Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: AC/DC
- Album: Black Ice
- Year of Release: 2008
- Country: Australia
- Label: Columbia
- Format: Digipack
- Catalogue Number: 88697392382
In titling this album Black Ice, AC/DC are, wittingly or not, making a fairly overt reference to their 1980 classic Back In Black, and perhaps even suggesting that it bears comparison with such a landmark release. At the very least, it is inviting the comparison to be made, and therefore the question has to be asked of whether it bears the same mark of greatness as its spiritual predecessor. It’s no embarrassment for the band that of course Black Ice is not in the same league as Back In Black; few albums are. Indeed it calls to mind Joseph Heller’s response when asked, long after its publication, if he was disappointed that he hadn’t written anything to compare with the peerless Catch-22. He reputedly replied that he wasn’t, as no other author had come close either. AC/DC have thankfully had a productive enough career to not need to worry about living in the shadow of such a gigantic musical achievement, and while, like the majority of their back catalogue, this doesn’t hold a candle to that totemic release, it thankfully burns pretty bright for most of its 55 minute run time.
Like a newly struck match, Black Ice immediately catches fire and burns with white hot intensity on the first track, ‘Rock N Roll Train’. It’s possible that the sheer desire to believe that AC/DC are somehow able to recapture and reproduce their 1980 magic often tints the critical spectacles a suspicious shade of rose, but with ‘Rock N Roll Train’, the shades are off, and still the band are able to transcend such wishful thinking. This song is nothing less than the best thing the band have released since Back In Black, and is consequently a wondrous thing to behold. An effortlessly cool and memorable riff creates an irresistible economic groove, with a wonderfully unexpected chord progression and deft lead and rhythm interplay between the Young brothers laying the foundations for a classic call and response chorus. And all the while, Phil Rudd hammers a mid-tempo, unstinting beat, so simplistic that most other drummers would not even consider such rudimentary timekeeping, instead cluttering the sonic spectrum with so many unecessary rolls and fills. Rudd though has the courage and restraint to abstain from such frippery, and in so doing completes the signature sound of a singular band.
It’s surely no coincidence that in common with the band’s best work throughout their (post-Bon Scott) career, an external producer is at the helm. I have written at length about the contributions of both Mutt Lange and Rick Rubin to Back In Black and Ballbreaker previously, and the influence of Brendan O’Brien on this album is equally positive. O’Brien has a lengthy track record of helping bands make powerful, but organic sounding records, and adding a certain studio sheen to things, but not at the expense of all of the rough edges of a band’s sound, and this is a feel that suits AC/DC as it suited Aerosmith, The Black Crowes, and Rage Against The Machine before them. Black Ice sounds huge, the aural equivalent of the ‘Rock N Roll Train’ they sing about on the opening track. It’s also the most American they’ve ever sounded. This is not so pronounced that the band’s own personality and idiosyncracies are completely lost, but it does have the effect of aligning them more with the classic rock of the aforementioned Aerosmith, or even, on the mellifluous guitar refrain of ‘Big Jack’, Bruce Springsteen. Where once, DC’s fevered energy saw them taken the heart of London’s punks, recognising kindred spirits if not obvious musical bedfellows, they are now settling into a more measured and comfortable musical middle age, and it has to be said that growing old gracefully suits them.
Elsewhere, Black Ice offers virtually everything one could want from an AC/DC album. ‘She Likes Rock N Roll’ is full of smart riffing with just enough ingenuity to stand out from the crowd, and ‘Rock N Roll Dream’ is simply majestic, huge serrated slabs of guitar developing from an arpeggiated verse and exploding into an infectious chorus that is up there with the band’s best. More importantly, this is another crucial step on their journey to their inevitable destination of releasing an album on which all of the songs are simply named ‘Rock N Roll’, with identical lyrics extolling the virtues of an artform that has mutated in innumerate directions since its inception 70-odd years ago, but still thrills in its most primitive form in the hands of these Anglo-Australian masters.
AC/DC’s own mutations on this album are happily largely successful. Angus Young only very infrequently augments his riffing style with slide guitar, but it’s usually hugely effective whenever he deigns to do so, and ‘Stormy May Day’ is no exception. As good as it is though, it offers a tantalising glimpse of an even bigger departure for the band that could’ve been even more successful. The outro cleverly deconstructs the layers built up over the course of the song until the listener is left with Brian Johnson soulfully crooning over an acoustic blues for a few bars. AC/DC have stubbornly resisted the lure of the ‘unplugged’ set for their entire career, and this is something that the world should probably be grateful for, but the idea of the band taking the germ of the idea that lies in the outro and building the rest of the song like scaffolding around this central core would have been fascinating to hear.
If there’s any real criticism of Black Ice though, it’s that it’s simply too long, particularly for a band best experienced in short, sharp bursts of energy. An epic album is a perfectly viable artistic expression in the hands of bands with a more expansive sound, building progressive journeys traversing peaks and troughs, and exploring a full range of dynamics and differing levels of compositional complexity, but although AC/DC offer some variety, it is within fairly tightly defined parameters and fails to sustain the listener’s interest across 15 songs. A more ruthless band would have been brutal enough to remove, as a bare minimum, the hackneyed title track, pedestrian ‘Smash N Grab’ and desultory ‘Decibel’ from Black Ice. Had AC/DC done so, leaving a lean 10 song set, they would have been left with their best Johnson-era album after Back In Black. As it is, what we do have is a hugely impressive achievement at this stage of the band’s career, and one that continues to elevate their material way above the level of the nostalgia act that they could so easily have become.