“I need a pick me up; a rollin’ thunder truck,” bellows Brian Johnson, in the opening lines to “Shot in the Dark,” the lead single of AC/DC’s latest, 16th (17th, if you count their Aussie-only debut) studio album, Power Up.
After months of COVID-19 lockdowns and indefinite uncertainty, we all needed a pick me up. The Aussie-Scottish troupe’s latest studio effort couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Brimming with the lively, overdriven guitar riffs and howling vocals that have come to define AC/DC’s barebones, unadulterated rock and roll sound, Power Up sounds exactly the way you’d want it to.
But for AC/DC, it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the studio. Looking back to 2016, the end of their Rock or Bust world tour, the band was on the brink of collapse, drowning in disarray: rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, who’d already been replaced by his nephew, Stevie, was in the final stages of his terminal battle with dementia. Vocalist Brian Johnson, plagued with severe hearing loss, was replaced with Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose for the latter half of the tour. Meanwhile, hampered by a bevy of legal issues, Phil Rudd had to be replaced by Chris Slade. And finally, towards the end of the tour, the band’s bassist, Cliff Williams, who turns 71 this month, announced his retirement.
For a band in this state to churn out an album of exclusively original material has all the workings of an unmitigated disaster. But AC/DC seem to have a knack for coming as close as possible to breaking up and immediately following up with some of their best work in years. In a Rolling Stone interview, Angus Young said, “It’s been a long, long road… but it’s good that everyone came on board and we get to pump out a bit of new rock & roll for the world. At this time, with the pandemic, hopefully it gives people a few hours of toe-tapping enjoyment.”
It was 65-year-old Angus Young, the heart and soul of AC/DC, garbed in a schoolboy uniform, who, by some miracle of rock and roll, managed to keep his composure and salvage everything. By the time sessions for Power Up began, Johnson had regained his hearing and Rudd had settled his legal qualms. And Cliff Williams, on the question of retirement, likely had a change of heart best explained by Paul McCartney in a recent interview, where, on the question of retirement retorted, “retire from what?”
Sketching up the beginnings of what would become Power Up, Angus Young culled the band’s vaults and combed through outtakes from recent years, exhuming unreleased and unfinished songs he’d written with Malcolm during the Black Ice sessions. It was with this framework in hand that AC/DC returned to the studio in late 2018 to record Power Up.
The opening track, “Realize,” kicks off the record in classic AC/DC fashion: Phil Rudd slowly builds the tension with mid-tempo pounds of the bass drum, lightly tapping the high hat on the offbeat. Johnson makes his way into the mix with a mean growl in the background, just as Young bursts through the speakers, churning out crunchy power chords and trading shots with rhythm guitarist, Stevie Young, as they waltz in and out of bluesy licks and solos. It’s the classic, signature sound of AC/DC, almost entirely indistinguishable from how they sounded three decades ago.
The album’s lead single, “Shot in the Dark,” could live comfortably amongst the tracklist of Back in Black with its catchy singalong line. It perfectly captures one of AC/DC’s great strengths: their smooth transition from the pre-chorus into the chorus — and with the big, stadium-ready chant— whether it’s “hell’s bells” or “have a drink on me” or “shoot to thrill,” or, in this case, “a shot in the dark.”
For all the commentary on AC/DC’s reluctance to diverge from their tried and true formula, “Through the Mists of Time” sounds like nothing else in their 47-year-long musical canon. It’s their most retrospective song to date. Eschewing the ribald playfulness that permeates most of their lyrics, “Through the Mists of Time” is the band at their most vulnerable.
In 1980, AC/DC wrote and recorded Back in Black as their tribute to their original frontman, Bon Scott — who, mere months prior, had been found passed out and lifeless in his car after a long night fueled by consuming an entire liquor store’s worth of alcohol. But it contained nothing mournful or elegiac; more than anything, Back in Black was a comeback album and an effort to enshrine the band’s legacy as esteemed bishops in the church of rock and roll.
40 years later (and an ineffaceable legacy intact), on Power Up, AC/DC writes with the matured hand that only the weathering of time can produce. On “Through the Mists of Time,” Johnson sings, “See dark shadows; On the walls; See the pictures; Some hang, some fall; And the painted faces; All in a line; And the painted ladies; Yeah, the painted ladies; Through the mists of time.” He observes the bygone years and passage of time as seen through changing photographs — almost invoking Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. It pays homage not only to Malcolm and George Young but the band as a whole, as they now reckon with old age and its crippling limitations.
“Kick You When You’re Down” is another retrospective rocker from AC/DC, set against the backdrop of their near demise in 2016. The tight, cyclic blues riff trickles from Angus Young’s fingers as he does his Chuck Berry duckwalk up and down the pentatonic scale, rhythmically interlocked with Rudd and Williams.
“Witch’s Spell” begins with the same subtle string intonation, the guitars ringing out in staccato as in “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Overtop is a deluge of high hat and bass drum, and it features Brian Johnson’s best vocal performance since “Thunderstruck,” on The Razors Edge in 1990. Not relying on falsetto, Johnson comfortably howls at the very peak of his vocal range before diving into a deep growl on the next song, “Demon Fire.”
“Systems Down,” like vintage AC/DC, is intended to be played loud. It harks back to the For Those About to Rock era but gleams with the sheen of modern production. Rudd’s snare gallops through the track as Angus and Malcolm blend into a single unit, driving the main riff, while Angus steps in and out of solos. Cliff Williams’ bassline keeps the rhythm section as tight as ever, both complementing the guitars and driving the groove.
The closing track, “Code Red,” is AC/DC at their most fun. It opens with a crooning guitar riff, crawling up and down the blues scale. It sets the stage for Brian Johnson’s vocals to burst through the speakers with an intensity that underscores and makes you feel the urgency as he sings, “Hot fight, rough night; dead in your sight; fire light, fire bright; fire in the night; Station to station; yeah, code red; battle stations.”
Given the bleak conditions in which Power Up was birthed, it has no business being anything but a desultory footnote in AC/DC’s long and prolific career. And yet, despite everything, it thrives. It isn’t weighed down by jejune filler like 2014’s Rock or Bust. It doesn’t drag unnecessarily long like 2008’s double LP, Black Ice. Power Up is easily the band’s strongest effort since 1990’s The Razors Edge.
On their 1975 American debut, High Voltage, they declared, “It’s a long way to the top, if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll.” 45 years later, on Power Up, AC/DC still manages to excite and invigorate with that same enthusiasm they carried as budding adolescents looking to make it big. Power Up still carries that same chaotic frequency that sounds sweetest to angsty teenager ears’ and yearns to be cranked up to eleven — the appropriate decibel range to evoke parental rage. Despite their old age, AC/DC still manages to sound like a pack of youngsters, united by their love of music and desire to preach the gospel of rock ‘n’ roll, proclaiming the good news: Let there be Rock. That’s the magic of AC/DC.
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The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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