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AC/DC, ‘Black Ice’ (Columbia)

Perhaps you were expecting a jazz odyssey? Black Ice may be AC/DC’s first album in eight years, but as soon as Angus’ and Malcolm Young’s guitars start stabbing holes in your speakers on leadoff track “Rock’n’Roll Train,” it’s as if nothing’s changed. Brian Johnson still screams like he’s trying to squeeze one out, Malcolm keeps bashing those three chords, Angus shoots lightning bolts from his Gibson SG, and those other guys lay down the four-on-the-floor boogie. But keep listening, because something has changed. Fifteen albums in, AC/DC have opened their eyes.

We all know that when the aliens land and demand to be told what frequency hot-and-bothered 14-year-olds vibrate on, we’d be wise to cue up “Thunderstruck.” But on Black Ice, the band’s Tasmanian devil agitation of yore has been replaced by something more dire. “Deep water all around me / Circling sharks all above,” rasps Johnson on “Rock’n’Roll Dream,” amid ringing, “Hells Bells”–echoing, minor-key guitar. The drowned got lucky. As AC/DC see it, ours is a world of “Skies on Fire,” “Money Made” women (sorry, ladies, you’re still just symbols), and a “War Machine” set to “Smash ‘N Grab.” There’s no “Sink the Pink” or “Big Balls” here. Even the up stuff — the other three songs with “Rock” in the title — function as escape, not triumph. It’s a scary world out there past the hooch and cooch.

You couldn’t ask for a more badass bunch of Jeremiahs, though. Aided by Brendan O’Brien’s loud-and-clear production, the gleaming, Def Leppard–catchy “Anything Goes” will have stadiums slobbering. Smart strippers have already called dibs on “Big Jack” and “Rocking All the Way.” And when the Youngs (combined age: 108) lock horns on the hooky “She Likes Rock’n’Roll,” they expose all their ax mimics — i.e., everyone from Buckcherry to Montgomery Gentry — as mere schoolboys in knee pants.

These old horndogs even reveal some new sonic tricks. Listen to Angus bust out a slide for the thick, lumbering “Stormy May Day”; sure, he uses it to swipe the riff from Zep’s “In My Time of Dying,” but it’s the thought that counts. Likewise, “Decibel” finds Johnson leering over a greasy ZZ Top roadhouse groove that brings the band’s latent, lascivious funk to the fore. But a handful of hell-raisers and a few twists only add up to pretty good when an album is more than an hour long. You wouldn’t be wrong to throw devil horns for plodders like “Spoilin’ for a Fight” and “Wheels,” but you might check your watch while doing it.

Scattered predictability aside, AC/DC still sound strong and hungry 35 years on, as if they could pulverize riffs in perpetuity. But if Black Ice‘s dark, bloodthirsty portents are any indication, we might not be around to hear them.