AC/DC – Black Ice

AC/DC - Black IceAC/DCBlack Ice (Columbia)

Before we can even discuss a note about the new AC/DC album Black Ice, two of the band’s business decisions involving the release need to be addressed. And while it may not necessarily be strikes against the music itself, it does address the band’s character. You can only get Black Ice at one of two places: the band’s website and mega-retailer Wal-Mart.

The first comes with free shipping while the second means that you must traverse the endless asphalt parking lot just to get an album from a company that helped suffocate your community’s personality.

Angus Young defends the decision as inevitable, since Wal-Mart is “the only game in town” in some communities. True, but Black Ice would have been available at Wal-Mart anyway. The exclusive part was motivated entirely by greed, and when a band like AC/DC is blessed with the second largest selling album in rock history (Back In Black) you have to wonder just how much more money does one band need?

The second issue is the band’s decision to not work out a deal with iTunes. Angus again puts a nice spin on this decision, by suggesting that AC/DC is an “album” band, and that putting Black Ice on iTunes would allow casual fans to cherry pick the songs that they want and not appreciate the album as a whole piece.

While it may be nice to think that Angus was just standing firm for the art form, you have to wonder if, once again, greed was the primary reason for boycotting the largest music retailer on the planet. The band would have ultimately received a smaller percentage if buyers did indeed only download a few tracks and leave the bulk of Black Ice behind at the virtual store.

But can you blame casual fans for wanting just a few choice cuts and not the whole deal? AC/DC is a critical part of my own musical development, so it is with sadness that I must admit the band’s post For Those About To Rock output is prime for cherry picking. I wouldn’t fault anyone for wanting to grab the best tracks and leave the subpar material behind.

After Ballbreaker, I wished I would have.

With eight years to work out a track list, there should be no excuses for the band not to deliver the goods on Black Ice, an album that’s on par with the start-to-finish greatness of For Those About To Rock. If you can overlook all of the aforementioned greed, you should be pleasantly surprised at how close AC/DC have come to achieving that with Black Ice.

The album begins with the band’s best song in over a quarter-century, “Rock ‘N Roll Train.”

In fact, the first three cuts (“Train,” “Skies On Fire” and “Big Jack”) are just plain awesome. The fourth track, “Anything Goes,” is a bland radio cut that’s devoid of both balls and bite, two vital ingredients that should be in every AC/DC track. Ditto for “Rock ‘N Roll Dream,” a misguided ballad that reminds you the only ballad that belongs in the band’s catalog is Bon Scott‘s “Ride On.”

There’s about two other songs (“Decibel” and “Rocking All The Way”) that are merely standard-issue AC/DC cuts with no real personality or memorable arrangements. But the rest are solid, welcome additions into the very limited spectrum of their career defining formula.

Vocalist Brian Johnson sounds better than he has in over two decades, thanks to some new strategies implemented by producer Brendon O’Brien. Johnson has been one the band’s major liabilities for some time now. With each passing album his voice has deteriorated to the point of being embarrassingly inept, but for Black Ice he sounds impressively improved, and his voice is one of the album’s surprising highpoints.

But the real highpoint…as ever…is the band’s rhythm section. Tight as fuck and stable as an ancient marble pillar, drummer Phil Rudd and bassist Cliff Williams give the Young brothers such precise horsepower that all they have to do is find the pocket and hammer you over the head with riff after riff.

At nearly an hour long, it all begins to blend together, which points to the nagging question of why bands—particularly those like AC/DC where there is very little versatility to their overall sound#8212;don’t subscribe to the idea of streamlining. This was a band that averaged one album per year, each one of them with ten cuts. When the well began to run dry from that schedule, the albums began to suffer, so the notion of taking longer periods between sets is welcomed.

To put it another way, give me a ten-song album that enhances a band’s legacy instead of a fifteen-song release that just adds to it. Black Ice could have enhanced the legacy with some strategic cherry picking. As much as Angus Young despises that notion and has taken steps to prevent it, perhaps he could have learned a thing or two from those customers that whittle things down to their favorite selection.

So utilize your media player playlist, program your cd players and make your own awesome version of Black Ice. The songs are in there and the band sounds as good as ever. While you may not confuse it with one of their essential releases, you’ll find that Black Ice is one of their best in quite some time and it may be the most fun you’ll have with a rock album this year.

The only drag is how the band has made coming to the party such an exclusive event when they were known for letting everyone in to the festivities.

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