AC/DC are the ultimate contrarian rock group. They peak as the world troughs. They thrive on economic woe and fiscal gloom. Formed during the oil crisis in 1973, their finest album – Back in Black, which sold 42 million copies worldwide – came in 1980 just as many countries were lurching deep into recession.
After languishing out of the charts for much of the boom decade, The Razors Edge, released in 1990, marked a return to form just as further economic stagnation was imminent. And now, as the world faces economic peril unrivalled in generations, Black Ice hits the shelves. For these canny Australian rockers, who haven't released an album in eight years, the outlook could not be better.
Notching up 16 studio albums over 35 years, AC/DC are now second only to the Beatles in terms of worldwide CD sales, shifting, in music-business parlance, more than 200 million units. They are a venerable institution with a solid balance sheet and highly profitable back catalogue.
Their allure in uncertain times is not hard to fathom. Unlike the Fab Four, who flourished on unflagging experimentation and tireless evolution, AC/DC have achieved their success by remaining resolutely committed to sounding exactly like AC/DC. They laid down a blueprint in the 1970s and have stuck with it ever since.
Far from limiting their appeal, this predictability is the key to the group's success. The songs may be new, but they place no new demands on the listener. The titles may be slightly different – four of the songs on Black Ice include the word "rock" or some variant – but the songs all proceed along common lines. This goes beyond the basic verse-chorus-verse structure, right down to their very DNA – the fizzing guitar riffs, the rasping vocals and ovational choruses, the stolid, chugging beats.
In tough times, when people hunker down with the essentials, when they start to espouse frugality and seek solace in predictable things, AC/DC's brand of lean and spare rock fits the bill perfectly.
Black Ice sees the group employ Brendan O'Brien, who has worked on records for Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam. He is a radio-savvy producer, but he wisely shuns sonic tinkering. He does not attempt to revise or update the group's immutable sound. Instead O'Brien keeps the production clean, crisp, and faithful. The result is loud enough to sound mildly irreverent, yet polished enough to remain inoffensive to all but the daintiest ears.
Rock'n'Roll Train, the album's opener and first single, jumps off with a classic guitar riff, then erupts into a huge, chant-along chorus. It is an emphatic opening – one that proves difficult to live up to. Nevertheless, Big Jack is juggernaut heavy and full of swagger, while Anything Goes is exuberant and bouncy, carried along by the kind of chiming riff that belongs on a battered car stereo.
Black Ice rolls on for 55 minutes, but most of its 15 songs sound the same. Fans will be able to distinguish the difference, but others will find it more difficult. Indeed, one of the group's most impressive feats is that they appear to know exactly which near-identical song they are playing and don't segue into another halfway through by accident.
The sleazy slide guitar of Stormy May Day does shakes up proceedings about three quarters of the way through the album, but on the whole there are few surprises. However, surprises are clearly not what people want at the moment. Black Ice is already a phenomenal success, debuting at No 1 in 29 countries, including Australia, the UK and the US. The group also embarked on a worldwide tour in October, which is set to last for 18 lucrative months. While the rest of the world wallows in grim forecasts, for AC/DC the future looks rosy.