For the better part of 18 years (there was a lengthy break in there), Boston outfit Roadsaw have produced some of the most definitively American heavy rock the world has ever heard. Their songs are like cars with unrepentantly inefficient engines: loaded with swagger and volume and ready to run your ass over if you get in their way. The latest installment in their discography is Roadsaw, on Small Stone, and it’s an album that’s probably going to surprise some longtime listeners of the band with its maturity. Figuratively and literally, the days of scumbag rock that permeated albums like 1995’s 1,000,000 and 1997’s Nationwide are long gone. There are traces of that kind of thing on Roadsaw’s Roadsaw, but the band, who took a seven year break between their 2001 Rawk ‘n’ Roll and 2008 See You in Hell releases (they also put out the Takin’ out the Trash compilation in 2007), are different people in 2011 than they were then. Founding members Tim Catz (bass) and Craig Riggs (vocals), along with guitarist Ian Ross and drummer Jeremy Hemond (also of Cortez and Black Thai) now present a smooth and intricately-constructed 11-track collection of songs, viciously catchy and tighter than your emo cousin’s pants.
Opener “Dead and Buried” features just one of Roadsaw’s several landmark choruses. I liked See You in Hell well enough, but to be fair, the bulk of my excitement about it was just that there was a new Roadsaw album. With the self-titled, it’s all about the songwriting. Ross’ riffing is prime, and Catz and Hemond prove absolutely lethal when it comes to setting the pace and grounding the tracks, the latter with the kind of taut snare sound that has become one of the trademarks of a Benny Grotto/Mad Oak engineering job (Sean Slade was also brought in to produce), but if any single member of Roadsaw is giving a standout performance on these songs, it has to be Riggs. His vocals maintain the gruff, throaty Southern feel of some of the band’s earlier work, but across “Thinking of Me,” “Long in the Tooth” and late-arriving barn-burner “Too Much is Not Enough,” Riggs counterweighs the rougher approach with several seriously accomplished melodies. “Song X” (you’ll never guess where it appears on the tracklisting) is a heavy pop number that pulls off precisely what the last Fireball Ministry album couldn’t, blending radio-ready accessibility with an underlying heaviness and not sacrificing one in service to the other.
Most of the tracks rely on straightforward structures and songwriting techniques – if you can write choruses like this, you do it – but subtle changes like the darker turn of “Motel Shoot Out” provide variety and keep Roadsaw from sounding too formulaic. Also of great assistance in this regard is “Electric Heaven,” which slows the pace by nearly half and is the longest song at 6:10. A Clutch-feel in the vocals and tradeoffs between heavy breaks and quiet verses lead to bright and open-ringing guitar notes in the choruses. Roadsaw never quite get psychedelic, but if they were going to, this is where they’d do it. Riggs leads the charge well, and Hemond in particular does an excellent job of not letting the song get too carried away. Contrasted with the bare-knuckle songwriting methodology at play on the aptly-named uptempo “The Getaway” (highlight solo from Ross), though, “Electric Heaven” is still a change of both pace and tactic for Roadsaw. Like just about everything else on their self-titled, it works well.
Earlier cut “Weight in Gold” would be a misstep in the album’s sequencing were it not for the unbelievable tone Ross gets in his guitar; the perfect balance of fuzz and clarity of notes. There are probably some for whom Roadsaw’s latest might be too clean, too crisp, too grown-up, but honestly, their loss is in the standout tracks making up the album. It’s not like Roadsaw is doing some cash grab after 18 years together – frankly, there’s no cash to grab – but they’ve clearly come of age as a band and these songs show that. Small Stone had an exceptional year in 2010 with releases by Gozu, Sasquatch and Solace, and as the label has started off 2011 with Suplecs, The Might Could and will follow with Roadsaw and Tia Carrera, it looks like that momentum is going to carry through the Spring and beyond. All the better for lovers of real rock and roll. It seems early to call this kind of thing in January, but no doubt Roadsaw’s Roadsaw is going to be one of the year’s best riff-rock releases. The band was right to name it after themselves.Boston, Massachusetts, Roadsaw, Small Stone