In 1980, AC/DC released Back in Black, arguably the loudest wake ever committed to tape. On the one hand, the band were mourning their departed singer, Bon Scott; on the other, they were rebooting with a new frontman, Brian Johnson, whose Muttley chuckle became as much of an AC/DC trademark as the twin-guitar might of Angus and Malcolm Young. Back in Black remains one of the biggest-selling studio albums ever made.
And here they are again: back, metaphorically, in widow’s weeds, staging another resurrection in the wake of events that might have extinguished a punier outfit. Power Up, their 16th international album, is a particular celebration, given that these purveyors of electrical metaphor since 1975’s High Voltage looked like a spent force in 2017.
The band’s 2015-16 Rock or Bust tour had been aptly named: singer Brian Johnson was told by doctors he would go deaf if he didn’t stop touring immediately. Axl Rose from Guns N’ Roses filled in for Johnson so AC/DC could honour the remaining dates.
Johnson wasn’t the only man down. Bassist Cliff Williams retired at the tour’s end. AC/DC’s most constant drummer, Phil Rudd, wasn’t even there; sentenced to house arrest, he had been convicted of drug offences and threats to kill.
Most significantly of all, rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young had previously been diagnosed with dementia, and was replaced on Rock or Bust by nephew Stevie Young. Malcolm died in 2017, preceded by another Young brother, George, who had co-produced a number of the band’s albums.
Although seemingly bulletproof inside his 1950s schoolboy get-up, AC/DC’s lead guitarist, Angus Young, was now the last man standing in the band he’d founded alongside Malcolm. When Young decided to examine the vaults for unused song ideas, there was no guarantee that the stocktake would snowball into 12 tracks in which the band’s direct current returned with such emphasis – and feeling. One aberrantly nostalgic track, Through the Mists of Time, breaks with the band’s action-filled present tense by wistfully marking the passage of the years.
A miracle of engineering helped power Power Up. Johnson’s hearing, damaged more by racing cars than Marshall stacks, had been restored by an experimental new technology. You wonder at the wisdom of rehiring Phil Rudd, but after serving his sentence, suffering a heart attack and undergoing therapy, the drummer was deemed rehabilitated. The return of bassist Williams made a quorum.
A number of Power Up’s Young/Young co-writes date from 2008’s Black Ice album; it’s a moot point how far back some of the others go. The narrative here runs that the spirit of Malcolm Young lives on in these clanging power chords. It certainly feels like it could be the last crank to 11 for the band’s imperial lineup.
Fortunately, there is nothing noticeably sub-par about the tunes – or Johnson’s voice or Young’s brio on the guitar. You could split hairs about the album opener, Realize, and the way it trots out basic AC/DC identifiers – the all-hands-on-deck chug – without lasting long in the memory.
It, and a few of the other songs, seem slightly overproduced, as though the band and veteran producer Brendan O’Brien wanted to fill in the gaps between instruments with backing vocals or thrumming in a misplaced fear of underwhelming.
The band’s sexual politics, meanwhile, continue on their merry antediluvian way, nostalgic for “painted ladies”, easily caught “in a witch’s spell”, not so much hymning cars and girls as actively treating women like motor vehicles. It’s hard to know what to make of Angus Young’s almost quaint assertion that the band weren’t referring to pornography on the song Money Shot, merely to getting something right. The song’s lyrics embrace a contagion theme and keep their counsel. “We got a good cure for what ails ya,” chant Johnson et al.
Things really come alive with Shot in the Dark, the album’s lead single, whose recombination of AC/DC DNA – a meaty intro, a danceable rhythm, some little lead guitar interjections and a bassline like a reinforced steel joist – feels more than viable.
Even better is Kick You When You’re Down, graced with a memorable guitar hook and plenty of space between Johnson’s strangulated yowl and the other elements. At the time of the Axl Rose dates, it felt as though Johnson had been sidelined a little too summarily. Although all seems forgiven, and Johnson doesn’t actually write the lyrics, his delivery here might resonate a little more personally than usual.
The litany of tried-and-true pleasures goes on: the regular appearance of Johnson’s lower register, and the way the band join him in acting out their Wild Reputation. Angus Young’s guitar on Demon Fire owes its shapes to the blues, but there is zero melancholy to that particular stomper. Initially, the guitars on Code Red echo past glories a little too closely.
But soon we’re “tearing up the highway”, “battle stations” are “code red”, and it feels like sweat is running down the walls in 1974. If deja vu is a familiar sensation with AC/DC, few outfits have managed to eke so much variety out of so few constituent parts as these stalwarts of reductio ad absurdum. For the undiminished certainties AC/DC provide in the face of adversity, it’s hard not to salute them.