Thursday, 6 February 2014

Red Dragon Cartel's 'Red Dragon Cartel' - Album Review

While he may not quite be a household name like Randy Rhoads or Steve Vai, Jake E. Lee is still one of the big hitters when it comes to 1980s guitar music. Cutting his teeth on two excellent albums with Ozzy Osbourne, 1983's Bark at the Moon and 1986's The Ultimate Sin, and then breaking away to form his own band Badlands, Lee has always given guitarists something to talk about. His wide rage of styles, from flashy shredding to melodic blues, has always kept him near the top of the tree and is well liked and respected throughout the rock and metal worlds. Since Badlands broke up in 1993, not much has been heard from Lee. He released few low-profile solo albums during the late 1990s and 2000s, and appeared on Enuff Z'nuff's 2009 album Dissonance, but apart from that he seemed to be in a state of semi-retirement. Last year however, news broke that Lee was forming a new band called Red Dragon Cartel and he would revisit the genre and styles that made him famous in the first place. The band, formed by Lee and bassist/songwriter Ronnie Mancuso (Beggars & Thieves), released their debut self-titled album last month which has been pretty well recived by the rock and metal community. As well as Lee and Mancuso, the band features frontman Darren James Smith and drummer Jonas Fairley. Red Dragon Cartel is not really a band effort though, as only the first song actually contains all four of these people playing together. It is an album that was clearly recorded over a period of time with lots of Lee and Mancuso's friends being recruited to help out with the performances. As a result, we get some solid drumming performances from Brent Fitz (Union; Vince Neil; Slash); the rumbling bass of Rex Brown (Pantera; Down; Kill Devil Hill); and the guttural rasp of Paul Di'Anno (Iron Maiden; Battlezone; Praying Mantis) to name but a few. Despite the numerous people that were involved in the writing and recording of the album, it still manages to sound focused and it definitely has it's own sound. Those people expecting this album to sound like Bark at the Moon or Badlands will probably be disappointed. The album has quite a 1990s sound overall with a dirty mix that I really like. I am not usually a fan of this kind of production, but it works well here. Kevin Churko has been involved in the mixing and mastering of the album which is probably why it sounds the way it does. If you think about how Ozzy Osbourne's latest couple of albums have sounded, particularly 2007's Black Rain, then you will not be too far off imagining how this album sounds.

The album gets underway with probably it's best track Deceived. The opening riff is clearly a homage to Bark at the Moon but pulled into the 21st Century. While public opinion seems to be as yet undecided on Smith's voice, I really like it. His voice is not the best, but his attitude and delivery make up for that. He really gives it his all throughout the album (he sings on five of the album's ten songs) and it makes me wish that he sung on them all! It is clear from the off that Lee did not make this album to show off his skills. He made this album to showcase some great songs, so his solos and guitarwork is always tasteful and always to the benefit of the overall song. This is only song on the album that all four of the band members play, and that really bodes well for their future as an established band. Shout it Out has a very 1990s sound with a rhythm that borders on being industrial with Fitz's off-beat drumming. Cold atmospherics encase this song, giving the verses quite a bleak feel, and it is driven by a bass tone that sounds like it came from Marilyn Manson's 1998 album Mechanical Animals. The chorus is much more upbeat though and is likely to be stuck in your head for weeks after hearing it. Lee's solo in this song sounds dirty and tortured and that fits in with the overall mood of the piece. Not a song I expected to hear, but one that I like a lot. Feeder has been avaliable on Youtube for quite a while now and is probably the first Red Dragon Cartel song that most people heard. It features the Cheap Trick duo of Robin Zander on vocals and Tom Petersson on bass guitar, as well as Jeremy Spencer (Five Finger Death Punch) on drums. Zander puts in a good vocal performance and his strained deliver actually helps with the song's sound. It has another excellent chorus that really grows on you over repeated listens and plenty of tasty lead breaks from Lee. Fall from the Sky (Seagull) is the album's ballad and allows Smith to show us a gentler side of his vocals. It is a very hypnotic song that does not rely on big hooks or clich├ęs to draw you in, but attempts to put you in a state of serenity. Lee's solo in this song is much more traditional though, making great use of melody, but does speed up towards the end to something more akin to his days with Ozzy. If anything will rouse you from the previous song's trance then Wasted will. It is a pure punk metal song and Di'Anno puts in a solid performance. There is not really much to say about it other than it is an uncompromising slab of metal that I am sure will go down well live.

Slave picks up from where Wasted left off with more heavy riffing and attitude. The song's main riff is probably the most interesting on the album, backed up by Spencer's double kick drumming and Brown's bass. Along with Deceived, this is probably my favourite song on the album because of it's great riff and passionate vocals from Smith. The solo from Lee is probably the album's flashiest too, which fits in well with the excellent main riff. Big Mouth features Maria Brink (In This Moment) on vocals and she does a good job singing over a very Sabbathy riff. It is quite a doomy piece that moves along at a slow pace and her expressive voice works very well. Her bandmate Chris Howorth also gets to trade off guitar solos with Lee at the end of the track. War Machine continues the Sabbath-esque riffing from the previous track and Smith even does a pretty good Ozzy Osbourne impression here. It is another really solid metal song that relies on very simple riffs and melodies to keep you entertained. It is songs like this where Churko's dirty production really works wonders. It turns what is a pretty average riff into a hulking monster and it sounds great. This is the last song on the album that features Smith on lead vocals, and overall he can be very proud of his contributions to this album. If this band turns into a full-time project for all involved, I look forward to hearing more of him on their next album. Redeem Me features Sass Jordan (S.U.N.) on vocals and her bluesy delivery is in stark contrast to everything that has come before on this album. It is probably the song closest to Lee's work with Badlands and fans of that band will find a lot to like in this song. Jordan has a very strong voice and sounds a little like Pamela Moore in places. It is the last rock song on the album and contains all the hallmarks of the band's sound up to this point. It leads nicely into the final song, Exquisite Tenderness, which is an instrumental played by Lee entirely on the piano. The album's liner notes say that it is the first song that Lee ever wrote, when he was learning the piano when he was six years old. It is a nice, if strange, way to end a rock album and shows that Lee is much more than just an 1980s shred guitarist. Overall, this is a solidly enjoyable album from someone who has been away from music for far too long. I just hope that the narrow-minded section of the rock community (which unfortuntely is quite large) will give this a chance and not dismiss it because it does not sound like Bark at the Moon.

The album was released on 27th January 2014 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Deceived.

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