Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: AC/DC
- Album: PWR/UP
- Year of Release: 2020
- Country: Australia
- Label: Columbia
- Format: Digipack CD
- Catalogue Number: 19439744632
The manifold difficulties experienced by AC/DC during the last decade are enough to fill a badly written unofficial biography, but more importantly, had surely rendered any hope of the band ever releasing a follow-up to 2014’s solid Rock Or Bust redundant. That they have made an album at all is an achievement worthy of acclaim, but to come back in such spectacular style with something as magnificent as PWR/UP is as wonderful as it is surprising. The title, a faintly embarrassing bid for modernity many years after the first bands started utilising textspeak for their own works, is the worst thing about the album, and something that can be quickly forgiven, particularly as it is thankfully no indication that the band’s music has followed a similar path. It’s well-documented that PWR/UP is the first AC/DC album to be made without the reliable presence of Malcolm Young on rhythm guitar, following his death in 2017 after an earlier dementia diagnosis, and although the band thankfully avoid any descent into mawkish sentimentality, the album functions as a fitting tribute to Malcolm’s understated genius. And Young is not just there in spirit. He continues to be credited as a songwriter on all AC/DC tracks, and while one imagines that this may be in part a perpetual doff of Angus Young’s schoolboy cap to the incalculable influence of his brother on the band’s sound, Angus has stated that he continues to mine Malcolm’s home recordings for ideas. Although it’s impossible to know which of these ideas made it as far as the final version of PWR/UP, it’s clear that even after his death, Malcolm continues to be a significant part of the band’s present.
For a band that many would (quite fairly) consider to be the epitome of good time rock ‘n’ roll, the soundtrack to alcohol-fuelled revelry and endless nights of loud music and shouted conversations, it’s notable that tragedy and hardship seem to have been the catalyst for some of their very best work. The thematically dark Powerage was made with Bon Scott very much down on his luck and apparently considering it something of a last throw of the dice in terms of his musical career, Back In Black famously appeared only months after the doomed Scott’s death, and PWR/UP fits neatly into this line, sharing many of the same qualities as these other landmark albums. AC/DC seem to be at their best when an almost imperceptible layer of solemnity is injected into their music, with the songs taking on a slight underdog quality, celebrating life, while simultaneously aware of its fragility. PWR/UP exudes this exact feeling, and perhaps also because of the tough time during which it has been released, it seems like the music that we not only want right now, but actually need.
There are a handful of knowing nods to some of their earlier classics on PWR/UP, and the album itself starts with one of them, the backing vocals introducing opener ‘Realize’ reminiscent of a similar line on ‘Thunderstruck’, but the similarity ends there, as an archetypal rugged, but sparse guitar riff, backed by the same steadfast rhythm section that built the indestructible backbone of Back In Black, drops in, and everything feels instantly familiar, including the huge chorus that crowns a superb start to the album. AC/DC have a gift for conjuring songs out of the ether that display such outrageous simplicity that it seems implausible that they don’t already exist, and as such, the speed at which new tracks assimilate themselves into your consciousness is lightning quick. Of course, it would be disingenuous not to note that part of the reason for this is that clearly their music continually reconfigures itself from a relatively small number of components, but of course, if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it. They have been through phases during which contemporary production touches have added layers of extraneous sound, or altered the guitar tones, or the overall final mix, but it’s not unreasonable to state that AC/DC sound best when the production is minimal, and we are left simply with the warm, barely distorted tone of Angus and now Stevie Young’s guitars, with Brian Johnson’s inimitable wail adding the high end, sounding perpetually as if he has gargled shards of gold, and washed down the remnants with a fine single malt. That is exactly what we get here, along with one of the band’s leanest, meanest and most brutally concise set of songs ever released, and it’s a joy from start to finish.
History tells us to be prepared for a front-loaded AC/DC album that starts with a bang, only to peter out somewhat, as we approach the middle of the record, but PWR/UP is remarkably consistent, with a magical opening run of songs which ensure that not only are we eight songs in before we discern the merest hint of filler, but which also stake a reasonable claim to be the band’s best clutch of songs since the peerless and filler-free Back In Black. Few of the tracks have the monster choruses that so decorate the best tracks on that album, and it is probably this that holds PWR/UP back from all-time classic status, but instead the songs are insidiously catchy, clever hooks burrowing their way in almost unnoticed, until each track is transformed into an un-skippable masterpiece. The major exception to this is the first single, ‘Shot In The Dark’, which contains all of the dextrous rhythmic and melodic brilliance of its neighbours, but also bolts on a gigantic singalong chorus, purpose-built for opening the band’s live show, as and when they are finally able to take to the stage once more, or alternatively commence an extensive tour of New Zealand. If one could follow a formula to create the perfect AC/DC song, ‘Shot In The Dark’ would be the result. Never guilty of stringing things out unnecessarily, the playful blues lick that becomes the central riff of the track is played by Angus Young, unaccompanied, to create a miniature intro, the rest of the band joining with thunderous stabs of chords on an open-chorded cadence that completes the guitar figure, before settling in unison into the kind of mid-tempo groove that almost any rock fan would immediately recognise as AC/DC. Even better is the way in which the feel of the groove is deftly altered by a variation of the main riff utilised for the pre-chorus, adding a single beat of space at the start of the lick, a perfect example of the kind of attention to detail that bridges the gap between good and great, and all that is left is to transition seamlessly into an unforgettable chorus, pulling everything together into a song that could comfortably slot on to Back In Black without lowering the stunning calibre of that particular album. The lyrical message of the song seems to be that nothing of value comes easily, and no doubt sounding this effortlessly brilliant is tougher than the band make it appear, but it requires little effort to enjoy the fruits of the band’s labours, over and over again.
On a lesser AC/DC album, such as Fly On The Wall, or Blow Up Your Video, the magnitude of a song such as ‘Shot In The Dark’ would cast a long shadow across the remainder of the album, but so strong is this collection of songs, and so cleverly do the band work through all of their subtle variations of hard-hitting rock ‘n’ roll, that this is not the case here. ‘Through The Mists Of Time’ is an immediate change of pace, and something of a departure, the palm-muted major key guitar line suggesting an indie feel, although the glam-rock tones of the chorus ensure that things do not get too introspective on what is intended to be a slightly oblique tribute to Malcolm. Lyrically, this tribute is not overly explicit, but the nostalgic reflection on the band’s halcyon days is nevertheless oddly touching, and a sweet tribute to their erstwhile brother and guitarist, without descending into cloying sentimentality. As the mists of time dissipate, and with a perfect sense of sequencing, the band don’t dwell too long on the past, ramping up the pace again with the raucous ‘Kick You When You’re Down’. This is a hugely memorable highlight of the album, pairing a pounding 1950s-style tom-tom drum pattern with a fiddly blues riff and riotous chorus, which incorporates muscular gang-vocals and the kind of efficient chord sequence that the band have made a long and successful career from.
As already mentioned, there is some filler – ‘Wild Reputation’ and ‘No Man’s Land’ are both plodding rather than pulsating, and lack sparkle in terms of the vocal melodies – but even the worst songs are considerably better than some of the material used to pad out the albums that they released during the trough section of their popularity curve. They are also swiftly forgotten, due to the calibre of the closing one-two punch of ‘Money Shot’ and ‘Code Red’. The former contains a brief snatch of laughter presumably captured in the studio during recording, as the excellent riff that the rest of the song is built around is introduced. It’s a relatively well-worn device that has been used by other bands to briefly break the fourth wall, but it’s an entertaining inclusion here, as the band’s joy at their own creation mirrors the listener’s, and also brings a welcome note of humanity into the final product, furthering the connection between AC/DC and their audience. The latter is an immaculate closer, musically vicious and aggressive during the verses, but changing tone with the full and stately chorus, which offers lyrical allusions to ‘For Those About To Rock (We Salute You), with references to battle stations firing, and drawing a clear line between PWR/UP and the band’s acknowledged classics.
It’s not unwelcome of the band to highlight this, but it is unnecessary – the album makes its own case, and makes it in style. The only legitimate question mark hanging over PWR/UP is whether my own desire to hear one more great AC/DC album is artificially enhancing the perceived quality of the record, meaning that I hear what I want to hear. It’s not unprecedented for this kind of wishful thinking to combine with the novelty value of a new album and cause a listener to temporarily inflate their opinion, creating a kind of inverse nostalgia. Metallica’s St Anger, and Roots by Sepultura are both albums that wowed me on release, only to diminish a little in my judgement over time, as I have come to re-evaluate them in the context of the bands’ overall output, and there is a danger that I will one day feel this way about PWR/UP. However, it is also noticeable that each listen reveals a new favourite track, or throws up a new moment of ingenuity (the bass line that lights up ‘Witch’s Spell’ for example) that had previously gone unnoticed, and in my experience this often tends to be the sign of a good album. It may well be that the coming years add or subtract 5%, and make the difference between PWR/UP being considered a good album or a great album, but for now it is sufficient to say that not only is this an album that many of us thought we would never hear, but that it is also a masterful exhibition of economic songwriting which exceeds every possible expectation and demonstrates the ecstatic and timeless appeal of rock ‘n’ roll.