AC/DC: BLACK ICE (2008)
1) Rock'n'Roll Train; 2) Skies On Fire; 3) Big Jack; 4) Anything Goes; 5) War Machine; 6) Smash'n'Grab; 7) Spoilin' For A Fight; 8) Wheels; 9) Decibel; 10) Stormy May Day; 11) She Likes Rock'n'Roll; 12) Money Made; 13) Rock'n'Roll Dream; 14) Rocking All The Way; 15) Black Ice.
With most of its members steadily nearing pension age, each new AC/DC album is a curio in itself, and if there is one reason behind people sweeping it off the racks, it is most likely the need to find out — do they still deliver the kind of crunch that is at least comparable to their classic hits? Can they still cut it? Can I still bang my head to it?
This time the firm of Young, Johnson, & Young, Inc., has pushed the waiting period even further: almost eight years between albums. But the length does not really matter. In a certain sense, the last ever AC/DC album — and not a very fine one — was Ballbreaker. Both Stiff Upper Lip and Black Ice function on a different plane: their aim is not to continue the band's career, but rather to remind us, occasionally, of the band's existence. And in between reminders, they can take as much time as they want.
Which is why Black Ice got mostly positive responses. It's not because the songs are good — frankly speaking, they are not — it is because, deep down inside, we have all been waiting with accumulating impatience for a new AC/DC album. Then it finally comes out. What's it like? How is Brian's voice? Well, it got better, not exactly Back In Black, but at least back in shades of grey, one can easily listen to it without cringing. How are the guitars? Well, how can the guitars be? Did we seriously expect the Young brothers to switch to banjos and ukuleles? How is Phil Rudd doing on the drums? Well, unless they cut off his arms and legs, he will always be the perfect drummer for this band. Okay, stop right here. Five stars out of five? No, wait, let's make that four stars out of five. After all, only Back In Black can have five.
Black Ice does break some of the rules of decency. First, fifteen songs is way too much. I understand the Youngs must have accumulated quite a lot during these eight years, but the more songs there are on an AC/DC album, the easier it is to spot reused riffs (e. g. 'Spoilin' For A Fight' = 'Bedlam In Belgium', etc.). Second, they do not need to convince me that they represent the old guard faithfully protecting the legacy of rock'n'roll. 'Rock'n'Roll Train', 'She Likes Rock'n'Roll', 'Rock'n'Roll Dream', 'Rocking All The Way' — guys, enough already. Not even Chuck Berry was that obnoxious with his titles.
Third and related, the lead single, 'Rock'n'Roll Train', is not very helpful. AC/DC are at their most punchy with tight, angry, focused tunes, in which respect 'Stiff Upper Lip' was an excellent choice; but this here bombastic anthem, instead, tries to invade the territory of 'Highway To Hell', and, although musically they are about equally simplistic, the latter was at least provoking, while 'Rock'n'Roll Train' simply breeds a bunch of stadium-happy chords. Anthems, with few exceptions, are embarrassing in general; late-period AC/DC anthems are embarrassing in particular.
So it could have been better. But let me, nevertheless, join the chorus and say that an AC/DC album of such caliber is perfectly welcome every ten years (maybe even every five years, although I doubt they are capable today of meeting those deadlines). The 'Hail Caesar'-ish menace returns with the fire and smoke of 'War Machines'; the power-poppy charm of Razor's Edge finds a worthy successor in 'Big Jack'; in a rare experimental mood, Angus successfully deflowers the slide guitar on 'Stormy May Day', reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's 'In My Time Of Dyin' but not truly ripping it off, as some pessimists have complained; and Brian Johnson follows suit by trying on the shoes of Robert Plant (!) in 'Rock'n'Roll Dream', arguably the closest these guys have ever come to art-rock in their career (if you do not believe it, check the eerie «crowing» effects at the end of the song and tell me there is a precedent).
Best of the bunch, however, is 'Anything Goes', a brawny pub-rock tune that explodes with the kind of shiny happy delight one could frequently see on albums by Brian Johnson's original band, Geordie. It is sometimes mentioned that producer Brendan O'Brien was constantly pushing Brian towards singing rather than screaming, calling him a «soul singer» throughout the sessions, and on one song at least, Johnson has managed to remember the way it used to be in the 1970s — to terrific effect. The result is an uplifting, powerful tune, absolutely unoriginal, but delightfully breaking up the monotonousness of the band's hard rock crunch. They even took it with themselves onstage — and as much as I hate to admit it, this is the singing style that best suits Johnson's voice and personality, which, in turn, leads to uncomfortable thoughts about how the man has been pretty much sacrificing himself for the past thirty years. But if he gets at least one song like this per album from now on, the payback will be sufficient.
Like Stiff Upper Lip, Black Ice is the kind of an album that is only real good while it is still real hot — we listen to it to celebrate the phenomenon of AC/DC in the 21st century, not as the first choice to satisfy our basic craving for kick-ass rock'n'roll. But what's wrong about a little celebrating? Thumbs up for all the good times these guys have given us.