I was ready — so ready — and fired up to tear into the new AC/DC album like a grizzly bear on chubby hikers. These old guys have been cranking out the same album all career long, including a jump from deceased lead singer Bon Scott to longtime and current singer Brian Johnson. The AC/DC pattern is simply a thudding stomp of a beat, a concise riff, often dumb lyrics based on substances, debauchery, lust and mayhem and a voice that could never work in any other setting. Add in the predictability of material, a chunk of years off, another one of these cheesy Wal-Mart distribution deals and the AC/DC logo becoming a fashion statement as bland as the Nike Swoop and there should have been no reason for me to be kind to Black Ice.
Guess what? It’s not bad.
I’ll go as far as saying it’s the best thing the band’s done since Back in Black, on which this release is glancingly modeled. Sure, every negative I just laid out still applies, but there are some new wrinkles to be found, no pun intended, in AC/DC’s old game. Most notably, Brian Johnson can sing! No, he’s not going to be mistaken for Josh Groban anytime soon, but in a nifty reversal of fortune, his voice actually often sounds like a voice now, not like someone swallowing unshelled seafood. I suppose it was inevitable that age would temper the damage his larynx-punishing shrieks could elicit, yet with so many comeback kids of the past year dropping keys to give a mulligan to Gramps, it wasn’t a good sign. I’ll say it again: Brian Johnson is singing. Stock up on the holy water.
The second thing that jumps out at the listener is a surprising amount of variety. Angus Young still is churning out the riff-stomps, but in amongst them (and a small handful of heavy blues) you find a guitar-driven pop number in “Anything Goes” and what could pass as a power ballad in the form of “Rock ‘N Roll Dream.” This one is particularly interesting, in that this band that has lived on the edge of insanity for so long now presents a lyric so close to thoughtful, it’s mind-blowing. It is a letter of gratitude for the wild life Rock Music has afforded the band, and a stark realization that this could be the end of the ride. AC/DC is sharing their feelings! Dogs living together with cats! Mass hysteria!
Things that have resurfaced include a dry, immediate production sound courtesy of Brendan O’Brien. He approximates that unfussed, run-tape-and-go sound Mutt Lange found on the Back In Black album, before he became “that Mutt Lange,” and it services the music well, certainly better than the glossier releases that sputtered through the 1990s. The undercurrent of lascivious perversion is still there, and I suspect that will never go away, especially now that the band is officially full of dirty old men. Yet listening to the CD, especially the kick-off track “Rock N Roll Train” reminded me of a basic tenet that used to typify rock. The songs were often very sexualized and presented the singer as being empowered, often in ways not generally considered polite by society. They drank a lot, got high a lot, were unrepentant, low-life, sometimes downright evil, but they knew what every woman wanted and had the means to give it to them.
So when you think about it, AC/DC is as hip-hop as it gets. I’m not joking either! The beat, that slow and loping stomp – how many DJ’s have molded their own beats to that raw, ragged standard? How about that “I don’t give a damn about anybody but myself” attitude? And the apparent disdain for perceived intellectualism in deference to immediate needs and pleasure? Need I go on? The feeling listeners get today when they hear 50 Cent rap about conquests, in the street and in the club, is not too far from the testosterone rush at the heart of “You Shook Me All Night Long.” In the ’80s, AC/DC made pimply faced teens with hyperactive glands feel powerful by osmosis. Hip Hop and rap takes the same template but uses it in a different way, yet make no mistake it is still that template. The greasy new strip-teaser “Money Made” is proof positive.
Will this album convert legions of new fans? That’s highly doubtful and the group itself knows it, perhaps wisely following the Wal-Mart release concept. Old fans will seek it out, I’m sure, while in other retail outlets the probability of copies of Black Ice lingering sadly while screamo-punk recordings move briskly is indeed high. Should those old fans give it a shot? Most definitely. The album is nowhere near Mensa-approved, but for a shot of old, nasty rock it actually satisfies, and packs a couple of surprises inside as well.
Black Ice will be exclusively sold by Wal-Mart on Oct. 27th.