There’s no more reliable brand in rock than AC/DC. Over the last four decades, the metal-studded Huns have stuck to their signature sound as rigidly as the Coca-Cola company has to its soft drink.
In the last year, however, two events have occurred that threatened to short-circuit the band’s current. Rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young left, due to his increasing struggles with dementia. Then, last month, drummer Phil Rudd was arrested for possession of meth and pot, as well as for threatening to kill two people. The band says Rudd hasn’t been in touch with them of late, further threatening his musical future.
This one-two punch represents the strongest shock to AC/DC’s system since the sudden death of lead screamer Bon Scott 34 years ago. Even so, they’re soldiering on. The new “Rock or Bust” features songwriting credits from Malcolm on every track. And though he didn’t play on the album, he’s been replaced with someone who has Malcolm’s ethic in his blood: nephew Steven Young.
They ought to be, considering how long it’s been since a venerable, unflinchingly hard, guitar band put out good new music.
The Stones haven’t done it. Nor the Who. And not even Aerosmith. With “Rock or Bust,” AC/DC has. Of course, new music from AC/DC sounds remarkably like old music from AC/DC. As always, the members attack their instruments with the repetition, and savagery, of a serial killer. All the problems facing the band haven’t inspired a second of introspection — or, worse, a ballad. This first new album in six years approaches AC/DC’s essential sound with all the variation of an O.C.D. victim.
Even so, the new songs again prove what a broad array of variations can be found within the narrowest m.o. In the same way Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, AC/DC has countless ways to stagger its riffs and stutter its beats. In “Miss Adventure,” the band pulls a twist on the snaking guitar of “Train Kept a Rollin,” enlivening a blues-rock classic. For “Play Ball,” they find a tune catchy enough to be an anthem for any sports team, while “Rock the Blues Away” houses the band’s catchiest pop melody since “You Shook Me All Night Long.” More often, however, AC/DC soars on pure rhythm. At root, the band takes rhythms as funky as those of James Brown and translates them into the language of rock. It helps that singer Brian Johnson currently channels something akin to soul. He’s less the electrocuted rooster of old than a reborn Steve Marriott. One quibble: At under 35 minutes, “Rock or Bust” is the shortest AD/DC album ever. Rest assured, however, this short album is no less sweet.