I've been an obsessed hard rock/heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.
AC/DC, "Power Up"
Columbia Records, 2020
2020 has been a Year From Hell for the rock 'n' roll world, just like everywhere else. Thanks to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the entire music industry has been turned upside down. We've seen recording sessions delayed, live music venues shut down, and concert tours canceled. Along the way, we've also lost rock luminaries like Little Richard, Neil Peart of Rush, Lee Kerslake of Uriah Heep, and guitar god Eddie Van Halen. It's enough to make you want to go back to bed, pull the covers over your head, and say, "Wake me in 2021."
But something wonderful happened in the final quarter of this most difficult year. Like a beast slowly rising from a long sleep, or a spark growing into a blaze, word began traveling around the globe: AC/DC WAS BACK. A new album from the Thunder From Down Under was imminent. And there was much rejoicing!
AC/DC's seventeenth (!) studio album Power Up (stylized as "PWR/UP") was released on November 13th, and this longtime fanboy is pleased to report that it's another quality dose of the band's gloriously gritty, no-frills, high-voltage rock n' roll. (were you expecting anything else?). I cannot overstate how good it is to hear these lads making noise again, especially now.
Honestly, the mere fact that Power Up exists at all is something of a minor miracle, given the rough road the band has been forced to travel over the past five years.
"Shot in the Dark"
The recording and touring cycle for AC/DC's previous album, 2014's Rock or Bust, was the most grueling of their career, marked by enough roadblocks and problems to kill even the most persistent band. It was the first AC/DC album recorded without founding rhythm guitarist (and main songwriter) Malcolm Young, who was forced to step down due to health issues. He was replaced by his nephew Stevie Young, who would not be the last personnel change. By the end of the Rock or Bust tour, drummer Phil Rudd had been replaced by Chris Slade, and most shockingly of all, Guns N' Roses vocalist W. Axl Rose took over lead vocals from Brian Johnson for the last 22 shows. Brian was suffering from persistent hearing problems, and was told by doctors that he needed to stop touring immediately or he'd risk going completely deaf.
In addition, bassist Cliff Williams announced his plans to retire at the end of the Rock or Bust tour, and most tragically, Malcolm Young passed away in November 2017 after battling dementia for several years. After all that, AC/DC's loyal fan base would have been forgiven for assuming the band was finished.
However, Malcolm's brother and partner in crime Angus Young refused to let the spark go out completely. He began sifting through piles of unused guitar riffs and song ideas in Malcolm's archives and those tapes became the basis for Power Up. In the meantime, Brian's hearing recovered thanks to experimental therapy, Williams un-retired, and Phil Rudd had overcome the legal issues that had kept him off the road. Everything fell into place for the band as they entered the studio in mid-2018. Power Up was supposed to be released earlier this year but the COVID-19 pandemic obviously threw a monkey wrench into those plans. At least we finally have the finished product in our hands!
Power Up gets off to a fine machine-gunning start with "Realize." All the parts are here—Angus and Stevie's pile-driving guitar work, Williams' and Rudd's machine-precise rhythm section, Johnson's squealing vocal delivery—and they're all in perfect working order, as if the drama and tragedy of the last half-decade never happened.
Naturally, the twelve tracks on Power Up never stray from AC/DC's tried-and-true formula—you'll never hear trendy production tricks like Auto-Tuned vocals, electronic samples, or guest rappers on an AC/DC record!—and that, of course, is this band's greatest strength. No matter the decade, or whatever is going on musically in the rest of the world, AC/DC's trademark nuclear-powered boogie is reliable as the tide. By the time you get through "Rejection" and the first single "Shot in the Dark," you can't help but bob your head along to the thumping bass or strum an imaginary guitar along with Angus and the fellas. "Through The Mists of Time" is a strong rocker with a slight commercial edge (could this be the next single?) and then it's back to basic blues and bluster on "Kick You When You're Down" and "Witch's Spell."
"Demon Fire" may be my favorite track on the album overall, with Johnson adding a cool, down n dirty, cartoon-villain snarl to his vocal arsenal (you can practically see his sinister grin while he sings this one) backed by a wall of furious Angus style blues riffing. "No Man's Land," "Systems Down," and the acidic "Money Shot" keep the gears greased and the machine rolling, before Power Up wraps up with the banging groove of "Code Red."
Summing it Up
Forty years ago, AC/DC rebounded from the death of lead singer Bon Scott with the epic Back In Black—their most definitive statement to date. I get the feeling that Power Up was created with a similar mindset. I'm not going to lie, I got a tear in my eye when I opened the Power Up CD and saw the dedication on the back cover of the booklet: "THIS ONE IS FOR MAL."
Rumors abound that Power Up will be AC/DC's final album, though the notoriously tight-lipped band has not confirmed or denied any retirement plans. If this does turn out to be AC/DC's swan song, they can leave with their heads held high, knowing that they've done brother Malcolm proud. I hope that somewhere, Malcolm and Bon Scott are sharing a few pints while looking down on their bandmates and saying, "Nice work, lads."