Whenever someone says "you can't get away with releasing the same album over and over again," they throw out a few exceptions. One is always AC/DC: Even as technologies, styles, and heck, even a lead singer changed, you could always take a random track off the latest AC/DC record and plop it onto any other without much noticing. And somehow, that never bothered anybody.
The new Black Ice doesn't change any of that. Sure, there isn't quite the hunger there once was, but all the core elements are back (in black), and strong as ever. Brian Johnson's voice hasn't changed since he joined the band; Malcolm Young still pumps out jangly, major chords with lots of pauses; Phil Rudd still plays bass on one and three, snare on two and four, cymbals in eighth notes with the downbeats emphasized. Angus is still Angus. And Cliff Williams still gets the job done on the low end.
Brendan O'Brien handles production duties here, and everything comes out sounding clean and polished – maybe a little too much so, because it makes it stand out when the guitars in "Rock N Roll Train" don't quite line up here and there. And with the band taking so much time between record (Stiff Upper Lip came out in 2000), it's no surprise that no less care was taken with the songwriting. There's nothing so undeniably perfect as "You Shook Me All Night Long" here, but Black Ice is easily the highest quality and most consistent record of the band's post-1990 output.
Many of the standout tracks are just regular old mid-tempo AC/DC: "Big Jack," "War Machine," "Smash N Grab," "Spoilin' For a Fight" … wait, can one classify just about every song on a record as a "standout"? There are 15 songs, totaling 55 minutes, and there's really not a second they should have cut. It's taken these guys forever to learn to treat their music so carefully, but they indeed have learned.
And on a few songs, they even branch out a little – not a lot, but enough to notice. "Anything Goes" has a heartland-rock vibe to it, and it's sure to be a minor radio hit if it's released as a single. "Stormy May Day" features some mean slide guitar. And "Rock N Roll Dream" is a little happier, a little less threatening than we're used to hearing from these folks.
If you didn't like AC/DC before, you won't like Black Ice. If you don't own, at the very least, Back in Black and AC/DC Live, buy those first. But for longtime fans jonesing for some new tunes, this record really hits the spot.
Robert VerBruggen is an associate editor at National Review.
CD Info and Links
AC/DC - Black Ice