The exhilaration that accompanied the news that, far from splitting up, as was heavily rumoured, AC/DC were to return in 2014 with a new studio album has rather been eclipsed by recent events. The revelation in September that the Australian quintet’s redoubtable leader Malcolm Young is suffering from dementia delivered a harsh, sobering jolt of reality for fans of a band that has always been larger and louder than life, while drummer Phil Rudd’s November arrest on charges of plotting to arrange a double murder was unquestionably the most jaw-dropping moment of the year.
Given this context, the release of Rock Or Bust might seem trivial, if not irrelevant, which is a shame, as there’s much to celebrate about AC/DC’s 15th international long-player.
While Malcolm Young’s absence from the sessions at Vancouver’s Warehouse Studio undeniably casts a shadow over Rock Or Bust, the most striking aspect of AC/DC’s new album is just how upbeat it sounds. Granted it wasn’t going to be an introspective meditation upon mortality and decay, but there’s something heroically indestructible about a band who introduced themselves to the world at large with the words ‘Ridin’ down the highway/goin’ to a show/stop in all the by-ways/playin’ rock ’n’ roll’ returning to action with the opening line, ‘We made a guitar band, we played across the land…’ almost 40 years later.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as Bon Scott almost certainly never said. At the risk of sounding insensitive, you’d never know that Malcolm isn’t present here, powering the band’s heartbeat with those breezeblock chords, and there’s a purity and playfulness at this album’s core that is utterly joyous.
The title track is a simply brilliant opener. ‘In rock we trust!’ roars Brian Johnson on a chorus we’ll hopefully hear echoing around stadiums worldwide next summer, as uncomplicated a paean to high voltage rock’n’roll as the band have ever penned. Play Ball you’ll know already if you give the slightest wisp of a fuck about AC/DC, so you won’t need telling how good it is. Rock The Blues Away is even more euphoric, a timeless slice of good time boogie, which salutes a) rockin’, b) rollin’, c) drinkin’, and d) jokin’ and couldn’t be more quintessentially AC/DC if it carried the sound of an inflatable Rosie being fired from a cannon.
And if nothing that follows quite measures up to this barnstorming opening, there’s still much to admire. Naturally there’s a song about a stripper (Sweet Candy), and a song about fighting men (Dogs Of War), plus two songs featuring the word ‘rock’ upfront (Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder and Rock The House) and a sleazy closer rejoicing in the wonderfully Viz-esque title Emission Control. Angus Young plays a blinder throughout, but as ever, this is a group effort, as impactful as a fist in the face.
Only a fool would claim that Rock Or Bust is AC/DC’s best album, but it continues the winning streak laid down by Stiff Upper Lip and Black Ice and has an energy which makes a mockery of the band’s advancing years. If it’s to be AC/DC’s swansong – and surely, surely it is – it both upholds their legacy and honours their missing leader’s original vision.