AC/DC Lands a Double Axel on 'Black Ice'

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By Allison Stewart
Special to the Washington Post
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Black Ice" is AC/DC's first album in eight years, which would be reason enough to love it. An even better reason: "Black Ice" is the best record the band has made in decades, and not only because all the other ones were pretty terrible.

AC/DC hasn't made a great album since "For Those About to Rock We Salute You," which came out during the early days of the Reagan administration. Few artists have relied so heavily on the indulgence of audiences, and on a reputation for fan-friendliness, as this one. Given the stinginess of its output and limited availability, those breaks aren't entirely deserved. (The band's songs aren't available on iTunes, and "Black Ice" will be sold only at Wal-Mart outlets and on the AC/DC Web site.)

Because "Black Ice" sounds merely like a better version of the same album AC/DC has made throughout its history, its near-greatness is hard to explain. Producer Brendan O'Brien, whose recent work with Bruce Springsteen has done the Boss no favors, worked wonders here, mostly by getting the band to regard "Black Ice" as an Actual Important Thing, not just a yowl-and-riffage delivery system that's a handy excuse for a tour.

Frontman Brian Johnson and guitarist Angus Young carry "Black Ice" on their backs: Johnson, now 61 (!), sings more and hollers less; Young, who seems more engaged than usual throughout, occasionally plays slide guitar. These might not seem like noteworthy developments, but for a band as resistant to innovation as this one, baby steps matter.

Elsewhere "Black Ice" is the usual assortment of mountainous riffs and full-tilt boogies, done with uncharacteristic attentiveness. Its lyrics aren't worth mentioning, except to note that there are some, and they're the usual mix of cheerful incomprehensibility and innuendo-laden buffoonery. There are nods to consumer dissatisfaction ("Smash 'N' Grab") and the End of Days ("Stormy May Day"), while "Money Made" appears to have something to do with strippers.

But mostly, "Black Ice" contains songs about rocking. Specifically, about how much AC/DC rocks, how much it's rocked in the past and how, if given the opportunity, it plans to rock some more in the future. Even the song about a wartime something or other ("War Machine") seems to be about a really rocking war machine.

The band's now de rigueur sex songs (forget "You Shook Me All Night Long"; AC/DC long ago stopped writing about women unless it had to) sound increasingly like Mad Libs: haphazard assemblages of a noun, a verb, the word "she" and a euphemism for "penis." Just one listen to "Rock 'N' Roll Dream," a semi-ballad so ridiculously great and primally stupid it might have been assembled by cavemen, and you'll never hear the phrase "hard rain" in the same way again.

These, um, love songs are increasingly self-parodic, detailing amorous encounters so improbably hazardous ("She wanna shake you/No way to save you/She's got me shot/I'm fallin' ") you'll be tempted to wonder if anyone in the band has actually ever met a woman. They contribute to the dragginess of the disc's last half, as does "Decibel," the most generic AC/DC song of all time. "Black Ice" has 15 songs, which is about five too many: After its pulverizingly pleasurable first half, it's all filler and very little killer.

AC/DC will appear Nov. 15 at Verizon Center.

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Rock 'N' Roll Train," "Big Jack"


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