There are those who know NAZARETH only for 1975's "Hair of the Dog" (indeed a great album), specifically the ball bustin' title track and radio smash "Love Hurts"; just like there are those who know DEEP PURPLE only for "Smoke on the Water". Then there are those who know NAZARETH as the Scottish band that has been consistent (for the most part) in making an immediately identifiable brawny/folksy/bluesy brand of rock music since 1968 and continue to do so today with original members Dan McCafferty (vocals) and Pete Agnew (bass) still in tow. Much like UFO, NAZARETH has aged like a fine wine; getting classier, blusier, and a little mellower in the process, but continue to be unmistakably NAZARETH. These are all characteristics that define "Big Dogz", a damn fine rock album and a more than worthy addition to the storied act's catalogue.
"Big Dogz" is an album that does include some classic-era rock elements (a riff here, a pattern there) and on the whole it will not be mistaken for anything other than a NAZARETH album. How could it be with McCafferty's distinctive gravel-throated voice, which sounds as strong ever? Yet "Big Dogz" offers more than just rockers and ballads; it is an album on which intricate playing and a colorful, nuanced tapestry of blues, folk, and pure soulfulness make every song unique, heartfelt, and 100 percent enjoyable.
The best part about "Big Dogz" is that there isn't a single song that doesn't move the listener in some way and keep him/her hanging on to every note and every word. "Big Dog's Gonna Howl" sets the tone with its earthy bass line, a stop/start riff that recalls some of the mid-'70s material, and — like most songs on the disc — a truckload of soul. That bluesy swagger is even more pronounced on "Claimed", which also boasts some vintage nods to the past, while "No Mean Monster" raises the temperature and gets a serious hot 'n bluesy groove going. It is the album's second half though where the balls get bigger and the rock comes struttin' on songs like "The Toast" (inclusive of some comic relief), "Watch Your Back", "Lifeboat", and "Sleeptalker", which is the one song that will most remind folks of the NAZARETH heard on albums like "Razamanaz", "Loud 'n' Proud", and "Hair of the Dog".
It is the mellower end of the spectrum on "Big Dogz" however where NAZARETH really shines, as the combination of the nuanced playing and McCafferty's vocals result in music that is nothing short of beautiful. Starting with the largely acoustic "When Jesus Comes to Save the World Again", which offers just enough Delta blues and grit, to put the "esque" in ballad-esque, NAZARETH show themselves most capable of writing songs that touch the soul. Most interesting is how well the pop-based "Radio" comes off; it is another nice twist and a pretty catchy tune to boot. After you've spent some time with "Big Dogz", it just may be the seven-minute "Time and Tide" that stands out for its tear jerking, nostalgic beauty. The song gets right to the heart of the matter and it wouldn't seem strange to hear its basic, unforgettable chorus assisted by a gospel choir. And somehow the band still manages to sneak in an old school NAZARETH lick at one point. "Butterfly" is right there as well, its essence one of sorrows-drowning sentimentality with a folk basis and a certain grace in the piano playing that is all about the feel, rather than the technique.
What may surprise you most about "Big Dogz" is that it is not the strength of the punch that makes NAZARETH's rock roll. Rather, it is the intricacy of the playing, the space between the notes, and an approach to songwriting that makes the sum of those parts not nearly as endearing as the whole. NAZARETH really classes up the place here and offers an album that is about as honest as rock music gets. Be careful with this one; it'll sneak up on you and leave you helpless in its grasp.