In recent years, I’ve taken to evaluating, somewhat subconsciously, each new AC/DC album by way of what I’ll now outwardly brand the “Send for the Man” scale. It’s a fairly straightforward system, resting on one incontrovertible fact: AC/DC—old or new, live or studio, Bon or Brian—is never a bad thing. Fine, you say. But for a band whose every album sounds more or less the same (still you talking, not me), when is it actually a good thing?
Enter “Send for the Man,” an unremarkable-but-hardly-terrible AC/DC song (workmanlike Angus Young riff, stock Brian Johnson screech, firm mid-tempo rhythm thud) on an unremarkable-but-hardly-terrible AC/DC album (1985’s Fly on the Wall). And so its utter ordinariness defines the scale: By rule, a new release on which a majority of the songs are better than “Send for the Man” is, in this band’s universe, a good one.
Which brings us to Black Ice, AC/DC’s first disc in eight years. At 15 songs, it’s also the longest in the 33 they’ve been making ’em, offering up plenty of shots at the SFTM barrier. In my estimation, they top out at an impressive 10 over, five under. Rip out much of the record’s lazy middle third, and we start approaching For Those About to Rock levels of goodness. Which means that if you, unlike me, are within reasonable driving distance of a Wal-Mart (where this one is on exclusive lockdown), I recommend you go get it, stat.
As it is, I’m already sold on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Train,” Black Ice‘s leadoff track and first single. It ain’t “Back in Black” (and is, unfortunately, called “Rock ‘n’ Roll Train”), but I’ll be damned if it can’t hang with most any Brian Johnson–era tune, with Angus laying out a fat and chewy guitar figure and characteristically hyperactive solo over the band’s unshakable stomp-groove.
A bit on that groove, which comes courtesy of Ang’s brother/guitarist Malcolm and the rhythm section of bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd, the latter of whom is a marvel of simplicity. The man’s got basically one pattern in his arsenal, but it’s a knockout: kick on the 1 and 3, snare on the 2 and 4, hi-hat all the way through to provide a bit of shimmy. He manages to both swing and plod simultaneously, while staying forever rock-steady. That beat hammers though Black Ice—sometimes sped up (“Wheels,” “Rocking All the Way”), other times slowed down (“Decibel,” “Money Made”)—and is paired with everything from rowdy barroom rock (“Big Jack”) to vaguely Aerosmith-ian funk (“She Likes Rock ‘n’ Roll”) to surprisingly spry power-pop (“Anything Goes”). It’s even grafted to the main riff from Led Zeppelin’s version of “In My Time of Dying” for “Stormy May Day,” wherein Angus, with slide in hand for the first time on an AC/DC record, makes the added point that these discs actually don’t all sound the same.
The other MVP here? Producer Brendan O’Brien, who not only restores the pristine vintage Marshall guitar sound—bright, warm, ever-so-slightly overdriven—of the band’s classic ’70s efforts with producers Harry Vanda and big brother George Young, but also lifts a key element of their mega-selling Mutt Lange–produced trilogy: gigantic, gang-vocal-soaked choruses. O’Brien, to his credit, takes things even further here than Lange ever dared, pulling some unexpectedly musical aaah aaah aaaahs out of the boys on “Smash ‘n’ Grab,” and getting them chanting like a squad of high-school cheerleaders on game day for the breakdown in “She Likes Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Quality stuff. Sorta like “Send for the Man,” but better.
AC/DC play Madison Square Garden November 12 and 13, and the Izod Center November 19