Ballzier than Zeppelin, yet safer than Sabbath, Nazareth was a powerful force on the international scene during their heyday but never quite made it to rock’s proverbial “Champagne Room.” However, despite marginal record sales, the Scottish hard-rock combo did build a solid reputation on the road as a “must-see” live act. Along with such contemporaries as Blue Oyster Cult, Rainbow, and Foghat, Nazareth consistently filled concert arenas from coast to coast throughout the 1970s.
Nazareth’s short-lived Top 20 chart success came in 1975 when they released their only million-plus selling album, Hair of the Dog. With its iconic, “Now you’re messin’ with a son of a bitch” chorus, the album’s title track remains a staple of classic rock radio to this day. Hair of the Dog also features the band’s one and only (U.S.) Top 40 single, a remake of The Everly Brothers’ “Love Hurts,” which arguably can be credited with providing the blueprint for the power-ballad phenomenon of the 1980s.
Their blues-based, guitar-driven sound was heavy and their songs were melodic and well crafted. Manny Charlton was one of the true unsung rock guitar gods of the 1970s and front man Dan McCafferty’s raspy yet smooth style was as distinctive, honest, and pure as any acknowledged powerhouse vocalist of the day. But what truly set Nazareth apart from the rest of the 1970s hard-rock pack was that they had great songs — particularly during the band’s Malice in Wonderland/Fool Circle/2XS era of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Nazareth could bring thousands to their feet with fist-pumping anthems like “Razamanaz” and “Expect No Mercy” one minute, and make grown men cry the next with heartfelt ballads like “Fallen Angel” and “Moonlight Eyes.”
But that was then and this is now. Charlton left the band in the early 1990s and founding drummer Darrell Sweet passed away from a heart attack in April 1999 at age 51, leaving McCafferty and original bassist Pete Agnew to trudge onward with a myriad of replacement players for nearly the last 20 years.
And therein lies the problem with Big Dogz — it isn’t really Nazareth. Although to longtime diehards, hearing 64-year-old Dan McCafferty’s signature vocals once again on a new record might feel like a visit from an old friend (and 64-year-old Agnew certainly nails this one throughout), the Nazareth “magic” just ain’t happening. It’s not that the record is an abomination, exactly. In fact, had it been created by an unknown middle-aged blues/rock band from Anytown, USA, Big Dogz would be a more than adequate offering. However, this is (supposedly) Nazareth, and that brand name suggests to fans a certain level of quality production and songwriting — a level of quality that doesn’t come across here. Despite traveling to the Czech Republic to record the record, producer Yann Rouiller and co-producer (and current guitarist) Jimmy Murrison have created a collection that, in short, sounds “local.” And the classic Nazareth quality songwriting is as noticeably absent as Charlton’s guitar work. Although “Big Dog’s Gonna Roll,” “Claimed,” and “No Mean Monsters” will likely hold fans’ attention for the first 13 minutes, “When Jesus Comes to Save the World Again,” “Radio,” and “Time and Tide” tend to ramble and border on mind-numbing at times.
All in all, Big Dogz may cut it for the band’s staunchest supporters; however, it will likely fall (way) short for those expecting a true Nazareth record.