When Australian rock legends AC/DC returned with 2020’s Power Up, they were met with a hero’s welcome. The album, the band’s first since 2014’s Rock or Bust, saw the return of all surviving members from the classic Back In Black lineup.
Power Up is the first AC/DC album not to feature co-founder and guitarist Malcolm Young, who tragically passed away in 2017 following an extensive battle with dementia. Young’s nephew, Stevie – only three years his junior – strapped on the Gretsch to continue his uncle’s hard rocking legacy.
Seventeen albums and nearly 50 years into their celebrated career as a band, it may come as a surprise to some that AC/DC are still able to elicit such an overwhelming response from listeners. After all, this is the same band that has been criticized since their early days for making music that all sounds pretty similar to itself. Furthermore, even when legacy acts make an active effort to switch up their style or adapt to changing musical landscapes, a significant number of listeners will request that they simply shut up and play the hits.
The idea of a band – in which the aggregate average age of its members is 69 years, playing a style of music which fell out of popular favor decades ago – releasing an album of new music in 2020 and reaching number one in 21 countries seems, in many ways, blatantly inconceivable. This speaks not only to the power of the body of work which AC/DC have established over the decades, but also to the power of AC/DC as a brand. This is thanks, in no small part, to the dedication of the Young brothers to the band’s legacy, Malcolm in particular.
When AC/DC embarked on a world tour in support of 2014’s Rock or Bust, the wheels appeared to begin coming off, as it were. Malcolm Young had already been suffering from poor health at this time, and this is the point when Stevie had been brought in to work with the band on a more permanent basis. Drummer Phil Rudd was arrested on a number of charges before the tour even began, and was replaced by Chris Slade, who had previously replaced him on the drum throne for 1990’s The Razors Edge.
During the tour, lead singer Brian Johnson began to suffer significant hearing loss, and was forced to withdraw from the remaining dates. Johnson was, in a move that surprised many, replaced by Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose for the remainder of the tour. The final nail in the coffin, it seemed, came in the summer of 2016 when longtime bassist Cliff Williams announced his intention to depart from the group. Suddenly, AC/DC – the embodiment of consistency and reliability in rock & roll – had begun to look like a very different band.
These trials, it seemed, were essential for the triumphant reincarnation of the band with Power Up. Importantly, the vast personnel changes revealed that – despite the odd gripe about the lack of development in the band’s sound over time – what listeners truly wanted was AC/DC as they always knew them. There is a certain comfort one associates with the Young brothers’ bluesy, primitive approach to their instruments.
The music, rudimentary as it may be, is approached with the utmost sincerity. The band themselves, on the other hand, never seemed to take themselves too seriously. This is an important distinction, and it has played a substantial role in what makes the music of AC/DC so accessible to so many. Aside from the undeniable grooves, satisfying melodic progressions, and sheer excitement that AC/DC consistently deliver, the icing on the cake is that there is very little required in the way of intellectual commitment to the music.
AC/DC aren’t a Moody Blues or Pink Floyd type of act for which one might need to step in with an open mind in order to get the most out of the experience. Just as free-falling from 30,000 feet hits just about every person in a similar way, so too does the iconic, three-chord riffage of “Back In Black.” Much of what makes AC/DC work so well in this capacity can be traced back to de facto leader and riff-master Malcolm Young.
While Angus has often been the point of focus for onlookers at the band’s performances, the musical DNA of the band is said to have been a product of Malcolm’s own sensibilities. The stoic contradiction of his more theatrical brother, Malcolm chose to remain rooted in place on stage, relying on minimal strikes of ringing open chords to convey his musical message.
Malcolm’s guitar style is similar to that of Keith Richards, particularly in its reliance on rhythm and counterpoint as opposed to flashy technique and highly involved melodic movement. Though it’s worth noting that Young’s technique is arguably even more restrained than that of Richards. This minimalism and use of space serve as the musical framework of AC/DC.
It was Malcolm’s rhythmic interaction with the rest of the band which tied everything together. Essentially, what is happening in an AC/DC song is contrapuntal layering, which creates the illusion of more movement than is actually occurring. This is almost certainly a result of the Young brothers’ devotion to the blues as a form. The inverted riffs of bluesmen like Hubert Sumlin and John Lee Hooker pioneered this technique, and Robert Johnson even managed to achieve this effect with only an acoustic guitar before anyone else had even conceived of such a thing.
Though Malcolm was not present for the recording of Power Up, Angus Young asserted that a backlog of unused material which had been worked on by his brother and himself had served as the basis of the album. This can clearly be heard in rockers like “Rejection” and “Code Red,” which feature the selective ringing of crunchy chords as perfectly replicated in tone by Stevie Young. Even the background vocals – featuring Stevie Young and Cliff Williams – which can distinctly be heard on tracks like “Shot in the Dark” and “No Man’s Land” could be misinterpreted to have been performed by Malcolm himself.
The deal was sealed on the comeback of AC/DC with the return of rhythm section Cliff Williams and Phil Rudd, and lead singer Brian Johnson. While Johnson’s contributions to the sound are rather obvious, the same cannot necessarily be said for Williams and Rudd. But their respective approaches are pieces which fit perfectly within the sonic puzzle constructed by Malcolm Young. Williams essentially provides a bedding for the music, playing his progressions straight and rarely venturing away from the E string of the bass. This propels the sound, perpetuating its intensity without getting in the way melodically.
Rudd’s role is one that has been given a bit more analysis over the years, as his absence was noticeable to many during the Slade years. While Slade was and is an excellent drummer, his style has always been fairly busy, a characteristic which can be interpreted as antithetical to the AC/DC formula. But aside from fills and flash, the key difference between Phil Rudd and every other drummer is that no other drummer has Rudd’s particular feel. Circling back to the Rolling Stones comparison, Phil Rudd is very much the Charlie Watts of AC/DC.
His fills are few and far between, and his style is extremely simple in presentation. Nonetheless, there are very few drummers who could convincingly replicate the pulse of Rudd’s attack on the kit. As slight a contribution as they may seem, those drum tracks are a fundamental driving force in the sound of classics like “Highway to Hell” and “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Power Up was preceded by its first single, “Shot In the Dark. Upon the establishment of the groove by Phil Rudd, 9 seconds in, it was clear to listeners that AC/DC were back.
Perhaps the most important question, however, upon the return of AC/DC, was that of whether the songs were there. To this end, the band did not fail to deliver. Cuts like “Demon Fire” and “Code Red” channel the tension and urgency of the For Those About to Rock (We Salute You) and Stiff Upper Lip eras. While tight production and commitment to the pocket of the groove on tracks like “Wild Reputation” and “Kick You When You’re Down” evoke the feel of some of the band’s most celebrated work from the 1970s.
AC/DC’s commitment to their time-tested, unshakeable methodology is admirable, and makes for an endlessly reliable and entertaining experience. But the band do demonstrate a nominal touch of sleight-of-hand on the production side of Power Up. Aside from absolutely nailing Phil Rudd’s drum tone – as well as the bite of the rhythm guitar – producer Brendan O’Brien manages to endow the album with the slightest touch of gloss by way of the occasional, supplemental keyboard track.
These additions can be heard on tracks like “Realize,” “Witch’s Spell,” and “Through the Mists of Time,” the latter of which is said to have been recorded specifically as a tribute to Malcolm Young, though the entirety of Power Up is dedicated to his memory. The additional production brings an ancillary dimension to these tunes, fattening up an already substantial sound to other-worldly proportions.
Interestingly, the opening of “Through the Mists of Time” sees Phil Rudd conducting some sonic exploration of his own. The drummer locks in with the song’s riff through an uncharacteristic manipulation of the song’s time signature. Initially laying in at half-time, the downbeat is misplaced with an offbeat in every first bar. This creates a sloshing rhythmic motion which increases the impact of the primary rhythm once it kicks in with the rest of the band.
There is also something to be said of the refinement of the melodies at play on Power Up. While the album maintains the bare-boned attack for which AC/DC have come to be known, the melodic choices made throughout – particularly in regard to guitar interplay – may not be as obvious as one might expect.
Such subtle touches bring a sense of gentility to what would otherwise present as distinctly hard rock efforts. The result is a number of towering, groove-rock cuts that simultaneously function as tacit exercises in epic balladry. The ensuing emotional resonance endows Power Up with a sensibility which has not only been absent from the band’s late-era works, but also – for the most part – from their early works as well.
The minute shifts in sound which have sustained AC/DC over the years come not from seeking out new sonic regions to explore, but from even further examination of the territory in which their flag has long since been planted. When the overall picture becomes smaller, the subtleties take on much greater meaning. Conceptually, this encapsulates AC/DC’s artistic mission as well as just about anything.
The meticulous arrangements of recurring elements as they pertain to this era of the band are perhaps best represented through second single and album opener, “Realize.” The deep pocket and dynamic presence of the rhythm section presents the band’s classic sound as though it were brand new, while triplet stabs of rhythm guitar and soaring, articulate melodies equip the veteran rockers with the necessary firepower to compete with current occupants on music charts around the world.
AC/DC doesn’t hedge their bets lyrically on Power Up. Composed by the Young brothers along with the music, the lyrics for Power Up generally stick to the standard AC/DC fare of women, drinks, and wild times to offset the monotony of life. Numbers like “Wild Reputation” and “Money Shot” reinforce the effectiveness of these rock & roll tropes in a way that only the Australian rock heroes can.
There are moments in the tracklist, however – “Through the Mists of Time,” “No Man’s Land,” and “Witch’s Spell,” for example – which touch upon more abstract themes by AC/DC standards. The band never try to beat anyone over the head with a message, though, and consistently maintain their loose overall approach throughout the album’s 41 minute runtime.
Power Up sees the powerhouse ensemble that is AC/DC firing on all cylinders. Having made minor sonic adjustments, a fresh perspective going in for the group served the record well. But ultimately, what fans are treated to with this iteration of the band is a high-octane dose of minimalist rock & roll. Fans of AC/DC remain faithful to music because they know what they’re getting, and they won’t settle for anything less. Luckily, judging from the past four decades, they won’t ever have to.
AC/DC “Power Up” Album Review article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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