The arrival of a new album by Australian stalwarts AC/DC comes with an unfortunate amount of baggage. There’s the sad news that it is the first ever record to not feature Malcolm Young on rhythm guitar, as the 61-year-old has been put out of commission due to his ongoing struggles with dementia. And there’s the ridiculous news surrounding Phil Rudd’s legal battles.
This isn’t an unusual turn of events for any band that has been around for four decades. But the timing couldn’t be worse as it has the potential to overshadow the simple fact that Rock or Bust is the best LP that AC/DC has produced in over 20 years.
It seems a strange statement to make when this is, in many ways, your typical album by the group. There’s no mistaking the searing, bluesy guitar tone of Angus Young and his nephew Stevie (now sitting in for the ailing Malcolm), nor the distinctive screech of lead vocalist Brian Johnson. And, same as it ever was, the band’s chief lyrical interest are females and rock music. Call the band formulaic, and it’s almost the highest compliment you can give them.
Rock or Bust avoids being painted as “just another AC/DC album” through the band’s efforts to embrace its limitations as men in their 60s. They know they can’t play pedal to the metal rockers like “Whole Lotta Rosie” and “Shoot To Thrill,” anymore. So every song unfolds at a more steady pace, relying on Rudd and bassist Cliff Williams’ midtempo rhythms to push them forward. That puts the onus even more on the Youngs, but they accept the challenge with riffs that feel alternately sultry (“Hard Times”), sleazy (“Rock The Blues Away”) and spindly (“Miss Adventure”). Every tune has been engineered to more easily pump your fists to.
The most volatile element here is Johnson. His higher register has been replaced by a slightly wetter, phlegmier quality, so, as he did on the band’s 2008 album Black Ice, he goes for a comfortable middle range that’s allows him to enunciate and emote as needed. Sure, he’s singing silly sexual metaphors (“Sweet Candy”) and anthems of rebellion that sound a little strange coming from a sexagenarian, but like his bandmates, he knows what works and sticks with it to great success.