Wednesday, June 1, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1562: Triumph

For the second time in three reviews the random universe has served up a Triumph album.

Disc 1562 is…. Just a Game

Artist: Triumph

Year of Release: 1979

What’s up with the Cover? Even though we can see playing pieces, dice and a checkerboard depicted, the amount of batshittery going on with this cover feels like a lot more than just a game. I mean, maybe it was just a game until the members of Triumph (depicted here as some sort of Thunder Cat-adjacent aliens) came surfing in on the back of a starship shaped like an eagle.

And lest you think the batshittery ends there, allow me to share with you this full fold-out of the cover which reveals the ship in “full wing”, itself being grasped by a gargantuan hand that makes everything else seem like mere toys!

Oh, wait a minute… I guess based on that it is just a game. Context is everything.

How I Came To Know It: I knew one hit off this record from my youth, but once again this was just me digging through Triumph’s back catalogue after recently watching a documentary about their career.

How It Stacks Up: I have three Triumph albums, and “Just a Game” is the best of the bunch. #1.

Ratings: 4 stars

It is possible that after my 4-star review of Triumph’s 1984 record “Thunder Seven” you raced out and bought it for yourself. This is a good decision, and I encourage you to continue to take my excellent advice. It is also possible you found that record slightly too “metal” for your personal tastes. While your aversion to metal is unfathomable and misguided, I can understand how listening to Triumph might leave you with a hankering for a purer seventies hard rock sound. Lucky for you, there are records like “Just a Game” that will more than meet your desires.

“Just a Game” is a classic in the genre, with power chords aplenty, high anthemic vocals and just enough guitar wankery to leave you wondering if maybe it has crossed the line into too much guitar wankery. I hasten to add that this last observation is not a criticism. Think of the guitar wankery on “Just a Game” like when you ask for pepper at a restaurant and the server twists the mill a couple more times than you’re comfortable with. It is going to be a bit spicier than you intended, but it won’t wreck the dish.

A good example of this is on the blues-rock goodness of “Young Enough to Cry”. This song isn’t one of my favourites, mostly because I’m not a huge blues rock guy, but also because it is six minutes long when it should be five. That said, the extra minute is saturated with some of the guitarist Rik Emmett’s finest solo work. Much as I’d like to squeeze that track down a bit, removing even a bar of Emmett’s brilliance would be a crime.

As with a lot of Triumph albums, “Just a Game” is known for its anthemic radio friendly hooks and forgotten for its more esoteric musical explorations. For the former, we have “Lay It on the Line” which is a rock anthem masterpiece. The riff delays its payoff to the chorus, which just makes the anticipatory thrill all the greater on repeat listens. The song’s subject matter has aged poorly. Charitably, the song is about a man professing his love, and asking a woman to do the same, but lyrics like this one:

“You got no right to make me wait
Better talk girl before it gets too late
I never ever thought you could be so unkind
Won't you lay it on the line”

Sound less like they’re being nobly recited up to a second story balcony, and more like an urgent whisper in the back seat of a Chevy Malibu.

The record is replete with great guitar riffs. Also notable is “American Girls” (similar subject, this time with our narrator going home to meet the parents first). This song has a hook that reminded me of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” but from there similarities end, with the song taking a departure more toward a more general beach party vibe, from back in a time when beach parties featured a lot of pasty dudes in cut off jean shorts. It is equal parts grimy and infectious.

This being Triumph, once again we get some sharp style turns. “Fantasy Serenade” is another of Emmett’s classical guitar interludes that would be at home during a dinner reception following a high brow wedding, possibly played on a harp. It is an odd experience hearing this immediately following the hard rocking title track, but welcome nonetheless. “Suitcase Blues” feels more like a fifties Sinatra tune than a rock and roll song, but in the tradition of Queen’s “Melancholy Blues” Triumph makes it feel natural and welcome.

I had a hard time picking a favourite between this record and “Thunder Seven”, but I think a lot of that was just my favourable teen memories of the latter. Objectively speaking “Just a Game” is the better record, featuring cleaner production and stronger songwriting throughout. If it feels a little “of its time” it also reminds you that 1979 was a pretty great time for rock and roll.

Best tracks: Movin’ On, Lay It On the Line, American Girls, Just a Game, Hold On

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