Sound — 6
AC/DC is one of the most popular and (whether you like it or not) most important bands in the history of rock and roll. Whether with Bon Scott or Brian Johnson on the microphone, AC/DC has achieved remarkable success, releasing one the best-selling albums of all time with "Back in Black" and writing some of the most memorable hard rock riffs of all time, such as the main riffs of "Highway to Hell," "T.N.T.," and "Whole Lotta Rosie." In addition to great songwriting, AC/DC is renowned for having one of the best live shows in the world, mostly due to Angus Young, whose schoolboy attire and rapturous stage movement (he literally never stops moving) have been the model for countless rockstars after him. Personally, watching AC/DC's DVD documenting their 1991 performance at Donnington (now Download Festival) is one of the biggest reasons I started to play guitar.
That being said, AC/DC has more than its fair share of critics. Especially on this website, I've seen comments criticizing AC/DC for simple songwriting and albums that have not progressed creatively over the years. But as can be said for many elements of music, it is not about what you use, it's how you use it. And AC/DC has managed to create a catalog full of powerful, unique songs that, yes, only use a small collection of chords. But I would challenge anyone to say that the riffs of "Highway to Hell," "Rock N Roll Train," and "Whole Lotta Rosie" are anything alike even though they all use simple A5 to D5 changes.
Getting to this album specifically, it feels like something is missing. Beyond the exit of rhythm guitarist and riff master Malcolm Young from the band under the most unenvious circumstances, something is just missing. Yes, the album features the same thing that any AC/DC album does, but at the same time, the riffs are just not as powerful and the choruses are just not as catchy. I can sing from memory many of the choruses from "Black Ice," the band's last album, but after a solid couple of weeks listening to "Rock or Bust," the only thing I can remember is Brian Johnson's vocal open to the song, "Rock the House."
Phil Rudd's drumming is worse than normal. It seems like he doesn't vary the tempo or include as many important fills as usual. I understand that Rudd's drumming is probably some of the simplest in rock history (though it must take fortitude to keep the same fast beat going for seven or eight minutes at a time). But at the same time, his simple as hell drum fills, are essential to AC/DC's sound and when he plays as monotonically as he does on this album, it is noticeable.
On the brighter side, Angus' lead playing is as lively as ever. I don't know how he does it, but he plays the minor pentatonic scale like nobody else. With this album, I am humming his guitar solos more than I am the main riffs. Stevie Young (Angus' 58-year-old nephew) fills in for Malcolm on this album and he does a great job keeping AC/DC's sound full. In general, this is probably the fullest sounding AC/DC album since "Back in Black." Producer Brendan O'Brien and mixer Mark Fraser have nailed the AC/DC formula. The guitars sound warm and full. The bass and drums are clear as can be. The only fault is the vocals seem to be mixed a little too low in the mix. Other than this miniscule criticism, this album could not have been produced any better.
For individual songs, the best is "Rock the House," "Rock the Blues Away" is the most refreshing, and the most varied (also featuring Angus' voice) is "Dogs of War."
Lyrics — 7
Brian Johnson has the most indefatigable voice in rock and roll. More often than not, it seems that rock singers' voices get deeper with time. Robert Plant, Bruce Dickinson, Geddy Lee, and Paul Stanley are all examples of great singers who struggle to keep up with their original vocal intensity. But Brian Johnson is different. He sounds the same at 67 as he did at 37. I listened to "The Razors Edge" for the first time in a long time and realized that his voice shows no change at all. Maybe his words have become a little more mumbled over time, but overall, his voice is as good as ever.
AC/DC vary their lyrics about as much as they vary their chords. As most are quick to point out, four of this album's eleven songs have the word "rock" in them. And six of the other seven, of course, are double entendres with sexual connotations ("Hard Times," "Miss Adventure," "Emission Control," etc.). Outside of the titles, the lyrics aren't interesting at all, and honestly, that is exactly what I, as a longtime AC/DC fan, wanted; any time spent contemplating the deep meaning of the lyrics is less time spent marveling in the best rock-blues guitar work the world has to offer.
The only issue I have with the vocals is a lack of catchy choruses. Yes, all of them attempt to be catchy. But after listening to the album straight through a couple of times (quite easy when the album is less than thirty-five minutes long), I still cannot hum most of the choruses. The best one is "Play Ball," which unfortunately became the song that provided the backing for the worst music video of 2014. Regardless of the music video, the chorus to "Play Ball" is hummable and the simple chorus guitar part is mesmerizing, very similar to the main keyboard part from The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again."
Overall Impression — 7
In closing, this album is a solid AC/DC album, though "Black Ice" was far superior. On the one hand, the album proves that AC/DC are certainly not too old or beaten up to quit. At the same time, if this album were to be the band's swan song, the feeling would not be, "They had so much left to say! I wish they could have just recorded one more!" If Phil Rudd is to be believed, the band will continue until they drop dead (although with Rudd's current predicament, it seems like his death could occur any second). Whatever happens, this album is at the very least decent and you should give it a spin or two. If nothing else, be sure to catch AC/DC on their upcoming tour. Do it because there is just nothing like watching a guitarist go crazy on stage for two hours without stopping.
But mostly do it because after seeing such high voltage, you will be inspired to do the same each and every time you pick up a guitar.