|By Charlie Goodrich||Monday, 24 Nov 2008|
The boys in AC/DC have been on a hiatus since releasing Stiff Upper Lip in 2000. However, they have kept busy pursuing different endeavors. In 2003, they played a gig in Toronto after the SARS outbreak, and they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Other than those two appearances, each band member has a separate hobby that keeps them busy (it’s important for senior citizens to stay active). They grew restless in their old age and decided it was time to hit the studio, and road, once again. Black Ice is the product that has emerged from the Warehouse Studio in Vancouver, British Columbia.
It is a throwback to AC/DC’s classic hard rock sound and a move away from the more blues-based Stiff Upper Lip. Producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against the Machine) wanted the band to return to a harder sound, and he certainly got the results he was looking for. Thus, the AC/DC formula remains the same, just like their previous fourteen studio albums, but there are some subtle changes like Angus playing a slide guitar and Johnson adding a hint of soul to his singing rather than just screaming. Don’t expect much deviation from their patented formula though. Screaming vocals and power cords are still easily found on Black Ice. In addition, one element that has been a constant ingredient in AC/DC is the guitar work between Angus and Malcolm. I can’t remember when the brothers have played off each other so well. Nearly every song features their guitars bouncing back and forth in perfect harmony and rhythm. Combining the old formula with the new additions makes AC/DC’s possible last album one of their strongest since Brian Johnson took over vocals in 1980.
Black Ice features fifteen songs and kicks off with “Rock ‘N Roll Train”. Angus and Malcolm tear into this one with a “Highway to Hell” meets “Love Bomb” riff. It is a great way to start an album because it grabs your attention and gets you tapping your foot. Next we have “Skies On Fire” which slows the pace a bit. At first I didn’t care for this song much but it grew on me. The interplay between Malcolm and Angus is fantastic and tight, and Brian’s vocal range really shines here. He goes from a bluesy tone to a soulful rasp and incorporates his screams as well. Track number three, “Big Jack”, steers us back towards the sound of “Rock ‘N Roll Train”. It hits you fast and has a vintage AC/DC sound to it. “Big Jack” could have been featured on Back in Black, it’s that good, and has that classic sound. The title also seems to refer to some kind of venereal disease like a few AC/DC songs of the past.
The next stand out song is “Smash ‘N Grab”. The way the guitars howl on this song is eerie and powerful. “Spoilin’ for a Fight” will grab your attention because it has that AC/DC signature boogie. There is a Chuck Berry quality to Angus’ guitar on this track too that makes it sound vintage. It really drives this song forward. “Stormy May Day” introduces us to the AC/DC slide guitar. “Stormy May Day” is a very blues based song that could have been used by a chain gang or plantation workers. It creates a sinister atmosphere of uncertainty and anguish. The final song that stands out to me is “Rock ‘N Roll Dream”. It stands out because it is one of the slowest AC/DC songs ever recorded. This song seems to be about the hardships that can beset someone who becomes a famous musician. It’s steady beat finally erupts and then returns to a calm at the end of the song. It is reminiscent of Bad Company’s “Shooting Star”. “Rock ‘N Roll Dream” also ends with a 60’s like echo fadeout with Bryan repeating “round and round”. These six songs are the ones that hold this album together and are memorable in some way. However, they are in no way the only good songs on Black Ice. Next, I will delve into the good songs that missed out on being great.
“Anything Goes” has a surprisingly light sound. If “Money Talks” is an upbeat, lighter sounding AC/DC song, “Anything Goes” sounds like a standard Def Leppard song. It’s a catchy song but it suffers from being overly light. “War Machine” and “Money Made” have a heavier tone but fail to emerge as powerhouse hits. Both sound like they could have been on Ballbreaker (possibly their weakest album) due to the riffs and Brian’s vocals. They seem out of place on this album. “She Likes Rock ‘N Roll” and “Rocking All the Way” are the final two good songs on Black Ice. Like the others in this paragraph, they are standard AC/DC songs. They are two good, rocking songs that fit the mold nicely but don’t rise to the surface.
That takes care of twelve songs leaving us with three to discuss. “Wheels”, “Decibel”, and “Black Ice” seem like the fillers here. “Decibel” and “Black Ice” experience the “War Machine” problem. Their sound doesn’t fit this album. In addition to that, they have a slow, methodical rhythm that I never thought fit this band. “Wheels” is the strongest of the fillers because it is more upbeat and offers a different sound for this album. However, the solo is weak from Angus taking parts from previous AC/DC songs and creating a Frankenstein-like monster. If AC/DC would have removed them and renamed their album they could have had a complete album from start to finish. It would have rivaled The Razor’s Edge
or Flick of the Switch as one of the best in the Brian Johnson era. But I would have to place it just below those two and more on par with Stiff Upper Lip (which is still pretty good).