Rock Or Bust


Columbia, 2014

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


As unlikely as it might seem to get all meta about an AC/DC album (of all things), the arrival of 2014’s Rock Or Bust inspires a question: at what point does a band that has always existed as a sort of parody, become a parody of itself?

The Bon Scott-fronted AC/DC of the 1970s were the quintessential bad boys of rock, a crude, rude rock and roll cartoon that paired Scott’s winking, lascivious dark humor with brother duo Angus and Malcolm Young’s bottomless supply of thundering hard rock riffs. Since Scott’s untimely death in 1980, Brian Johnson has manned the mic with equal fervor but only occasional hints of Scott’s leering, roguish wit.

With a handful of exceptions, AC/DC since the Scott-influenced Back In Black has often felt like a band living inside its own over-large shadow. The riffs have always been there, of course, but the songs have rarely measured up to what came before. And now we’re faced with the spectacle of a band of sixty-somethings—several of them surely grandfathers by now—treating arenas full of fans to songs like “Big Balls” and “Girls Got Rhythm.”

It’s been interesting to watch the band navigate the transition to and through middle age. The albums and tours slowed way down—Rock Or Bust is only their second release since 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip, following 2008’s Black Icemy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 —while at the same time, the songs began to change. The sky-rattling riffs remained, of course, fresh ones arriving with sledgehammer certainty every three or four minutes, but the lyrics largely turned away from the cheeky come-ons of the group’s younger days to serial “Let There Be Rock”-styled reassertions of the power of rock and roll itself. Four of this album’s 11 tracks feature “rock” in the title and all four carry basically the same message, captured in the title track’s memorable chorus: “In rock we trust.”

A handful of double entendres surface on late-arriving tracks like the fiery “Sweet Candy” and the clunky “Emission Control,” but positioning these two as the final cuts on the album only reinforces the sense that the band’s heart isn’t really in this part of their shtick any more. They’ve moved on, approaching serious topics semi-seriously on tracks like “Dogs Of War” and “Hard Times,” in between self-referential yet reaffirming numbers like “Rock The Blues Away,” “Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder,” and “Rock The House.”

It’s hard to disconnect that shift in tone from the circumstances surrounding this album, which saw founding member, rhythm guitarist and musical engine Malcom Young retire from the band due to dementia, to be replaced by his and brother Angus’ nephew Stevie Young. (Adding to the chaos, after the album was completed, longtime drummer Phil Rudd ran into ongoing legal troubles which kept him from the promotional photo and video shoots for Rock Or Bust, and may prevent him from touring in 2015.)

What hasn’t changed—what will assuredly never change—is the basic sound, the propulsive power chords and slicing solos over raw blues-rock beats. Returning producer Brendan O’Brien again brings out the best in the band’s oversized sound, allocating ample space for each individual instrument plus the band’s secret weapon, the chorused background vocals anchored by veteran bassist Cliff Williams.

At this point, duckwalking, schoolboy-uniform-wearing lead guitarist Angus Young is the group’s sole remaining founding member, and Rock Or Bust often feels like a celebration of the band’s own survival. And while there are some concessions to age in the lyrical content, the riffs are as fat and powerful as ever, and ringing anthems like the title track, “Baptism By Fire” and “Play Ball” sound ready to take their rightful places on the group’s decades-spanning setlist.

This album could easily have slipped into self-parody, but it doesn’t. Instead, it shows a band still full of gusto and fire and determined to prove itself a survivor one more time. The past is the past, and the future is uncertain; this album exists firmly in the now, and the now rocks.

Rating: B

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