AC/DC Returns to Form on Power Up

AC/DC – Power Up (Columbia)

Ending a crazy year on a good note

2020 has been a crap year for everyone, but especially music fans.  No concerts, no jamming with friends, no parties.  Then, right at the end of the year, AC/DC surprised everyone with something unthinkable – a new album with the classic lineup.

The last few years saw the Australian band splinter to pieces.  First, longtime rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young had to retire due to illness (he would pass away in 2017). Then, came criminal and legal troubles for drummer Phil Rudd, leading to his exit.  Then, vocalist Brian Johnson began having hearing issues that prompted the cancelation of several tour dates.  Then, in 2016, Guns N’ Roses yelper Axl Rose was brought on as Johnson’s replacement for an ensuing world tour.  While a curious choice, this was definitely NOT the AC/DC of old. All those changes spurred bassist Cliff Williams to also quit at the end of that tour.

The best thing about AC/DC over the years is that, despite social and cultural changes around them, they’ve remained completely unchanged.  And, therein lies the true joy of their brand new studio album, Power Up – it sounds like classic AC/DC.  Johnson, Angus Young, Williams and Rudd are joined by Angus’ nephew Steve Young.

“Realize” opens with a couple of familiar power chords and some background vocals that remind of “Thunderstruck.” Rudd’s drums are high in the mix and the entire track is polished to a sheen.  “Rejection” is classic AC/DC,  with the guitars dueling between the speakers.  The lyrics are disturbing and the chords are dark too – more reminiscent of their early days.  “Shot in the Dark,” the album’s first single is a pounder, which features some bluesy riffing from Angus and the classic growling from Johnson.

“Through the Mists of Time” is a curious song – it features an odd drum beat at the start (c’mon, 99% of all AC/DC songs are 4 on the floor), and several more chords than the usual three usually reserved for all of the band’s songs.  It’s surprisingly tuneful and wistful as it recalls “painted ladies.”  

The blues stomper “Kick You When You’re Down” features a great, repeating guitar riff.  AC/DC has always been the masters of the less-is-more approach.  “Witch’s Spell” is propelled by a classic Angus riff, but the verses features just Johnson’s voice and Rudd’s drums at certain points, really adding to the tension.  The album closes with the fist pumper “Code Red,” which would make a great concert staple, if we ever get back to large gatherings.

“Demon Fire” reminds of both “The Jack” and “Caught With Your Pants Down,” and features some cool, low register Johnson singing and a killer, descending guitar line.

The entire record was co-written by Angus and Malcolm Young – apparently Angus dug deep in the archives to find songs he wrote but never recorded with his late brother.

Brendan O’Brien, who produced the band’s last few albums, has returned.  Honestly, this is his best work in years.  Those earlier records just didn’t have the AC/DC feel.  Here, this really does sound like the vintage group.

Easily their best album in twenty years, Power Up succeeds by just being AC/DC – nothing more, nothing less.  Full of everything we’ve come to love about this band – Power Up is a welcome surprise to the rock n’ roll catalog.  —Tony Peters