Oh, you want more than a one-word album review? Who do I think I am? The guy at Rolling Stone who reviewed Quiet Riot’s Condition Critical, or the guy who reviewed Spinal Tap’s Shark Sandwich? (I also remember reading a one-word review of a Yes album that simply said “no” but I don’t remember where I saw it.) [Editor’s note: It was Melody Maker’s review of Yes Please! by the Happy Mondays. And the review read: “No thanks.”] Okay…
The typical refrain about AC/DC is that they are a machine that churns out feel-good, head-bangin’, hard-hitting rock that is utterly devoid of trifling things like social commentary, introspection, or angst. Like a college football team that only runs the option, AC/DC is the ultimate “system band.” They make David Lee Roth look like Bob Dylan. Their songs all sound the same and, on the whole, are extremely enjoyable to listen to. There’s some comfort to knowing that, no matter how bad things get, the thunder from down under (not to be confused with the Las Vegas strippers) will always deliver an album chock full of party tunes, sports anthems and blues-metal headbangers.
The band’s latest album, Rock or Bust, is no exception. The hard rock heroes’ fifteenth internationally released album was recorded during a period of exceptional turmoil and difficulty for the band. Founder and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young is absent, having retired due to suffering from dementia. He’s still credited as co-writer on all the songs, so either he and Angus wrote a bunch of stuff before his condition worsened or these songs were crafted from leftover parts that were sitting in the AC/DC archives. Drummer Phil Rudd was also going through some problems that would become known to the general public after the album was released.
Despite the chaos, Angus and Co. do what they’ve always done when faced with adversity and soldier through it. For that, they deserved to be commended.
Indeed, from a musical standpoint, AC/DC sounds as good as ever. A lot of bands wouldn’t have survived losing an important band member like Malcolm, whose thunderous and menacing riffs set the tone for the band. While Stevie Young capably plays the notes once reserved for his uncle Malcolm, the former rhythm guitarist’s departure leaves a huge void that cannot be easily filled. Brian Johnson remains a force of nature after all these years and continues to confound anyone who’s ever tried to imitate his loud, raspy voice and ended up with a sore throat that lasted for days. Angus can still rock with the best of them while Cliff Williams plays the same steady bass lines he’s known for. While drummer Phil Rudd plays on the album, his probable absence during the upcoming tour will leave an even bigger hole than Malcolm’s (Angus seems to have washed his hands of Rudd, while the drummer seems to be enjoying his time away from the band). Long the band’s most underrated member, it was Rudd that drove the songs forward with his deceptively simple and difficult-to-emulate groove and sense of timing. That continues to be the case here, as Rudd, despite his troubles, still has his drumming chops and his groove provides an excellent backdrop for when the Youngs play the blues.
Unfortunately, the overall weakness of the songs on Rock or Bust reflects the less-than-ideal circumstances under which they were recorded. The songs aren’t particularly memorable and all cover ground that’s been covered before (and better). Obviously, being repetitive and derivative have been common complaints about AC/DC for decades. However, even the band’s newer albums have managed to squeeze out good-to-excellent songs that have dealt with the same topics (or even used similar sounding riffs) as earlier songs. Take “Rock ‘n Roll Train” from 2008’s Black Ice (which recycled the opening riff from “Highway to Hell”) or the bluesy boogie of “Stiff Upper Lip” from 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip or the innuendo-laden “Hard as a Rock” from 1995’s Ballbreaker (not coincidentally, those were all lead singles – AC/DC’s certainly mastered the art of leading with your strongest material).
None of the songs on Rock or Bust approach that level of greatness. Title track “Rock or Bust,” the latest addition to the band’s “Rock ‘n Roll is Awesome” playlist, is vastly inferior to the songs that preceded it, like “For Those About to Rock, We Salute You,” “Let There be Rock” or “Rock ‘N Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.” In fact, of the 11 songs on the album, four of them contain the word “rock” in the title. Clearly, they’re running out of ideas. Another AC/DC trope is in play on “Miss Adventure,” which is the latest, and least, of the songs about chicks that will break your heart (as well as your balls). “Dogs of War,” meanwhile, is a lightweight addition to yet another category of AC/DC tropes: songs about war or guns.
Only two songs really stand out. Lead single “Play Ball” is a fun, catchy tune that features an excellent blues riff from either Stevie or Angus Young (we can’t be certain who plays it until we see them do it live). The song, which was everywhere during the MLB playoffs, will get stuck in your head and is sure to be a crowd-pleaser during the upcoming world tour. “Rock the Blues Away” is the other real standout in the album. One of the few slow tempo songs on the record, “Rock the Blues Away” is about, well, rocking away ones blues (the other trademark of AC/DC songs is that their titles rarely lie). In this case, Brian Johnson, whose usual vocal offerings consist of shrieking, wailing or rasping actually emotes (somewhat) as he sings about overcoming life’s problems with a group of friends, a lady, a pool table, good music and, of course, alcohol. He actually tries (and succeeds – to an extent) in sounding like John Mellencamp or Bruce Springsteen instead of his usual self. Who would have thunk it?
All in all, if Rock or Bust represents the end of the line for AC/DC, then it’s a fitting coda. All machines inevitably break down, and AC/DC is no exception. Somehow, though, I doubt that this really is the end for the band. As they say, in “Rock ‘N Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” rock music is never gonna die. And as long as people are willing to pay for their albums or buy their concert tickets, then they might as well keep churning out product. After all, money talks.