Black Ice

AC/DC

Columbia, 2008

http://www.acdc.com

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/20/2008

Let’s face it, Angus Young and crew needed to release another AC/DC album like a fish needs a 10-speed. The band has secured its place in rock ‘n’ roll history, surviving the tragic death of Bon Scott and, with Brian Johnson screaming out the vocals, barely missing a beat. Back In Black is among the top-selling albums of all time and sounds as fresh today as it did 28 years ago. They have absolutely nothing left to prove to the fans in terms of musicianship and performance.

So, the band’s first album in seven years, Black Ice, is not your typical AC/DC album. Gone is a lot of the cock-rock that has made up the band’s history -- after all, with band members pushing 60, it’s a little creepy to have your grandfather serenade you with songs about sexual prowess. Likewise, Angus Young doesn’t seem to thrive on the guitar solo anymore; now, he uses the solo to bridge the songs and become part of the rhythm.

It is, in fact, an album that seems to be for the band, challenging themselves to do things they haven’t done in the past. And while anything has to be better than Ballbreaker or even Stiff Upper Lip, the end result is not quite as satisfying as one would have hoped for after all this time. Truth be told, half of this disc is some of the best music AC/DC has done in their career, but they still rely on filler material, which is a shame.

There are three unique stars on Black Ice, the first being Johnson. Over the years, listening to his voice shredding has become downright painful, and this is coming from a die-hard AC/DC fan. But this disc features Johnson in fine voice, sounding the best he has since, well, Back In Black. In truth, his performances on these 15 tracks show more range, much like when Johnson sang in Geordie. The second is bassist Cliff Williams, who gets the closest thing to a solo than he’s ever had in AC/DC by the sheer fact of having his bass lines brought to the forefront of the mix. This, in all honesty, is one of the smartest moves that AC/DC has done in their career. It’s been well known that the rhythm section of Malcolm Young, Williams and Phil Rudd have been the anchor of the band’s sound; putting it front and center allows the listener to truly appreciate it.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The third, naturally, is Angus Young, who despite not taking as big of a role in the spotlight, does expand his vocabulary on the guitar. Listen to “Stormy May Day” and notice two things -- there’s no solo per se, and Angus Young is playing slide guitar (and doing it well!). After over 30 years of being worshipped as a guitar god, one must believe that doing the same old thing gets boring, so Young is to be commended for taking more chances with his playing.

Black Ice starts off incredibly strong with the one-two punch of “Rock And Roll Train” (which, if there were any justice, would give AC/DC a Top 20 hit) and “Skies On Fire,” featuring Williams’s solid bass lines and Johnson getting downright funky with the vocals. “Anything Goes” is an interesting one, a track that sounds like a Top 40 hit from classic rock days without trying to be one. Angus Young’s solo is so laid back it’s easy to miss, and his use of the lead guitar to bolster the rhythm section makes all the difference.

Quite possibly the best performance on the whole disc is “Rock And Roll Dream,” a track which gives Johnson the greatest stage in his entire career to showcase his vocal skills. It’s a powerful track that knows just when to pull its punches musically, and I would absolutely love to see this one become a commercially-released single. Much success would greet it, it’s that special.

Yet not all of Black Ice is that solid. “Big Jack” does not live up to the expectations that the opening numbers lay out for the disc, and it comes off as a disappointment (though I admit the track has grown on me a bit over numerous listens). Likewise, “War Machine,” the second “single” released off the disc, has the solid marching tempo to it that’ll have the kids in the upper balconies stomping their feet in approval, but it’s not of the same caliber as “Rock And Roll Train” in terms of true power.

And, for a band who has been cranking out music for 35 years, one would think that they wouldn’t need to pad their discs with weaker material. “Wheels,” “Decibel,” and “Spoilin’ For A Fight” all sound like they could have been leftovers from the Stiff Upper Lip sessions; they’re just tracks that, while pleasant enough in sound, don’t have that kind of oomph that Black Ice almost seems to demand. For that matter, the title track is a disappointment as well, almost limping into the finish line with a hackneyed melody.

Therein lies the biggest frustration with Black Ice -- namely, the yin/yang between outright filler and some of the best material the band has ever recorded. “She Likes Rock ‘N Roll” features killer bass work from Williams, but is surrounded by a track that becomes background music far too quickly. For every strong track like “Money Made” or “Anything Goes” there’s an equally weak track like “Big Jack” or “Decibel.” It gets a little frustrating after a while.

In the end, Black Ice is still a marked improvement over anything that AC/DC has done in the last 15 years, and the realization that this could easily be the final disc the band cranks out is not lost on the listener. It is a disc of tremendous highs, as well as some solid disappointments -- and, in the end, becomes a disc that should be experienced, but will not knock any of AC/DC’s timeless discs like Back In Black from their pedestals.

Rating: B-

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© 2008 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia, and is used for informational purposes only.