FOR THOSE ABOUT TO ROCK, WE REVIEW YOU
When Michael Jackson released his “comeback” album earlier this decade, the first single from it – the tepid “You Rock My World” – managed to overshadow its crushing mediocrity by the sweet relief of hearing Jackson’s familiar, glorious voice in material that hadn’t yet been played to death. And in an example much more appropriate for this website, upon hearing the leaked Chinese Democracy “demos” over the last few years, one cannot help but feel a moment (even brief) of sweet nostalgia hearing Axl Rose’s gravelly falsetto, even if they are over arguably questionable songs. That sliver of the celebrated past over music otherwise in the present vernacular is often enough to keep artists relevant and thus selling records. And while this usually leads to hacky retreads of prior success, that moment in itself is undeniably pleasurable. So the first few moments of “Rock and Roll Train,” the opening track on AC/DC’s Black Ice, that feature the dirty start/stop guitar pecking of bona fide rock legend Angus Young are heartwarming even despite being mired in Brendan O’Brien’s overblown production and the small but persistent (and not to mention douchey) voice in the back of one’s head wondering if the band are finally creatively bankrupt after doing the same exact thing for almost thirty years. If you like AC/DC, you already know you’ll like Black Ice, even if only a little. The question, though, is whether there is a reason for it to exist. If you already heard this album before when it was called For Those About to Rock, The Razor’s Edge, or Back in Black, what point does a new AC/DC album even serve in the 21st century besides a reason to see AC/DC live?
The answer, I suppose, is more fodder to skip and more jewels to find amidst that fodder to ideally be packed into the next Best of AC/DC comp. And there are plenty of jewels on here. Though the album by no means contains a clunker, some songs stand out more than others: the aforementioned “Rock and Roll Train” is a great album opener, with the same AC/DC riff almost militaristically constructed to never sound tired or contrived; the Generation Y rendition of “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” that is “War Machine,” right down to the sinister troll gang vocals; “Skies on Fire,” which, in a bizarre turn, lifts the main riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Royal Orleans” off of Presence; the even more bizarre turn of “Anything Goes,” in that it is an honest-to-God pop song that makes “You Shook Me All Night Long” sound like Misery Index. The latter song is one of the many on Black Ice that make subtle nods at new ground for AC/DC: it’s a song anchored by vocal melody instead of Brian Johnson screeching over whatever Angus Young is plucking out. It’s an interesting turn that, in the case of “Anything Goes,” works well. Other songs, like “Decibel,” “Money Made,” and “Rockin’ All the Way” delve deep into the band’s blues influences, much like on their last album. This, of course, isn’t to say this is a massive or even significant departure for AC/DC. At it’s core, Black Ice is the same shit they’ve always done. But if that shit is good, should it matter?
The answer, to be honest, is subjective. Would popular music as we know it be different if Black Ice didn’t exist? Absolutely not. AC/DC’s well-worn classics are classics for a reason, as well as there being a reason kids won’t be talking for years about Blow Up Your Video, Flick of the Switch, or Fly on the Wall in the same superlatives reserved for Back in Black or the Bon Scott era.
But is Black Ice a boring retread of what drew us all to AC/DC to begin with? Again, absolutely not. It’s not even a pathetic attempt by a bunch of skuzzy old men to stay in the limelight. The same balls you’ve come to know AC/DC for are here in full, smelly force, and the album, taken on its own, is a lot of fun. Is it necessary? I suppose not. But in a time when hallmark rock acts like AC/DC put out winded dreck to partner with Ameritrade for an overpriced cash grab at the salty haired fogies that came up in the 70s and their children (and, um, possibly grandchildren), AC/DC still sound grimy and hungry. Deep down, we don’t want our favorite bands to change. AC/DC are the literal interpretation of that desire. Nothing’s changed, but nothing’s shitty now, either.