A NEW AC/DC ALBUM has rarely been an occasion for poignancy. Typical concerns are the double-entendre quotient (load of balls or top drawer?), the state of Brian Johnson’s voice (lung-busting or busted flush?), or whether the record comprises the whole lotta filler plus a couple of decent songs that’s been the best-case scenario for the past 30 years. But now reality has intruded upon the cartoon facade of rock’n’roll’s most successful brand: with Malcolm Young stricken by dementia, Rock Or Bust is the first AC/DC album made without their rhythm guitarist, musical leader and philosophical linchpin.
“Nephew Stevie Young uncannily emulates uncle Mal’s geometric chopping.”
In carrying on, AC/DC have surely done what Malcolm would want – it is, after all, what AC/DC did after the death of singer Bon Scott, a calamity from which they emerged with 1980’s epochal Back In Black. And while Rock Or Bust doesn’t come close to that benchmark, nor does it disgrace Young’s legacy. Indeed, Malcolm is co-credited along with younger brother Angus with writing all these songs, the first two of which testify to the virility of the Young family’s guitar gene: nephew Stevie Young quite uncannily emulates uncle Mal’s geometric chopping, precisely the selfless vanguard uncle Angus needs to deliver his flashy hallmarks.
Stevie’s clanging opens Rock Or Bust, a song so elementally perfect it can tell the time: Phil Rudd’s primordial stomp enters at five seconds; at 0:10 we welcome Cliff Williams’ bass pulse and Angus’s walking groove; exactly 10 seconds later Brian Johnson proclaims his rude fettle with a jaunty “Heeyyyeahhh”; finally, at 0:30 on the nose, the singer issues AC/DC’s latest inarguable declaration of self: “We be a guitar band / We play across the land…” By the time Angus drops his solo amid Play Ball’s thunderous stadium boogie, millions who should know better will be duckwalking their kids to school.
This is superior cuddly-mode AC/DC, polished though not overbearingly so by producer Brendan O’Brien, reprising his role from 2008’s commercially expedient but interminable Black Ice. Its successor has the virtue of brevity: 11 songs, dispatched in 35 minutes, so when the formula creaks – as on Viagra-munching farrago Miss Adventure, or tired Stones knock-off Baptism By Fire – recompense is never far away. Hard Times and the chain gang swinging Rock & Roll Thunder prove even a benign latterday AC/DC can squeeze fresh juice from their blues templates. The blatant frontloading cannot atone for a lame final three songs, however, perhaps attesting to the album’s compromised genesis.
Whether AC/DC have a future beyond the Young brothers’ riff reservoir remains to be seen. Fading out on the wheezy, sub-par Zep of Emission Control would be an unsatisfyingly sheepish exit. Alternatively, when he hears Brian promise “everything’s gonna be all right” on the unashamedly sentimental Rock The Blues Away, no one could blame Angus Young for thinking of Malcolm, then plugging in once more.