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Heavy Metal Optimists

From Canadian Composer, June 1981

Toronto seems to be Canada’s home for  heavy metal. Rush, the most successful of Canadian bands, is based in the city. April Wine’s lead singer, moving force, and chief songwriter, Myles Goodwyn, makes Toronto his home after years in Montreal. Goddo, finally signed to another label after a couple of years in the wilderness, is a Toronto institution. And  Max Webster, the quirkiest of all bands – and now in the process of going through changes one more time – has always gained its inspiration from the city.

Now it’s time to watch out for Triumph. Every sign points the band to  the top of the heap in a competitive, noisy struggle for the affections of a young audience. If Triumph succeed in the way they want to, they can tank themselves and the hard work of well over a decade in the music business. The  bands three members – Rik Emmett, Gil Moore, and Mike Levine – are hard-working  optimists. They live the spirit of their music, say the hell with failure, and  push for success in every way they know how. If this means, from time to time, that they’re abrasive with agents, with managers, with their record company, or  with promoters, it doesn’t really matter – they simply want no one in their way.

It wasn’t always a success story. Gil Moore had started a group, originally called Abernathy Shagnaster’s Wash and Wear Band, back in  1969. The group went through any number of directional changes, and musicians  came and went with regularity, before the group finally came to the point where it played cover versions of everyone else’s material. Moore remembers the final  gig, in 1965: “I had the flu; the club owner hated the band. To make it worse,  his office was behind the coat room under the stairs and I almost had to get  down on my knees to get into there. He paid us very grudgingly, and when I left I really gave some serious thought to packing it all in.” Mike Levine, the  band’s bassist, felt very much the same way, but after some soul-searching, the  pair decided to give themselves one last shot.

So they went looking for a guitar player. After some unsuccessful trial runs, they discovered Rik Emmett, 21 years old, brash, loud, noisy, and hammering out the sort of sounds Levine  and Moore wanted. They watched Emmett perform, and finally convinced him to quit  the trio he was working with and join them. Everything, from the name of the band to the material they would write and play, would be “success motivated” they decided. Against the odds, they embarked on the course. “At the beginning,  our biggest problem was that we were too honest,” Emmett says now. “We’d sit down with journalists and say ‘now this is how we put our show together, and  this is how we have our finances set up, and this is how we plan to get from point A to point B.’ They couldn’t believe we were so articulate, or so  determined. Maybe we should have told them we were just a bunch of dumb clucks who didn’t know nothing – instead, we told them we intended to put on a big  flashy show and make money. And from then on we had to fight reviews that either  knocked us as ‘corporate rockers’ or ridiculed us for hiding behind a big light show and a lot of theatrics. It was uphill, and don’t let anyone tell you it  wasn’t.”

There have been four albums, so far – the fifth is due in  mid-July. The first, Triumph, went gold, and the three since, Rock and Roll Machine, Just a Game, and Progressions of Power, have all gone  platinum in Canada, and selling close to 400,000 copies each in the U.S. All the albums have been produced by Levine – and their success has led to several  requests to undertake productions projects for other major acts – requests he’s declined, so far, to devote his full energies to his own band. “The material we  create has been a key factor in establishing ourselves. We all contribute to the  development of the songs. It generally starts our with Rik – or sometimes Gil – coming in with an outline, some lyrics and a basic musical structure. We then go  over the various parts, and we all add our own ideas.” Levine explains. “Very  often, what happens is that we come up with something that’s good, but isn’t  really right for the band – so we demo it and send it our, and hope we can  persuade someone else to use it.” “We work very hard to come up with songs that  both reflect the Triumph image, and can be reproduced well by the band on stage.” Adds Moore, “We try to keep it as ‘hard’ as possible. But sometimes  we’ll throw in an exotic vegetable for our audience to digest!” Moore feels the band owes something more than a one-dimensional product to its fans: hence the inclusion in each album of what some critics might call an esoteric indulgence,  or else a spotlight for Emmett’s guitar virtuosity.

The growing success  of the band has given them a considerable income – certainly the group has a  degree of financial leeway that was unthinkable in the days of Abernathy  Shagnaster. The group has expanded its warehouse and office facilities in  suburban Mississauga to include a 24-channel recording studio, which they claim has one of the best ‘live’ sounds in the business. And although Doug and the Slugs produced their best-selling Cognac and Bologna album in the  studio last year, the premises are primarily Triumph’s private domain. The  upcoming album, provisionally titled Allied Forces, was entirely recorded at the studio, which they’ve christened Metalworks. Levine believes that each  record has been a progression. “I think we’ve matured with each record. I’m  using more keyboards now, and we’re trying to get some different vocal sounds.”  Having its own studio has been of enormous help – “we can create something  without worrying about the time it takes, or studio costs. We have the  opportunity to experiment until we get it exactly right.”

With the fifth album out in mid-July, the band will take off on the road again – its success is firmly based (as is that of Rush) on the productions and performance of a good  stage show in support of a good new album. Emmett, Moore, and Levine write the songs, produce the records, design the stage presentation, manage most of their own business endeavors, and play the gigs. They’re firm believers in the old principle that to do it right means you have to do it yourself. So far, they’ve  also proved that you can be very successful. And they’re not worried for a second that they can’t keep the momentum growing and growing.

Record From Hell

By Perry Stern, Canadian Musician, October 1986

Whoever invented the term “Rock -n- Roll Machine” must have had a band very much like Triumph in mind. In the face of radio programmers that have gone  soft-headed with yuppieism, against an ever-changing backdrop of fashion  conscious video personalities calling themselves musicians, and in the wake of a  tidal wave of pseudo-disco and stadium anthems, Triumph relentlessly churns out a style of music that the experts regularly pronounce to be deader than a doornail. And if it weren’t for the millions of people who regularly buy Triumph  records and attend Triumph concerts, the experts would be right.

Mike Levine, Gil Moore and Rik Emmett have been making records for ten years now  (“eleven in September,” Emmett corrects). The Sport of Kings is their  ninth and, though they’re loathe to admit it, its importance in the future of  Triumph’s career is pivotal. It’s not so much a matter of how well the record will sell, a band rarely has had so solid a base of fan support as this one, rather it seems really to be more important that the album be appreciated. And it’s not as though the band will crumble if things don’t work out as well as they hope, but the prospect of making the tenth album will be that much less attractive. Recording, on any level, is hard work, but for Triumph, The Sport of Kings may just as well have been called The  Record From Hell.There’s something milquetoast about seeking  “appreciation” (a word the band would never use), but in the context of heavy rock music, being appreciated by one’s peers, by the press, by record companies  – or, rather, not being appreciated is the albatross around many a guitar-star’s neck, People just don’t seem to take the art form seriously, But the fans do,  and one of Triumph’s greatest triumphs has been the ability to look their  critics squarely in the eye and wait for as long as it takes for them to blink. And the critics always have to blink first because, in the end, they have to admit that Triumph is one of Canada’s, if not North America’s most successful  rock acts. We’re talking consistency here, and endurance.

A  year-and-a-half ago, after many months of litigation, Triumph made the move from  RCA to MCA. The album Thunder Seven (which went platinum) was released  almost immediately, and the double live set Stages (which is now close to  double platinum status) followed after about nine months. For the band, and for  the record company, the next release would actually be the “first” MCA / Triumph  release because, as Moore describes it, the other two albums were more or less “inherited” from RCA. “They made only one request in the entire first  year-and-a-half of our relationship, ” Moore says of MCA, and it was to, “use a producer and have it be Ron Nevison.” Now while that may seem an innocuous request, especially with Nevison fresh off the success of his efforts with  Heart, Survivor and Ozzy Osborne, the fact of the matter was that Triumph never  had more than a co-producer on any of their previous albums. Even still, the  band met the request with enthusiasm. The prospect of working with a hot  producer piqued the boys’ interest and the possibility of getting radio airtime with the help of Nevison’s expert ministrations was a key factor in setting the  deal. You didn’t hear heavy rock on AC radio until Heart’s last album with  Nevison at the helm came out, and with the door broken down MCA wanted Triumph  to get inside, quick. “They were looking for the guy with the magic wand,” Moore  says. The plan was simple. Starting in January, Nevison and his partner Mike  Klink, would start working with the band in pre-production. After the bed tracks  were laid, Nevison would split to record Night Ranger (a project he never completed), and Klink would be in charge of the overdubs of vocals and guitars.  When that was through, Nevison would return for the final mix and mastering.  Nevison said he had some songs, exclusive songs, that he would bring with him into the project. Everyone wanted this record to be he band’s most popular and  they felt that more variety in the song writing would be desirable for embracing  a larger, broader audience. “It was an effort,” Klink says, “predetermined by  the record company and the band, to get a commercial sound.”

The plan was simple. Get some good tunes, get some expert outside input, get a real tight sound, then run the flag up the pole and see who salutes. After eight albums done their way, Triumph was prepared to give the other way a shot. They  would even do some recording in LA. What the hell, they thought, maybe a change of location will do some good. But even the best laid plans, especially simple ones, sometimes go awry.

All three members of Triumph are quick to point  out that they hold no grudges against Nevison professionally. Levine, who worked most closely with him, calls Nevison a “brilliant recording technician,” but in the insular world of a three-piece group, Nevison was like a bull in a china shop. The role of the producer is to take charge, give direction, make decisions, and there are a number of ways you can go about it, You can cajole,  seduce, or demand, and Nevison opted for the latter. “It was his way or the highway,” Emmett recalls. Levine would add later, punctuated with wry laughter,  that it was an ineffective way to deal with “a bunch of old farts like us.” During pre-production there was plenty of talking, lots of room for discussion, but that all changed and, as Levine says, “you have to be consistent. ” When it  came time to actually lay the bed tracks, Nevison took complete control and the  band felt shut out. Levine said it was as though Nevison was “changing horses  midstream. ” Moore is more colorful; “It was like the full moon came out and  hair started growing out of his face and hands.”

Up to a point the band was more than willing to take it all in stride. They had made their commitment to Nevison, and there was his track record to consider (let alone a contract),  and he did get an excellent drum sound for the beds, so everybody grinned  and bore it. Feeling a little stepped-on was probably a “natural reaction” for Emmett. As far as being even slightly resentful about the temporary loss of  control, he says that, “I think if you’re artistic and conscientious about your work you feel that way” when someone else is in charge. “Ron was the first guy  in eleven years to be let into the family circle,” Emmett explains, “and this  guy wants to be the patriarch.”

Everything was fine until someone heard  “One Chance,” one of the “exclusive” tracks Nevison brought to the project, on  the radio. And then the video was seen on TV. Emmett gives Nevison the benefit  of the doubt by allowing that the producer had his eye on the American market and that a domestic release by the song’s Canadian writer, Stan Meissner, wouldn’t effect a Triumph version, but Moore says, “We felt it hurt our integrity somewhat.” Arguing over the practicality of keeping the song, and the  reasoning behind Nevison’s claims of “exclusivity” was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Nevison cited “artistic differences” and never returned to the project after his initial involvement with the bed tracks ended. “Producers leave records all the time,” Levine explains with a shrug, and Nevison’s departure was hardly treated as a catastrophe. He is even philosophic about it. “When I heard about “One Chance” I knew we needed a new song right away. I  phoned Ricky and told him we needed a good Triumph rock -n- roll tune and that he should go away and just woodshed `til he got one. The song ‘Somebody’s Out  There Somewhere’ turned out so good it’ll be the first single. Out of all  negatives comes something positive.” The problem wasn’t so much that Nevison had  quit, it was that the record was set up to accommodate his working style, It was  too late in the day to re-schedule and re-locate the recording of an album that was half finished. It was already mid-May, and the record was to be finished in  June.

The guys in Triumph aren’t the kind of people who spend a lot of time kicking themselves if they think a mistake’s been made. Not with studio time booked. When Mike Levine talks about the band “united”, you know he means  it, and that, as a rock -n- roll machine, there would be no stopping the Triumph  train once it go back on track. With Nevison gone, Klink was now the nominal producer – a situation that no one had a problem with. “It started out as a 50/50 proposition with Ron,” says Klink, “and then it became 100 per cent mine. It was only hard as far as the hours were concerned.” Without Nevison, Levine  had to re-gear his thinking about his role in the project and play catch-up with  Klink. Now at the overdub phase, he had to hear all the tracks and all the takes  so that he could be sure that he was satisfied with the work so far. Separated by the according process, the band had not been communicating with each other  about how they thought things were going. With Nevison gone, they were free to vent their frustration about the “experiment,” and rallied around each other.

Because Nevison and Klink wanted to work on their home turf, the recording and mixing of The Sport of Kings was done primarily at the Record Plant in Los Angeles. None of the band was pleased with the situation (if you  owned the best recording studio in the country, would you want to record  anywhere else?) but they were resigned to it. The person who found it hardest was Levine, who returned to his traditional band role as man-behind-the-console  with Klink. Moore says that it was hard for Mike because he had “no point of  reference” for how the rooms in LA could sound. For example, while Triumph  usually records their drum tracks in the empty warehouse next door to  Metalworks, this time Moore played in LA. “The room was interesting because of its volume, ” Moore recalls. He estimates its dimensions as 65x65x241 “The room  had a controlled ambiance,” Emmett adds. “There were ambient mikes that were  high up in the back of the room so that it sounded like the kick was already gated. The delay it had sounded like gated reverb with ambient sustain.” Unfortunately, though, Moore felt that there was “no value in the close miking.”

For his part, Klink held up admirably and hung on to the basic plan he and Nevison had for the album from the beginning. A fastidious engineer, and a stickler for detail, Klink wanted to give Triumph a “tighter sound, more  structured than it was before.” While recording the drums he had the snare heads  changed daily. He made Emmett retune his guitar after every take (“It drove me crazy,” he confesses.) “It was a little difficult at first, but I think they  need that outside input. They’re not used to working as hard as I pushed them, doing parts over, getting them right,” In the end, during the arduous mixing process, he and Levine worked together, eighteen hours a day for thirty days.  Laughing, satisfied with the final product, delighted to be finished, Levine  states categorically that, “There’s no way I’m ever going to record or mix a record in LA again.”

If The Sport of Kings was, in fact, The  Record From Hell for Triumph, it was a hard time born from a great idea.  With a new label behind them, and a fresh outlook on the music scene, they  wanted to break out of the cubbyhole that most of the industry had slotted them  in. “Radio is ridiculously tight now,” Moore explains. “It’s really unfortunate for new talent. Shrinking playlists do nothing but destroy an industry that  radio helped to create. ” For some time now it’s been be rigueur to trash bands  like Triumph in the press. “The fortunate thing for us,” says Emmett, “is that  we’ve got a base of fans who believe in us and who know they aren’t going to get  short-changed no matter what media shifts there are. ” Ever mindful of this Klink explains that while they may have gone for a more “pop” oriented sound he  knew that, “to take a band like Triumph with a heavier rock sound, you have to make sure it still represents the band. ” No one involved with the project  thinks even one Triumph fan will be disappointed, and that, to a certain extent,  is the bottom line. “A learning experience” is how everyone, Levine, Moore,  Emmett, and Klink, regards the making of Triumph’s ninth album. If nothing else,  the band learned how strong their bonds were to each other, and how well they  could pull together when the going got tough. Levine says: “The bottom line for any band on the success ladder (if you want to climb it) is you have to trust  some people, but you have to trust yourself first. You have to at least think you know what you’re doing and not let anybody convince you that you don’t. As  soon as you become insecure about what you’re doing you’re not going to be able to perform properly no matter what your task is. If anybody is allowed to  instill any self doubt in you, it will affect your performance. ”

The  plan was simple, and though the course may have been rougher than they expected and they changed jockeys mid-race, Mike Levine, Gil Moore and Rik Emmett are  happy to be standing in the winner’s circle with The Sport of Kings.

Triumph – Edge of Excess (Virgin) 1993

Picked this one up used and despite the fact that I had never heard it, thought I’d give it a shot. I mean, how bad could it be right? Well, I was oblivious to the fact that Rick Emmett did not play on this disc. That right there had me a bit skeptical before I even popped the disc into my CD player. To me Emmett gave Triumph their charm and charisma with his rafter rocking vocals and neo-classical guitar work. Drummer Gil Moore and bassist Mike Levine were obviously a big part of the band as well, but Triumph without Emmett is like Aerosmith without Steven Tyler, Led Zeppelin without Jimmy Page. It’s just not the same band. So, while “Edge of Excess” doesn’t really sound like Triumph, it’s also not a bad arena rock album. “Child of the City”, “Black Sheep” and “Trouble Maker” are all actually pretty solid rockers. (“Trouble Maker” was also featured in the Hellraiser III soundtrack.) So, despite missing a vital part of the formula, “Edge of Success” is actually pretty successful.

1. “Child Of The City” (5:04)
2. “Troublemaker” (4:06)
3. “It’s Over” (4:21)
4. “Edge Of Excess” (4:44)
5. “Turn My Back On Love” (4:06)
6. “Ridin High Again” (4:55)
7. “Black Sheep” (5:25)
8. “Boy’s Night Out” (5:19)
9. “Somewhere Tonight” (4:34)
10. “Love In A Minute” (4:45)