2009 and a brand new AC/DC studio album. Something special, something rare and definitely something to talk about. AC/DC are like the Rolling Stones or Motörhead, you know they must have started off somewhere but when you think about it, they have always been there, forever carved into the great books written of heavy rock’n’roll.
While always active on the live concert circuit, for quite some time now AC/DC haven’t exactly been prolific. “Black Ice” is only their third studio release since 1991, that’s 17 years and counting. And eight years since their last – honestly very mediocre – effort, “Stiff Upper Lip.” But with a band carrying such a rich legacy from years gone by, one could fully expect them to just take it easy and rest on their laurels. And many seemed to believe that, there were occasional news about the upcoming record but nothing concrete seemed to happen. Then suddenly, almost out of the blue “Black Ice” appeared and AC/DC were back. Good thing is it easily ranks amongst 2008’s best records.
First song and lead off single “Rock’n’Roll Train” opens the game and this is simply classic AC/DC, Malcolm Young thrusting in with surefire riff, Brian Johnson launching into a tasteful double entendre “One Hot Angel, One Cool Devil, Your Mind On A Fantasy, Living On The Ecstasy”, Angus firing away with his trademark guitar licks and to top it off a chorus to shake stadiums, backing vocals adding up more punch. You have to ho back to 1990’s underrated “The Razor’s Edge” and its excellent lead off track “Thunderstruck” – the last time AC/DC offered similar intensity.
This sets the pace nicely and most of what comes after carries a similar resurrecting feeling. “Anything Goes” has a definite single potential, ironically it also reminds me of Swiss rockers Krokus – known to have pulled a note or two from AC/DC’s song book. Song number eight; “Wheels” is an absolute highlight – killer rhythm coupled with a chorus to die for. And you simply cannot go wrong with a lyric like “She Gonna Rock’n’roll And Slide It Down.”
After this there is a definite slip in quality though, as for few songs the album seems to run out of steam. “Decibel” sounds like a B-side and “Stormy May Day” with its Whitesnake-esque slide guitar doesn’t impress either. Later “Money Made” is even more of a throw-away, kind of track the band can churn out in their sleep – and in this case probably have done so. Luckily melodic “Rock’n’ Roll Dream” offers a welcome change of pace and following “Rocking All The Way” is a solid AC/DC stomper. The title track closes the album and a lot like the one on “Ballbreaker” (1995), it’s the one song that requires several listens before sinking in. Quirky but good.
At the end of the day, the good here by far outstrips the bad and the overall feelings this record generates are very positive indeed. The best thing is that they have mostly abandoned the blues favour which largely dominated the last two studio albums. AC/DC don’t have to play the blues for the sake of it, they ARE a blues hard rock band. The blues has been integrated into their sound as far back as the days of “High Voltage” and “Let There Be Rock.” Thus their latter day pointless readings of “Boogie Man” and “Safe In New York City” only frustrated in the long run. This all makes “Black Ice” such a pleasure to return to, it’s definitely a hard rock blues album. Those big choruses with huge backing vocals are back but not overused, just giving it that extra spice on songs like “Rock’n’Roll Train.”
Like I said some songs like the aforementioned “Wheels” and “Rock’n’Roll Dream” do resemble efforts done by bands like Krokus, Rose Tattoo and Airbourne – all bands whose sound is heavily in debt to AC/DC. This of course is the ultimate irony, but for some it probably will also be a sacrilege. But remember, AC/DC are AC/DC, they invented this and if the song is good then it shouldn’t really matter what it sounds like. Let’s just say everything on “Black Ice” sounds like AC/DC and leave it at that.
Looking at the individual performances; instantly who impresses the most is the long term vocalist Brian Johnson. His vocals on “Spoilin’ For A Fight” are a throw back to the 1980’s, more power and gusto instead of more familiar snarl we have grown used to lately. The same thread runs throughout, for a man now over 60, this is an astounding work.
Angus Young’s guitar as surprising as it may be, is not upfront as much as before. On some records, the volume seems to have been turned up a notch when Angus took his lead but here his solos ooze in and out of the songs more fluently. But they are still following his trademark style and some things never change. Main focus is still on his brother Malcolm, who’s the true quiet star here with his unmistakable riffs and as always brilliantly supported by the rhythm section of bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd.
Producer Brendan O’Brien is of course a mainstream name more linked to artists like Bruce Springsteen. However, here he completely embellishes the core AC/DC sound. The album naturally doesn’t sound as good as “Highway To Hell”. That was 1979 and they just don’t make ‘em like they used to, but it kicks up where it’s necessary and all instruments are in balance. With this band that’s about all you need.
This is not a perfect album, or an album that will be remembered as a stone cold classic either. There are too many songs here, just enough to ensure that with 10 or 11 tracks, the band would have hit the target with more accuracy. And obviously “Black Ice” cannot rival such milestones from the Brian Johnson-era as “Back In Black” or even “Flick Of The Switch.” But it most certainly rivals nearly everything that came after those records and when all is said and done that’s all that matters. A good AC/DC album to save the day.
So enjoy this record for what it is and if this indeed is band’s swan song, they certainly are going out on top. It’s not a bad bet to guess there won’t be another AC/DC album eight years from now – and before anyone says anything: Nope, I would never make that bet either.
2.Skies On Fire
7.Spoilin’ For A Fight
10.Stormy May Day
11.She Likes Rock’n’Roll
14.Rocking All The Way