Release Date: Dec 2, 2014
Record label: Columbia
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Hard Rock
The arrival of a new album by Australian stalwarts AC/DC comes with an unfortunate amount of baggage. There’s the sad news that it is the first ever record to not feature Malcolm Young on rhythm guitar, as the 61-year-old has been put out of commission due to his ongoing struggles with dementia. And there’s the ridiculous news surrounding Phil Rudd’s legal battles.
Economy counts for a lot on an AC/DC record. As meaty as they are, they sound best when they're lean -- when there's not much fat on the bone, when they choose not to indulge in a fourth chord. Rock or Bust, the group's 15th studio album, benefits from a modest sense of scale. It's just 11 songs, the fewest number of cuts since 1995's Rick Rubin-produced Ballbreaker, but a better way to view it is that it's not even 35 minutes long, making it the shortest album AC/DC have ever released.
According to Heraclitus of Ephesus (c535-475 BC), there is no constant in the world but change. He clearly never heard AC/DC, Australia’s premier musical export. Their wildly successful 40-year career has been marked by monomaniacal adherence to a template reproduced, with only minor variations, across 15 albums. Some people, immune to the spartan magnificence of AC/DC’s yowling three-riff assault, get bored by this kind of sameyness; put off by the cliche and smut.
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.
AC/DC are a band in all kinds of disarray. With founder member Malcolm Young out after more than 40 years service due to the onset of dementia and longterm drummer Phil Rudd facing bizarre charges of drug possession as well as procurement of murder and threats to kill, now seems a choice moment to drop their first studio album since 2008’s Black Ice. Despite the personnel shambles and the fact that the songs on Rock or Bust are largely patched together from remnants of ideas that Angus and Malcolm Young came up with for previous records, AC/DC show remarkable consistency on their sixteenth studio album.
Forty years after AC/DC’s formation, nothing fundamental is about to change; it would therefore be possible to form an opinion on their record regardless of whether or not you actually had the chance to listen to it beforehand. And this is quite handy when their label are about as useful as a chocolate teapot when it comes to providing pre-release copies for appraisal. So, in spite of U2 related shenanigans, hoorah for Apple’s iTunes, and their occasional pre-release streams.
Rock or Bust is AC/DC’s 17th album, released in a blaze of unfortunate publicity. Drummer Phil Rudd was charged in November with attempting to procure the murder of two people in New Zealand, as well as threatening to kill and possession of methamphetamine and cannabis. The charge of attempting to procure a murder has been withdrawn, but it seems like a sticky situation.
‘Rock Or Bust’ was made in tragic circumstances, as founding AC/DC guitarist Malcolm Young (not featured here) succumbed to early-onset dementia. It is not, it may or may not surprise you, a piano-lead lament to the ultimate horror of losing your memories one day at a time. Instead, the Sydney veterans’ 17th album is pure business as usual. Like the Ramones, or Iron Maiden, AC/DC have never released a bad album because they’ve never shown any interest in making a great one.
AC/DC ringmaster Brian Johnson may be approaching 70, but that won't stop him from yowling like a young lech: "Mistress, mistress, all night long/Keep on comin' hot and strong," he shouts on "Rock the House," a bluesy cut from the Aussie power-chord monsters' latest LP. This is a band that has never so much as detoured from its highway to hell over the past four decades. In 1980, AC/DC built their biggest album ever, Back in Black, with Johnson stepping in after the death of founding frontman Bon Scott.
At their peak, AC/DC were like an older brother — immature and on the nose, but funny nonetheless. Lately though, the Aussie rockers are more like a dirty drunk uncle — inappropriate and more than a bit embarrassing. All that is to say, while AC/DC haven't changed much over their 40-plus-year career, our perception of them has. But Rock or Bust might be the band's first concession to their agedness.It seems that the band have abandoned their quest to turn every track into a sing-along stadium anthem.
The 16th AC/DC studio album should, really, have been a lap of honour. Their last, 2008’s Black Ice, entered the charts at No 1 in 29 countries, their first US No 1 since 1981’s For Those About to Rock We Salute You. The 168 shows of the supporting tour grossed $441.6m. Alongide the Rolling Stones and U2 they have a legitimate claim to being the biggest live band in the world After spending the first 20 years of their career being disdained by critics, despite their staggering commercial success, they’ve spent the last 20 transmuting into international treasures.
Before playing AC/DC’s latest offering, certain inevitable questions linger at the forefront of the mind: Will the band’s sound and direction suffer without the input and guitar work of its former creative force Malcolm Young? Is Phil Rudd’s nascent mania discernable through his kick drum? And, after 40 years together, does AC/DC have anything new to offer to the masses? A little more than 30 minutes later, and all these concerns are answered: Yes, to an extent. No, that’s ridiculous. And not really, but that’s never really mattered before.
There is something quaintly reassuring about the song titles on “Rock or Bust,” AC/DC’s first new album in six years. (It is also, sadly, the first without the playing of ailing founding guitarist Malcolm Young, who, however, contributed as a co-writer.) “Got Some Rock and Roll Thunder,” “Rock the Blues Away, “Rock the House,” and the rest send a very clear signal: AC/DC is not reinventing the wheel. And why should they when, even in occasional — OK frequent — redundancy, the group still reliably produces some of the most head-bangingly, fist-pumpingly enjoyable hard rock ever.
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No one expects change from AC/DC, which is why it was so shocking for Malcolm Young to get dementia and Phil Rudd to be charged with putting out a hit on two people. It seemed like the Australian rockers would forever be teenage boys after hot sex and good times in spite of their grey hair and saggy jowls. They certainly keep up appearances on their 15th album, their troubles not for a second interfering with these 11 songs, the longest of which lasts three minutes and 41 seconds.