Nobody has ever expected AC/DC to be anything other than AC/DC, and at this point, it might be more interesting to use this review to try to convince you that POWER UP is the band’s first album to feature a stripped-back acoustic ballad (are you more likely to believe me if I tell you it comes with the Zeppelin-esque title ‘Through the Mists of Time’?). But really, the fact that they managed to pull it off this time is an especially impressive feat: the future had started looking uncertain for the band in the second half of the last decade, and naming their 2014 album Rock or Bust could have proved bitterly ironic had they not managed to persevere. Brian Johnson was warned by doctors he would go deaf if he didn’t stop touring (he now has a special hearing aid that allows him to perform); bassist Cliff Williams retired at the end of the tour; drummer Phil Rudd was sentenced to house arrest after threatening to kill a man; and most importantly, the late Malcolm Young, who had previously been diagnosed with dementia, was replaced on Rock on Bust by nephew Stevie Young, though he did help co-write the album.
But persevere they did. POWER UP marks the group’s first album with their surviving classic lineup since 2008’s Black Ice, and it once again finds the old machine operating at full power. Angus has described the record as a tribute his brother Malcolm in the same way that Back in Black was a tribute to Bon Scott 40 years ago, and though there’s nothing quite like the somber opening of ‘Hells Bells’ here, there’s no need for it: as the band would have it, the spirit of Malcolm lives on in the songs themselves, many of which date back to the Black Ice era and are driven by the twin-guitar riffage that fans have come to adore. AC/DC may not have taken their dependable brand of rock n’ roll to the next level, as the album’s all-caps title would suggest, but in sticking to their guns, they’ve come through with one of their most consistent full-length outings of their career.
But though all the basic identifiers are there – the high-voltage riffs, the crisp, old-school heavy rock sound, the questionable if not outright dumb lyrics (best not to read too much into the sexual politics of ‘Rejection’ or ‘Money Shot’) – POWER UP is far from their most memorable effort to date; which is unfortunate, considering that a catchy hook is often what makes the difference between a solid AC/DC song and a great one. There are a few exceptions, though, and lead single ‘Shot in the Dark’ is chief among them: an overblown chorus and some classic-sounding backing vocals pick up the pace after a middling first couple of songs. ‘Kick You When You’re Down’ is another stand-out moment, anchored by a stomping beat, a boisterous guitar line, and a particularly energetic performance from Johnson, whose yowling vocals also fuel the rollicking ‘Witch’s Spell’. They even get slightly wistful (at least by AC/DC standards) on ‘Through the Mists of Time’, where the “dark shadows on the walls” conjure up memories of “the restless kind”… and, uh, “painted ladies”.
It’s fine enough that this is as introspective as the album gets, but for a band so capable of repurposing the same formula without sacrificing any of its impact, it’s disappointing that tracks like ‘No Man’s Land’ and ‘Systems Down’ sound a bit too familiar to the point of almost being redundant. But this is the veteran rockers’ 17th studio album, and the fact that it’s at least as enjoyable as the best in their catalogue is admirable on its own; credit for the album’s punchy, anthemic sound must also be given to producer Brendan O’Brien, who also worked on the band’s previous two LPs. If you’re going into POWER UP expecting an AC/DC album, the only thing you might notice missing is the word ‘rock’ from any of the song titles, which hasn’t happened since 1985’s Fly on the Wall. Then again, maybe it’s not such a surprise they’ve pulled through even in the roughest of times; they might not be able to keep playing rock n’ roll forever, but to quote a song that did have that word in the title, you can’t stop rock n’ roll.