Jake E. Lee became something of a household name in the 80s when he replaced the tragically departed Randy Rhoads as Ozzy Osbourne’s new guitarist and songwriting partner. His unique style has been mimicked by countless young musicians and his impact and influence are undeniable. After his stint with Ozzy which includes the platinum albums, “Bark at the Moon” and “Ultimate Sin”, Lee moved on to the short-lived, blues-based outfit, Badlands.
Badland’s featured rock luminaries such as vocalist Ray Gillen (Black Sabbath) and drummer Eric Singer (Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Kiss). While the band never really took off due to inner-tensions and the grunge onslaught of the 90s, the project holds a place of reverence among rock and roll fans.
After such a high-profile decade, Lee dropped off the rock radar for two decades other than releasing a few quiet solo efforts over the years. Recently though. fans have been buzzing about his new “band” project, Red Dragon Cartel, and the anticipation has been building as the January 28 release date inches closer.
In the month leading up to its album release the band weathered some controversy regarding vocalist Darren James Smith’s poor opening night performance. In his defense, even the best vocalists have an off night. Ultimately, Smith will be judged on how he performs on this record.
The album kicks off with “Deceiver”, which is also the first video for the album. Lee fans are immediately drawn back to his Ozzy days with a riff that recalls “Bark at the Moon”: A sure sign that a solid hard rock effort is under way. The rhythmic battery of bassist Ronnie Mancuso (Beggars & Thieves) and drummer Jonas Fairley (Black Betty) adds to the energetic and powerful vibe. And then…Smith: His vocal performance is initially hard to swallow, as he often seems to be slipping off-key and struggling to hold onto the melody during the verse. However, upon repeated listens, this seems almost intentional as if he is going for a minor key harmony against the instruments. He channels a bit of Ozzy on the pre-chorus, before a powerful and gritty delivery of the chorus.
Several tracks have something of an industrial undercurrent to them, and some of that can be found on the heavy, rolling grooves of “Shout it Out”, which sounds like the bastard lovechild of Whitesnake and BulletBoys.
Oddly enough, perhaps the best vocal performance on the record comes in the form of Cheap Trick vocalist Robin Zander, who propels the track “Feeder”. The song has an “Ultimate Sin” meets Stone Temple Pilots vibe to it. That STP feel carries over into “Fall From the Sky (Seagull)” which recalls the band’s “Purple” album. Smith taps into a Perry Farrell type vocal performance.
In This Moment frontwoman, Maria Brink adds her sultry touch to “Big Mouth”, while S.U.N. vocalist Sass Jordan adds a Mr. Big feel to “Redeem Me”. Former Iron Maiden vocalist Paul Di’Anno gnaws on the edgy “Wasted”, with its bone-vibrating bass rumble and bluesy riffage. One of the album’s standout tracks is the industrial-tinged “Slave”, which swarms with an angry buzzing riff from Lee.
If there is a throwaway track on the record it is arguably “War Machine”, which sounds like a collision of Layne Staley era Alice in Chains and classic Black Sabbath–perhaps too much so on the latter.
Kevin Churko (Ozzy Ozbourne, In This Moment, Five Finger Death Punch)helped produce the album with Lee and Mancuso, and also handled mixing and mastering. His son Kane chipped in on the songwriting as well. Before Lee nailed down the complete band line-up he enlisted the aid of bassists Rex Brown (Pantera, Kill Devil Hill), Scott Reeder (Kyuss, Attika 7), and Todd Kerns (Slash), and drummers Jeremy Spencer (Five Finger Death Punch) and Brent Fitz (Slash).
The album features an all-star line-up with Jake E. Lee at the forefront. While this can make for a great album, as we saw with Slash‘s 2010 solo debut, it can also hurt the continuity of the record, and “Red Dragon Cartel” has several moments where it does not seem sure whether it is coming or going. In all, Red Dragon Cartel‘s debut is a mixed bag of amazing performances with catchy and memorable songs alongside a couple of questionable guest spots and a few bastard tracks that don’t live up to their promise. Regardless, it is just fantastic to hear Jake rocking and riffing again.