• Joe Wilhelm

The Thunder Returns

While 2020 has been full of twists and turns, and certainly not all good ones, one of these twists has been coming through speakers for a few days now, making its way into commercials, and thundering into rock station airwaves across the globe: POWER UP, the latest album by rock n’ roll titans, AC/DC.

The group’s last release was in 2014, when they produced “Rock or Bust,” an album missing one very important member: lead guitarist Angus Young’s brother Malcolm, arguably one of the greatest rhythm guitarists and riff writers of all time, who had been suffering from dementia for several years. The band is no stranger to hardship and tragedy. They lost their lead singer Bon Scott in 1980 (replaced by current singer Brian Johnson) when he died suddenly after a night of drinking. As if the loss wasn’t bad enough, the media mocked the band and offered little sympathy for the incident. In 1991, several fans were killed in a stage-rushing incident. While the band themselves were incredibly upset about the event (Young refused to ever discuss it), they were again slandered by the media, who claimed that the band did not care about the incident and played on (they had been strongly advised to continue with the show to avoid further chaos). Malcolm’s diagnosis was another hardship they would have to do their best to power through.

While they certainly missed Malcolm, his nephew, Stevie Young, had stepped in to work on the album and perform on the 2016 Rock or Bust Tour. Already missing the true heart of the band in Young, AC/DC then endured another problem, when lead singer Brian Johnson was sidelined from the tour with hearing loss due to his hobby of car-racing. Guns n’ Roses frontman Axl Rose stepped in to finish the 2016 tour, which concluded with a show in Philadelphia, a concert I was lucky enough to attend with my dad, who introduced me to AC/DC when I was a kid. While it certainly wasn’t the same, seeing any part of AC/DC live, particularly Angus Young, was a dream come true for the both of us. We hadn’t even considered the thought that it could be the last show AC/DC ever played.

Following the tour, the future of the band seemed murky at best. Bassist Cliff Williams had claimed he was retiring from the group, Brian Johnson’s future in the band and in music as a whole was still undetermined, and Malcolm Young eventually passed away from dementia in 2017. The rock world mourned the loss of Young, and no one took it harder than his brother Angus. As time passed, many wondered if Angus would carry on with whomever could fill the holes in the roster, and rumors of Axl Rose becoming a full-time frontman emerged as well. No one truly knew what was going to happen to the band, and the future seemed bleak.

In late summer of 2018, rumors emerged, as well as photographic evidence, that Stevie Young and Brian Johnson were in Vancouver, the site of Warehouse Studio, where AC/DC recorded both of their last two albums, “Rock or Bust” and “Black Ice.” The internet did what the internet does, spreading the rumors and photos far and wide, and soon enough, anyone that cared about classic rock or rock music was at least mildly intrigued at the thought of AC/DC producing a new album, especially with the return of Johnson.

We now know that AC/DC was, indeed, recording an album in that studio in August 2018. In late September of 2020, a global campaign of sorts, involving posters, billboards, and social media posts, had been launched, seemingly blowing the trumpet and saying “AC/DC is here to make your 2020 just a little bit better,” and detailing the release dates of a new album and single from said album. This first single, “Shot in the Dark,” was released October 8th (in case you were wondering, yes, I was awake at midnight solely to listen to it as soon as it came out), followed by “Realize,” the second single, released just days before the full album. Composed primarily of tracks written during AC/DC’s 2000-2008 hiatus that were not included on “Black Ice,” as well as other tracks the Young brothers had written together throughout the years, “POWER UP” was released November 13th, 2020, and is exactly what fans had been hoping for.

If you had any thoughts that AC/DC had lost a step as the years began to pass, you can rest assured they have not. “Shot in the Dark,” with such a fitting title for a band that has been to hell and back, opens with a bluesy riff followed by a power chord sequence. According to Angus Young in an interview with USA Today, “You hear it straight away and you know that’s AC/DC.” The album itself opens with “Realize,” followed by “Rejection,” two songs that easily could have been selected as singles as well. They embody AC/DC as well as any song would: a steady beat, a slick riff or set of power chords, and a chorus perfected by Brian Johnson’s howling vocals. You could call it a formula, and maybe you’d be right, but it’s one that’s been working for over 30 years. “Through the Mists of Time” is a bit more melodic, reminiscent of the “Who Made Who” album, while “Kick You When You’re Down,” a track title that really follows the theme of 2020, starts off with Johnson’s screeching refrain followed by a drum beat that could wake the dead. “Witch’s Spell,” possibly my favorite from the album, carries a vibe akin to their 1985 album “Fly on the Wall” and seems destined to be a classic. “Demon Fire” keeps the pedal to the metal for all three and a half minutes of its track time, and a particular line from “Wild Reputation” feels almost symbolic of the attitude of the whole band, as Johnson growls “Get out of my way, I ain’t stoppin’ for nobody.”

I could carry on, but the truth is that every track on the album is worth one listen at the very least. It’s AC/DC, back in their element and putting out some of the best raw, unpolished, heavy rock that you’ll hear all year. It’s the sonic memorial to a man who gave the band its heart, and was in part, along with his brother, responsible for some of the most popular rock songs of all time. AC/DC wrote much of what I’d consider to be the soundtrack of the first 20 years of my life (despite a majority of it being written before I was born), and to see them back in action again is truly unbelievable. I may be biased, but I find it incredibly difficult to avoid tapping a foot, playing a little air guitar, or pounding on the steering wheel when an AC/DC song comes on, this album being no exception. Rumors of a tour are circulating, backed by some hints and expressed excitement at playing in front of crowds again from the band members in interviews. While the COVID-19 pandemic has put most tours on hold, it would not at all be surprising to see AC/DC playing stadiums and arenas globally as soon as it can be done safely. The band is back, and as Johnson proclaims on the first song we’d heard since 2014 “Blast it on the radio, breaking on the TV show, send it out on all the wires.” AC/DC once again has seemingly risen from the ashes and given us a few more killer tracks to get the blood pumping, feet stomping, and speakers shaking. They may have been down, just as they have been so many times, but they were not out.

A “shot in the dark” indeed.

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