It had been eight long years before Black Ice arrived and AC/DC fans had 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 Young’s along with Producer Brendan O’Brien changed the song structure on several bits which presented a moderately unorthodox album from the fella’s. 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, 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 percussion is presented to the listener. The sound was more ‘produced’ (one could say) in order to bring on a more catchy sonic 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 additional production value is that there are a few advances that made this album not entirely ‘stock’ compared to some of their other records. With that said, we do get one or two very traditional zero-frills AC/DC numbers.
“Wheels” is a strong rocker with a very likable momentum … easily the albums most raucously AC/DC typical. Boasting Chuck Berry nodded guitar soloing, this number is pleasurable by a good ole Rock n Roll standard. In “Wheels” and other tracks, the solos seem somewhat thick-fingered and detailed … less snug (most likely due to using more condenser microphones on the cabinets instead of an all dynamic microphone arrangement which is how they used to record most of their guitar tracks during the 1990’s). This aspect created a counter balance with some fresh production additives. Nothing sounds smooth or fluid as far as The Young’s’ guitar solos are recorded during Black Ice (nor should they).
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 eighties 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 trade-off 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 gates. 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 ditty included. Nothing before or after comes close to this candied gloss on Black Ice (or anything that AC/DC has put their name to before). 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 was based in mid-tempo rockers. Staggered between a 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 drum work, the exchange exudes a back-and-forth concept throughout the song. Another tune that presented a genuinely new and unexpected song structure from AC/DC. “Rock N Roll Dream’s” conflicting segments are not only likable but as well bodes as something inventively 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 their last studio effort that seemed to mean something but they did manage to keep it interesting while pumping out that compellingly familiar AC/DC penned rock.
Ian Billen –