As bluesy, soulful and classically rocking as ever, Sasquatch return with their aptly-titled fourth album, IV, on Small Stone. Three years doesn’t seem like an especially long time for a band to take between outings — it’s roughly consistent for the Los Angeles trio with their 2004 self-titled debut, 2006′s II and 2010′s III (review here) — but still, IV feels like it’s been a while in arriving. Recorded earlier this year at Mad Oak (guitar and vocals) in Boston and Rustbelt in Detroit (drums and bass), one might expect the three-piece to sound fractured or cobbled together somehow, but though the nine-tracks of IV are professionally crisp, there’s nothing lacking in natural feel throughout, and Sasquatch‘s latest finds itself basking in the fullest fuzz since the first record. Taking the larger production sensibility that showed up their last time out after II‘s more stripped-down classic power trio feel and meshing it with gorgeous tonality from guitarist/vocalist Keith Gibbs, IV calls to mind some of the best aspects of heavy rock — timelessness achieved by means of modernizing classic methods and structures, and updating heavy swing and swagger to sound not like a put-on, but like the inheritor of an expressive mode that’s dug underground to hide like mammals while the dinosaurs get taken out by an asteroid of bullshit — and proves over its vinyl-ready 43-plus minutes that Sasquatch deserve mention among the foremost of modern American practitioners of the form. Whether it’s the ultra-catchy opener “The Message” or more sonically spacious “Smoke Signal” or closer “Drawing Flies,” Gibbs, bassist Jason Casanova and drummer Rick Ferrante proffer exceptional songwriting, hitting all the marks along the way for gotta-groove fuzz rock supremacy while maintaining a stamp and personality of their own, characterized by Gibbs‘s belt-it-out vocals on “Sweet Lady” or the bevvy of solos he seems to just exude as Casanova and Ferrante maintain progressions behind, keeping the songs tight, purposeful and never overly indulgent. It’s beering music that makes little effort toward class but winds up there anyway, and while III offered a host of memorable cuts, each piece on IV both provides a standout and feeds into the larger, overarching flow.
There are moments particularly on side B where IV borders on too perfect — thinking of songs like “Wolves at My Door” and the shorter “Corner” — but, 12 minutes shorter than its predecessor, there’s no filler on Sasquatch‘s fourth, and even where their songwriting modus is most laid bare with a, “Let’s make this into a verse and chorus,” mentality, the quality of the material stands up to the familiarity of the intent. In addition, Gibbs has dialed back some of the Chris Cornell-style vocals that came out on III cuts like “Pull Me Under,” so that even in slower, more-open tempo stretches like that early into “Smoke Signal,” he sounds more like his own singer, giving IV all the more a sense of accomplishment. That song, “Smoke Signal,” is one of two included that top seven minutes long — the other is “Drawing Flies” — and both are used to close out their respective sides, underlining the classic album structure of IV overall as a collection of high-quality individual pieces set to the best working order to bring out a dynamic feeling of movement between them. The earlier “Eye of the Storm” (5:12) reaches for some of the same ground, but ultimately finds itself distinguished more for the strength of its hook in following ultra-catchy opener “The Message” — simply one of the finest choruses the band has ever written — despite also slowing the tempo from that track. Built around motor riffing and straight-ahead uptempo groove, “The Message” arrives at its chorus to find Gibbs‘ double-tracked and singalong-ready with a cadence and lyrics that are simple enough to leave an immediate first impression that lasts through the rest of the album and of course the first of many stellar solos layered in atop rhythm tracks in a way that’s professional but not overdone, a long feedback outro adding to the edge en route to the guitar opening of “Eye of the Storm,” which has a more melodic riff and makes itself felt with a wash of crash from Ferrante and glorious bed of low end from Casanova. Vocal harmonies distinguish the chorus further, leading to second-half stomp that recalls some of the last album’s more weighted stretches, an Ozzy reference tossed in (“…the white horse it’s symbolic of course”) tossed in for good measure in a deceptively intense ending. Seems surprising they don’t go back to the original chorus at the end, but that’s likely the point.
Picking up at the running clip where “The Message” left off, the wah-soaked “Sweet Lady” is all groove, and both it and the subsequent “Money” stand testament to Sasquatch’s songwriting acumen. A lot of heavy rockers can make a chorus. Fewer can make a catchy chorus and fewer still can make them at the level of Sasquatch. “Sweet Lady” doesn’t hit on the same kind of boogie idolatry as “Wolves at My Door” to come, but a deep-seated piano chord in the chorus adds barroom flair all the same. Two verses, two choruses, into the solo, back to the verse, chorus, end — it’s as basic as traditional rock/pop song structures get, but Gibbs, Casanova and Ferrante make it their own all the same as “Sweet Lady” struts to a finish and “Money” slides in on a guitar intro and tide of thick fuzz. Interesting that Gozu‘s Marc Gaffney doesn’t show up until “Smoke Signal,” which follows, since the verse riff of “Money” has so much in common tonally with Gozu‘s The Fury of a Patient Man, but even so, Sasquatch retain their individuality through “Money” just as much as everywhere else on IV, and when Gaffney comes in on “Smoke Signal,” it’s to pepper one of the album’s most landmark grooves with “woo hoos,” adding soul to the payoff of a side-long build. Brooding in its beginnings, “Smoke Signal” is less directly reliant on its chorus to distinguish it than its larger feel, but when the three-piece lock into the riff that drives the last four minutes of the song, any quota for hook is duly met. Gaffney arrives followed shortly by guitar effects that may or may not be provided by Small Stone honcho Scott Hamilton (he was credited initially with an appearance on the track, but that credit seems to be gone in the finished product), rounding out “Smoke Signal” and the first half of IV with its most hypnotic moment to let “Wolves at My Door” handle the snap back to reality with its bluesy shuffle and steady stream of leads. Less of a landmark for its chorus than for the general shift in approach it shows, “Wolves at My Door” starts out side B with a different flavor, subtly indicating that Sasquatch won’t necessarily just be retreading the ideas presented on the first half of IV in the second.
And sure enough, they don’t. “Wolves at My Door” and “Corner” are the two shortest cuts on IV, and while “Me and You” recalls some of side A’s verse/chorus tradeoffs, the feeling of space in Ferrante‘s cymbals and the swing of the song overall remain in line with “Wolves at My Door” as well, and Gibbs‘ vocals stay singly-layered as well, marking another distinction. Sasquatch would hardly be the first rock band to put the big choruses up front, but “Me and You” stays plenty catchy anyway, honing in on a Dixie Witch-style delivery ending with (of course) a big rock finish that rings out and moves well into “Corner,” which is essentially based around the single riff that Gibbs establishes at the outset, a fuzzy bridge serving as a kind of instrumental chorus between verses punctuated by tom thuds, until with less than a minute to go, the band shifts to a catchier progression, changing up the structure in what feels like a purposeful way but one that doesn’t necessarily serve the song itself so much as the album as a whole. Still, the band has never been much for playing to burl and where they easily could on “Corner,” they don’t, giving the nonetheless dudely swagger a more natural, unforced vibe, fading to a quick finish to let “Drawing Flies” reference “Eye of the Storm” in its melodic, open tone and “Smoke Signal” in its echoing spaciousness. In a way, IV can be seen as being about its payoffs — namely, about its moments of arrival in “Smoke Signal” and “Drawing Flies.” That’s not to say the rest of the album doesn’t offer its own satisfactions, because yes, it does, but once either of the two longer side-closers kicks in, you know in listening that you’ve gotten to where the band wants you to be. “Drawing Flies” is slower than anything since “Smoke Signal” as well, restrained in its pace, but nestled into a flowing mid-paced groove that’s given breadth all the more thanks to Casanova‘s bassline, shifting at its midpoint to nod-ready riffing that, in turn, stops to amp buzz topped by Gibbs‘ vocals before the chorus kicks back in. This is IV‘s triumph and its final thrust, and Sasquatch do right in riding it out, Gibbs taking a solo with under two minutes to go that adds drama to the finale, which comes on in a wash that comprises the last minute for an ending as big as the rest of the album justifies, holding up even more on repeat listens owing to the depth of approach that comes out across the second half after the more immediate impact of the first. Varied, unfuckwithably tight in its composition and performance, and showing a level of heavy rock mastery that even III didn’t as high as its peaks were, IV seems to find the balance that Sasquatch have been looking for all along and might prove over time to be their strongest outing to date. No wonder it felt so long in getting here, since as soon as you hear it you’ll feel like you’ve known it forever.