Photo: Patrick Ford/Redferns
For The Record: How AC/DC's 'Power Up' Continues Their Electrifying Legacy
The highest compliment a fan could pay AC/DC's 2020 album Power Up — the band's first without founding rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, the chief architect of their iconic riffs and their de facto leader — is that it sounds exactly like AC/DC. Power Up not only checks all the boxes, it also ranks among their finest work.
For nearly 50 years, AC/DC has sounded like no one except themselves. Sure, some of the members changed over the years, but the sound and look remained the same. You don't join AC/DC to bring your own flair to the mix; you assimilate into the hard-rocking style generations of bands have attempted to co-opt as their own.
Fortunately, Power Up holds its own among the highest peaks of their 18-album catalog. The 1-2-3 punch of openers "Realize," "Rejection" and "Shot In The Dark" are loaded with bone-dry, primal guitar riffs and Angus Young's lyrical guitar solos, with driving, four-on-the-floor drum beats hurling the songs forward. Leading the charge is Brian Johnson's throat-shredding screech, one of the most recognizable voices in rock.
Consistency has been AC/DC's strength through key member changes throughout the band's history. When the band lost beloved singer and showman Bon Scott in February 1980 amid their breakthrough success with Highway to Hell, it seemed unlikely they could recover.
Instead, the opposite happened: Back in Black, released just four months after Scott's death, made them the biggest band in the world. On the strength of classic songs like "You Shook Me All Night Long," "Hells Bells" and the title track — which boasts one of the most memorable guitar riffs in rock history — the album became the fourth best-selling album of all time in the U.S., eventually moving in excess of 25 million copies.
But when Malcolm Young hung up his battered Gretsch White Falcon guitar to treat his dementia in 2014, question marks hovered around the band again. Then in April 2016, with just 23 shows left on the Rock Or Bust World Tour, Johnson bowed out in an effort to save his hearing after suffering a punctured eardrum. Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose closed out the tour as his substitute, but when the dust settled, bassist Cliff Williams decided to retire. AC/DC was essentially done.
Malcolm's passing in 2017 brought the remaining Back in Black-era lineup — Angus, Johnson, Williams and drummer Phil Rudd — back to Australia, where they celebrated Malcolm's life and reconnected with each other. Rudd, who was healthy again after sitting out the Rock Or Bust Tour to sort personal and legal issues, was ready to rejoin the band. Meanwhile, Johnson was receiving experimental treatments to resolve his severe hearing loss, resulting in an in-ear device that allowed him to sing again. Williams was an easy sell at that point, and AC/DC, quietly, began plotting a comeback.
First, Angus had to reconcile the loss of his brother and songwriting partner. Their writing sessions for Rock or Bust had been especially fruitful, though, and Angus found himself sorting through riffs and song ideas that eclipsed what ended up on their 2014 release. The four original members (as well as Angus' and Malcolm's nephew, Stevie Young, who officially joined the band in 2014 after Malcom's departure) convened in Vancouver in August 2018. With their Black Ice and Rock or Bust producer Brendan O'Brien at the helm, the group began tracking Power Up.
Power Up is loaded with anthemic choruses, fist-pumping sing-alongs and guitar riffs that pull from their bag of tricks, without sounding like retreads of their classic work. Song titles like "Money Shot" are delivered with a knowing wink, and Angus's fiery fretwork is inspired with swagger and urgency.
As they've done time and time again, AC/DC proved that consistency beats evolution in rock, as long as the well of ideas doesn't dry up. They rallied back strong as ever — because that's what they've always done.
Audiences showed up, too: Power Up debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 all-genre albums chart upon its November 2020 release, as well as the Top Rock Albums and Top Hard Rock Albums charts, and reached the top spot in 20 other countries. Lead single "Shot In The Dark" notched their first No. 1 rock hit in 20 years (since the memorable "Stiff Upper Lip" topped the Mainstream Rock Airplay chart in 2000), and marked their longest reign on the chart with five consecutive weeks on top; "Realize" also cracked the Top 10 of the same tally, peaking at No. 8.
AC/DC's latest effort also earned three nominations at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards: Best Rock Album for Power Up as well as Best Rock Performance and Best Music Video for "Shot In The Dark." They're the group's first nominations since 2010, when AC/DC won Best Hard Rock Performance for the Black Ice track "War Machine," their first and sole win; they now have a total of 10 career nominations including this year's nods.
Nearly five decades in, AC/DC's secret weapon is how they make it look so easy to sell 75 million albums in the U.S. with just a handful of guitar chords. Power Up is electrifying proof that their in-your-face sound endures — and that, through the trials and triumphs, they have too.