In the world according to AC/DC, sex, money, politics and other trappings of adulthood are a sick joke — but rock is sacred. No one this side of Chuck Berry has written so many great rock & roll songs about rock & roll, and no band short of the Ramones has so militantly refused to reach beyond the basics of the form. AC/DC offer a vision of the Stones if Keith had won every argument: no concept albums, no keyboards, no disco, no ballads, no gospel choirs. And Black Ice is their best argument in years — maybe decades — that evolution is for suckers.
Keeping your sound static places all the pressure on your songwriting. And for the first time since 1990's The Razor's Edge reached Generation Beavis, guitarists Malcolm and Angus Young have written tunes worthy of their musical muscle — though not enough to fill an album. With radio-savvy producer Brendan O'Brien on board, the best stuff nearly lives up to their career peaks, especially "Rock N Roll Train," where the brothers Young toss fat, slashing chords at each other like knife jugglers. Drummer Phil Rudd swings beneath with inhumanly restrained beats — he's so reluctant to play a fill that he makes Charlie Watts sound like Dave Grohl.
Similarly, bassist Cliff Williams seems content to play pumping eighth notes on every AC/DC song ever — except the funky walking line he lays down on the excellent "She Likes Rock N Roll." Another instant classic, "Big Jack," has the swagger of a long-lost Back in Black track. Even songs that rely on well-worn tricks — the two-string high-note riffing on "Anything Goes" recalls "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)" — have enough verve to get over.
AC/DC avoid the cheerful sexism of the past (see the oral-sex ode "Givin the Dog a Bone"). Otherwise, the words haven't changed much, aside from a new preoccupation with apocalyptic meteorology ("Skies on Fire," "Stormy May Day," "Black Ice"). The title of "War Machine" is ominously topical, but the lyrics are vague enough ("call of the wild...that thing gone wild") to suggest that the "machine" is just another phallic metaphor. Phew.
Unlike original frontman Bon Scott, a born shrieker, Brian Johnson is a natural baritone, delivering tortured-weasel high notes through sheer force of will. Recently, he's sounded more wheezy than menacing at the top of his range, but O'Brien has him hitting his notes again here — and the band emphasizes the choruses by returning to the rich backup vocals that enlivened its greatest hits.
For a group of guys who are so convinced they're an "album band" that they refuse to sell their songs individually online, AC/DC have had trouble making consistent albums since 1981's For Those About to Rock. While Black Ice pulls away from that trend, it doesn't reverse it: The album feels longer than its 55 minutes, thanks to a stretch of throwaway rockers including the mindless "Spoilin' for a Fight" and the generic-even-by-their-standards "Wheels."
But there's something almost elegiac about Black Ice's multiple odes to rock — "Rocking All the Way," "Rock N Roll Dream," etc. These guys are true believers, fighting a war no one told them ended long ago. "We're gonna rock 'round...the town/We're gonna make it right/We're gonna make it rock all night," Johnson yelps at one point — making it clear that his band still finds resonance in words that were clichéd by 1956. And for that, you've got to salute them.