AC/DC’s ‘Power Up’ Review: Dirty Deeds Done Very Similarly
Screechy, still-strongly Geordie-accented vocalist Brian Johnson in a tweed apple cap? Check.
Angus Young in a schoolboy outfit with a loosely knotted tie around his neck and his signature Gibson SG around his chest? Check.
Taut, fast, crunching rock ‘n’ roll and blues-metal tracks penned by the brothers Young (Angus, Malcolm), with contagious, catch-them-If you-can hooks and brawny, misogynistic lyrics about being shaken all night long, driving endlessly looping highways to hell and having dirty deeds done to them – or by them – dirtily and cheaply? Check.
Ticking off boxes and sticking to the same script is what’s made the lean, mean, Australian-born AC/DC hard rock heroes since 1973 with 200-plus million albums sold worldwide, including a double-diamond award for the epically diabolical “Back in Black.”
AC/DC seemingly champions on as the planet’s meat-and-potato rock messiahs, despite being stuck in the same three-chord groove as its first album, despite having tragically lost its lead singer Bon Scott in 1980, despite Johnson’s severe struggles with serious hearing loss during this decade, despite drummer Phil Rudd having left the band in 2015 to deal with arrests and legal issues and, most definitely, despite the passing of co-founder and co-composer Malcolm Young, who died in 2017 following a battle with early-onset dementia.
Is consistency + tragedy still a truly winning combination? It is when Brendan O’Brien, AC/DC’s producer since 2008’s “Black Ice,” aids in maintaining the blunt-force band’s minimalist yaw of yore with a Wall of Sound maximal-ism that is as fresh and full-blooded as it is irresistible.
Plus, at 12 short songs co-written by both Young brothers (yes, there are apparently many more tracks co-penned with the late Malcolm in the AC/DC vaults), even if you don’t care for one, the next rough riff comes along quickly, and the whole “Power Up” experience is over before you know it.
On this ferocious album opener, “Realize,” the walls move with an undulating wave of boy-background vocals and one of the Youngs’ most subtly sophisticated (yes, sophisticated) melodies. Not since “Hell’s Bells” has AC/DC come up with something so crisply unique, yet icily stuck to its signature sound. Combine all that with Angus’ piercing, song-long guitar lead, an organ’s deep, grinding groove, and Johnson managing to rhyme “take you to paradiiiiiiiiiiize” with “re-ah-liiiiiiiiiiiize,” and the party/séance is off to a proper bang.
A similar quirk can be heard in the spikey intro to “Kick You When You’re Down.” Also utilizing the vocals of men behaving badly in the background with a unified, bunch-of-sailor-like “Oh, nos,” the sing-songy track’s overall vibe, though heavy, is as close as AC/DC will ever get to dance-punk’s rhythmic heft (e.g. Gang of Four), leaving Johnson to do his “Hey-mamma-why-you-treat-me-so-bad” blues best. The idiosyncratic glam rock-stutter of “Witch’s Spell” comes a close third when it comes to AC/DC in near-innovation mode with Johnson making the meaty best of a dumb lyric such as “Let me tell you your fortune / It could be sinister / Or maybe not.” (Seriously? WTF?)
Malcolm’s nephew Stevie Young, the band’s recent rhythm guitar acquisition in the wake of the elder Young’s departure, brings a serious chug to the bluesy proceedings of “Rejection” and “No Man’s Land.” While the former offers up the blues by way of Pete Townshend (think hints of The Who’s “Pictures of Lily” tied to Townshend’s one-time Mose Allison obsession), with Johnson going for a handsome, less-grating lower octave than usual, the latter finds its palpitating heart in the grit of Muddy Waters, even down to its cackling “hey, hey” bridge. Again, what’s new about AC/DC’s blue moods is how O’Brien cleans up the dirt, while sticking the mud to the emotionalism of Johnson’s vocal and Young’s crusty guitar noodling.
The rest of “Power Up” is a mixed bag of AC/DC tropes and traditions. You could harbor a skepticism that men of their age still have the “Wild Reputation” of that song’s title, but, like the Rolling Stones that they lovingly ape here – even down to its Keith Richards-emulating rhythmic slash – AC/DC will go down trying. “Through the Mist of Time” is the album’s lightest, airiest pop song, for better and worse, in that it floats loftily above the album’s other 11 tracks like a cloud and yet is breezily forgettable, even as the song plays out. In literally stark contrast to the misty “Mist” is “Demon Fire,” which bears the album’s heaviest metal and mood, and its silliest, most evil-riffic lyrics. If the track wasn’t so dense and catchy, you’d pee yourself laughing.
Through the unholy mess of its last decade, AC/DC has come out on the other end smelling like a black rose, and with a damned fine album in “Power Up,” which keeps the band’s inimitable form of metal magic intact with a few new wrinkles added to a familiar but still-thrilling bag of tricks.