AC/DC: Black Ice (Album Review)
AC/DC … Their sound is like Noel Edmonds’ hair – unadulterated since 1974.
Of all the adjectives that could be applied to AC/DC, “unique” is perhaps the least likely. There must be hundreds of bands exactly like them in bars and pubs around the world, ruining locals’ attempts to have a quiet pint, performing songs called things like Spoilin’ for a Fight, attempting to leaven their hackneyed blues-rock with a few risqué gags about tits and bums. And yet, in one sense, AC/DC are unique. It’s impossible to think of another band that’s been praised so much and rewarded so lavishly for doing so little, at least artistically.
Their sound is like Noel Edmonds’ hairstyle: it was hoisted into place at some point in 1974 and has remained almost entirely unaltered ever since. Those who queue up to buy Black Ice, like those who queued up to buy its 15 predecessors, do so knowing precisely what they’re going to get. There will be staccato guitar riffs, Angus Young’s admirably unflashy and economical soloing and songs with rock’n’roll in the title. And there will be smutty puns. No one over the age of 12 or outside the offices of Viz has ever made so much capital from the words “big”, “hard” “stiff”, “up” and “balls”.
You could perhaps compare AC/DC’s dogged single-mindedness to that of the Ramones, but even they felt the need to briefly adopt the warp-speed stylings of hardcore punk in the mid-80s, which by AC/DC’s standards marks them out as worrying dilettantes. And the Ramones split up after 22 years. Nothing – not line-up changes, changing tastes nor even death – can flatline AC/DC’s career. If the global warming doomsayers’ worst predictions are realised and the world is entirely subsumed beneath a flood, there seems the distinct possibility you will find AC/DC bobbing about atop the deluge, still gamely performing a hard-edged blues-rock number, probably called something like Balls Deep.
A cynic might say that the kind of person who can distinguish a good
AC/DC album from a bad one is like those faintly disturbing wine buffs who can tell you the terroir in which grapes were grown just by holding a glass to the light: it’s a specialist skill garnered through a lifetime of intensive research, a considered judgment based on infinitesimal differences, entirely beyond the ken of ordinary mortals. The cynic has a point, although it’s pretty obvious even to a layman that much of the band’s thrilling early malevolence departed with their late lead vocalist Bon Scott – a man rejected by the Australian army on the grounds of being “socially maladjusted” – and that their sound reached a peak of perfection on Highway to Hell and Back in Black, the albums made immediately before and after Scott’s death.
There are moments when Black Ice boasts the same irresistible appeal to the lower self with which those albums are packed, when AC/DC’s sound seems fundamental and undeniable: the crunching chords with which the chorus of Rock ‘N Roll Dream introduces itself, the gripping slide guitar riff of Stormy May Day, the way Young’s guitar weaves and stabs around Brian Johnson’s vocal during War Machine’s verses, She Likes Rock ‘N Roll’s gleefully idiotic chant of a chorus. Equally, there are moments where the most remarkable thing about AC/DC seems to be the prodigious feat of memory that enables the members to recall which song they’re playing.
But Black Ice clearly isn’t a record particularly interested in what the layman thinks: if you’ve sold 200m albums worldwide, you don’t really need to go around touting for new clients. It’s a record aimed at the band’s existing audience, and far more important than any qualitative highs and lows is the fact that everything you might expect is present and correct. Black Ice delivers not just songs called Rock ‘N’ Roll Dream and She Likes Rock ‘N Roll, but one called Rock ‘N Roll Train as well: a veritable bumper harvest. If there isn’t actually a song with “balls” in the title, there is at least Big Jack, the titular hero of which can boast among his many attributes “a full sack”. It’s business as usual, and it’s a brave or foolhardy soul who would bet against business being extremely brisk.