Review: The relentless rockitude of AC/DC
“Power Up” isn’t the first time AC/DC has successfully recharged itself.
In 1980, the Australian hard-rock band famously drafted Brian Johnson to replace the late Bon Scott — then promptly scored a worldwide smash when “Back in Black” came out a mere five months after Scott’s death from alcohol poisoning. Ten years later, the group reversed its sliding commercial fortunes with “The Razor’s Edge,” a return to form cannily positioned between the decline of hair metal and the ascent of grunge.
Even with that history, though, the turmoil of the last few years felt like it might end AC/DC’s half-century career.
In 2014, founding guitarist Malcolm Young was forced to leave the band as a result of dementia, while longtime drummer Phil Rudd was arrested on charges of drug possession and making death threats. Johnson quit (or was fired) midway through a 2016 tour due to hearing loss; Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses stepped in to finish the tour, after which bassist Cliff Williams said he was done.
Then Young died in 2017, leaving his younger brother Angus — he of the blistering solos and iconic schoolboy uniform — as the band’s only active founding member.
After staging a viral drum battle on social media, Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl finally met his 10-year-old opponent, Nandi Bushell, via video chat.
Yet here comes AC/DC with its latest comeback album, due Friday, just over four decades since the release of the 25-times-platinum “Back in Black.” On “Power Up,” Angus Young is flanked once again by Johnson, who recovered much of his hearing with the help of an audio expert he evidently connected with on YouTube (!); Rudd, now free after completing an eight-month house-arrest sentence; and Williams, who’s said he was drawn out of retirement by the prospect of paying tribute to Malcolm Young. The band’s lineup is rounded out by the Youngs’ nephew Stevie, who also played on AC/DC’s previous LP, 2014’s “Rock or Bust.” All are between the ages of 63 and 73.
The band has described “Power Up” as an extension of Malcolm’s indelible creative vision, and indeed AC/DC’s legendary stylistic consistency is on display across these 12 tracks. As always, the music puts crunching riffs and screeching vocals over stomping midtempo grooves; as always, the lyrics pull from a seemingly endless supply of risqué double entendres, including one in the song “Money Shot” that can’t be printed here.
The cruel irony is that the group has managed to stabilize just as the world has gone into free fall. Since at least the mid-’90s, each new AC/DC studio album has functioned as a kind of loss leader meant to induce fans to buy tickets for the ultra-lucrative — and extremely enjoyable — concerts where the band muscles through all its old hits. (Think of every record since “The Razor’s Edge” as you would every Rolling Stones album since “Steel Wheels.”)
Now, of course, AC/DC will be off the road for who knows how long because of COVID-19. Which means that “Power Up” has to transcend that would-be promotional purpose to stand on its own as a listening experience at a moment when rock music on the radio amounts to Post Malone and 24kGoldn.
In interviews, Johnson has explicitly framed the album as a pandemic-age pick-me-up, telling England’s NME that in a year as “desperate” as 2020, he hopes “Power Up” inspires kids to go buy guitars “instead of looking at dancers on TikTok.” His disappointing incuriosity aside, you can understand his ambition: Though AC/DC was never fashionable, exactly, it’s only receded further from the center of culture; today, the band’s only chance of a brush with the mainstream is if culture comes to AC/DC. And sometimes the instantly identifiable music puts across enough energy to persuade you that could actually happen.
“Realize,” which opens the LP, has a gloriously scratchy lick to go with Johnson’s beyond-ravaged yowl, while the gang vocals in “Shot in the Dark” conjure a cheery band of pirates anybody would want to join. “Kick You When You’re Down” and “Wild Reputation” rumble in that inimitable AC/DC manner, in which the intensity keeps building even as the beat stays steady; “Money Shot” is so filthy that Johnson, whose knuckle-dragging sexual politics remain as unevolved as those dinosaur riffs, almost seems to break character in delight. (If it’s the case that the singer has been dirty-grandfathered in to an era of heightened scrutiny, the chorus of “Rejection” — “If you reject me / I take what I want” — might still have warranted a second look.)
In these cuts you can feel the band’s joy in getting back together — and in its umpteenth realization that the old tricks still work. But with a group as locked on a signature sound as this one, the quality of the individual songs is paramount, and too many of those on “Power Up” — from the hookless “System Down” to the blandly bluesy “No Man’s Land” — are forgettable even after half a dozen spins.
Was that also true of “Rock or Bust,” or of 2008’s “Black Ice” before it? For sure. But back then it didn’t really matter, given that AC/DC would soon enough be tearing it up on the road, where this brutally efficient throwback machine could exult in its status as hard rock’s greatest singles act.
Considering these guys’ ages, it’s terribly conceivable that AC/DC may have mounted its last major tour.
Then again, they’ve dared us to count them out before.
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