Review Summary: A compelling debut, even if some of the songwriting ideas executed raise identity crisis red flags.
While he wasn't the most illustrious President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge was a masterful orator. Considering the turbulent economic climate as of late, perhaps no statement of his is more applicable today:
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent!
Entrepreneurship in music is a risk, and when a band's extended setlist includes covers of A Perfect Circle
's "The Hollow," Iron Maiden
's "The Trooper," Staind
's "Mudshovel," and Pink Floyd
's "Wish You Were Here," it stands to reason that the band in question should deliver a powerful, unique catalogue of original material unless they're content with playing at $2-you-call-it bars instead of venues for the entirety of their career. After all, the demand for pure cover bands is about as high as Dubya's exit approval rating.
A Pacific Northwest-based independent quintet, Tsavo's sound can be easily distinguished based on their aforementioned cover choices (a list that also includes Killswitch Engage
's "The End of Heartache" and Lit
's "My Own Worst Enemy): they play an accessible, melodic brand of tunes ideal for modern rock radio. With their diverse debut The Search
, Tsavo deliver a compelling, refreshing listen, even if some of the ideas executed raise identity crisis red flags.
Tsavo's biggest strength is that they consistently sound like a cohesive unit despite The Search
's rough-around-the-edges production. While a concession can be made that independent bands don't have the luxury of using top-of-the-line professional studios, drummer Sean Brown deserves to be acknowledged for engineering a record where the interwoven guitars, sturdy rhythm section, and classically-trained vocalist Cameron Mueller's soaring vocals can be heard with perspicuous clarity, even when the mix is unevenly translucent. The record's auspicious opener, "Campaign of Fear," establishes Tsavo's knack for crunching guitars with its feverishly-paced hammer-on/pull-off introduction (envision the Foo Fighters covering the intro of "94 Hours" by As I Lay Dying) that dives into the song's first verse. Mueller, Ryan Luke, and Jason Edwards are a tri-branded guitar attack, and the different elements each guitarist contributes to the verses and chorus is admirable. Brown and bassist Gus Winecoff provide a prevalent but not overly-domineering firmness with the rhythm section, complete with double bass, chromatic bass leads, and impeccable runs on the lower toms and cymbals. Mueller's vocal prowess is also notable, and his sardonic-vs.-hopeful balance ("When the day is done and the debt is paid, I'll watch as you lie in the bed you've made / . . . The truth will set you free... so pray for love and pray for peace / . . . Speak the truth and save your souls and ruin the lives of those you oppose") adds considerable weight to his imaginative metaphors that he uses throughout The Search
Mueller sounds most similar to Ben Burnley (of Breaking Benjamin
fame), but the Tsavo frontman's vocal merits absolutely stand on their own, and no track exemplifies this better than "Absence." With only a single arpeggiated guitar, Mueller's excellent vocal range is highlighted, even when he borders on nonsense rather than non-sequitur ("Listening to the reckoning of an angel who's lost in time / Not this time / I have every right / Reaching to grasp and take what's rightfully mine"). His elevated, higher range is ethereal, nearly haunting, which sets a perfect ambiance when he sings, "You will find my heart is not mine / Will my absence be unnoticed tonight, will my absence be unseen by your light?" While Mueller doesn't rely on vibrato or other distinct vocal mannerisms, there's no doubting his diaphragm strength and sustain - other vocal highlights "Lost and Forgotten," "Longing," and "Caught in Limbo."
Meanwhile, his bandmates are more than just merely competent at their instruments. In particular, Brown's work on The Search
is impressive, employing multifarious techniques that all but confirm him as an accomplished drummer. Brown's transitions between verses and chorus, or bridge to final chorus, are as resolute as they are creative, but he seems to recognize that, sometimes, the "less is more" approach works well (for instance, the military-like snare rolls in "Journey's" verses add undeniable character to complement the effect-laden guitars) for Tsavo. Tsavo's guitarists rely pretty heavily on effects throughout The Search
, especially distortion and delay, but their aptitude for constructing riffs that interplay well amongst one another and with the bass is a constant on the record - again, "Journey" and "Caught in Limbo" illustrate this point, as well as the 8:00+ epic "Turning the Page."
's biggest downfall is its arbitrary bouts of identity crisis. "Flight" is the most glaring abomination on the album - the incessant chuggachuggachugga metalcore riffs and absolutely abysmal vocals (it doesn't matter if it's Mueller or two individuals known only as "Blair and Ty" in the liner notes, the putrid shrieks and hideous guttural growls are farcical and horribly out of place) make this a head-scratcher. What are Tsavo trying to accomplish with such a deplorable cut? It can't possibly be a tribute to any band that's influenced their sound, and if it's their attempt at iridescence, then it's an absurd, laughable effort (the same goes for "This is Goodbye," which is a sludgy, overly-distorted mess). One other criticism that can be levied is the same critique bestowed upon most modern rock acts: the insistence on formulaic songwriting structures. The Search
features bountiful good ideas that could have been further explored instead of catering to a bland hard rock schema, such as the "urgent-sounding, heavy intro gives way to palm-muted arpeggios in the verse" schema. These fallback blueprints exist for a reason - they're tried-and-true - but a little more ingenuity and a little less reliance on these archetypes would have bolstered the record significantly.
After listening to The Search
and digesting it over a long period of time, there's little doubt that Tsavo play an accessible brand of melodic alterna-rock with gusto and crunch. It would be intriguing to hear The Search
re-recorded in a top-of-the-line recording studio, because some of the guitar lines could have really elevated some of the stagnant tracks and the drum and bass could rattle the subwoofer a bit more, but the rugged production adds to the album's charm. Tsavo should garner more accolades and successes the more they continue to promote their debut - it's to their advantage that they haven't celebrated their second 'birthday' as a band - and while there are some questionable songwriting ingredients on The Search
, it is an interesting and engaging listen, and should they take the words of Calvin Coolidge to heart, continued persistence and determination should yield great things.
Campaign of Fear*
Lost and Forgotten
* http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67vPzFR6uvo - filmed at their practice space: the Winecoff family's cabin in the woods.