Arriving at the end of 2014 with plenty of fanfare — track two, “Play Ball,” was ubiquitous throughout the month of October, thanks to its appearance throughout TBS’ playoff baseball coverage — Rock or Bust nevertheless has turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Bad news kept pouring from the AC/DC camp in the year or so leading up to the record’s release: first, it was announced that rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young’s time in the band was finished because of an illness that was invariably described as “sad”; next, there were problems with getting drummer Phil Rudd to even show up at the studio in Vancouver (he eventually appeared ten days late); and finally, there was a bizarre episode in early November involving Rudd, drugs, and a “threatening to murder” charge in New Zealand. Around the time of the album’s release, it was finally disclosed that Malcolm Young was suffering from dementia, which is very sad indeed.
Still, Malcolm is credited with co-writing the album’s songs with his brother Angus, who picked some songs the brothers worked on during sessions for previous albums and has now worked them through to completion with producer Brendan O’Brien, who also produced the band’s previous effort, Black Ice (2008). The end result doesn’t seem like a leftovers or hodgepodge album like Bruce Springsteen‘s High Hopes, from earlier this year, but is instead incredibly focused; it’s the best blast of pure rock released in 2014. And like AC/DC‘s best album, Highway to Hell (1979), it absolutely begs another listen as soon as it ends. To be honest, I haven’t listened to an AC/DC album since Back in Black (1980), the band’s final masterpiece that, upon its completion, halted any further forward progress.
For the past three-plus decades, AC/DC have been the same old AC/DC, with the same monster power-chord riffage and huge, anthemic songs designed to get stadiums rocking. There has been no need to reinvent the wheel, but something sounds different this time. Rock or Bust is very Back in Black-ish in its sense of purpose — as with that record, which was made in response to the death of lead singer Bon Scott, Rock or Bust has a touch that’s indefinably more personal. Suddenly, the band doesn’t sound like it’s phoning it in, which is how the bits and pieces of their 1981-2008 records have come across to me in my limited exposure to them. Angus Young, always a riff machine, delivers song after song with a bouncy, energizing framework; Rock or Bust may not sport songs as distinctively drawn as Back in Black, but for aging sixty-somethings, what’s here will certainly do (and then some).
The “Foxey Lady” guitar intro to “Sweet Candy” is something of a surprise — AC/DC have never been accused of stealing from Jimi Hendrix before, to my knowledge — and is an example of how inherently malleable the band’s sound is when they aren’t too self-satisfied. Rock or Bust could be AC/DC‘s final farewell — they plan to tour throughout 2015, but the future is cloudy after that — and if it is, it’s a another damn fine tribute to another fallen comrade.