Thursday, October 16, 2008
CD REVIEW: Black Ice - AC/DC (2008)
AC/DC - Black Ice (2008 Columbia) Angus Young - guitars; Malcolm Young - guitars; Brian Johnson - vocals; Cliff Williams - bass; Phil Rudd - drums. Produced by Brendan O'Brien.
It's been eight long years since we last heard from the Thunder Down Under, and while 2000's Stiff Upper Lip was a fine comeback after the disappointing Ballbreaker, it was easy to see the guys were aging. Lots of midtempo, bluesy songs with oft-lazy lyrics, overly relying on the riffs and the groove from the Young brothers. George Young produced it well, and there were enough good songs to see there was life in the boys yet, but they didn't exactly appear to be challenging themselves.
The new Black Ice shows off a rejuvenated AC/DC. The heavy riffs are back, but also, for the first time since 1988's Blow Up Your Video, so is diversity. While there are plenty of stompin' rockers here like "Skies on Fire", "Money Made", "Big Jack" and the first single, "Rock N' Roll Train", there's also some nifty slide guitar work ("Stormy May Day"), a ZZ Top pastiche ("Decibel"), the band's first 'pop' classic since "Moneytalks" (the wonderful "Anything Goes") and the first funky bass line since "Meanstreak" ("She Likes Rock n' Roll").
Oh, and then there's "Rock and Roll Dream", a song that might even qualify as sort of a ballad. Don't fear, though. It brings more memories of "Spellbound" (or perhaps "Let Me Put my Love Into You") than "Love Song", trust me. The band also harkens back to Back In Black on "War Machine", which sounds like a tougher, meaner "Given the Dog a Bone" riff-wise.
Memories of Back in Black aren't entirely out of place because Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Springsteen) gives us the best production work since the Mutt Lange trilogy. O'Brien coaxes Brian Johnson's best work since the 1980's, by reportedly limiting the singer to one hour of work per day. An inspired idea, and the now-61 year old singer sounds terrific throughout, particularly carrying "Stormy May Day", "Rock and Roll Dream" and the uptempo "Big Jack". There's also a lot of cool touches, such as the stuttering bass intro and "Who Made Who"-esque fadeout on "She Likes Rock n' Roll". O'Brien gives bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd some spotlight time, including a few fills from Rudd, something sorely missing from the last two releases.
Track by Track (key tracks in blue):
1) ROCK N' ROLL TRAIN - The irresistible first single is the perfect introduction to this record, with clear seperation, a catchy riff and just-right backing vocals. Solid. ***1/2
2) SKIES ON FIRE - Slow, anthemlike churner with the Lemmyesque lyric "I know you know you know me". Who can resist? ***1/2
3) BIG JACK - Perhaps Johnson's best performance on the record, a hard driving bit of braggadocio. Great line: "Santa ain't the only one who's got a full sack". Indeed. ****
4) ANYTHING GOES - The most controversial of the new tracks; hard core fans will hate it, casual fans will find this the band's most radio-friendly song since "Moneytalks". My opinion: an instant classic, channeling both Creedence and Slade. ****
5) WAR MACHINE - The second official advance track, bringing to mind the menace of "Hail Caesar" and the riff of "Given the Dog a Bone". Short and sweet. Maybe even too short. This is the one song on the record that the 1980 version of Brian Johnson could have made a little better. ***
6) SMASH N' GRAB - Decent, but nothing special. I'm indifferent to this one for some reason. **1/2
7) SPOILIN' FOR A FIGHT - After a very The Cult-like intro ("Wild Flower" anyone?), the band demonstrates the distinct difference between the imitators and the originals: namely, a touch of the blues and a world of difference in the guitar work. ***1/2
8) WHEELS - Brings to mind "Beatin' Around the Bush", not as fast. If it's filler, it's damned rocking filler. ***
9) DECIBEL - The guys channel ZZ Top on this one. Not the crappy post-Eliminator version, but the kickass Rio Grande Mud/Fandango! version, in case you were wondering. ***
10) STORMY MAY DAY - Awesome slide guitar from Angus Young here. Like "War Machine", short and sweet, definitely leaves you wanting more. ****
11) SHE LIKES ROCK N' ROLL - A funky bass line, snotty background vocals that Johnson joins, a classic Young brothers riff. What more do you need? Should be a hit at the topless bars for sure. ****
12) MONEY MADE - Very Zeppelinesque, which certainly isn't a bad thing. If the riff from "Cover You in Oil" had been developed a little more, this could have been the result. ***1/2
13) ROCK N' ROLL DREAM - What a creative, interesting song. Yeah, O'Brien indulges a few production tricks here, with the overdubbed bridge and the echoing fadeout. But Johnson really carries this, a harder version of the introspective "Ride On". For my money, the best song on the record and the second instant classic here. ****
14) ROCKIN' ALL THE WAY - After a great lower-register vocal intro from Johnson, this one's just slightly above ordinary bluesy rock. Would fit right in on the record from Zakk Wylde's Pride and Glory. **1/2
15) BLACK ICE - Despite Johnson's vow to "gouge your eyes out", this one is filler, reminiscient of the final three tracks on The Razors Edge. **
OVERALL: ***1/2 out of ****
Johnson sings "this could be the very last time" here, and if it turns out to be, AC/DC has exited the stage with a bang. Aside from a couple of less interesting tracks to close the record, this is a strong, diverse collection showcasing one of the very best bands in rock and roll history. All five members are in fine form. Johnson in particular hasn't sounded this good since Flick of the Switch and producer Brendan O'Brien brings some much needed new ideas to the table without sacrificing AC/DC's essence. This record doesn't quite touch Highway to Hell, Back in Black or Let There Be Rock, but you can proudly stand it toe-to-toe with anything else in the band's catalog.