The sky has darkened. A thick brood of portentous storm clouds snuff out any remaining light. Our heroes, a well travelled but not weary band of Scotsmen and Aussies, are accosted on all sides. Former confidants are pedalling salacious scandals to anyone willing to listen, founder member Malcolm Young has been side-lined by the tragic onset of dementia and – to top it all off – drummer Phil Rudd stands accused of both possession of meth and cannabis (hardly a shock) and, more bewilderingly, attempting to procure a murder (gulp).
It doesn’t look hopeful; our previously impenetrable protagonists are on the verge of being permanently tarnished when, entirely out of the ether, streaks a sky shattering lightening bolt. Shooting from the ground upwards it vaporizes the ominous cloud coverage and silences all dissent. Into this void one sound can be heard: the clattering march of Angus Young’s guitar counterpointed masterfully by a lick that oozes working man’s funk. “Rock Or Bust” stays true to its title: in the face of the metronomically-measured-anarchy of Young’s guitar and Brian Johnson’s nails-on-a-chalkboard howl, there is nothing besides monolithic rock. All other concerns are not simply pushed out of earshot, for 35 minutes, they cease to exist.
This is not to say that simply by picking up a guitar and hitting record AC/DC succeed in making great or even good music. Instead, they have retained a fundamental sensation. Listening to AC/DC is, for better or worse, different from any other experience. No matter how many years go by, they still succeed in wiping away stress and exuding hedonism with none of the inherent bad feeling, but all of the necessary bad taste. This experience goes beyond nostalgia; there is an entire generation of rock fans who grew up, not on Back In Black, but 2008’s Black Ice and whose first tantalizing taste was “Run Away Train”.
Rock Or Bust toes the line between full-blooded exhilaration and tired one-dimensional plodding. When all the stars align AC/DC remain perfectly capable of defying their critics with bulldozing brilliance. “Rock the House” explodes into action. This is maximal-minimalism at its finest. Angus Young’s primitive riff is utterly immovable and completely irresistible, while Johnson is afforded plenty of empty space to grandstand and create crushing contrasts between his freewheeling highnotes and Young’s sledgehammer of simplicity. This is a trick that so many young guitar bands miss, that AC/DC understand implicitly. When supplying big slabs of repetitive guitar work it is imperative that something else creates a sensation of danger and the illusion of movement, in this case its Johnson’s rollercoaster vocal that sets the stage for the falling-down-a-flight-of-stairs descent of “Rock the House’s” secondary riff.
Unfortunately, while there are plenty of examples of AC/DC finding dynamism in old formulas, there is far too much unimaginative trudgery on display. The songwriting is largely to blame. No one is expecting revolutionary insights from an AC/DC record, but there should still be structural variety. Catchy choruses have largely given way to plodding chants that do little to elevate Young’s less cacophonous riffs. “Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder” is perhaps the worst offender, despite offering a slinky guitar line, the actual song itself is phoned-in, propped up by a collection of half hearted placeholders and hey hey heys.
This lack of variety is AC/DC’s biggest Achilles heel as they age. The vault of riffs and smoothly destructive solos remains well stocked, but they are running out of – or simply forgetting – how to mould them into less formulaic structures. The idea that Johnson’s vocal will be allowed to run roughshot and explode with the glee and unpredictability that it once did (most notably on “Black in Black”) feels far fetched. The arm around the shoulder sleaze of “Whole Lotta Rosie” has vanished from AC/DC’s sound, instead carnal excess feels mechanical on “Sweet Candy” (which, to its credit, does offer the album’s most effective baking vocals).
The smooth sway and triumphalism of “You Shook Me All Night Long” is also noticeable by its absence. Perhaps it is unfair to compare Rock Or Bust to the band’s greatest hits, but the point it not to say AC/DC aren’t as good as they once were, but to make clear that, despite what is often suggested, they are not one dimensional. They are however drifting towards a plod-and-squeal monotony that is only broken by the sporadic onset of energy.
“Miss Adventure” might rely heavily on repetition, but, as the sexual stakes rise, Johnson’s intensity grows, until he’s ready to roar the track’s chorus. Better still, when the crescendo does arrive, the guitar work deliciously sidesteps expectation, abstaining from a relentless pounding and serving up a slight low-key jaunt in its stead. “Dogs Of War” is the polar opposite: a smooth melodic exercise that sees Johnson riding Young’s groove either side of a hypnotic arena-ready chant, which builds towards a layered and oddly composed finale.
Despite its flaws Rock Or Bust is careful to avoid overstaying its welcome. There are enough frustratingly unimaginative moments to raise an eyebrow, but they are dispensed with so quickly that they fail to derail the experience. Instead, the speed of the record ensures that the standout tracks and the crafty deviations (like the AC/DC does KISS brilliance of “Rock The Blues Away”) prove far more memorable than the unabashed filler.
Rock or Bust wryly confirms what we already knew: AC/DC have forgotten more about rock than most of us will ever know.
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