While it would be questionable to call Rock or Bust, the much talked-about 16th studio effort from Australian hard rock icons AC/DC, a “highly anticipated release”, it has arrived with a certain degree of curiosity.
One can almost predict every riff, lick, and treble-y bass line with pinpoint accuracy before even hearing the album, but as it comes in the wake of a sad series of revelations about longtime guitarist Malcolm Young and an bizarre raft of revelations concerning drummer Phil Rudd, many are approaching Rock or Bust with a certain trepidation.
Coming six years after the release of 2008’s well-received Black Ice, we take a look at whether Australia’s premier rock and roll outlaws have produced another jolt of high voltage rock and roll or simply a short fuse.
First off, it must be said that the latest dispatch from Australia’s premier rock and roll band comes as listeners and critics alike are leaning defencelessly on the ropes. Regardless of the ultimate quality of Rock or Bust, this is an album that succeeds simply by virtue of existing in the first place.
Where other bands would have surveyed their chips and promptly folded, AC/DC’s modus operandi has always been to go all in and Rock or Bust is yet another explication of the devil-may-care style that has not only seen the band through to their fifteenth international release, but that has also effectively insulted the band from any kind of derailment.
For those playing catch-up, Rock or Bust comes in the wake of perhaps the greatest turbulence that the band has experienced since the death of their iconic original frontman, Bon Scott, in 1980 – rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young was recently confirmed as having moved to a home specialising in dementia care, as drummer Phil Rudd’s legal troubles get more absurd by the day.
Perhaps most interestingly, what this all means is that the title Rock or Bust is not simply another excuse for the band, who made their bread and butter shoehorning ‘rock’ into song and album titles, to follow their own established status quo. It is in fact the ultimatum that life recently handed down to them, and it’s easy to figure out what the band went with.
AC/DC have never been ones to burden themselves with a concept. This doesn’t just pertain to eschewing pretentious ‘song cycles’ littered with references to Norse mythology, but even having some semblance of an idea of what will come out the other end once they’re done funnelling their crunchy blues riffs and razor-sharp licks through a mixing board.
As far as AC/DC are concerned, it’s only rock and roll and they like it. So even if they didn’t enter the studio with the explicit intention of making a classic, back-to-basics AC/DC album, that’s precisely what Rock or Bust has turned out to be. The album is replete with all the hallmarks of classic AC/DC, right down to the mobilising album-opening riff.
Of course, how much more basic can you get? When you’re a band that’s decided to stick with a simple formula, you’re effectively relying on your strengths as songwriters to make your albums worthwhile. This poses a problem, because as soon as the songs aren’t all that good, all your left with is a bunch of crap you’ve heard before but that doesn’t sound quite as good.
While Rock or Bust doesn’t always experience such pitfalls, they’re certainly there. Besides the heard-it-all-before themes (‘Sweet Candy’), recycled melodies (‘Play Ball’), and occasionally recycled riffs (‘Rock or Bust’), it’s almost undeniable that Rock or Bust won’t be regarded among any fans’ favourite Acca Dacca albums, largely because the songs aren’t as good as anything on Back In Black, The Razors Edge, or even the more recent Stiff Upper Lip.
Having awarded points purely for coming into being and deducted a few for not doing a whole lot with its existence, it’s now time to give a few of those points back and for basically the same reasons.
Though it may drive crate-diggers whose primary musical concern is choosing between a Max Richter LP and white label Warp Records compilation up the wall, AC/DC’s formula is a winning combo for their fans.
Without even a single moment of the kind of pathos they proved they’re capable of surrendering on ‘Spellbound’ from 1981’s underrated For Those About to Rock We Salute You, AC/DC dive head first into Brian Johnson’s screeching buzz saw vocals, lyrics that have all the schoolboy juvenility we’ve come to expect, chugging drums, and thunderous guitar.
Like it or not, nothing derails the AC/DC train. Far from crafting a tome of piano-heavy ballads about losing friends to dementia or the darkness of addiction, the music on Rock or Bust sounds so carefree it would almost be perturbing if mates getting arrested wasn’t simply par for the course for most of AC/DC’s members at one time or another.
Case in point is ‘Rock the Blues Away’, on which Dr. Johnson prescribes a cocktail of shooting pool, drinking hard, hanging out, and listening to good old rock and roll as the only possible cure for falling on hard times.
“Mistress, mistress, all night long / Keep on comin’ hot and strong“, Johnson sing-shouts on ‘Rock the House’. If anybody can get away with lyrics like this, it’s arguably AC/DC, but it does force the question of whether they ought to be trying to.
While the last thing anybody would want to see is Johnson hanging up his flat cap or guitarist Angus Young folding his iconic schoolboy uniform for good, there are times on Rock or Bust where one is forced to cringe at the smutty proclamations that were once so amusing, but now seem starchy and awkward, coming as they are from a 67-year-old.
However, listeners would probably do well to remember that at this point, the band likely spit and screech such lines and subject matter with a certain degree of irony. If this is true, it proves a rather intriguing prospect, since AC/DC are the least ironic band ever.
One track particularly, and rather unfortunately, bereft of irony, however, is ‘Play Ball’. No doubt written with a view to being used in sports syncs worldwide, it is already garnering countless royalties as the soundtrack for Major League Baseball over in the States.
Is Rock or Bust an outright piece of shit? No. Is it a forgettable chapter in a discography that has had more than its share of gems and gap-fillers? Yes. For a band that’s always gone through the motions, the motions don’t seem as though they’re being accomplished with quite the same amount of gusto as they were once were.
Is it a testament to the true grit of Australia and perhaps the world’s foremost exponents of the too often maligned ‘hard rock’ genre? Without a doubt. While it’s arguable how many cuts Rock or Bust will contribute to any future best-of compilations, AC/DC are still just presenting their idea of rock and roll, and it’s comforting to know that it will truly never die.