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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

CD Review: AC/DC - Black Ice

AC/DC - Black Ice
2008 Sony/BMG Music Entertainment
Ray Van Horn, Jr.



Back in Black to this day remains AC/DC's last truly great rock opus, even if there's been random moments of coolness throughout Brian Johnson's regime as the band's mike squealer. The name of the game with AC/DC ever since the late icon Bon Scott disappeared into the ether of his final drink has been joy in repetition. Even Back in Black, as harsh an album as it is, it's simply a few singular riff sequences rearranged over ten songs to make it the rock classic it is.

Call Back in Black a great rock 'n roll swindle or an unexpected payoff inadvertently reaped from frustration and despair. The album is one of the angriest hard rock albums ever recorded, so much you can hear the remnants of AC/DC in 1980 growling "Fuck you, Bon," transparently beneath Brian Johnson's anxious throat swills. The latter had something to prove back in 1980, while AC/DC as a whole were simply carrying on, unaware they would become halcyon legends of modern rock.

If you believe it when they talk about their fame and fortune being the least of their concerns, you can at least take it to the bank that AC/DC is just gonna play what they want to play and with the least amount of ingenuity possible. Angus Young is one of the grittiest guitar players of all-time, and it's amazing he doesn't carry a few hematomas on his balding noggin from decades of spasmatic head thrashing. Unfortunately, his famed schoolboy alter ego image now makes him look downright perverted and sleazy, which may be an intentional joke at this point, considering AC/DC were once thought of as the most dangerous band in the land. Were he not Angus Young, he might easily make it on the crime watch list.

That being said, you can step up to an AC/DC album and know by attrition what you're getting, much like you will with a Motorhead or Overkill slab. Some bands do what they do, damn the world if they're on board or not. That being said, AC/DC's latest album Black Ice contains two minute surprises: one, the album yields 15 cuts and two, they do try to stretch their sound out on a few occasions, be it the nearly-uncomfortable pop swings of "Anything Goes" and "Smash 'n Grab" or the Zeppelin-esque bluesy shambling of "Money Made." While he's in a Jimmy Page kinda mood, Angus Young slides and twangs with chunky tugs all over "Stormy May Day."

Give the lads a little credit, albeit Black Ice is largely about finding 101 new ways to rewrite Highway to Hell via some admittedly thumping rockers like "Rock 'n Roll Train," "Spoilin' for a Fight" and "Big Jack," the latter of which also betrays some Rolling Stones nuances, particularly in the choruses; Angus Young practically replicates the Stones' melody on "Jumpin' Jack Flash" in his own picking.

At times Black Ice dips even further into the Bon Scott era punchbowl with nasty ladles such as "War Machine," the album's best tune, and one Brian Johnson seizes the opportunity to mix Scott's sexual machismo into his working class stiff growl. Hell, even the band's backing vocals seem intent on replicating that chaw-infested drag of yesteryear and for some reason it rings a bit more harmonious in their elder years.

If you listen to Angus on this album, you can tell he teleported himself directly to Powerage, Let There Be Rock and High Voltage ("Wheels" and "Decibel" being solid examples) as his riffs are parlayed with more fang than he's been willing to show on AC/DC's past few albums, while a couple of his solos haven't sounded this filthy in ages (surprisingly he tosses out a highly raunchy solo in the middle of the otherwise yummy "Anything Goes").

Otherwise, Black Ice is straightforward business as usual. Cliff Williams thrums his low end bass rhythms with the exact patterns you're accustomed to; both he and Michael Anthony might be the most understated players of their time but no one's going to get on their cases for simply doing their jobs. Phil Rudd is happily still hanging around camp and not to knock any of his stand-ins, but there's something just snug and agreeable to his playing that helps make AC/DC what they are.

There's nothing overtly special about Black Ice since AC/DC doesn't necessarily seek anyone's approval. They know their fans will line up to buy this thing much as they'll be there in the arenas to howl their guts out the second the hallowed chimes begin for "Hells Bells." For Black Ice's purposes, this is the most settled AC/DC has sounded in the long-standing Brian Johnson period at least since Flick of the Switch. There may not be anything gate-crashing to this album, it certainly is nowhere near as inherently evil as AC/DC used to be and yeah, at times the boys appear to be dragging ass, but Black Ice sits comfortably nonetheless like Jack on the rocks.

Rating: ***1/2

7 comments:

David Amulet said...

Thanks for putting your thoughts up. Sorry to prod you into it with last week's post (this week's call for listenings just went up). What I hear you saying is that AC/DC fans will get what they expect--but with some little twists that just might make this a good purchase for fans who have skipped the last several albums!

I hope all is going well in your part of the world.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

yeah, you've got it, bro...this is one of the better efforts of the BJ era of AC/DC...some may hate it, others may love it, I will admit I've played the piss out of it because I don't have to think too hard when listening to it...this was the first time I actually put it into rock critic thought, so that was kinda fun, no worries

hanging in there, bud...covered a town meeting for a local paper tonight, have reviews due for About.com, baby is out cold...at least got my 5 magazine articles done last week into the ass crack of Sunday into Monday, whew... I ended up getting sick Monday night and yesterday, so bang, off to the races again

cjk_44 said...

thanks for your thoughts.

AC/DC have been a mainstain in my listening experiences since my ears finally took notice of rock radio way back in the day.

as i've stated before AC/DC have always been about the riffs as their seeming simplicity helped me learn how to play guitar before i even attempted to tackle other great artists/songwriters. and for that i shall remain forever grateful.

i appreciate "Black Ice" for what it is. i consider it to be an album in the same vein as "The Razor's Edge" - polished and radio friendly without losing the grit all the time.

i do appreciate the brief, albeit welcome, inclusion of stylistic twists - makes listening to "Black Ice" all the more fun.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

word, amigo, word

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