More hard rock from those kings of heavy riffs, AC/DC; big on chorus, short on verse.
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 The charge of attempting to procure a murder has been withdrawn, but it seems like a sticky situation. But at least after the bail hearing he got a piggy-back from a security officer to his car.
To add to AC/DC's woes, earlier in the year an Australian newspaper unnecessarily leaked details of where the group’s rhythm guitarist and co-founder, Malcolm Young, was receiving treatment for dementia. Known as a group who like to keep the personal private, they have suddenly suffered an unusual amount of celebrity publicity.
Yet the band known by Australians as Acca-Dacca (to be pronounced with gusto as “Acka-Dacka”) are historically no strangers to interesting press. In the past they've been accused of promoting Satanism (along with the suggestion that AC/DC stands for “Anti Christ Devil's Child”), not helped when serial murderer and rapist Richard Ramirez was identified as a big fan, allegedly leaving his AC/DC cap at the scene of a grisly crime. Although God-fearing parents may have over the years taken exception to the band, more recently AC/DC had started to seem a more popular proposition, perhaps helped by their music being prominently featured in the soundtrack for Iron Man 2. Fortunately for AC/DC it seems likely that the recent press will be irrelevant to their record sales either way; the band, and heavy rock, exist in a slightly weird moral universe all of their own.
Still, as the old saying goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity, and AC/DC are not averse to some self-designed promotional stunts. Rock or Bust has four songs with the word “rock” in the title, so the album was sensibly launched early in the Australian New South Wales town of Rock, 30 kilometres from Wagga Wagga. The band didn’t attend and I wasn’t invited, but I’m sure a good time was had by all.
Rock or Bust is AC/DC's first album without Malcolm Young, but the band have managed to bounce back from changes in the line-up before, the best known example being Brian Johnson as replacement for Bon Scott following Scott's death in 1980. They went on to complete the song-writing begun with Scott, to release Back in Black, AC/DC's largest-selling album and a hard-rock landmark. Since then you could say their commercial standing has risen and fallen depending on the whim of fashion. Lead guitarist Angus Young may or may not have been responsible for inspiring the dreadful School Disco franchise in the 1990s, and still remains in full uniform at all times, day and night.
Rock or Bust should not be a disappointment if you like the sort of output AC/DC usually deliver, namely hard rock which is not too grimy or scary. It can easily be appreciated by those who do not live the heavy metal lifestyle of denim vests and head-banging, and may please the softer hipsters who fetishize the tough stuff safely from a distance. There's a keen focus on catchy choruses and riffs for those who are inclined to practice righteous, gnarly air guitar. The verses on the whole seem to be pretty much irrelevant; it’s all about attitude, and lots of it (contemporaneously with writing this, I may have metaphorically been flipping you the bird to get into the spirit of things).
The title track starts off with an awesome guitar riff and excellent drumming, and what could be some Creedence lyrics, but with slightly sub-standard grammar: “We be a guitar band / We play across the land." The chorus is strong and it’s really only Brian Johnson’s shouty vocal that could be classed as heavy, meanwhile all the rest is AC/DC’s tried and tested rock and roll/blues hybrid. Of course, we were not expecting power ballads, but you’ll be pleased to hear (or not) that AC/DC do not experiment with drum loops or nu skool breaks on this album. This is not their dubstep period or an excursion into gangsta rap.
Instead we have 11 tracks of riff-laden rock. The single “Play Ball” is pumped full of testosterone, and has already been used on a trailer for Major League Baseball on TBS. “Rock the Blues Away” suggests drinking, smoking and shooting pool as a cure for feeling miserable. Admittedly, this is probably not an effective long-term method of dealing with personal problems, but it certainly can help from time to time in providing a temporary lift out of nihilistic despondency.
The title for “Miss Adventure” seems perilously close to risking allegations of impropriety or sexism, but thankfully heavy to hard rock has remained relatively unaffected by political correctness. Indeed where would the genre be without a fair amount of objectification, leering, drooling and salivating? There’s possibly a time and place for everything, and from what I can understand from the lyrics, this is not a particularly lewd song. Saying that, the underlying sleazy pulse of the track may well ensure it features in your local pole-dancing club at some point in the future (note to readers: drinks are likely to be expensive). To recommend that this track would be effective music for slinky gyration is by no means downgrading the song, because numerous key changes and great lead guitar/background vocals ensure it’s an entertaining listen all the same.
In a similar theme is “Rock the House”, which starts off with a shout-out to a mistress. She’s apparently hot-blooded, and there seems to be much squeezing and pushing of something or other, which all sounds like jolly good fun. “Sweet Candy” could be inspired by Homer Simpson’s love of gummy bears, but a reference to “all night Candy” in the song may suggest otherwise. “Emission Control” is hard and tough, surprisingly at times sounding a little like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Despite the title it does not seem to be anything at all about greenhouse gases.
Some of these tracks must be ready-made to license for film soundtracks: “Dogs of War” has soldiers of fortune dodging bullets for a shoot-em’ up blockbuster, “Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder” (with some surprisingly funky moments) and “Hard Times” (with a great communal vocal in the chorus) for a hard rock biopic. In light of AC/DC's recent troubles, “Baptism By Fire” is perhaps a prescient statement, making a wise connection as well as a quick rhyme between “shocking the nation” and “litigation”. Brian Johnson laughs demonically as we’re told that the boys need their kicks. Yes indeed, that’s fine with me, as long as the consequences are not 20 years imprisonment in a Wagga Wagga jail. The weather may be warm, but those pesky rodents tend to be hard to shake off.