Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: AC/DC
- Album: Ballbreaker
- Year of Release: 1995
- Country: Australia
- Label: Epic
- Format: Digipack
- Catalogue Number: 517384 2
Considering their previous productivity, the 5 years that elapsed between The Razors Edge and 1995’s Ballbreaker was something of an interminable duration of time. It has to be said that it’s not uncommon to see this pattern emerge with respect to formerly prolific, veteran bands – fans of Metallica, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden can attest to this. Even for a band that sells in the kind of quantities that AC/DC do, from an income perspective it is touring, not physical sales, that is the real moneyspinner, and therefore time is prioritised accordingly. In addition, there is little pressure to add to an already bulging back catalogue of classics that will inevitably make up the majority of the live set in perpetuity, especially when any critique of new material will inevitably compare new songs unfavourably with such pillars of the hard rock genre as Highway To Hell, or Back In Black.
On occasion, however, this relative lack of expectation can work in a band’s favour, and that is emphatically the case with the mostly excellent Ballbreaker. Riding the crest of a resurgent wave that started with the partial return to form of The Razors Edge, the album is by far the strongest and most consistent piece of work released by AC/DC since Flick Of The Switch and its best songs stand comparison with anything they have ever produced. The seasoned AC/DC listener will not be surprised to hear that as per convention, the best tracks are strategically placed at the front end of the album. What is more unexpected though, is that the band are able to maintain a high quality for much of the rest of the record, even after the more obvious highlights have passed.
‘Hard As A Rock’ was chosen as the lead-off single for the album, and immediately thrills with its coiling, instantly memorable guitar melody, not dissimilar to that of ‘Hells Bells’ which commences Back In Black, although less solemn in feel. As any hit single should, it contains a strong chorus that remains in the listener’s memory for long after the album draws to a conclusion, but more importantly, establishes Ballbreaker as a strong modern rock album, not an anachronism. Producer Rick Rubin has to take some credit for this. Although he garners a certain amount of criticism these days for his apparently ‘hands-off’ approach to the recording process, his lofty reputation is based on an outstanding track record of producing seminal albums, not least some of the best work of bands as diverse as Slayer, Public Enemy and Danzig. In many ways, Rubin’s particular skill is not in imposing his vision on the artist, but in helping an artist to discover (or in AC/DC’s case, as in that of Johnny Cash or Tom Petty, rediscover) their sound. For Ballbreaker, Rubin reputedly had the band intensively rehearsing the songs they had written before hitting the studio, and it shows in a collection of sharp and focussed songs, on which the band sound as much like themselves as they ever have, but simultaneously contemporary.
Refreshingly, given the patchy decade or so that preceded this album, highlights abound as Ballbreaker continues. ‘Cover You In Oil’ is simple but effective, teaming a delightfully unexpected pre-chorus chord progression with an addictive chorus that exhibits all of the traits of classic AC/DC. Despite the somewhat stomach-churning lyrics of ‘The Honey Roll’ (“Honey roll over and lettuce on top / Strap you to the bed and make you rock” should probably not be delivered by any singer, let alone a middle-aged Geordie who sounds like he’s trying to pass large kidney stones), the song itself is a monstrous riff workout, featuring one of the Young brothers’ most dextrous compositions, together with a deft bridge section and the kind of singalong chorus that had deserted the band for long stretches of the 80s. Even the customary slow blues jam of ‘Boogie Man’ – surprisingly not already an AC/DC song title – is effective, with a heavily rhythmic feel, and Johnson sounding great in a lower register during the first verse.
Despite the mainly familiar sounds, AC/DC haven’t lost the gift for springing a surprise either. ‘Hail Caesar’ evokes gladiatorial combat within a Roman coliseum, an event that pre-figured the modern stadium gig by a couple of millennia, but one imagines may have featured similar levels of both fevered audience participation and seething atmosphere. Even better though is the dark blues of ‘The Furor’. The minor key descending arpeggio of the verse is a real departure for the band, and a clever vocal melody working together with the simple slide guitar figure throughout the chorus shows real sophistication and continuing development in the songwriting, twenty years on from the band’s first release.
It’s difficult to understate the contribution that returning drummer Phil Rudd (who left the band in 1983) makes to the success of this record. While the drummers that kept Rudd’s drum stool warm were more than competent, Rudd has a rudimentary ability to sit in the pocket, a little like a great funk drummer, that represents the rhythmic backbone that the band’s signature groove is built on. It’s surely no accident that on Rudd’s return, this groove is suddenly evident throughout the band’s music once again.
Not all of the tracks excite in quite the same way, but overall Ballbreaker is a splendid addition to the AC/DC canon. The band manage to execute the trick of delivering an album that resonates with the warm familiarity of their best work, but without being a pastiche, or conscious throwback attempting to recapture a time that by its nature can never be grasped. For the first time since ‘For Those About To Rock…’, the listener can fully immerse themselves in an AC/DC record, without needing to work hard to mine the hidden moments of brilliance from a morass of more workmanlike material. This is nothing more and nothing less than a great rock ‘n’ roll album, and sometimes that is everything you need.