Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: AC/DC
- Album: Rock Or Bust
- Year of Release: 2014
- Country: Australia
- Label: Columbia
- Format: Digipack
- Catalogue Number: 88875034852
In 2014, stone cold on the heels of the distant memory that was 2008’s excellent Black Ice, AC/DC released what is their last studio album to date. Far from an overnight sensation, ‘DC took the scenic route to the top to earn the right to rock ‘n’roll. In fact, as a veteran band who came up the hard way through the bars and pubs of working class Australia, the band could’ve congratulated themselves for a career well done at some point in the 1990s, and lived out a long and comfortable retirement, perhaps making the occasional lucrative festival appearance to give their butlers a chance to refurbish the hammock. So to have put out something as good as Black Ice just to remind audiences that they could still be relevant without making any concessions in terms of their sound was as surprising as it was welcome. The question six years later was whether lightning could strike twice.
If it wasn’t tough enough following up such a marvellous record, for the first time in their career, AC/DC had to do it without the lead and rhythm axis of Angus and the late Malcolm Young. Understandably not as heralded as his rather more flamboyant younger brother, Malcolm’s playing was always absolutely integral to the band’s sound. As in his element in the background as Angus was duck-walking across the stage in his (slightly) over-sized school uniform, Malcolm’s intensely rhythmic playing, endlessly laying down the open E, D and G chords was, like steady rain on an autumn evening, something that you may not register it while it keeps coming, but which becomes suddenly conspicuous when it’s gone.
In Malcolm’s absence, Brendan O’Brien’s return to produce is at the very least reassuring; a quick glance down his credits list indicates that he rarely puts his name to the kind of turkeys that other bands of a similar vintage have misguidedly released at the same stages of their careers. And not only that, but from the first note of the title track, Rock Or Bust sounds fantastic. O’Brien has somehow triangulated a perfect mid-point between the sonic juggernaut of Black Ice, and the more organic live feel of the best Bon Scott albums, Highway To Hell and Let There Be Rock, and arguably the band have never sounded better. The one-two punch of ‘Rock Or Bust’ and the anthemic ‘Play Ball’ then contrive to raise expectations to a level that unfortunately the rest of the album just can’t quite live up to. A little like Stiff Upper Lip in tone, if not in style, the album exudes a sense of fun and mischief, but the somewhat unfocussed songwriting means that sadly the listener isn’t always having quite as much fun as Young and co.
For such a guitar-driven band, the difference between AC/DC’s best work and their more average output is usually to be found in the vocals, or more specifically, the vocal melodies. Brian Johnson is certainly not a classically-trained pitch perfect vocalist in the mould of Dio or Kiske, but his gravel-throated bellow is the perfect match for AC/DC’s blue collar, full-throttle rock ‘n’ roll. And indeed, there are songs sprinkled liberally throughout the band’s back catalogue during which he reveals a greater range and subtlety than he’s generally given credit for, ‘Stormy May Day’, and ‘Spellbound’ being two such examples, decades apart. Too often though, the filler, present to a greater or lesser degree across every album released after Back In Black, displays a casual and even lazy attitude towards the composition of the vocal melodies that sit on top of the band’s relentless musical attack. Frequently, a smart chord sequence or driving verse founders on a chorus which satisfies itself with a basic one or two note melody, with little of the harmonic ingenuity and unexpected note choices that adorn their best work. Contrast even the relatively unheralded ‘Evil Walks’ from For Those About To Rock… or ‘Shake Your Foundations’ from Fly On The Wall with the limp ‘Sweet Candy’, or ‘Got Some Rock N Roll Thunder’ from this record, and the gulf in quality is obvious.
Outside of the more insipid songs mentioned above, however, there are a number of highlights that ensure that the album is not a complete flop. The syncopated chromatic ascending riff of ‘Miss Adventure’ is heavily reminiscent of mid-80s Aerosmith, but supplemented by an unusual and memorable chorus melody as it is here, it stands out from the pack and works fantastically. The double key change also raises a smile, the AC/DC equivalent of turning the amps to 11. ‘Rock The House’ belies its none-more-obvious title by deploying a monolithic riff that Tom Morello or Kim Thayil would be very happy to utilise in their own bands, a riff so deadly that Angus Young almost certainly requires a licence to carry it around the tour venues of the world. And despite the closing track ‘Emission Control’ suggesting a lyrical subject matter to match Spinal Tap’s ‘Break Like The Wind’, it is a timely reminder that AC/DC do retain the ability to compose a strong chorus, despite the lingering feeling that Def Leppard composed this particular one some years previously.
Rock Or Bust does not live up to the high standard set by its predecessor. It is sonically magnificent, but uneven in terms of the songwriting. There are undoubtedly a handful of excellent songs, but for every excellent song, there are two mediocre offerings. It also lacks one huge highlight, an emblematic touchstone for the rest of the collection to surround, and for the album as a whole to be remembered for. The Razor’s Edge has ‘Thunderstruck’, For Those About To Rock… has its title track, even Blow Up Your Video has ‘Heatseeker’, but the nearest Rock Or Bust comes to repeating the trick is ‘Play Ball’, which is a case of nearly, but not quite. And in fact, that’s a fair summary of the album as a whole. Rock Or Bust will most likely be remembered as a missed opportunity – the elements of a great album are there, and it soars in parts, but it ultimately leaves little lasting impression. It looks increasingly likely that this will not be the band’s valedictory album, it would be disappointing for such a legendary institution to conclude their career with the anticlimax of Rock Or Bust, although it contains just enough inspiration to suggest that even in their old age, this diminished band may have enough left in the tank for one last hurrah.