This is a band that needs no introduction, but I invite you to Story Time with Todd: T.S.O.L. is the very first punk band I was ever exposed to. It was over 30 years ago in 1984, when my best friend’s older cousin from LA came to live here in San Diego (Alpine). With him, he brought a rebellious attitude, a leather studded jacket, a skateboard, and a crate full of punk rock records. One of those records happened to be Dance With Me. I had never heard a single song, but remember being inexplicably drawn to the cover art. With hindsight it can all be explained quite easily. Having recently latched on to the skateboarding culture, I found myself deeply submerged in marketing that revolved around dark imagery. Most of the existing skate companies showcased decks, clothing, and other merchandise covered with skeletons, dragons, and things of the like. I was loving that stuff, and the cemetery scene on the cover of the record with a skeleton clasping his hands seemed to be perfectly aligned with all of the things I was seeking out at the time. …and so I asked to borrow the record. I brought it home, closed myself in my room, and dropped it on to my Panasonic turntable. From the first note, I honestly didn’t even know what to think. I had never heard anything so cryptic and haunting with that much energy and angst. It was a textbook moment of being mind blown! I must have spun that record front to back a dozen times in one sitting as I followed along with the lyric sheet trying to understand the song meanings. Before returning the album the following day, I recorded it to a cassette which I played relentlessly for months until going to Blue Meanie Records in El Cajon and buying my own original copy. It was that trip to the record store that I also learned the band had other albums out. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the cash to buy them at the time.
About a week later, I tugged on my mom’s pant leg at the Alpine video rental store until she agreed to rent the latest skateboard video titled Summer Sessions. I came home and watched Eric Grisham shred and learned in the credits that the soundtrack was T.S.O.L.. I was extremely confused because the songs in the video didn’t sound anything like the Dance With Me album. It took an issue of Thrasher Magazine to educate me. The T.S.O.L. songs on the video didn’t sound the same because they were from the album Change Today which features Joe Wood on vocals as opposed to Jack Grisham. Initially, I was pretty miffed that T.S.O.L. had a new singer, but In-Time (no pun intended) I fell in love with Change Today equally as much as I had with Dance With Me. Debates have erupted for years in the punk community, and while most regard T.S.O.L. with Jack as the only acceptable iteration of the band, I personally didn’t care which vocalist we were talking about back then…T.S.O.L. was my #1. As luck would have it, before I saved the money to buy Change Today, my brother Geoff gave me the album as a Christmas present. Hell yes Bro!!!! I still thank you!
I spent countless nights with my two favorite albums and a lame acoustic guitar trying to emulate the creepy stylings of Ron Emery, but failing miserably. Fast forward through 9 studio full lengths, three or four live albums, a handful of one off’s and ep’s, Tender Fury, The Joykiller, Lunch Box, The Lonely Ones, and thirty plus years, T.S.O.L. has returned with a brand new full-length titled The Trigger Complex. As to be expected, the album features Jack on vocals. The band has experimented with their sound substantially over the years, and The Trigger Complex follows suit. It’s a definite departure from any prior work and harkens back to a 1st wave punk sound that is likely to catch long time fans by surprise (think The Ramones). I pose the following question: What would T.S.O.L. sound like if they leaned further into the realm of pop? This question is quite thoroughly answered on the new album. Much like my transition from Dance With Me to Change Today, the new release conjures a host of mixed feelings.
My knee-jerk reaction was to blurt out (louder than necessary to my wife), “wow, this is really poppy for these guys!” as I was talking with headphones on. Minor keys have been replaced with major keys. Many of the faster tempos are missing. Ron’s dark and creepy, often arpeggiated guitar riffs are traded in for more straight forward standard sounding progressions. You will even hear happy sing along choruses and the occasional flutter of Autotune software correcting Jack’s vocal pitch. The guy that wrote verses with lyrics that felt like an Alfred Hitchcock novel is now singing lines about how, “it’s so fun going steady”…and he’s doing it seemingly without sarcasm and with vibrato in his voice no less! Now, after casting what could easily be construed as a negative light on the release, I can immediately swing to the other side and say that despite the departure from their sound that I appreciate on their earliest works, there is A LOT to like about The Trigger Complex.
First, I’m a total sucker for nicely placed back up harmonies and this album is loaded with em! Oooh’s and Ahhh’s rule! …and while that isn’t what T.S.O.L. is known for, it’s done extremely well on this album. I also love that despite the pop sound, you can still very much hear the essence of T.S.O.L.. Many tracks like Don’t You Want Me and Strange World bring in some of the keyboard sounds that you might recall from Beneath the Shadows. On the song You’re Still the Same, you can hear traces of Ron Emery’s cool trademark creepy guitar riffing that I mentioned earlier. Likewise, although I said earlier that many of the faster tempos are absent, there are still a couple of swift paced numbers on this record. As an example, Going Steady starts out with an uptempo solo drum beat that emphasizes the toms…much like the classic song Dance With Me, the bass guitar is the next instrument to follow. The only difference is that when the full band comes in, it’s not as angry and dark. Is that a bad thing? For some, the answer is inevitably going to be “yes”. For me however, the answer is a resounding “no”.
With a fairly wide variety of tempos and moods, the new album features some arguably corny lyrical topics, but as usual, Jack has a way of stringing words together is such a cool way, it doesn’t really matter what the topic is. The guy’s a poet, and damn fine one. Additionally, he will never be able to shed that one-of-a-kind haunting tone to his voice. These great qualities are all still in place! The band has merely taken their years of experience and filtered it through a different colored lens that is far less focused on government, war, and death. I’d go so far as to say that T.S.O.L. are straight up having fun on the album and it’s actually quite refreshing.
4 out of 5 SDP Skulls
Reviewed by Todd Dulawan