (both did well on the new Mainstream Rock charts) and the album closer “Say Goodbye.” The album hit #23 on the Billboard album charts and eventually went platinum and the band naturally toured behind it for the rest of the next year.
Triumph’s follow-up was 1983’s Never Surrender, which didn’t hit quite as hard as its predecessor. Never a critics’ darling, the album received a one-star rating from Rolling Stone. Still, the record hit #26 on the albums chart and “All the Way,” “A World of Fantasy” and the title track all made the Mainstream Rock chart. The band, however, felt RCA wasn’t supporting the record adequately and subsequently left for MCA. But before that happened, Triumph had a standout performance at the US Festival’s “Heavy Metal Sunday” in May, playing before 500,000 fans in San Bernardino, Calif.
By the time Thunder Seven was released in November 1984, the musical tide had turned and hard rock and metal bands were regularly putting up big sales numbers and filling arenas. While Triumph didn’t see an appreciable increase in record sales, they continued to pack hockey rinks throughout North America in ’84-’85 with a laser-filled spectacle. As for the album itself, it had a few minor radio hits, “Follow Your Heart” (which hit #88 on the singles chart) and “Spellbound,” but it was a little heavier than its predecessor and side 2’s songs centered around a time-related concept. Produced by the legendary Eddie Kramer (Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, KISS), the album hit #35 on the albums chart and eventually went gold many years later. In 1985, Triumph released Stages, a double-live album that featured two new tracks.
Then came the great AOR sellout debacle of 1986. By this time, it was the height of ‘80s AOR and hair metal and pressure from MCA was mounting on the band to have a big hit. As a result, for the first time, the band did a 180 and performed songs written by outside writers (including Neal Schon of Journey) and brought in tons of synths played by outside players. Produced by Mike Clink before he went on to work on a little album called Appetite for Destruction, The Sport of Kings saw the band placing emphasis on sappy AOR power ballads (as their hair got poofier and the outfits more outlandish). It sort of worked: “Somebody’s Out There” hit #27 on the Billboard singles chart and the album got to #33. But it alienated the band’s core fan base and didn’t do much more than make a light splash in the hit pool. The subsequent world tour saw the band add Rick Santers as an additional guitarist/keyboardist for the live dates.
By 1987, tensions within the band and with the label had come to a boiling point. Triumph owed MCA one more album and Surveillance has all the makings of a contractually required recording. While it rejects the commercial sound of its predecessor, the album finds the three members of Triumph going through the motions with lesser material. Steve Morse traded solos with Emmett on “Headed for Nowhere” while “Let the Light Shine on Me” was the only single; however, it faded without a trace while the album only made it up to #82 on the albums chart. The band toured until September 1988. Not long afterward, Emmett left the band to go solo.
After releasing a greatest hits album in 1989, Triumph wasn’t heard from until 1993, when Moore and Levine teamed up with guitarist Phil Xenidis (formerly with Aldo Nova and Frozen Ghost and currently Richie Sambora’s replacement in Bon Jovi) to release a new album, Edge of Excess. The album didn’t make a dent in the U.S., which was deep in the throes of the grunge invasion, but the band managed to get “Troublemaker” on the soundtrack to the 1992 horror flick Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. Rick Santers joined the band on its 1993 tour, and there was a brief team-up with Sebastian Bach at an awards show,but after Triumph’s label, a Polygram subsidiary, went belly-up, so did the band.
Moore and Levine had hoped to reunite with Emmett in 1998, but he rejected the offer. But the duo was able to buy back their entire catalog from MCA and launched TML Entertainment, through which they’ve been releasing official Triumph album reissues, DVDs and live recordings. Moore has also been running Metalworks Studios, which the band opened in the early ‘80s to record their albums.
Emmett, while pursuing a successful solo career playing a variety of musical styles, finally reunited with Moore and Levine in January 2007 when Triumph was inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame. Since then, the three have been on good terms, but have only played two shows: both in 2008, one in Sweden and one at the Rocklahoma festival. Emmett has said in interviews that he’s willing to play more Triumph shows, but it hasn’t happened because of Moore’s business interests and the need to get back into touring shape. For his part, Emmett still tours often as a solo act, playing Triumph and his own songs alike.
In addition to classic rock stations, Triumph’s music is about to be heard on Broadway, or near it, anyway. Hold On: The Musical is scheduled to take place on Feb. 19 at Feinstein’s/54 Below (which calls itself “Broadway’s Supper Club”). According to the club’s website: “With a soaring score of 80s hits with a present-day twist from the Canadian Hall of Fame rock band, Triumph (“Magic Power,” “Fight the Good Fight,” and “Lay it on the Line”), Hold On: The Musical depicts the present day struggles of a gay singer-songwriter and seemingly unattainable quest for acceptance and happiness.” The cast includes a number of Broadway regulars.
Meanwhile, the possibility of more Triumph shows exists, however faint. Levine is 65 and Moore and Emmett are both 62, so the window is closing on presenting the kind of high-energy rock spectacle the band specialized in. Still, as the band has proven over the years, you can’t rule it out.