Stop the clocks. The impossible has happened. A miracle before our very eyes of biblical proportions. As if 2020 couldn’t get any more unexpected, AC/DC have released a new album. Their first since the passing of rhythm guitarist and co-songwriter Malcolm Young – an integral part of the Aussie rockers. But though his older brother had gone, legendary guitarist Angus wouldn’t let the band’s legacy end there. Frontman of the band since the 1980s (following Bon Scott’s death), Brian Johnson, left the band unexpectedly in 2016 due to hearing loss. Shortly after, bassist Cliff Williams backed out – and long-time drummer Phil Rudd was battling serious criminal charges.
It’s fair to say, then, that Angus Young had his work cut out for him. But in the years since; with help from management, ‘prosthetic eardrums’ and years of fierce loyalty, the band came back. Stronger. Louder. And better than even before. At last, their 17th studio offering Power Up has been unveiled. And though Malcolm may be gone; his legacy endures in twelve cast iron tracks.
The record opens with ‘Realize’, a song that can be taken three ways; a bitter reminder of how time flies by – the line ‘The moment you realize, those moments just pass you by’ proving particularly poignant for AC/DC, who ranks on the ‘Bad Luck Scale’ at two minutes to Fleetwood Mac – but also a motivational metaphor for taking every opportunity you get. Or it’s simply a song about sex. The lyrics are basic; borderline Neanderthal but hide a wealth of shadowed maturity no one knew existed from the band. It’s also a real Frankenstein’s monster of AC/DC tracks – even as self-splices go. The riff is pure ‘Fly On the Wall’ stuff, with choral wails screaming The Razor’s Edge. So, no wonder it sounds faithful, as well as fresh. A worthy opener.
Oh boy, if anything’s going to send Johnson and Young in front of Crown Court for acts of utter debauchery, it’s this one. I mean how many AC/DC songs explore a girl saying ‘no’? ‘You better give me what I want, or I’ll bleed on you. You don’t give me what I need, and I’ll come for you’ gives ‘Love At First Feel’, ‘Squealer’ and ‘Night Prowler’ – the heights of AC/DC’s audible pelvic-bucking – a run for their money. But, to the song’s credit (especially given it was the first ‘new’ material we heard come release day), it is simply mind-blowingly catchy – and could also be interpreted as a pretty chilling promise of vegeance. By the end, you may be cheering on our sex-crazed vigilante on testosterone. Or not. Either way, you’ll be rockin’.
‘Shot in the Dark’ was our first taste of new AC/DC in six years; packing the boisterous blues and fist-pumping power of 2014’s titular ‘Rock or Bust’, times ten. It treads the line between comeback and raunchy rocker perfectly. Whilst rhythmically it’s akin to the band’s 2000 hit, ‘Stiff Upper Lip’, I can’t help but agree with those sensing a strong resemblance to Black Ice. There’s just something this runaway, hard rock train that reminds me of 2008. And I love it. When I first heard ‘Shot in the Dark’, it was stuck in my head for weeks. And not just because it was sole evidence of an impending album; it’s just catchy. ‘My mission is to hit ignition!’ proves such a flawless line; one that sums AC/DC up. And how reassuring to know such a band could pen a lyric like that half a century past their conception.
If any one track stood out to me from the final list, it was ‘Through the Mists of Time’. I didn’t know what to expect. This came as a real surprise to me and I love every second. I was half-expecting a ‘Ride On’ / ‘Rock ‘n Roll Dream’ poetic ballad with Sabbath passages, or something further than we’ve been before. In the end, it sort of is that, and sort of isn’t. The opening gave me real Status Quo vibes – probably the only time I’ve ever compared the two, outside of sounding the same on every album – and it’s hard to disagree that it remains one of Power Up’s most ‘radio-friendly’. But it’s not hard to bang* to (*headbang), all the same.
‘Kick You When You’re Down’ packs a title straight out of Powerage, but with a real modern spin. That riff is hard rock & blues, and one of the album’s highlights as a whole. The chorus of ‘Why do they kick you when you’re down? (Oh, no!)’ is sublime. ‘Witch’s Spell’, meanwhile, is pure ‘90s AC/DC. Just when you’ve settled in for something new, they throw you right back into the ether between Ballbreaker and Stiff Upper Lip. Even pinches of The Razor’s Edge are in there; treading the line between its title track and the likes of ‘Hail Caesar. The ending conjures images of ‘For Those About to Rock’. Really, though, it’s a seamless mix of ‘Burnin’ Alive’ and Black Ice’s ‘Big Jack’. So yes, even for AC/DC, this one feels like a mash-up. The apocalyptic riff weaves its way throughout ‘Witch’s Spell’ like a blown fuse, punctuating every fantastical passage like a rock ‘n roll Bayeux Tapestry.
In case you missed the borderline predatory groans of Razor’s Edge-era Johnson in your ear, you’ll love ‘Demon Fire’. This one was teased but never released in full to promote the album. I’ve heard people cite similarities to ‘Baptism by Fire’ from 2014’s Rock or Bust album, but to me, it’s the distant cousin of Ballbreaker’s ‘Caught With Your Pants Down’. It’s a damn fine rocker – possibly one of the album’s weaker tracks, but by no means weak. It’s a shot of absinthe before that reluctant mouthful of fresh diesel.
‘Wild Reputation’ packs the classic AC/DC sound one would expect; promising standoffish boasts from Johnson and a simplistic riff which kicks like a mule. It probably – ironically – doesn’t stand out as much as the other tracks because of that faithful structure, but proves an intoxicating stop on the Power Up tour, regardless. ‘No Man’s Land’ is the perfect cable tie of Stiff Upper Lip blues rock. In the years following that album (of which there were eight), the Young brothers came up with a hefty vault of hooks, choruses, riffs and sure-fire church obscenities. It’s easy to see how many of these tracks came out of those sessions.
‘Systems Down’ is, I won’t lie, probably my least favourite of the whole record; but that’s more because of the lacklustre chorus than sonically-charged verses. It passes by easily enough but remains some of the few bits of padding in Power Up. But hey, all the greats have them. Am I the only one questioning how we haven’t had an AC/DC track called ‘Money Shot’ before? ‘What Do You Do For Money’, ‘Moneytalks’, ‘Money Made’, but not the most obvious of them all? Supposedly the more-than-double entendre was formed by pure accident – according to Angus – but either way, it’s another damn fine track. I’m almost running out of effective sentences to lay out how good the album is. It’s a real, warm shot of our Aussie boys and it tastes, well, ‘delicious’ might take the metaphor a bit far, but swallowable at least.
The album’s closer, ‘Code Red’, is a Rock Or Bust castoff, no doubt. Whilst not the best candidate for climax, it pumps all night on all cylinders, and perfectly sums up Power Up – both in colour, and signalling the imminent arrival of something big, loud, and brash. A real injection of what the world needs right now.
Power Up would be the kind of album to shout home about in the best of times. In the midst of a global pandemic, it really is a beacon in the dark. Or a shot, at least. An all-too-quick rush of well-crafted rock ‘n roll. Maybe it’s my sheer adoration for the band, but AC/DC have proved themselves yet again, on the ever-narrowing battlefield of rock in the modern age. As Angus himself stated in a recent interview, ‘You want somebody to put it on [Power Up], they hear it, and they go, ‘That’s them!”, and the band couldn’t have done a better job. Like wine, their music has aged masterfully.
Speaking of age, in much of the promotional material for the album, it’s hard to deny the bands’, all
six five of them standing dishevelled; neon lights highlighting all the wrong areas; wrinkles, unkempt hair and the collective fashion sense of a Sims character.
But isn’t that what modern day rock ‘n roll is about? It’s battered, bruised, weathered from wars and lawless gigs – cut, scarred, and healed over. It’s tired, it’s formulaic. But it’s damn well still kicking. And it’s here to stay.