It had been 8 long years before Black Ice and AC/DC fans almost quit hoping. In 2008, Black Ice was AC/DC’s first album since 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip and the band performed a world tour behind it. Black Ice was a different kind of album for AC/DC in that they changed how the grooves worked on a number of songs. The Youngs along with Producer Brendan O’Brien changed the song structure on several bits, presenting a moderately unorthodox album from the company. Although still fixed in the standard AC/DC hard rock blues roots, the individual song structures on this release are notably irregular than what we’ve heard from them in the past.
The drum sound heard, using the gated ride symbol over-top of the kick and snare on the prominent opener, “Rock and Roll Train,” is how much of the album’s drums are presented to the listener, purposefully produced, to bring on a more catchy idea versus something thunderous. The album’s guitar solos are poignantly placed but never long ended or overdone. The single most positive aspect of the production is that there are a few advances that made this album not entirely standard compared to their others. With that said, we do get one or two very traditional zero-frills AC/DC numbers.
“Wheels” is a strong rocker with a likable momentum, easily the albums most raucously typical. Boasting Chuck Berry nodded guitar soloing, this number is pleasurable by a good old Rock n Roll standard. In “Wheels” and other tracks, the solos seem somewhat thick-fingered and less snug (most likely due to using at least one condenser microphone instead of an all dynamic arrangement) which is used to counter balance some fresh production additives. Nothing sounds smooth or fluid as far as The Youngs’ guitar solos are recorded.
What is generally nonexistent from the production aspect of this particular album is the full-size Angus Young wall of sound that was so evident from some of the group’s early 80’s recordings. Angus Young performs well enough, but he and his brother Malcolm’s guitars are slightly smaller on Ice. Chords become assembled into the dynamic versus being recorded or mixed to sound larger than life. The tradeoff was in designing a more universally popular premise which would speak to the masses minus The Youngs’ colossal sound that longtime admirers usually identify with. It almost seems as though O’Brien purposefully never lets a guitar completely out of the gate. Instead and in difference to several albums in their past, O’Brien uses the brothers as an additional backdrop to the melody, often spun to nifty modest riffs that have their way of keeping the individual subconsciously intrigued. Unpredictably, a minor pop dusting exists, laced and peppered over many of the album’s contributions. Listeners received a “fresher” sounding album based on that opposed to an atypical AC/DC branded out-and-out hard rock statement. Though it was interesting to hear AC/DC in such light, it was a somewhat risky production value… in that hard-core AC/DC fans could potentially be let down by the more attainable spin.
“Anything Goes” is by far and away the most pop-friendly peril that’s included. Nothing before or after comes close to this candied gloss on Black Ice (or anything that AC/DC has put their name to). For this specific compromise, reverb and gating was exhausted, resulting to things being side-tracked. Upon the discs first spin, “Anything Goes” makes one think there must be some kind of mistake. Thankfully, its chorus is so addictive that it slides beneath the radar as any sort of nauseating dishonor.
The bulk of Black Ice is created and based on mid-tempo rockers. Staggered between that middle ground and showing fresh dynamics brought on a couple of welcoming variables. “Rock N Roll Dream” goes from approaching (but not quite) sappy balladry to rocking 1971 “classic Who style riffs.” Coupled with Keith Moon inspired drumming, this exchange exuded a back-and-forth concept throughout the song, presenting a genuinely new and unexpected song structure for AC/DC. “Rock N Roll Dream’s” conflicting segments are not only likeable but bodes as something innovatively refreshing for the band.
Turning to vocals, Brian Johnson’s lead makes the grade, though realistically, his yowling lacks some of the intensity and vigor it used to carry. There’s a measured caution in his attempt now compared to his performance of yesteryear, although at the end of the day (and Black Ice), he deserves a proficient pass. In another production spin, there are some spots in which Johnson tries a deeper more relaxed tone that we haven’t exactly heard from him before. There’s something deeper with it, more than just in tone. Could it be it was simply to let listeners know he’s got a little something up his sleeve for when his attractively abrasive vocals will require aged-related reservations?
Lyrically, we’ve got something that sits a little above the bands previous material. AC/DC’s trademark innuendos and double meanings were more thought-concerning on Ice. Additionally, Johnson’s controversial jargon is more tastefully arranged, and this in turn seemed to add a slight more experienced quality to several of the tracks. At the same time, Brian Johnson makes no stab in pulling from another philosophical intellect than any other AC/DC collection (thankfully) as he remarks about the usual subject matter…drinking booze, money, women, sex, and …skies that are on fire!
It becomes apparent as the set plays on that no submissions will quite be able to join the ranks of their endowed anthems of 25 years previous, such as the precedent big leaguers of yesteryear like “Highway to Hell” or perhaps “For Those About To Rock (We Solute You)”. On the positive (and not to mistake, there’s still plenty positive here), what we do have is a mostly solid album that is, for lack of a more fitting descriptive, fun. Overall, the project comprises itself in ranging from strong material to a handful of plausibly fun recordings where everything sounds as if it was taken from the same cloth. Only one item has absolutely nothing redeemable, “Decibel”… a complete throwaway.
This album may not be all-together and wholly what we would expect, but that certainly doesn’t mean it was a bad thing. The unorthodox as well as the fun-going, pop-tinged production injected over top the group’s familiar old school signature made Black Ice an overall enjoyable and entertaining listen. The guys tried some new ideas and went on to add another chapter to their lengthy trident career. Our Australian friends didn’t necessarily kick us in the face with an out-and-out stunner in Black Ice, but all along, they did manage to keep it interesting while still pumping out that welcomingly familiar AC/DC penned rock.
Ian Billen –