Whenever hard rock is stuck in a rut, we inevitably hear from a bunch of maverick bands bent on reminding everyone just how fun no-frills, guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll can be, with a dose of disposable tunes that serve as a respite from the tired sounds passing off as modern rock. Two decades ago, while we were choking on the Aqua Net fumes of bands like Warrant, Poison, Slaughter, Trixter, et al, and Guns N’ Roses, LA Guns, and Faster Pussycat played up the LA sleaze image, a small subculture started to spring up within pop metal, as other acts emphasized the blue-collar riff-rock of the late-1970s. While the Cult’s calculated transformation from goth/psychedelic to brazen Zeppelin worship and hard-working rockers Kix scored big, it was the overlooked bands that offered some of the best tunes. Whether it was Dangerous Toys’ “Teas’n Pleas’n”, Dirty Looks’ “Oh Ruby”, or the Four Horsemen’s “Rockin’ is Ma Business”, as trite as it all was, for a brief moment it was a refreshing, arrogant middle finger aimed straight at the made-up faces of the hair bands.
These days, the state of hard rock couldn’t be any sorrier, as the dour, post-post-post grunge of Nickelback, Hinder, and Daughtry continue their inexplicable longevity and late-’90s bores Puddle of Mudd and Seether currently dominate the modern rock charts. While Australia hasn’t been exactly the greatest exporter of cutting edge music in recent years (the Vines, Jet, Wolfmother, and I Killed the Prom Queen isn’t exactly the most impressive roster), the country did produce some phenomenal, riff-oriented 1970s bands in AC/DC, Buffalo, Angel City, and Rose Tattoo. Warrnambool natives Airbourne shamelessly cop the style of all those bands on their heavily-hyped second album, bringing upbeat, barroom rock back to North American audiences.
Not a lick of this band is original, but when it comes to traditional hard rock, it’s all in how you sell it, and Airbourne takes the ball and runs like mad, churning out the Angus Young riffs, the Bon Scott/Brian Johnson-style screaming, the rave-up paeans to rock and the process of rocking, and of course, loads and loads of blunt, borderline comical sexual innuendo, and doing so with charisma. All they ask of us is to simply buy into it as much as they do.
And how can anyone possibly resist something like “Stand Up for Rock ‘n’ Roll”? Opening with an oddly flamboyant overture of cymbal crashes and arpeggiated notes, the band gradually starts to pick up the pace, eventually exploding into a scorching, slashing riff straight out of Let There Be Rock, drummer Ryan O’Keeffe and bassist Justin Street propelling the track at a raucous pace. Vocalist/lead guitarist Joel O’Keefe is in full Bon Scott mode from the get-go, spouting the gloriously goofy lyrics (“Drink your beer / Drink your wine / Let’s have a goodtime”) like it’s gospel.
After that raucous opener, the rest of Runnin’ Wild settles into cruise control, the band tossing the kind of slight variations on the sound that those who grew up on 1980s hard rock and pop metal will be able to easily pinpoint. “Runnin’ Wild” carries itself with the mid-’80s swagger of American faves Kix. The lumbering “Too Much, Too Young, Too Fast” echoes the boisterous biker rawk of the vastly underrated Four Horsemen and Circus of Power, while the boogie-infused riffery of “What’s Eating You” comes closest to emulating the sound of late-’80s sleaze.
Still, this album is at its best when the band is in full AC/DC mode. The second half of the disc is especially good, as the pace picks up, song after song blowing by in a blur of thrumming, one-note basslines, pub-style gang choruses, and of course, riff after riff. “Blackjack” has fun with the goofy cards-as-sex-metaphor shtick that “The Jack” did 30 years ago. The lecherous “Girls in Black” and the mid-tempo stomp of “Cheap Wine & Cheaper Women” are pretty self-descriptive. “Heartbreaker” just might be the best Angus & Bon homage on the entire record.
At barely more than half an hour Runnin’ Wild is savvy enough to not overplay its hand. It’s not going to turn the rock world upside down, will likely be forgotten in a few years, and will easily be outsold by the next release by Chad Kroeger and company. But with more adrenaline and testosterone than any of the dour dood rock power ballads out there right now, not to mention hooks up the wazoo, at least for one fleeting moment we are reminded of just how invigorating simple, three-chord hard rock can be.