Eight years between albums is an eternity for rock bands. Hell, The Beatles created their entire groundbreaking oeuvre in as much time, and still made room for films, tours, drugs, the Maharishi, Yoko Ono, you name it.
But somehow, eight years doesn't feel too long to wait for AC/DC. And when they deliver an album as satisfying and fortifying as Black Ice, their timing feels just right.
Maybe it's because we need AC/DC now more than ever. Too many bands have Xeroxed the formula without realizing you can't steal the soul. And the soul of AC/DC - gut-level sonic force and sheer comic insanity (like a grown man parading around in a schoolboy's uniform; who would dream up such a thing?) - is an alchemy no other band can hope to copy, simply because AC/DC invented the formula and swallowed it whole.
You wonder why some groups even try. All they do is make you long for the original.
Back In Blacker?
Call AC/DC's Black Ice 'Back In Blacker' and you wouldn't be far off. With the exception of a couple of cuts midway through, every song kicks a donkey's ass and then some, and they magically make you feel like you're 16 years old again and on the precipice of...well, everything. Power chords ripple up and down your spine, drum beats shake you all night long and every solo positively shoots to thrill. You catchin' my drift? Yeah, it's that kind of album. The kind of album that makes you feel invincible.
Producer Brendan O'Brien does something miraculous in that you don't notice him at all. That's not a dig either; wisely, he doesn't impose his own rules or sonic footprint on the band's hallowed roar. As Mutt Lange did on the classics Highway To Hell and Back In Black, O'Brien allows AC/DC's wall of sound to crash all around you, but it's not a wash of stacked tracks. It's spacious yet enormous.
On Black Ice, you hear every one of Phil Rudd's cymbal crashes, every pluck of Cliff Williams's bass - and the chugging dual guitars of Angus and Malcolm Young work together like well-oiled pistons. Clarity and precision never sounded so delightfully raucous, so un-fussed over. This is assured rock 'n' roll, no doubt, but it's rock 'n' roll art too - and that ain't a bad place to be.
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AC/DC's Black Ice - track-by-track
Rock 'N Roll Train
You've probably heard it already, and it's a dynamite opener. Unmistakable Angus riff, thumping beat - instantly, you know who this band is. And what happened to Brian Johnson's voice? In the past, he always sounded as though he was about to blow his aorta hitting his notes.
Either time has allowed him to grow into his voice or his voice merely caught up to him, but his singing is full and gutsy. Angus is chomping at the bit to get to his solo - he starts playing before the second chorus is even over, and good for him, for it's a stunner.
"Every song kicks a donkey's ass"
Skies On Fire
A stark drum beat gives way to a tangled chordal guitar riff. The syncopated beat of the verse is a bit different for AC/DC, but it works. Johnson sings a vocal line "I know you and you know me/ tell me what you want me to be" that is vaguely Lennon-esque. A biting bluesy solo from Angus.
From the title alone I know I'm going to like it, and I'm not wrong. This is one to play in the car, an up-tempo stomper with power chords that stumble overtop one another and land in all the right places. Angus pulls off some beautiful top-string riffing underneath the chorus. It's hard to tell if Brian Johnson is singing "Big Jet" or "Big Jack," but who cares? It rocks six ways to Sunday.
There's no opening riff; instead, it bursts right in the door and wastes no time getting going. It's kind of a rock 'n' roll Irish jig, somewhat reminiscent of Slade's Run Runaway, only better. Angus lets loose with some intense top-string trills before firing off another bracing solo. A winner all the way.
Whoa…it's getting ominous. The chord progression of the verse and chorus are in the same vein as Givin' The Dog A Bone, only more sinister. But if any band has a right to nick from themselves, it's AC/DC. Freaking hot solo, natch.
Smash N Grab
Is that a minor chord I hear in the pre-chorus? Nah, it can't be. It is! Well, I'll be…In truth, this mid-tempo rocker is the first coulda-been-a-contender so far. Not bad, but not one for the ages.
Spoilin' For A Fight
Now, this is a riff! I have to learn how to play that tangled little beauty, for sure. Actually, the riff is the backbone of the song, as it should be - it's that good! Brian Johnson snarls and howls as if he really is ready to inflict some facial rearrangement on somebody here. An air-drum, air-guitar slam-dunk.
Straight out of the playbook from Highway To Hell - and that's a good thing. For the first time, Johnson sounds like he's straining for the notes. I've always wondered if he has to grab his Brian Johnson when trying to get to those special places. Beautiful vibrato in the guitar solo. Best instrumental break yet.
A delicious, grinding, thumping bit of blues-rock. This might be the number where Angus performs his striptease live - it's got that smirking kind of bad-boy vibe to it. Strong stuff all around. Is Brian Johnson singing "decibel" or "Jezebel"? Hard to tell. Not important though.
Stormy May Day
Wow, what a cool, greasy slide guitar riff! And those floor toms punch you right in the chest. A gritty, punchy mid-tempo stand-out with some surprising minor key changes. Great change of pace.
She Likes Rock N Roll
Ding-ding-ding! We have another winner, folks! With a beat so undeniably sexy, this song just might replace Girls! Girls! Girls! as the next de rigueur strip club anthem. A tight verse and chorus that absolutely floors you. Gang vocals galore - "She likes rock n roll/ I like rock n roll!" Oh, yeah. I'm playing this in my car.
"Only brothers could pull off synchronicity such as this"
A twisty little arpeggiated riff turns into a powerhouse of a song. Fantastic breakdown section - these guys really know their dynamics. Two rhythm guitar tracks sit atop one another and work wonders. Only brothers could pull off synchronicity such as this.
Rock N Roll Dream
My goodness, it's almost a ballad. Tight hi-hat work by Rudd carries the beginning until…OK, we're blasting off now! Total rock…Oh, but wait…now it's a ballad again. Some varied guitar textures. This is the most elaborate production on the album, but it's not forced or artificial. Very dreamlike. Takes you somewhere new. Fascinating.
Rocking All The Way
I'm nearly spent, but 30 seconds into this track and I'm air-drumming again. Right when you think rock can't get any better than this, the solo clamps down and it's time to ride this one out. Deliriously good.
What sets this song apart from all the others is Phil Rudd, who finally explodes on the drums and shows you what tom rolls are really meant for. Everything is as it should be on the title cut. The power and the glory, sure, but more important, the hunger - the band still has it in spades.
It's the capper, the final encore, the song that reminds you of everything you've ever loved about AC/DC; the song that says, "Let's go hang out with the buds and pop some Buds and enjoy rocking out for the sake of just rocking out." It's one of life's unvarnished pleasures, an AC/DC record that takes you back and pushes you forward.
Well done, lads. Well done. For those who have rocked me, I salute you!