T.S.O.L. - The Trigger Complex (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review


The Trigger Complex (2017)

Rise records

If you follow TSOL or Jack Grisham on social media, you were warned that The Trigger Complex was going to be something different. Which is to say that it’s a return to a sound that the band hasn’t really explored much for the last three decades. Early 80’s keyboardist Greg Kuehn has returned to play a heavy role on the new LP. I feel a comparison to Beneath the Shadows is inevitable, but first I will give the unaware a brief and overly simplified TSOL history. Some of you already know this story better than I do, so you should go ahead and skip to the third paragraph.

TSOL formed in southern California at the end of the 70’s. Its key players were Grisham (vocals), Ron Emory (guitar), Mike Roche (bass) and Todd Barnes (drums). Their self-titled debut EP from 1981 was fast, anti-government hardcore punk. Their first full length, Dance With Me, came out later that same year and TSOL was already headed in a darker lyrical and musical direction. (Often referred to as death-rock.) Kuehn was added as a full time member in time for 1982’s Beneath the Shadows. The band’s dramatic change to a poppier sound was very pronounced. Many of the early fans jumped ship. Soon after, Grisham, Barnes and Kuehn all quit. The band continued on without them , getting progressively worse. By the end of the 90’s, none of the original members remained. In 1999, the four founders legally got the TSOL name back. Grisham, Emory and Roche have been carrying on in their early punk style,more or less, ever since. (Barnes died of a brain aneurysm in December of ‘99 at the age of 34.)

The Trigger Complex is a major gamble for a band whose most popular songs are 35 year old ragers. Punk fans can be surprisingly fickle, myself included. When “I Wanted to See You” was released as a preview track, I was not overly impressed. In fact, I was prepared to hate this album. Fortunately, it only took a couple of spins for me to come around. This is no Dance With Me, but taken on its own merits it’s a solid record. So what does it sound like? Grisham sings instead of yells. Emory strums his guitar without resorting to his normal distorted bite. The bass and drums are pretty much the same, but the keys make everything sound that much more polished. It’s like The Damned style punk rock mixed with the kind of songs that were on the Valley Girl soundtrack. In other words, it’s reminiscent of Beneath the Shadows. Unfortunately, there are no songs about necrophilia. Instead, they deal with the much more complicated topic of relationships between living men and women. It focuses mostly on love and lust.

Kuehn is eased into The Trigger Complex. He mostly lurks in the background until the 5th track, “The Right Side”. At that point the keyboard becomes more prominent and stays that way through the remainder of the record’s 13 songs. As a matter of fact, album closer “Bats” is a really cool instrumental built around a creepy keyboard riff. There are a couple of slow songs that you’ll want to hate, but probably won’t be able to. On “Why Can’t We Do It Again” the keyboard sounds like steel drums and gives the song a breezy island feel, despite its dark lyrics. “Don’t You Want Me” has a jaunty piano line and sounds like something our grandparents would have listened to. Somehow they both still work. The rest of the tracks are more upbeat, even if they’re not quite as memorable. “Strange World” and “Going Steady” are my personal favorites.

I can’t help but wonder if this new material is going to change their live show. I saw them as recently as last summer and they were still playing as a quartet. The vast majority of their setlist was from the early 80’s. The older the material, the more violent the reaction from the aging crowd. I can only imagine how a song like “Satellites” would go over in the pit. When TSOL changed their sound in the early 80’s, it’s safe to assume they were chasing fortune and fame. There's little risk of a bunch of middle aged punks going mainstream this time around. They must be doing this because they want to. Grisham is a restless artistic soul. He’s written a couple of books and is a serious photographer in addition to his musical pursuits. The thought of trying to recreate “Abolish Government” or “Code Blue” a dozen more times for a new record probably didn’t appeal much to him. If that’s the only TSOL stuff you like, you should pass on this. If you can keep an open mind, there’s lots to like about The Trigger Complex.