CD Review of Black Ice by AC/DC
Recommended if you like
AC/DC, AC/DC, AC/DC
Label
Columbia
AC/DC: Black Ice

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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D
uring the mid ‘90s, at the height of Beavis & Butt-Head’s popularity, David Letterman explained his unabashed love for the snickering cartoon duo by saying that no matter how complicated or unpredictable the world became, a person could always count on Beavis & Butt-Head to be stupid. It was not, perhaps, the strongest defense for the show, but Letterman had a point: as much as we pretend to place a premium on things like artistic depth and growth, what we really want, deep down, is simple consistency – and sometimes, knowing something is going to be dumb is enough to keep us coming back for more. Just ask Jim Belushi.

AC/DC has often been accused of writing stupid music, and that isn’t an entirely baseless criticism of the band’s music, but what they’ve demonstrated for the last 20 years of their career – a point they reinforce with their 16th album, Black Ice – is that if you just do what you’re good at long enough, people will not only stop expecting anything else from you, they’ll lavish praise on you for doing it. They’re one of a handful of rock gods that still roam the Earth, and unlike any of their peers, AC/DC has never tried to branch out or make concessions to trends. The old joke is that they’ve been making the same album for 30-plus years, but the punch line is that it isn’t really a joke – every one of their records is built from the same basic ingredients, combined in the same relative proportions, and served up at the same speed and temperature. New albums by warhorses like the Rolling Stones suffer mercilessly in comparison to their earlier work, while AC/DC’s carbon copies earn reliable praise, because Angus Young and company have never strayed from their (very wide, very straight) path, and we love them for it.

So. Here’s what you’re going to get with your copy of Black Ice: thudding bare-bones drums from Phil Rudd, thudding bare-bones bass from Cliff Williams, slashing rhythm guitar from Malcolm Young, barbed-wire lead guitar from Angus Young, and a whole bunch of Brian Johnson shrieking like his ass is on fire. Oh, and multiple songs with the words “rock,” “rocking,” and/or “roll” in the title (four, to be exact), not to mention a handful (heh, heh) of filthy innuendo. (On this last count, Black Ice proves milder than past sets, although the third track, “Big Jack,” boasts a protagonist who enjoys a “full sack.”) In other words, it’s everything you expect from an AC/DC album, and nothing you don’t. If you were worried about old age mellowing out the band, you needn’t have; aside from incremental further fraying of Johnson’s poor, overtaxed vocal cords, they sound exactly the way you remember them.

AC/DC

There are slight alterations to the formula, of course; not even AC/DC can get away from change entirely. But the differences are slight: they lead with a slide guitar on “Stormy May Day,” for instance, and Johnson does something like singing on “Rock N’ Roll Dream.” By and large, however, this is nothing but nuts-and-bolts AC/DC – and that’s a good thing, particularly on the album’s high points, which include the vintage fist-pumping action of “Rock N’ Roll Train” and the arena-ready hooks of “Anything Goes.”

Black Ice does have its flaws, however – chief among them a ridiculously inflated 15-song track listing. Yes, it’s been nearly a decade since their last studio outing, but no AC/DC album needs to be longer than 10 songs; any longer than that, and ear fatigue starts to set in. Just as troublesome – but twice as unexpected – is how ill-suited Brendan O’Brien’s production is for the band: Black Ice is appropriately loud, and it sounds leagues better than Metallica’s famously derided Death Magnetic, but O’Brien applies a thin layer of glass to the group’s sound, and as a result, although the songs assault your ears the way they should, they don’t hit you in the gut the way you want them to. As problems go, it isn’t a hugely obvious one, but if you listen to the album enough times with the volume cranked high, it’s hard not to come away feeling like something’s missing; the sound just isn’t as meaty as it needs to be.

Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and for fans of this stuff, pickings have been slim for a good decade and change now. In the context of their earlier work, Black Ice is a surprisingly spry late-period entry for the band; on its own merits, it’s definitely the best major-label hard rock record you’re going to hear before 2009.

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