Here’s a bit of background on T.S.O.L – formed in California in 1978, the band released their debut self-titled EP three years later, a release that would go on to be an underground hardcore punk classic thanks to its left-leaning political stance and the firebrand punch that would characterise the genre’s early years. After that, the band would go onto hopping from genre to genre across their next releases, moving to gothic rock to glam metal and eventually back to hardcore and punk on their 2001 album Disappear.
The reason why all this is necessary is because, to fully understand what’s going on on the band’s tenth album The Trigger Complex, it’s worth knowing that all of this has been pitched right out of the window. Instead, The Trigger Complex is the sound of a band sounding every one of their almost forty years, regressing to stale ‘80s radio rock that’s running critically low on spark in any form. Gone is anything even remotely resembling any of their previous incarnations in favour of a brand of rock that’s superficially catchy but painfully dated with precious few saving graces. The thing is, it doesn’t even sound like the band are aware of this; Jack Grisham is the furthest thing from a punk vocalist these days, sounding somewhere in between Grant Nicholas and a really tired Mick Jagger, but you can tell there’s at least a smile on his face and there’s enjoyment from the band running through at least some of these songs. The best songs come when this extra bit of personality adds a bit more flair, like the choppy guitar and organ of The Right Side or the Rolling Stones-esque strut of Why Can’t We Do It Again. Hell, when they get a bit darker and more cinematic on Don’t You Want Me and Bats, it makes for a pair of songs bordering on genuine excellence.
Apart from that, The Trigger Complex flounders when trying to be visceral or holding any sort of interest. The guitars probably sound the worst of anything here, with no body or texture and fed through the muddy production job that really doesn’t sound good, especially when most of these songs are spent as mid-range plodders. At least the opening duo of Give Me More and Sometimes have the courtesy to pick up the pace at least a bit; elsewhere, Strange World opens with a really solid, creeping bassline before jettisoning it for a flavourless radio rock chorus, and the virtually nonexistent guitar tone on Wild Life couldn’t be any less wild if it tried.
It doesn’t help that, as songwriters, T.S.O.L have not aged gracefully either. While the basic nature of the vast majority of this album can be excused thanks to how the instrumentation plays out, there’s not a single hint that this band used to have anything close to do with punk given how safe and timid most of this album feels – a bit of life wouldn’t have gone amiss, or at least something a bit more exciting to counteract how dull the actual music is. It gets even worse when they try to come across as relatable to clearly appeal to a younger audience; Why Don’t We Do It Again sees Grisham getting into a bar fight with the boyfriend of the girl he’s attempting to get with (not the wisest lyrical direction for a 55-year-old man to take), but by far the worst example is Going Steady. Not only is its title taken from a phrase that hasn’t been used in any way in a good number of years, but with lyrics like “Hey, you wanna hit the club again? / ‘Cause I know a guy who knows a guy who can get us in”, it feels like T.S.O.L are actively trying to fit into and appeal to a broad stereotype of young people that veers way, way off the mark.
And at the end of the day, the biggest mystery that emerges from The Trigger Complex is who this is actually for. It can hardly be for longtime T.S.O.L fans given the hard shift in genre, and anyone who is a fan of this sort of style is bound to be put off given the details that can be found by any brief search into the band’s origins. The only logical explanation is that this is an album made by a group of men who want to fuel the preconceptions that this is the direction that older bands should be going in, radio-friendly and inoffensive but utterly trite and boring, even though there are many bands out there that would be all too happy to disprove that.
For fans of: The Rolling Stones, Billy Idol, Rod Stewart
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘The Trigger Complex’ by T.S.O.L is released on 27th January on Rise Records.