AC/DC Passes Our Test

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.

"Send for the Man" is an unremarkable-but-hardly-terrible AC/DC song on an unremarkable-but-hardly-terrible AC/DC album, 1985's Fly on the Wall. There's the workmanlike Angus Young riff, stock Brian Johnson screech, and the firm mid-tempo rhythm thud. 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 released this past October. At 15 songs, it's also the longest in the 33 years 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 are within reasonable driving distance of a Wal-Mart, where this one is on exclusive lockdown, I recommend you go get it.

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.

That groove 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 onto the main riff of 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 of the band's classic '70s efforts; O'Brien, to his credit, takes things even farther 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.