Big spenders might have the trendy The Beatles: Rock Band on this year's holiday gift list, but for those with an ear for kick-ass hard rock, you should consider adding two AC/DC sets to the list.
This fall, vocalist Brian Johnson, bassist Cliff Williams, drummer Phil Rudd, and guitar-playing Angus and Malcolm Young steered their Black Ice Tour through the South. This month, they released Backtracks.
The "standard edition" ($30) is packaged in a box shaped like a Marshall amp, with two CDs, a DVD titled Family Jewels, and two pamphlets studded with song info, live photos, and images of vintage press releases from late singer Bon Scott's finest years. The "deluxe edition" ($200) comes encased in a fully-functional amplifier, and includes three CDs, two DVDs, one LP, a 164 page hardback, and collectibles.
Dedicated fans might want to forgo the expensive edition and invest in another impressive release titled Plug Me In (2007), which complements the Backtracks stuff with a two-DVD compilation of wild footage.
Backtracks' first audio disc kicks off with a handful of early tracks released in 1974 on the Australian-only version of High Voltage, including the straight-forward "Stick Around," the surprisingly ornate "Long Song," and the bagpipe-inspired "Fling Thing." The bluesy B-side "R.I.P. (Rock in Peace)" resembles the stronger tracks of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and Powerage. The boozy "Carry Me Home" features some of Scott's nastiest wino storytelling. Pounder "Cold Hearted Man" demonstrates the Young brothers' dedication to meaty power chords. "Crabsody in Blue," the silliest of the bunch, resembles another ode to the woes of venereal disease, "The Jack."
The final five tracks on disc one jump ahead to the '80s era, with Scott's replacement Brian Johnson on the mic. The recording quality shifts suddenly, too, with varying results. Many of Angus' guitar solos and licks catch the ear, but much of the music plods stiffly. "Snake Eyes," the B-side to the 1987 "Heatseaker," works from a menacing, minor-key riff. "Down on the Borderline," the backing song on the "Money Talks" single, bounces from a tricky opening riff, but kind of goes flat. Luckily, sparks fly on the tight and bright 1993 rocker "Big Gun" — produced by Rick Rubin with Simon Wright on drums. Johnson sounds silly screaming about seeking hot love on the web in the 2000 B-side "Cyberspace," which accompanied the Australian version of the "Stiff Upper Lip" single release, but the band's tight arrangement, high level of energy, and uncluttered recording style approaches the brilliance of their finest tracks on 1979's Highway to Hell.
The 15 live songs on Backtrack's disc two span from Scott's glorious late-'70s days to 2000s. Growling renditions of some of the band's lesser-known gems, like the jagged and punchy "Dog Eat Dog" (recorded in 1978) and a fast-tempo double-shot from Scott's final tour in 1979, hit hard. A trilogy of tracks from Johnson's earliest AC/DC tours — renditions of "Back in Black," "T.N.T.," and a breakneck "Let There Be Rock" — sound more like early punk concerts than the metal scene at the time.
Other highlights include a sneering version of the early-era fan fave "Jailbreak," recorded in 1985. The pivotal cannon fire before the final movement of the thunderous "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)" sound and feel as Tchiakovskian as ever.
Only the most dedicated and recently-enlisted AC/DC fans will get a kick out of the Family Jewels DVD, although the original promo clips for "Jailbreak" and "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)" are hilariously low-budget and casual. There's much better, grittier, rockin' footage on Plug Me In.