Song Spotlight: Trinity Road (Michael Lee Firkins)

Song:  Trinity Road (listen)
Album:  Chapter Eleven (1995) (listen)
Artist:  Michael Lee Firkins

I'm a sucker for a lot of things: baroque writing, painfully arduous hikes, and really, really hot salsa, to name a few.  Although this song is none of those things, it is something else that I'm an absolute sucker for:  melodic guitar music.  I tend to like music that was once cool (like 70's guitar rock), music that has never been cool (like progressive, conceptual rock), and most certainly music that would get any red-blooded male laughed at in a biker bar (like the sort of guitar balladry that Joe Satriani and Steve Vai have become semi-famous for).

Michael Lee Firkins falls into step with this latter group of musicians for writing complex, guitar-based, instrumental music.  The origins of this "genre" are oftentimes attributed to Joe Satriani, who first made a splash in the rock scene with 1986's Not of this Earth (listen), a rock album that was completely devoid of vocals.  Where, previously, instrumental, rock guitar music had focused on the player's "chops," choosing to highlight the guitarist's soloing ability and general technical prowess, Satriani chose to write songs that were actually songs, sharing more in common, thematically, with the classical, Spanish guitar songs of old than with the modern showiness of his contemporaries.

Since, the door has been opened for many guitarists who write true, instrumental "songs," and Michael Lee Firkins is one of the better practitioners of the style.  For nearly a year now I've been unable to dislodge his stellar track, Trinity Road, from my head.  It is, in every sense, a ballad, but being free of lyrics, the listener is thankfully spared the often uninspired (and sometimes abjectly silly) love overtures that were the bread and butter of the 80's power ballad scene.  The listener must, instead, rely wholly on his intuition to decipher the musical movements that make up the emotional content of an instrumental song, and in this area Trinity Road leaves him plenty to work with.

From the opening note series (which is repeated throughout the track) to the chord chorus that makes up the heart of the song, Trinity Road hits a tone that moves through phases both somber and uplifting, yet never feels disjointed or forced, a feat that very few groups pull off with any success.  The guitar tone used by Firkins only adds to the song's strength, offering the listener a slightly scratchy sound that presses its bluesy, somber roots, but with the addition of a subdued echo effect that enhances the soft, emotional qualities that ultimately dominate the song.

Beyond crafting emotional tone purely through music, any guitarist intent on creating instrumental songs must also confront the fact that songs just sound better with vocals.  A good singer is more than just a good instrument; a good singer is a superior instrument.  My favorite singers have often outshone the other members of their bands due to the inherent advantage their vocal instrument carries, such as the ability to change tone, timbre, tuning, and pitch on the fly.  Not to mention that great singing voices are naturally appealing for their humanness.  Nonetheless, the instrumental guitarist must do his best to match the qualities of the soloing vocalist. Thankfully, of all instruments, the strings are perhaps best suited for this job, mimicking human vocal qualities and variations more strongly than other instrument types are capable of, a trait that Firkins adeptly puts to use through the use of an extended, overlaid guitar solo that shows up nearly from the very start of the track.  Like any great vocal, however, this is not simply a free for all; though both long and complex, the "vocal" solo does repeat, just like any singer would repeat his own lines, drawing the listener in with familiarity and appeasing his sense of musical satisfaction by providing a return to something recognizable.

Never once while listening to Trinity Road do I feel like its missing something, despite the lack of vocals; its as much a full "song" as anything with them.  For the guitar aficionados in the audience (who appreciate the guitar for its ability to be both blistering and benign), Michael Lee Firkins is yet another reason to pull down the headphones, turn off the radio, and evade the popular music scene for another blessed evening.