While the accidental death of singer Bon Scott last February was undoubtedly a big blow to AC/DC, Scott’s untimely demise seems to have lit a roaring fire under this Australian band. Back in Black is not only the best of AC/DC’s six American albums, it’s the apex of heavy-metal art: the first LP since Led Zeppelin II that captures all the blood, sweat and arrogance of the genre. In other words, Back in Black kicks like a mutha.
Much of the credit must go to Scott’s successor, Brian Johnson, a savage screamer who combines the breast-beating machismo of Led Zep’s Robert Plant, the operatic howl of Ian Gillan (ex-Deep Purple) and the tubercular rasp of Slade’s Noddy Holder into singular, nerveracking, Tarzan-type shouts. True, Johnson probably has to yell this way just to be heard above the deafening instrumental thunder of guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young, but the singer offers style, too. He sands off some of his rough edges for “You Shook Me All Night Long,” a surprisingly commercial romp with an intoxicating sing-along chorus, and even boasts a little Memphis soul in the groin-grinding “Let Me Put My Love into You” (though the results here sound more like Steve Marriott imitating Otis Redding than they do Stax-Volt).
The Youngs are responsible for most of the musical mayhem, hammering out one Herculean riff after another on the rhythm-section anvil of bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd. While Malcolm Young anchors such songs as “Hells Bells,” “What Do You Do for Money Honey” and “Shake a Leg” (a dead ringer, by the way, for Led Zeppelin’s “Living Loving Maid”) with his hamfisted, almost percussive rhythm-guitar playing, brother Angus runs riotously up and down the neck of his axe, peeling off banzai solos that are the studio equivalents of his notorious schoolboy tantrums onstage. Since less is often more in AC/DC’s warlike world, the only luxury the group allows itself is a clean, invigorating production job by Robert John Lange.
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Unfortunately, a lot of people can’t recognize the talent because of the noise. AC/DC may not be everybody’s cup of joy, but they’re not rock & roll’s village idiots either. They’ve simply utilized many of the elements found in the early Rolling Stones’ sound — catchy hooks and riffs, a Greek chorus of guitars, a singer who does everything but sing — and cranked them up to plutonium-strength power. More than any recent record, Back in Black separates the heavy-metal men from the metallic meatheads.